Tester seeks alternatives to building costly border wall

by Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Freddy Monares

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said Friday building a border wall along the southern part of the country is too expensive.

Tester is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and said that the last estimate the committee received to build the wall was $24 million per mile. President Donald Trump was elected with a couple of key reforms that he promised his voter-base, one of which was the construction of a southern border wall.

On Friday, Tester toured FLIR laboratories, a Bozeman-based corporation that specializes in thermal optics and surveillance, and said that people need to be educated on what other technology is available to secure both the southern and northern borders.

Tester said he thinks the country could get to a better point by using technology and companies, like FLIR, that can supply that technology.

With the information he received on Friday, Tester said, “We can go back to Homeland Security, and say, ‘Look, I understand the administration wants a wall, but it may not be the best use of money. Have you taken a look at what these folks have to offer?'”

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee recently received a proposal for the southern border from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, he said. The committee sent the report back, Tester said, because it was “very incomplete.” He said the committee required the agency to look at technology possibilities to increase the security of the border as an alternative.

“I don’t know if they’ve done that, but that’s what we recommended, and that’s what I’m going to expect when I get the report back,” Tester said.

Before touring the laboratories, Kevin Tucker, vice president and general manager of FLIR, gave a presentation on a mobile vehicle surveillance system, which was a Humvee equipped with the company’s radar technology. The vehicles are currently being used to survey campsites for U.S. troops that are stationed in vulnerable areas, and Tucker said that the radar could detect threats up to about 15 miles away with the company’s technology.

He said since the radars have been out, the technology the company used to power the surveillance equipment has not failed, which other surveillance companies have had frequent problems with, Tucker said.

“When there’s a problem – when we talk about reliability – these guys need it,” said Tucker, referring to troops and border patrol.

The company recently tested the Humvee out along the southern border at night, and within 30 seconds of setting up the radar, Tucker said they were able to spot three men straddling over a section of the wall. And the company, he said, was able to mount these cameras on airplanes to do aerial surveillance of the border area, but not limited to those operations.

FLIR also loaned company planes equipped with the cameras to the U.S. Forest Service to help with fires in Oregon. The fire chief, Tucker said, did not have to leave a chair to locate fire lines and his firefighters, and was able to manage the site.

Tester said he hopes Montana doesn’t see another fire season like this year’s, but said he would push for use of this kind of technology because it’s a way the state could save lives and money.

As for the southern border wall, Tester said people needed to be educated on what’s out there. He said that the wall may be appropriate in some spots, but there are advantages of securing both the southern and northern borders with alternative technologies.

“If we can keep the border safe and secure by using this kind of technology, it just has some real pluses,” Tester said. “And not to mention the costs.”