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Border Security Takes Spotlight At Annual Industry Meeting


Securing the U.S. border with Mexico was a centerpiece of Donald Trump's candidacy. And since becoming president, he has continued to talk about his intention to hire thousands of new border agents and to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. This has all made for a lively scene at the annual border security expo happening this week in San Antonio, Texas.

NPR's John Burnett is there at the expo and joins us now. Hi, John.


SHAPIRO: So what's the scene there?

BURNETT: Well, I'd say the mood is certainly upbeat. It's an annual gathering of industry professionals who provide all the gadgets and the hardware to help secure the border, together with the federal border officials who buy the gadgets. And people are saying things like, this is a new environment under the Trump administration, and what a difference a year makes. They're definitely excited that White House wants to, as they say, finally give them the tools to do their job.

Several current and former federal officials told me they think that operational control of the southern border is within their grasp for the first time.

SHAPIRO: Operational control of the southern border, does that mean actually having no illegal border crossings, getting the number to zero?

BURNETT: Well, there's already been a dramatic drop, even without more agents and more miles of wall. And here they call it the Trump effect. His tough talk on immigration resulted in arrests and apprehensions at the southern border being at a 17-year low just since the election.

If you look at the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, which is the busiest area for illegal crossings, it's gone from 700 to 900 apprehensions a day before the election to 100 to 200 apprehensions a day now. So this is one of the reasons why they're so optimistic. Let's play a cut of tape from Robert Bonner. He's the former commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.

ROBERT BONNER: It is truly possible to gain true, honest-to-goodness security of our border with Mexico and that we're - we're starting down a path that, within two or three years, we could look back and say that the border is under control. It's secured. People cannot illegally get across that border, certainly not the way they have been historically.

SHAPIRO: So, John, logistically, what actually has to happen to reach that goal?

BURNETT: Well, let's just take a big part of it, which is hiring new agents. The White House has asked Congress, just in the Border Patrol, for 5,000 new agents. Now, the agency says just to stay ahead of attrition, they need to hire 2,000 new agents a year. Now on top of that, need to add 5,000 new personnel. And it's a really slow process to recruit, to vet, to train and to deploy all those new people on the borders. The Border Patrol is hiring, after all, from the same applicant pool that ICE is for all their new agents. So there's competition with them.

SHAPIRO: ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

BURNETT: Right, and they need to continue to upgrade new technology.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about some of that technology. You said there are lots of gadgets on display at this expo.

BURNETT: Right. They had - this is a big part of it. It's the exhibit hall here, and everybody knows that the president is asking Congress for billions of dollars to seal the border. So you can imagine all the security contractors that have been flocking here.

Let's see. I saw tactical cameras on these tall telescoping poles on drones. There's facial recognition and biometric identification software that they use in the ports of entry. They have vehicle scanners, night vision gear. I mean, I could go on. But lots of folks want to cash in on Trump's preoccupation with border security.

SHAPIRO: NPR's John Burnett speaking with us from the border security expo in San Antonio, Texas. Thanks, John.

BURNETT: You bet, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.