U.S. Customs and Border Protection began flying unmanned surveillance missions along the Mexican border on Tuesday, according to congressional sources briefed on the matter.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who was instrumental to pushing the issue in the Senate, applauded the news Friday.
“The beginning of UAV flights over the west-Texas portion of our border with Mexico marks an important advancement for border security in our state,” she said in reference to the unmanned aerial vehicles, which have been used by the military to survey the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We are working hard to make round-the-clock aerial surveillance the standard for all 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, and I hope this development is the first of many steps to bring our border detection and security efforts into the 21st century,” Hutchison added.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from south Texas, has also praised the deployment of droves.
“By putting eyes in the sky along the Rio Grande, we will gather real-time intelligence on the ground to augment the good work of federal, state and local law enforcement on the border,” he said in a statement.
The first Texas-bound drone flight traveled from Arizona to New Mexico to near El Paso, Texas.
Customs and Border Protection operates five Predator B drones along the northern and southern borders, according to Cuellar.
Three drones operate over Arizona and New Mexico on the southern border and two drones patrol the Canadian border from North Dakota.
The Customs and Border Protection press office did not immediately return a request for comment.
The Predator drone flights in Texas augment the federal government’s presence along the 1,900 mile border. The agency already has a few other unmanned aircraft as well as about 20,000 agents and nearly 700 miles of fencing.
Last week, President Barack Obama proposed the deployment 1,200 National Guard troops to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and contraband.
Cuellar has worked to establish an aerial drone mission center in Corpus Christi, Texas, since the beginning of this year.
The Federal Aviation Administration last month gave Customs and Border Protection permission to begin flying the unmanned aerial vehicles over West Texas.
The agency is allowed to fly the Predator drones from Fort Huachuca in southeastern Arizona to the El Paso area in West Texas.
Patrols have been restricted over Texas because of higher levels of commercial air traffic.
Hutchison, the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, is working with the FAA to approve aerial drone patrols along the entire Texas border by the end of summer.
It is estimated to cost between $20 million and $30 million to set up a Predator drone in Corpus Christi to focus on the Texas border.
Federal Aviation Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt has agreed to streamline the approval process for requests to expand drone coverage in Texas and other parts of the nation, according to Hutchison’s office.
The Hill | June 4, 2010