This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
It's always sad to see a child cry when he lets go of his helium-filled balloon and it rises to the sky.
Well, the Border Patrol recently had the opposite problem. One of its helium-filled balloons, used as an unmanned observation post in the lower Rio Grande Valley, started leaking gas, and the aerostat (as they are called) fell gently into someone's field. Fortunately this happened on our side of the river, no one was hurt, and there was not much, if any, property damage. The leak was fixed and the balloon is again working as a silent sentinel.
I doubt that there were any tears, but it was embarrassing to the Border Patrol. That organization, however, was honest about it, issuing a press release about the event.
The Border Patrol's aerostats are blimp-sized creatures and carry with them lots of sophisticated surveillance equipment. They are designed (as the name implies) to stay in pretty much the same position, day after day, beaming back the intelligence they gather to handlers on the ground.
They are tethered, typically fly at 10,000 feet, and one of their principal duties is to detect unauthorized flights across the border, often carrying drugs, according to Homeland Security. There are eight of them: one in Puerto Rico, one in the Florida Keys, and six along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The incident reminded me of two things, one current and the other historical.
First, there are large sums of money now being spent on high-tech border protection; the politicos would rather allocate showy amounts of money on border technology than on enforcing immigration law in the nation's interior. And if some of the things being purchased and operated seem like adult toys — such as drones and balloons — well, that's better than facing the criticisms of the all-too-powerful mas-migration crowd for actually enforcing the immigration law on the ground.
The history I am thinking about is not about the first use of balloons for military surveillance — by the French Army in 1794 — nor their extensive use in the U.S. Civil War, but decisions made about 40 years ago within the former Immigration and Naturalization Service.
At the time I was working on a research contract with INS and got to know the agency's R&D director, whom I will call Sam (not his real name). Sam was brought in from the outside to work in an organization where most senior officers had come up through the ranks of the Border Patrol.
Sam was full of ideas and must have regarded me as a kindred soul and a fellow outsider, so he talked with me at some length. He was enthusiastic about ways to use technology to improve enforcement operations. I remember his strong support for blimps: "It's amazing what you can see from up there," he told me. He also liked the idea that they were silent and routinely not noticed from the ground. (If you are crossing the border illegally, you are more likely to keep your eyes open for such down-to-earth potential dangers as snakes or, for that matter, Border Patrol agents.)
He also was pushing a system for using a sensing device to detect human beings being smuggled in vehicles at ports of entry — no labor-intensive searches would be needed. The new system would be a sound-proof building for vehicles; the motor would be turned off, all humans removed from the building, and then the device would start listening for the sound of breathing.
But progress in a government agency often does not follow a straight line. Sam's creative ideas did not get anywhere at the time because of Sam's interactions with the rest of the agency. At a time when most INS executives were broad of shoulder, wearing Marine-type haircuts, and mostly from small town or rural backgrounds, Sam was urban, small and thin, and wore his hair a bit longer than his colleagues. He was also different from his fellow INS executives in that he had one of the two or three PhDs in the whole agency. Finally, Sam's people skills were not on a par with his intellectual ones.
This is pure speculation, of course, but I think the use of blimps by the Border Patrol was delayed for years by these personnel dynamics.
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