By Matea Gold
WASHINGTON — The border security plan the Senate approved last week includes unusual language mandating the purchase of specific models of helicopters and radar equipment for deployment along the U.S.-Mexican border, providing a potential windfall worth tens of millions of dollars to top defense contractors.
The legislation would require the U.S. Border Patrol to acquire, among other items, six Northrop Grumman airborne radar systems that cost $9.3 million each, 15 Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters that average more than $17 million apiece and eight light enforcement helicopters made by American Eurocopter that sell for about $3 million each.
The legislation also calls for 17 UH-1N helicopters made by Bell Helicopter, a model that the company no longer manufactures.
Watchdog groups and critics said that these and other detailed requirements would create a troubling end-run around the competitive bidding process and that they are reminiscent of old-fashioned earmarks — spending items that lawmakers insert into legislation to benefit specific projects or recipients. In the past several years, Congress has had a moratorium on earmarks.
The language was included in a $46 billion border security package the Senate approved last week as part of a comprehensive immigration bill. The so-called border surge — an additional $38 billion in spending — was added in the final week of negotiations to attract more GOP support for the measure, which passed with 68 votes, including 14 from Republicans.
The legislation would spend $30 billion over the next decade to hire more than 19,000 new Border Patrol agents, an undertaking that would double the size of the force and that many immigration experts consider wasteful and unnecessary.
The measure also would devote $7.5 billion to build 350 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border and $4.5 billion to buy new border technology. The legislation would have to be fully implemented, along with electronic visa and employment verification systems, before immigrants could receive green cards.
Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., who cosponsored the plan, said the provisions were aimed at assuaging the concerns of Republicans who are wary about creating a path to citizenship without tougher border measures.
“I was just trying to work with our caucus to get as many of our guys to participate,” Hoeven said.
That approach did not win over holdouts such as Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who said: “Taxpayer funds should enhance border security, not provide border stimulus for contractors. Unfortunately, the Senate bill does exactly that.”
The list of equipment included in the legislation was drawn from a technological needs assessment developed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency in 2010, according to a senior Department of Homeland Security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal process. Agency staff members compiled the list at the request of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano after she stopped a virtual-fence project that was plagued by cost overruns and delays.
Border Patrol officials provided the list to congressional staffers who had asked what the agency needed to effectively control the border.
Neither Corker nor Hoeven has received substantial donations from the companies or the defense sector overall.