AI can enhance border security but won’t close workforce gap, lawmakers say

The use of artificial intelligence along the U.S.-Mexico border will help agents better secure the crossing and combat the flow of illicit drugs into the country but will not make up for a continuing manpower shortage, according to lawmakers. 

During a joint hearing between the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security and Enforcement and Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Accountability on Tuesday, both Democrats and Republicans said the use of more advanced scanning and detection tools along the southern border was a force multiplier for agents but warned that better technology alone was not a viable security solution.

Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif. — ranking member of the Subcommittee on Border Security and Enforcement — noted “advanced technologies will help [Customs and Border Protection] officers and agents work more efficiently and effectively to keep the American people safe,” but warned that “technology isn’t enough.”

Correa said 5,000 additional CBP personnel are needed at the southern border and that the Border Patrol is also facing “a major shortfall” in personnel, a problem that cannot simply be addressed through new AI capabilities. 

“Even the best technology cannot fill these gaps,” he said.

Some lawmakers and border security advocates have pitched the idea of a ‘smart’ wall as an alternative to a physical barrier between the U.S. and Mexico. This tech-centric approach would rely on surveillance towers and more advanced capabilities like AI and facial recognition to monitor the border, with agents supporting those efforts. 

Although this full-scale digital wall has not yet been adopted, the deployment of more advanced technologies along the southern border has proven to be a boon for agents. But some lawmakers said the capabilities did not represent a viable security solution on their own, despite their benefits.

“AI, drone systems and similar tools are helpful aids to our law enforcement, but ultimately a successful operation still comes down to a well funded, trained and a highly supported personnel,” Rep. Mike Ezell, R-Miss., said. 

Lawmakers did, however, express strong support for the federal government to work more closely with private sector firms to acquire and field new capabilities that could empower CBP and Border Patrol agents to more effectively police the border. Despite not being a silver bullet on their own, emerging technologies were seen as a necessity for combating threats posed by cartels, including their increasing reliance on drones. 

Dan Bishop, R-N.C. — chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Accountability — said “using artificial intelligence can help alleviate the manpower issue” and added that these tools are bolstering border security as “cartel tactics and use of technology have become increasingly advanced.”

Federal officials have touted the benefits of enhanced tools and their ability to identify more illicit contraband. CBP said its use of non-intrusive inspection systems in fiscal year 2022, for instance, resulted in “the interdiction of more than 100,000 pounds of narcotics, approximately $2 million of undeclared U.S. currency and the identification of 86 illegal travelers.”

While Bishop said these tools — including the use of more AI technologies — could not replace the work of border agents, he cited their ability to ease some of the pressure on personnel and allow them to focus other enforcement activities. 

“Enabling surveillance and processing tools to operate with greater autonomy can reserve time for agents to review the most imminent threats,” he said. “Automating previously labor-intensive tasks also helps free Border Patrol agents to be back out in the field to safeguard the homeland.”

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