0 votes
by (220 points)
id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> More than 100 pilgrims quietly make their way into La Lomita Chapel and slide onto the wooden pews of the 120-year-old Catholic church. As one man sits down, he hangs his cowboy hat on a post near the pulpit. The one-room adobe chapel is lit only by a table of flickering votive candles. It's a cool February morning in Mission, Texas, and the sun has yet to rise.

"We pray for ourselves," Father Roy Snipes says with a Texan lilt, holding a flashlight as he reads his sermon. "But we also pray for our oppressors."

Enlarge ImageThis is the third story in our Texas border trilogy, Tall Order: Building the Border Wall. Click here for the first story and click here for the second story.

Amy Kim/CNET Snipes, who's tall with a slight stoop and combed white hair parted on the side, has served at La Lomita Chapel for nearly 40 years. As he continues his sermon, he turns to a topic his parishioners are familiar with: the border wall.

La Lomita sits directly in the path of President Donald Trump's proposed wall. The tiny white church is situated in a grassy park less than a block from the dark green Rio Grande -- the international boundary between Texas and Mexico. That has turned this historic landmark into a symbol of what might be lost once the wall is built. And it's turned Snipes, who's locally known as the "cowboy priest" and has been described as "Mr. Rogers with a Stetson," into an unlikely symbol of protest against the physical barrier the Trump administration just started building in Texas last month.

"In the long run, it's going to be a real sad chapter in our history, that wall," Snipes says. "It's a shame they couldn't think of something better than that with all of the tech we have."

It's going to be a real sad chapter in our history, that wall. Father Roy Snipes, parish priest for La Lomita The US Border Patrol has blanketed the nearly 2,000-mile-long US-Mexico border with technology, most of it geared toward surveillance. The agency relies on a network of sensors, cameras and drones equipped with lidar and radar to spot people, boats and vehicles crossing the border into California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Watchdog groups warn that this mass surveillance could have serious privacy implications. But a wall, say the dozens of Texans living along the border who granted me interviews, may be even worse.

If all goes according to Trump's plans, roughly 550 miles of wall will be built along the US-Mexico border as soon as possible. Most of that new construction is expected to happen in Texas. Unlike California, Arizona and New Mexico, which already have about 60% of fencing or walls at their borders, Texas only has around 20% because of its natural barrier with Mexico -- the Rio Grande.

Tall order: Building the border wall

Trump wants a border wall. Texas may want a smarter alternative

At Texas border, tech can't keep pace with immigrant influx
I set out to travel the length of the Texas-Mexico border, about 1,200 miles, starting in El Paso and ending here at the southern tip of the state in the Rio Grande Valley. While much of the border is remote and desolate, South Texas is different. It's peppered with numerous towns whose inhabitants live on both sides of the river. It's also one of North America's top biodiversity hotspots for birds, insects and animals, such as the endangered ocelot and Kemp's ridley sea turtle.

Building a wall in the middle of such a wildlife corridor will harm the hundreds of different species that live here, say scientists and conservationists across Texas. It also puts at risk the future of La Lomita.

Father Roy Snipes, the parish priest at La Lomita chapel, holds a dawn mass in Mission, Texas.  

Dara Kerr/CNET As Snipes finishes mass at the chapel, birds chirp awake and a hawk hovers in the nearby field. Through the church's windows, the sky over the levee is cast in red, peach and bright turquoise. In the other direction, a low fog lifts off the river. Overhead, a Border Patrol helicopter buzzes.

"They think they're going to build a wall and it'll solve all of our problems," Snipes says. "I think it's going to cause more problems than it's going to solve."

Surveillance state
The Rio Grande Valley isn't actually a valley, it's a river delta. It's flat, dry and hot. Along Highway 83, one-stoplight towns sell tacos and barbecue brisket out of roadside trailers, and broken-down gas stations are a mainstay. Through the dense and thorny brushland filled with sweet acacia, Texas ebony and mesquite trees, the Rio Grande drifts in and out of sight.

Every few dozen miles, a white blimp floats 5,000 feet in the sky. Called aerostats, or tethered aerostat radar systems, these apparatuses look like a cartoon version of an airplane, with a softly rounded nose and curved puffy tail wings. They're one of the surveillance tools US Customs and Border Protection uses to monitor the border.

An aerostat, used for border surveillance, gets lowered to the ground in rainy weather.

Dara Kerr/CNET Each balloon is attached to the ground by a nylon cable that can be extended and reeled in. When in the air, the unmanned aerostats monitor the terrain below. Using radar, along with infrared and electro-optical cameras, they can "see" approximately 20 miles and pick up the movement of people and vehicles, according to Customs and Border Protection.

The Border Patrol has six tactical aerostats in the Rio Grande Valley. Each blimp's radar and camera feeds are monitored 24 hours a day by government contractors and a Border Patrol agent, according to Jose A. Martinez, assistant chief patrol agent.

"It has greatly assisted us," Martinez says. But, he adds, "The aerostat has its limitations because it's only operational 60% to 70% of the time due to weather and maintenance."

Aerostats are just one of the Border Patrol's surveillance tools. To detect potential illegal immigration and drug trafficking, the federal agency uses everything from surveillance towers equipped with high-powered cameras to military grade drones to a complex system of sensors, including seismic, magnetic, acoustic, infrared, radar, microwave and photoelectric. The Border Patrol is also testing innovations such as machine-learning AI software and facial recognition tech.

The federal government is pouring money into border technology. A congressional spending measure, passed Feb. 14 and signed by Trump, awarded $100 million in technology funding to the Border Patrol, with an additional $112 million for aircraft and sensor systems.

Border Patrol agents keep watch on the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas.

Dara Kerr/CNET But some people aren't happy with the indiscriminate surveillance. A group of 28 tech and human rights organizations, led by digital rights group Fight for the Future, has been pushing Congress to stop funding border surveillance tech.

"It's sickening to see both Republicans and Democrats add significant funding for invasive surveillance technologies to trample on millions of people's basic rights at a mass scale," Evan Greer, deputy director Christmasornaments of Fight for the Future, said in a statement after Congress passed its spending measure in February. "The US government's mass surveillance programs are already out of control."

Civil liberties groups and some think tanks are also opposed to added border surveillance. Libertarian think tank Cato Institute says the tech "intrudes on law-abiding Americans' privacy" and it'd "be naive to believe that Border Patrol surveillance equipment won't be turned on Americans going about their days.

Your answer

Your name to display (optional):
Privacy: Your email address will only be used for sending these notifications.
Welcome to Newpost Q&A, where you can ask questions and receive answers from other members of the community.
...