Support More Resources, Assets, and Technology (SMART) on the Border Act of 2017 (HR 22, 115th Congress)

The Policy


HR 22, or, the “SMART Border Act of 2017,” aims to augment security on the US-Mexico international border through the routine implementation of technology and equipment that has previously been heavily utilized in border security.

In Section 11, HR 22 defines operational control as “a condition in which all illegal border crossers are apprehended and narcotics and other contraband are seized.” The bill grants permission to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to “take all actions necessary and appropriate to maintain operational control” of the border.

HR 22 proposes a number of technological advancements to border security. Primarily, the bill authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to deploy “smart border technology such as seismic detectors and unmanned aerial vehicles [i.e., drones] to achieve and maintain operational control” for specific areas if they determine that the area is at an insufficient level of operational control.

The bill permits the transfer and reuse of military equipment returning to the US from overseas deployment, specifically from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn. The bill notes that this equipment includes surveillance drones, weaponized drones (such as the MQ-9 Reaper), night vision goggles, and high-mobility multi-purpose wheel vehicles (also known as Humvees). However, this transfer must take place within one year of the equipment’s return to US soil and meet the conditions outlined in 10 U.S.C. 2576a, which regulates the sale or donation of excess DHS property to law enforcement agencies. The Department of Defense can transfer this military equipment to federal, state, and local agencies, though priority will be given to agencies that will primarily use the equipment to achieve and maintain operational control of the border.

Additionally, the SMART Border Act establishes the Southern Borderlands Public Safety Communications Grant Program. These competitive grants are designed for public-private partnerships and will “finance equipment and infrastructure to improve public safety” of Americans living in rural areas near the Mexican border, especially those “impacted by illegal smuggling and trafficking of goods and people from Mexico.” Specifically, the grants focus on enhancing mobile communication in these areas, as the networks are generally less dependable than in more urbanized areas. The bill hopes to fund these grants with the $10 million that would be freed by repealing the International Forestry Cooperation Act of 1990 (16 U.S.C. 4501 et seq.), which grants forestry and related natural resource assistance to other countries in a cooperative effort to combat climate change.

HR 22 dictates the enforcement of a biometric entry and exit data system created in 8 U.S.C. 1365b et seq. This biometric entry and exit system specifically requires a fingerprint, handprint, or other unique biological marker for all foreign nationals entering or exiting the United States. The system helps determine whether a visa should be issued and assesses the “admissibility or deportability” of foreign nationals. It is interoperable and can be used by Border Patrol, law enforcement agencies, and federal officials. HR 22 requires that the system be implemented and routinely utilized at each port of entry to the United States.

Finally, HR 22 allows the governors of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to request up to 10,000 additional National Guard members to be deployed along the US-Mexico border. It also creates a grant program for sheriff’s departments in counties along the border to fund the hiring of additional deputies. Other items allow for the appointment of 1,500 new Border Patrol personnel and the preferential hiring and expedited clearance of returning military veterans for those new positions.

The Science

Science Synopsis

Seismic sensors or detectors used in military settings generally determine the presence of a foreign object or movement in its area of operation by detecting seismic vibrations or unusual magnetic conditions in the ground. Often called unattended ground sensors, this technology is useful for scouting, wartime intelligence, and defense preparation purposes in military combat zones. HR 22 would permit these military-grade sensors to be used for border security, where they could alert Border Patrol agents of seismic disturbances in remote areas of the border, indicating the footsteps or vehicles of undocumented migrants.

HR 22 also pushes for the routine implementation of unmanned aerial vehicles (also known as drones). The MQ-9 Reaper, a remotely-piloted drone specifically mentioned in the bill, is already in operation at the border. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) explains that the MQ-9 Reaper, or Predator B as it is sometimes called, allows for patrol of terrain that is inaccessible to manned aerial vehicles or too dangerous for ground agents. Predator B was mostly used by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq for precision strikes; some features of Predator B include high-quality video streaming, a maximum speed of 276 mph, a search radar, and infrared sensors. Infrared sensors detect thermal energy or specific light wavelengths on the infrared spectrum, allowing them to recognize humans from miles away. Predator B can also carry “up to four Hellfire II anti-armor missiles and two laser-guided bombs (GBU-12 or EGBU-12) and 500 pounds of GBU-38 JDAM (joint direct attack munition).” Recent federal solicitation notices specifically request small unmanned aerial systems to include a three-mile surveillance range, simultaneous multi-target tracking, and facial recognition capability. It is important to note that the MQ-9 is controlled at all times by a human operator at a remote terminal, and is only “unmanned” in the sense that there is no crew onboard.

CBP defines biometric information as a “measurement of physical characteristics unique to an individual, such as fingerprints, hand prints, iris scans, or facial recognition, for use in verifying the identity of individuals.” Presently, the biometric entry and exit system mentioned in HR 22 heavily relies on fingerprint scanning. However, CBP’s interest in facial recognition drones and their new facial recognition scanners in testing at select airports around the US suggests that the biometric exit system may soon include facial scans. A CBP fact sheet also indicates that iris recognition may be on the horizon for the biometric entry and exit system, and that they could be implemented in routine customs security measures for all international flights entering and exiting the United States.

Relevant Experts

Mary Cummings, PhD, is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at the Duke University Pratt School of Engineering. She also teaches in the Duke Institute of Brain Sciences and serves as the Director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory and Duke Robotics. Her research focuses on unmanned vehicles, including relevant public policy, social and ethical consequences, and their interaction and collaboration with humans.

  • Relevant publications:

Michael Clamann, PhD, is a senior research scientist at the Human and Autonomy Laboratory (HAL) in Duke Robotics where he studies human-automation interactions with complex hardware and software interfaces, their influence on system efficacy, and how they relate to system safety. Dr. Clamann is also a freelance human factors engineer and serves as the lead editor for all SciPol content related to robotics and artificial intelligence.

The Debate

Endorsements & Opposition

Though there are presently no reported official endorsements or opposition for HR 22, the topic of border security remains a hotly contested political dilemma, especially in the context of immigration.

HR 22 would facilitate President Trump’s call for more Border Patrol personnel and tighter border security. It would also align with the official Republican platform on immigration, which states that “the border must be absolutely secured and illegal immigration must be stopped.”

The first sentence of the official Democratic platform on immigration asserts that Democrats “are fighting for every immigrant who feels threatened by Donald Trump’s election.” However, the platform does not specifically mention HR 22.