Immigration bill would restrict drone use in California

A scale model of a drone on display in Sacramento.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON – Concerned that border surveillance drones might fly over much of Southern California, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) successfully amended the proposed Senate immigration overhaul bill Tuesday to limit such flights to within three miles of the Mexican border.

The restriction, if it becomes law, would make it difficult to use Predator drones efficiently in the area because they require considerable airspace to turn, said two law enforcement officials familiar with U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s drone program.

The amendment bars the Border Patrol from operating “unarmed, unmanned aerial vehicles in the San Diego and El Centro sectors except within three miles of the southern border,” Feinstein told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is revising the complex legislative proposal this week.


“So that in essence exempts what I am concerned about -- the city of San Diego, other cities having these drones flying overhead,” she said. The amendment passed with a voice vote.

Surveillance drones could still be used to help hunt drug traffickers and human smugglers operating from speedboats off the coast, she said.

The proposed immigration bill would allocate at least $4.5 billion for heightened security measures, including surveillance equipment, along the length of the Southwestern U.S. border, which flanks Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Some of the money is earmarked to buy additional Predator drones in an effort to provide virtual nonstop aerial coverage within 100 miles of the border. But Feinstein objected to the provision.

“We have several million people within a hundred miles of the border, in cities in Orange County, San Diego County, reaching all the way up to Long Beach,” Feinstein said. Three million people live in San Diego County alone.

The Federal Aviation Administration permits U.S. Customs and Border Protection to fly Predator B drones in designated areas along the southern border of California. But even at the narrowest point, that authorized airspace is still at least five miles wide.


“Three miles really barely allows us to even turn the aircraft around,” said a law enforcement official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about sensitive drone operations.

Restricting drone flights to a three-mile-wide corridor would “severely limit the use of border surveillance in the state,” the official said.

Border agents in California would not be able to use a new airborne radar system being tested in Arizona to detect people crossing unlawfully from Mexico, the official said. Called Vader, the drone-mounted system originally was designed to track insurgents planting roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Drones using the Vader radar normally follow a flight pattern more than three miles wide, he said.

Customs and Border Protection currently operates 10 Predator B drones on the northern and southern borders.

Four Predators are based in Sierra Vista, Ariz.; two are in Corpus Christi, Texas; two are in Cocoa Beach, Fla.; and two are in Grand Forks, N.D.

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