First on CNN: Border lawmaker teams up with Silicon Valley on 'smart wall'
Posted July 27
A coalition of border state lawmakers and moderates are looking to take charge of the wall debate -- offering their own plan to build a "smart" wall that draws from the insight of Silicon Valley and virtual reality entrepreneur Palmer Luckey.
The move seeks to balance between President Donald Trump's aggressive push for border security and reticence by moderates in Washington to commit to an expensive show of force that experts at the border question will actually be productive.
The "Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology Act," or SMART Act, will be introduced Thursday morning by Republican Rep. Will Hurd, whose Texas district has more than 800 miles of the Southern border, one-third of the total border with Mexico and more than any other single lawmaker.
To back up the bill, Hurd has been using the estimates and insights of Anduril Industries, a Silicon Valley-based defense technology company founded by Luckey, who also founded Oculus VR. His proposal estimates on the high side a solution of $500,000 per mile -- far below the $24.5 million per mile price tag of the government's fiscal year 2018 wall money request.
"People that are dealing with this issue know that a third century solution to a 21st century problem is not going to fix this long term," Hurd told CNN. "We haven't looked at all 2,000 miles of our Southern border at the same time, and for the last eight years we've tried to have a one-size fits all solution to the border, and that doesn't work."
Hurd is joined by co-sponsors Democratic Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate on border issues, California Republican Rep. David Valadao, California Republican Rep. Steve Knight, New Mexico Republican Rep. Steve Pearce, Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus.
Trump made a Southern border wall a centerpiece of his campaign, calling for a massive concrete barrier along the full border with Mexico. Since then, he has acknowledged that some areas along the path would be unsuitable for a wall for topographic reasons, and has acknowledged that agents want visibility through the wall, as opposed to something opaque.
But border state lawmakers and Congress have balked at funding his pledge -- denying him money in fiscal year 2017 to begin construction and attempting in the House to tie funding for FY18 to a must-pass military spending package.
DHS has also rejected congressional requests for a plan for what the end goal is or a comprehensive plan, saying instead they will go through an "iterative" process where some stretches are planned each year. The FY18 request for $1.6 billion would fund 74 miles of new construction.
Hurd calculates that would cost $24.5 million per mile, and up to $33 billion in total across the border, whereas based on conversations he's had with Anduril, he believes sensor technology, computer imaging and virtual reality headsets could offer a solution for half a million or less.
Hurd's bill would require DHS to figure out a technological solution first and come up with a complete strategy before moving forward.
"I would surmise that (the administration has) been thinking that a comprehensive plan is going to cost too much money," Hurd told CNN. "The amount of money we're talking about for the wall and this 'secure-bus' funding package would fund the smart wall across the entire 2,000 mile border."
He note that for decades, the border strategy has been to focus almost all of DHS' energy on the biggest problem sector of the border, from San Diego, to Arizona, to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
"Doing this piecemeal is what has gotten us to this problem where we are today. And the SMART wall is a cost-effective way to actually come up with a plan for the entire border, and do it in a reasonable amount of money that can be funded in a year," Hurd said.
The SMART Act would mandate DHS deploy technology along the border where it is the best option, and prevent funding for construction "until a comprehensive border strategy, that includes a cost estimate and justification, is submitted to Congress," according to a summary shared with CNN.
It would also authorize money for collaboration among different governments along the border and for emergency communications in the region.
It's unclear if the bill has much future. An amendment from Hurd and a bipartisan group of senators, mostly from Texas, that would have required a comprehensive plan before funding construction was not allowed to be offered on the military funding package the House is expected to pass this week. House leadership would have to approve this bill for consideration.
Still, Hurd is hoping that when the spending debate happens in earnest, given that the Senate would require 60 votes to pass funding and Democrats are uniformly opposed to the wall, that his ideas will be heard.
"Whatever is voted on this week is ultimately not going to be thing that funds the government for 2018, so this is only an initial start to a long process," Hurd said. "You have to have good ideas, you have to have people willing to promote those ideas, you have to have agreements in order to get things done. And the goal should be securing our border, making our country safer, and we should not hamstring ourselves by only focusing on one tool in our toolkit."