Small Firms Eye Border-Security Contracts

Buoyed by the recent debate on immigration, small technology firms are vying for a major role in the federal plan to boost security along the nation's borders, industry insiders say.

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Speaking to border patrol agents in Yuma, Ariz., last week, President Bush stressed the need for improved motion sensors, infrared cameras, unmanned aerial vehicles, and tamper-proof identity cards, among other devices, to help shore-up security.

"We're in the process of making our border the most technologically advanced border in the world," said Bush, who recently pledged to raise the number of border agents and to add National Guard troops to the effort.

Under the Secure Border Initiative, a multibillion-dollar federal plan announced in December, big military contractors are currently competing for a prime contract to produce that technology, including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and others. Yet, as a central part of the plan, federal officials are calling on smaller firms for the technological innovation to make it work.

"We do see small business as a very, very valuable partner in the overall partnership," John Ely, the executive director of procurement at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told perspective contractors at an industry briefing in January this year. "They bring a lot of great things to the table."

Of the roughly 400 companies that registered for the briefing, more than a quarter were listed as small firms. Although bidding on the contract opened in April, key language was tweaked as recently as May 12, including a small-business subcontracting goal of about 35 percent. It is expected to be awarded in September.

The partnerships officials hope to foster will create SBInet — a virtual fence of real-time data linking border patrol operations along the nation's 6,000 mile-long land border with Canada and Mexico.

"They recognize that a lot of smaller firms are the real innovators in these areas," said Jennifer Kerber, the director of homeland security for the Information Technology Association of America, a Washington-based IT policy group with more than 350 member companies.

Kerber said small IT firms, for example, were at the forefront of satellite video technology that would allow border agents to cut through thick brush better survey densely wooded areas. They are also leaders in developing data storage in smart cards, she said.

As such, SBInet, which is estimated to generate some $2 billion in IT spending, is a "big opportunity for small business," Kerber said.

"What I'm seeing in the Secure Border Initiative is the planning, the thought process that brings the proper components together," Kevin Stevens, the acting director of program management for SBInet, told contractors in January.

According to Stevens, a 25-year veteran of the border patrol, U.S. agents inspect more than 430 million passengers, 132 million vehicles, and 23 million containers arriving from foreign nations every year. In 2005 alone, nearly 1.2 million people were arrested at the nation's border crossings — about 99 percent coming from Mexico, Stevens said.

By government and private-sector estimates, there are anywhere from 10 to 20 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S.

"Typically, the way we're operating today is it's very labor-intensive, personnel-wise," Stevens said.

About a week before the president toured the Yuma border crossing on May 18, agents acting on a tip discovered five illegal aliens stashed in the back of an empty water truck, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

On the day of the president's speech, a 36-year-old man tried to drive his van through a Calexico, Calif., border crossing with a woman hidden in the dashboard. Agents there searched the van based on a hunch about the driver's "nervous demeanor."

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