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Critics Blast Transborder Immigrant Tool as 'Irresponsible' Use of Technology

A cell phone application that will help illegal immigrants find water and key landmarks as they cross into the United States is an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds and an irresponsible use of technology, critics say.

The Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT), the brainchild of three faculty members at the University of California-San Diego and a colleague at the University of Michigan, is a software application that can be installed into a GPS-enabled cell phone. In addition to helping immigrants locate water and landmarks, it also could alert them to Border Patrol checkpoints. And to make the trek a little less arduous, it also plays recorded poetry.

“I don’t think it’s an appropriate use of technology,” U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., told FoxNews.com. “If other governments did this and tried to tell people ways to sneak into the U.S., I’m sure the Department of Defense would take issue with that. But because American universities are doing it, there’s not a whole lot of outcry about it.”

Hunter said he found the project to be a poor use of taxpayer money, particularly doing a recession.

Joe Kasper, Hunter’s spokesman, accused the universities of “functioning as a platform” for a system that could potentially help human smugglers and illegal immigrants enter the United States.

“It’s amazing to think that university professors, whose salaries are funded by taxpayers, are actually designing a GPS application intended to facilitate illegal entry across the U.S.-Mexico border,” Kasper said in a statement to FoxNews.com. “In this case, the university is functioning as a platform for a system that would ultimately help smugglers, other criminals and illegal immigrants navigate the border.”

The faculty members behind the project — UCSD’s Micha Cardenas, Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum and the University of Michigan’s Amy Sara Carroll — declined comment for this story.

“As a collective, we have decided that we would prefer not to be interviewed by Fox News,” Carroll wrote in an e-mail. “Our aesthetic diverges so much from your network's that we question the possibility of genuine dialogue in an exchange with you.”

But in an editorial that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the group defended using taxpayer funds for their project.

“Compare the escalating economic costs of waging two wars and upgrading a border wall ($65 billion) to those of saving lives and exercising freedom of expression,” the editorial read. “We submit that the latter two options are ‘priceless’; but, we’re open to competing cost-benefit analyses and nonviolent dialogue about the project.”

The four university employees — part of Electronic Disturbance Theater/b.a.n.g. lab, a UCSD and University of Michigan artist-based research group — said the TBT will be distributed by Mexican nongovernmental organizations and churches that deal with potential border-crossers.

The “work-in-progress,” according to the editorial, represents both a “conversation piece” and an ethical intervention.

Steven Cribby, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told FoxNews.com that border officials are aware of the technology — and aren’t particularly fazed.

“It’s not something that we’re overly concerned about,” said Cribby, adding that smuggling operations have long used technology to cross the border. “Our fear is that instead of saving lives, a tool like this could give someone a false sense of confidence and perhaps encourage people to cross illegally into the unforgiving terrain. That’s one of our concerns. We take safety very seriously.”

According to fiscal year 2010 figures, 111 border-crossing-related deaths have been recorded to date since Oct. 1. In comparison, 351 people have been rescued along the border during that same span.

In a statement to FoxNews.com, UCSD officials declined to take a stand on the project.

“The university is built upon the academic freedom of its faculty members to direct their areas of research and inquiry,” the statement read. “As a platform for innovative thought that may challenge the status quo, the university does not take positions on the political implications of its researchers’ work, relying instead on the marketplace of ideas to resolve conflicts or disputes over the merits of that work.”

Both state-funded institutions declined to provide any a cost figure for the project. The designers have raised $15,000 from a UCSD and an art festival award, the Associated Press reported.

But as institutions funded by taxpayer dollars, both schools have a “duty” to disclose how much public money is being used to fund it, said Alex Nowrasteh, a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“It’s definitely a waste of taxpayers’ dollars and inappropriate for any government employee to create a system that’s subsidizes migrant flows,” Nowrasteh said. “But while this will help a few dramatic cases along the border, and may aid some illegal immigrants to enter the U.S., I don’t think it’ll have a major impact.”

Nowrasteh continued, “But it’ll certainly increase the odds of survival for those who do take a journey across the desert.”