EL PASO, Texas – The governor of Texas wants to turn all the world into a virtual posse. Rick Perry has announced a $5 million plan to install hundreds of night-vision cameras on private land along the Mexican border and put the live video on the Internet, so that anyone with a computer who spots illegal immigrants trying to slip across can report it on a toll-free hot line.
"I look at this as not different from the neighborhood watches we have had in our communities for years and years," Perry said last week.
Some say it is a dangerous idea and a waste of money.
"This is just one of those half-baked ideas that people dream up to save money but have no practical applications," said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin. "We would be far better off to invest that money in Mexican small towns along the border so people wouldn't have to emigrate."
The plan marks a political about-face for Perry, a Republican seeking re-election, who has long argued that security along the state's 1,200-mile border with Mexico is strictly a federal responsibility.
This week, he said cuts in federal homeland security funding, a rise in reports of border violence and the crossing of Mexican soldiers into Texas about two years ago have demonstrated that "Texas cannot wait for Washington, D.C., to act."
Under the plan, announced on the eve of the state GOP convention, cameras and other equipment would be supplied to willing landowners and placed along some of the most remote reaches of the border. The live video would be made available to law enforcement and anyone else with an Internet connection.
Viewers would be able to call day or night to report anything that looks like trespassing, drug smuggling or something else suspicious.
The governor plans to pay for it all with grant money the state already has, and wants the first cameras in place within 30 days.
The Border Patrol already has lots of its own surveillance cameras along the border, but the images are not made available to the public. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar did not comment directly on the governor's plan Wednesday, but said: "We are looking forward to the opportunity to sit down and discuss it with him to ensure that whatever is done will be aligned with the efforts of the Border Patrol."
Luis Figueroa, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, warned that the cameras could lead to racial profiling and vigilanteism.
"This leaves the door open to anyone who has a vindictive state of mind or a racial motive," Figueroa said. "Anyone down there could easily be mistaken and falsely accused of something they didn't do."
Harrington said letting the public watch what is essentially a law enforcement search could be illegal.
And T.J. Bonner, president of the union that represents nearly all Border Patrol agents, said the plan could further strain the overworked agency.
"At first blush, it sounds like just another crazy idea that is going to overwhelm the capabilities of the federal government to be able to respond to the number of calls coming in and to the number of reports," Bonner said. "But there is a silver lining: It might just make legislators aware."
Bonner said it won't take smugglers long to figure out where the cameras are.
Connie Hair, a spokeswoman for the Minuteman organization, which patrols the border against illegal immigrants, said access to the video should be restricted to trained volunteers and law enforcement officials, to prevent smugglers from using the equipment to adjust their routes.
But the governor said it will be hard to know where the cameras are just by watching the live Internet video. And if the smugglers do figure it out, the equipment can easily be moved. "This isn't our first rodeo," he said.