Posted on March 13, 2009

Guarding the U.S.-Mexico Border, Live From Suburban New York

John D. Sutter, CNN, March 12, 2009

When her baby girl takes an afternoon nap, or on those nights when she just can’t sleep, Sarah Andrews, 32, tosses off her identity as a suburban stay-at-home mom and becomes something more exotic: a “virtual deputy” patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border.

From her house in a suburb of Rochester, New York, Andrews spends at least four hours a day watching a site called

There, because of a $2 million grant from the state of Texas, anyone in the world can watch grainy live video scenes of cactuses, desert mountains and the Rio Grande along Texas’ portion of the international border.

When Andrews spots something she deems suspicious–perhaps a fuzzy character moving from right to left across the screen or people wading through the river with what appear to be trash bags atop their heads–she and the site’s 43,000 registered users can send e-mail messages straight to local law enforcement, who then decide whether to act.


The video site’s supporters see the 15-camera project as a stride forward in U.S. efforts to halt illegal immigration, drug smuggling and border violence. Run by the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, an association of 20 sheriffs from border counties, the project seeks to spread responsibility for the border’s security across the nation’s masses of Internet users.

About 20 million people have clicked on since it launched November 20, and the Web site has gained national attention at a time when many eyes already were focused on the southern border of the United States.


But critics say the program tempts extremists to become involved in border security, which they say is a job better left to trained professionals.

Although there have been no reports of vigilante groups using the site to make arrests, Texas state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, a Democrat from El Paso, said the program is “pandering to these groups to keep them politically engaged on this issue.”

The program also has been widely criticized as ineffective in Texas newspaper editorials, as well as by some of the Web site’s own users.

Since the site was launched in late November, only four arrests can be attributed to the cameras, said Don Reay, executive director of the sheriffs’ coalition, which runs the project with money from Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s office.


The cameras spy on stretches of the Texas-Mexico border where the border patrol isn’t particularly active or where the border wall hasn’t been constructed, Reay said. He declined to list locations of the cameras for security reasons but said most are hidden on existing structures on private properties.