EL PASO, Texas — The Federal Aviation Administration approved the expansion of unmanned aircraft flights Wednesday to patrol the entire Texas-Mexico border.
The decision was announced in statements issued by U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, all of Texas. According to the statements, U.S. Customs and Border Enforcement will be allowed to begin the flights Sept. 1 along the entire length of the Texas-Mexico border.
Texas officials and the state's congressional delegation had been pressing for the expanded flights for months. According to the statements by Cornyn and Cuellar, the drones will be based at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station.
On May 14, the FAA approved the use of unarmed surveillance drones over the Mexican border in West Texas and New Mexico. Those flights began June 1. Drone flights were approved previously for the Arizona-Mexico border.
"For five years, other southern border states have benefited from this technology," said Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, "and this will ensure Texas has the same tools in the box to combat the spectrum of threats we face."
"This is another important step in efforts to secure our southern border," said Hutchison, a Republican. She was pleased with the expansion of patrols, she said, "but we still have more progress to make."
The program is "an effective, high-tech method for patrolling some of the most remote areas of the Texas-Mexico border," said U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, the San Antonio Democrat who represents many of the counties along the border. "In order for the program to be effective, it's important that the entire border be included in the fly zone."
The Predator B to be used in the patrols can fly for 20 hours without refueling, compared with a helicopter's average flight time of just over two hours.
"Having two of these aircraft patrolling Texas skies will improve security," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, an El Paso Democrat and former Border Patrol sector chief.
Homeland Security wants to expand their use along the Mexican and Canadian borders and along coastlines for spotting smugglers of drugs and illegal immigrants. The Coast Guard wants to use them for search and rescue efforts.
FAA officials had moved slowly on its decision, concerned that the pilotless planes might pose a hazard to other aircraft.
The agency recently approved a request to use the planes along the border near El Paso; another request to use them along the Texas Gulf Coast and near Brownsville remains pending.
Cornyn blocked a Senate confirmation vote on President Barack Obama's nominee for the No. 2 FAA job, Michael Huerta, to keep the pressure on. Cornyn said Wednesday that he has released the hold in the wake of the FAA decision and, his statement said, "looks forward to the confirmation of Huerta as deputy FAA administrator."