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Utah State University Accepted $4.1 Million From Customs and Border Protection

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
TARS blimp, stationed in Puerto Rico, docked before launching.

Flying thousands of feet above the southern border, eight white blimps, each 200-feet long, scan the vast expanses of desert and open water, looking for any and all activity approaching the United States. 

The radars in these blimps, known as the Tethered Aerostat Radar Systems- or TARS, were at least partly developed at Utah State University, and Customs and Border Protection paid the university’s research foundation $4.1 million for its work. According to federal spending databases, USU accepted more funding from Customs and Border Protection than any other university since 2010.

Neither Border Protection nor the USU research foundation responded to repeated requests for comment, but Utah State’s spokesman Tim Vitale said the university has no involvement with Border Protection’s daily operations. 

“Our role is just to provide scientific research or services in our areas of expertise," Vitale said. "We have been working with state, local and federal agencies for decades and decades, around the world.”

Customs and Border Protection has drawn strong criticism recently for its handling of asylum seekers arriving from Mexico, and democratic lawmakers have gone as far as calling the detention centers “concentration camps.”

While the aerostat radars are mostly tracking low flying aircraft for drug smuggling, critics say any relationship between the university and Border Protection is an issue.  

“I think the question here is 5, 10, 15 years down the road, how do we want this institution to be remembered?" said Paulina Rivera-Soto, the elected Student Advocate Vice President for Utah State’s student government. "Because of the current situation, it is sending a message to our students.”