Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Plan to Use Magic Dust to Tag Illegal Aliens

LOS ANGELES, California -- In a proposal that sounds like something dreamed up in a 1950s science fiction movie, a well-known American scientist is calling on the U.S. Border Patrol to sprinkle fluorescent dust at the U.S.-Mexico border in order to detect and track down illegal border-crossers.

The low-cost, low-tech plan would improve border enforcement dramatically and pose no danger to people "tagged" by the glowing dust, according to an article in Friday's edition of Science magazine.

But the surreal, politically charged image of the U.S. government exposing illegal immigrants to chemicals, then tracking them down with lasers and ultraviolet lights provoked criticism from immigrants' advocates Thursday.

"It's incredible," said activist Roberto Martinez of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego. "It's like something out of the Twilight Zone. The symbolism is that these are not humans, that these are insects to be sprayed."

The author of the article is Bill Wattenburg -- a respected physicist, inventor and radio talk show host based at California State University, Chico.

As part of the operation -- which Wattenburg calls "fluorescent tagging of infiltrators" -- tractors or hand-propelled dispensers would lay down bands of invisible material in highly traversed crossing zones at the border, where passing vehicles and people would pick up the particles.

Agents in planes and vehicles could then track down illegal crossers and identify them with lasers or ultraviolet lights that make the particles glow, according to the article. The chemical could last for hours or for days.

Wattenburg said Thursday that he and the editors of Science magazine know full well that they are advancing a provocative idea at a sensitive time.

California's Proposition 187, a ballot measure proposing tough immigration enforcement measures, has already intensified the controversy statewide.

But Wattenburg rejected charges that it would be dangerous. "Look at what they are doing now: You have to chase people with helicopters and dogs, use chain-link fences."

"What's the difference if you mark them with something that's harmless?" he said. "There is an enormous range of commonly used, nontoxic, biodegradable substances."

The Border Patrol, which has long suffered from lack of funds and technology, already uses an array of infrared nightscopes, closed circuit cameras and motion sensors. But Wattenburg said his plan could double the agency's effectiveness.

The origins of the proposal only emphasize what Wattenburg readily describes as its "politically explosive" content. It is based on experiments Wattenburg has done to devise methods for detecting enemy guerrilla fighters in Vietnam and, more recently, in Somalia.

The plan has drawn a cautious reaction from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Steve MacDonald, a spokesman for the service in Washington, said he was aware of the article but knew of no such plans or studies conducted by federal authorities.

"There's obvious concerns that would have to be looked at: toxicity, impact on the environment."

Wattenburg has grown used to the public spotlight, cultivating an image as a thoughtful maverick whose inventions have been heeded by the government on several occasions.