Congress has swooped into the debate over a cell phone tool that would direct illegal border crossers to lifesaving water stations and other points of safety.
The federal intervention comes in the form of a demand letter from North County's three congressional representatives, who want a precise accounting of taxpayer dollars associated with the effort spearheaded by a UC San Diego arts professor.
Reps. Brian Bilbray, Duncan Hunter and Darrell Issa also suggest in their letter to university Chancellor Marye Anne Fox that those working on the Transborder Immigrant Tool Project may be committing a federal felony by encouraging illegal immigration. The three Republican lawmakers want university officials to explain whether they believe the work is legal.
The congressmen write they believe the project is a "troubling use of taxpayer dollars" seemingly being used to "actively help people subvert federal law."
The professor spearheading development of the cell phone application, Ricardo Dominguez, said Tuesday he and his group have received less than $10,000 in taxpayer-funded grants.
"I would imagine the congressmen should be more concerned about the amount of money it will take to do an investigation, which I believe is much more than what has been spent on the entire project," Dominguez said.
Rep. Hunter said any use of taxpayer dollars for the work is inappropriate. He added that terrorists who sneak across the border with the intent to harm the U.S. could be aided by the technology.
"I think it's a national security issue," Hunter said Tuesday. "There has to be a limit drawn and this is something that could harm people."
The demand letter also calls on university officials to estimate the cost to the school in "resources used in the development process including personnel, energy use and material support."
UC San Diego officials launched their own auditor's inquiry in January after receiving a complaint about the project that remains confidential, according to a Dominguez's colleague Brent Stalbaum.
The university said in a written statement issued Tuesday that it does not take positions on the political implications of its researchers' work, "relying instead on the marketplace of ideas to resolve conflicts or disputes over the merits of that work."
"Each campus of the University provides training regarding legal responsibilities of our employees, and has established processes by which complaints regarding allegations of misuse or illegal activity are reviewed to ensure adherence to state and federal law," the statement continued. "The University does not endorse or support the violation of any law or University policy, takes seriously its role as a public trust, and conducts prompt review of allegations of violations of law."
Dominguez has been in the crosshairs of anti-immigration lawmakers and groups since his project was first profiled last year. He said he welcomes the debate.
"One of the main elements that has come out of this dialogue is that we really have to think as a research community as to what should the limits be and what is our role in helping in a humanitarian crisis," he said. "We welcome the dialogue at all levels."
The project involves a global positioning system application that would direct people to water stations set up by activists in the desert. It also would provide a map to Border Patrol locations in the event of a dire emergency.
It has an art component that features poems, and getting that aspect fully developed has slowed a previously anticipated summer completion, he said.
Hundreds of people die each year trying to cross the border illegally, according to civil rights groups and authorities on both sides of the border. Many get lost or are abandoned by smugglers in the mountains and deserts east of San Diego.
As many as 5,607 people have died over the last 15 years, according to a report released last year by the American Civil Liberties Union and Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights.
On Monday, the UCSD Faculty Coalition sent a letter to administrators linking the cell phone work to a "virtual sit in" Dominguez organized last month that is the subject of a separate university inquiry.
In that letter, the coalition writes that Dominguez and his collaborators have received death threats stemming from the cell phone work and called for the university to drop its "unwarranted attack."
Peter Nunez, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego who teaches immigration policy at the University of San Diego, said he's thrilled with the congressional intervention.
"It certainly makes sense for Congress to want to know what the situation is," he said. "My hope is the U.S. attorney and Department of Homeland Security would prosecute anyone using such a device and anyone who provided it to them."
But John Hunter, who founded the group Water Station 11 years ago and distributes water in the Imperial Valley desert to aid thirsty border crossers, said he believes the work Dominguez is doing is defensible.
"If it involves saving lives, I think that is a worthy cause," said Hunter, who is the uncle of Rep. Hunter.
Call staff writer Mark Walker at 760-740-3529.