DHS Defending “Virtual” Border Barrier Progress
Michael Chertoff, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary, has vowed to install more high-tech equipment along the border with Mexico and says that the first section of a “virtual fence” was working despite problems and delays.
“The system is now functionally working … it does add value,” Chertoff told the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. However, he told Reuters later that border officials have reported “it was not optimal, it wasn’t as good as it could be.”
Chertoff announced in February that a $21 million, 28-mile virtual fence of sensing towers and advanced communications dubbed “Project 28” had met the department’s standards for acceptance from contractor Boeing Co.
The project in Arizona was envisioned as a system that could help stop illegal crossings in areas where other types of barriers were impractical as part of a larger high-tech border control effort.
But the watchdog Government Accountability Office recently described several difficulties with the project, including software and communications problems and fuzzy camera images.
The GAO said Project 28 would not be replicated and completing the next phase of the department’s border-technology projects would be delayed. Chertoff disputed reports that the GAO had found the program would be set back by three years, and says the delay amounted to about five months.
He says more sections of high-tech border systems would be installed near Tucson, Ariz., this year, Yuma, Ariz., in 2009 and El Paso, Texas in 2010.
Republican committee member Lamar Smith of Texas denounced the virtual fence as a failed “shortcut to border security” before the hearing, at which he pressed Chertoff to install more and stronger fencing along the 2,000 mile border.
“The virtual fence is not working … the administration’s ‘shortcut’ turned out to be a dead end,” Smith told Reuters.
The project has become a flashpoint in a presidential election-year debate over immigration.
Democratic candidates Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have suggested high-tech controls could minimize the need for physical barriers, but Republican John McCain has called the virtual fence’s problems a disgrace and disappointment.
Civil-liberties groups have also criticized the virtual fence, saying it threatens the privacy of border landowners.
Chertoff says Project 28 was only one element of the high-tech border control plans.
Last October, DHS awarded Boeing a $69 million contract for the high-tech border components in Arizona and Texas, and in December it gave Boeing a $65 million software contract for the system.
Chertoff says the department was planning this year to install 34 more ground radar systems, up from six, and raise the number of unattended ground sensors, which can transmit detected intrusions, to 10,000 from 7,500. It has also added a fourth unmanned aerial patrol vehicle to its fleet.
Eventually there will be some sort of barrier — physical, natural or virtual — along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexican border, Chertoff told the committee.
Current plans call for 670 miles of fencing to be completed by this year, although the GAO report said landowner opposition could slow the timetable.
Smith pressed Chertoff to build more double-wall fencing, saying it would be a more effective barrier against illegal crossings.
But according to Reuters, Chertoff says such fencing was only effective in certain areas where border agents could make use of the extra time it took to get through the barriers.
“I don’t think double fencing stops anybody,” Chertoff says. “All fencing does is slow people up.”