Limits to the 'Virtual Fence'


Boeing's project won't expand, but the quest for electronic border surveillance goes on

The major Presidential candidates talked up its innovative approach to securing the U.S.-Mexico border. Aerospace and defense giant Boeing (BA), along with dozens of subcontractors, anticipated that it would give them a lucrative foothold in future government work worth billions of dollars. And fervent advocates of stronger obstacles to illegal immigration hoped the U.S. had finally found a more affordable way to fortify its southwest border than building hundreds of miles of physical barriers.

But Homeland Security Dept. officials have decided that an experimental 28-mile "virtual fence" meant to extend the U.S. Border Patrol's eyes and ears along the U.S.-Mexico border—a web of radar, infrared cameras, ground sensors, and airborne drones—won't be copied anywhere else in its entirety. The project was plagued with design, software, and other glitches; had fallen months behind schedule; and sometimes proved inoperable.

The government agreed to pay Boeing almost the full $20 million for successful completion of the prototype endeavor just south of Tucson, known as Project 28. But in choosing not to expand the project, Homeland Security officials are dashing expectations and causing embarrassment from Capitol Hill to the campaign trail.

Chertoff Defends Boeing

Homeland Security officials say they are not mothballing every aspect of Project 28, nor will they abandon their quest for a fully operational virtual fence along other parts of the border someday. Homeland Security spokesman Laura Keehner said on Feb. 25: "We'll be using the same idea, the same concept, and some of the same technology." More traditional ground-based radar and airborne surveillance drones will be deployed in some places.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Boeing deserved payment because "all of the defects" in the prototype project were either "cured" or "immaterial." Boeing agreed to give the government a $2 million discount on future work and said it has spent more than twice the award amount developing and remedying Project 28.

A Boeing spokesman said the company has proved the virtual fence concept works. And the government has agreed to pay Boeing an additional $64 million to develop a "common operating picture" software system for Border Patrol agents in vehicles and command centers.

Fence Won't Work on Its Own

Still, critics contend the government didn't get what it paid for with Project 28. The Government Accountability Office has said the project suffered from insufficient government monitoring and direction. While acquainted with operating war-fighting systems, Boeing knew little about border patrol realities. "The poorly structured contract that prevented the line Border Patrol agents from pointing out obvious flaws and caused an overreliance on contractors has resulted in a system that has been described as providing 'marginal' functionality at best," says Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Authorities remain determined to build better barriers, both physical and high tech. But even the most futuristic border scenarios are widely viewed among specialists in immigration and enforcement as likely to fail without more comprehensive approaches (BusinessWeek, 2/7/08) to immigration reform or stepped-up workplace enforcement, penalties for employers, and more reliable tools to verify an employee's work status.

But that hasn't stopped the major candidates from trumpeting the promise of high-tech solutions. Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) did so during their Feb. 21 debate in Texas. Immigration will be a significant issue for Texas voters in a Mar. 4 primary. Both Democrats have voted in favor of hundreds of miles of physical fencing along the Mexico border. In the Austin debate, however, both emphasized the kind of innovation that Project 28 represented. "Let's deploy more technology and personnel, instead of the physical barrier," said Clinton. "I frankly think that will work better."

McCain Favors a Mix of Physical and Technological Borders

Obama concurred. "There may be areas where it makes sense to have some fencing," he said. "But for the most part, having Border Patrol, surveillance, [and] deploying effective technology—that's going to be the better approach."

Likewise, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), once a prime architect of comprehensive immigration reform, has for weeks urged securing the border first through a mix of physical and technological barriers.

The allure of a technology fix is understandable, given what federal agents are up against. Along nearly 2,000 miles of scorching desert, steep canyons, winding rivers, and urban mazes, they routinely strive for the unattainable—to stop the flow of people so desperate for better lives that they will climb, run, swim, tunnel, bribe, and even hide in car undercarriages to get into the U.S. The number of Border Patrol agents has almost doubled since 2000, to 14,900, supplemented now by up to 3,000 National Guard troops. Still, migrants continue to cross. And they'll continue to come, as long as Mexico's per capita income remains one-fifth that of the U.S. and employers in El Norte continue to welcome them.

The government has been extending barriers for more than a decade, and there was much talk of technological solutions even during the administration of Clinton's husband, President Bill Clinton. As of Feb. 23, the government has built 302 miles of physical fence. The effort has taken 15 years.

The Bush Administration, meanwhile, is extending a crackdown on some illegal immigration. Federal contractors soon must participate in "E-Verify," a system now used by 53,000 employers to confirm employees' work status. And starting the week of Mar. 1, federal fines imposed on employers who hire undocumented migrants—$2,200 for first offense, and up to $10,000 after that—will rise by 25%.

Epstein is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau.

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