Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

$30 billion virtual border fence faces problems

A U.S.-Mexico border “fence” of ground sensors, cameras and radars doesn’t meet border patrol’s needs


In 2006, U.S. Customs and Border Protection decided to outdo the border walls of the past and build a great barrier of data — a system of ground sensors, remote-control cameras, and radars that transmit real-time data to border agents — along the U.S.–Mexican border. But as of late 2008, only 28 miles of the “virtual” fence, known officially as the Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBInet, are up and running. The finished job is expected to run 6,000 miles along the northern and southern borders of the United States at a cost of $30 billion. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) awarded the initial $2 billion contract for the project to Boeing, which promised to have large sections of the fence up and running by 2008. The first phase ran six months late and used commercially-available technology that was replaced almost immediately with fancier gadgets. In theory, border agents can use the information to intercept illegal transit, but after taking the pilot project for a test-run, border agents told the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that it was “not an optimal system” for their needs. From the program’s inception, the GAO warned about the vagueness of the requirements set out in the contracting order, a problem that plagued two predecessors, the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System and America’s Shield Initiative. Now land-management issues have delayed the project. A September 2008 agreement with the Department of the Interior over DHS’s use of government land should have come through last July, but DHS failed to file the necessary paperwork. The department also will have to grab private property from some border land owners by eminent domain. Testifying before Congress in September, Randolph C. Hite, the GAO’s director of information technology architecture and systems, put the problem bluntly: “Important aspects of SBInet remain ambiguous and in a continued state of flux, making it unclear and uncertain what technology capabilities will be delivered and when, where, and how they will be delivered.”

DHS has pushed back a series of pilot efforts in the Tucson, Arizona, sector to 2009, and in March 2008 had made plans for only Tucson and two other sectors of the fence by 2011. Since September 2007, the first installation of the virtual fence has played a part in the apprehension of more than 3,500 illegal aliens, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress in July 2008. Although the DHS press office did not respond to a request for comment, in June 2008 Chertoff said of the program, “This is truly using technology to leverage the ability of the boots on the ground, the Border Patrol agents themselves, to do their jobs as efficiently and as safely as possible.”

Read more in Money and Democracy

Share this article

Join the conversation

Show Comments

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments