Plenty of Holes Seen In a 'Virtual Fence'

In San Ysidro, Calif., Vanessa Robles talks to her son Junior through the border fence. Robles said she hopes to get papers so he can join her.
In San Ysidro, Calif., Vanessa Robles talks to her son Junior through the border fence. Robles said she hopes to get papers so he can join her. (By Sandy Huffaker -- Getty Images)
By Spencer S. Hsu and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 21, 2006

The selection of Boeing Co. to erect a "virtual fence" along 6,000 miles of U.S. border marks a potential turning point in the government's long quest to stop illegal immigration, but its success hinges on overcoming obstacles that doomed past efforts, funding shortages and other problems with the country's immigration controls, according to experts and former U.S. officials.

Congress and the Department of Homeland Security must focus on overcoming technology and management problems that have derailed similar remote-sensing networks set up over the decades by the military and border agencies from Vietnam to Iraq to the southwestern United States, they said.

They also must acknowledge that as much as half of the illegal-immigration problem is driven by the hiring of people who enter the United States through official border points but use fraudulent documents or overstay visas to become part of the estimated population of 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, former immigration officials and members of Congress said.

Surveillance by the government's $2.5 billion Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBInet, "makes some sense and is part of the solution," said former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D), vice chairman of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "It's also insufficient, I believe."

C. Stewart Verdery Jr., a former Bush administration assistant secretary for border policy, agreed that a "smart border" buildup alone is doomed to fail, given the government's track record and the labor needs of U.S. employers.

"Boeing and its subcontractors should be pushing the hardest for a comprehensive immigration solution," Verdery said.

Boeing proposes to construct a necklace of 1,800 towers equipped with cameras, sensors and links to sophisticated computers along the nation's vast frontiers with Mexico and Canada. The Department of Homeland Security is scheduled to announce Boeing as the winner of the competition today.

Boeing's plan rests heavily on adapting military technology from the battlefield to the border. The company has suggested, for instance, flying a camera-equipped, truck-mounted, 10-pound drone called the Skylark that Israeli and Australian forces have used to track suspects for as long as 90 minutes at a range of six miles.

Boeing also proposed a variety of ground-based sensors, including underground seismic sensors and tower-mounted motion and heat detectors that have been used to thwart insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congressional backers and military experts are confident that technologies devised to detect troop movements and tank formations can be adapted for homeland security and, by extension, individual border crossers.

But scientists warn of bedeviling details, and analysts cite political pressures that have led to lavish spending on borders, technology and guards with few results.

Gervasio Prado, founder of SenTech Inc., a sensor maker that was part of two unsuccessful bid teams, said SBINet is good for his industry but is not likely to work.

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