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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)

"I don't think you'll make a dent really," because of the difficulty of managing information from 6,000 miles of sensors and the economic incentives for illegal migrants and their smugglers, he said. "I'd love to say that if you put thousands of sensors in that you could really solve the problem. But I think the help is going to be minimal."

Since 1995, spending on border security has increased tenfold, from $1.2 billion to $12.7 billion, and the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled, from 5,000 to 12,319, according to the House Appropriations Committee. Yet the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has jumped from 5 million to more than 11 million.

In addition, several experts said, tighter borders could discourage illegal immigrants already living here from attempting to leave for fear that they won't be able to reenter the country.

The Department of Homeland Security and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service spent $429 million since 1998 on video and remote surveillance on the borders. But nearly half of 489 planned cameras were never installed, 60 percent of sensor alerts are never investigated, 90 percent of the rest are false alarms, and only 1 percent overall resulted in arrests, the Homeland Security inspector general reported in December.

On April 25, the Border Patrol's first and only Predator 2 unmanned aerial vehicle crashed outside Tubac, Ariz., seven months after the $6.5 million craft began flights.

"There has been a huge amount of money poured into the border . . . but the track record of the performance of these technologies is disappointing," said Doris Meissner, former INS commissioner.

James Jay Carafano, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, noted that Congress is moving to build 700 miles of border fence, at a cost of more than $2 billion, and adding about 2,500 border agents, at a cost of about $500 million a year, with an eye on this fall's elections.

By comparison, SBINet is funded at less than $130 million next year by the House and Senate, Carafano said. "If Congress is mandating all this money to go to guards and fences," he said, "my concern is there won't be enough money to put into place SBINet."

Other priorities that could lose the competition for funding are big-ticket programs to process and return illegal immigrants, develop computer systems to verify legal workers for U.S. companies, monitor visa compliance and tighten legal ports of entry, which will cost well over $10 billion, said Meissner and Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Boeing's record at delivering major technology is mixed. The company pointed to its success deploying baggage-screening devices to more than 400 airports in less than six months after the terrorist attacks. But the company's machines were criticized for being too large and having high false-alarm rates.

The inspector general's office has also found fault with the work of L-3 Communications, a Boeing subcontractor on SBInet. In December, investigators reported that cameras L-3 deployed for border security as part of the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System malfunctioned when exposed to severe cold or heat.

Homeland Security officials want contractors to fully deploy their equipment in four years, and Boeing has said it can do it in three.

Gregory J. Pottie, a UCLA engineering professor who specializes in sensor technology, testified to the House last week that "if we want to solve this in three years, it could cost us a fortune and we're going to make a lot of mistakes."

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