DHS Watchdog Warns 'Fence' Cost Will Grow

By Spencer S. Hsu and Griff Witte
Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Bush administration's proposal to secure the nation's borders with a high-tech "virtual fence" is likely to cost far more than the $2 billion that industry analysts initially estimated, possibly up to $30 billion, a government watchdog agency warned yesterday.

According to the Homeland Security Department inspector general, the ambitious plan to deploy sensors, cameras and other surveillance technology along 6,000 miles of the borders with Canada and Mexico runs the risk of runaway costs because of poorly defined objectives and a vastly overstretched contracting staff at the department.

The dramatically higher estimates, delivered to House members by Inspector General Richard L. Skinner, injected a new dose of skepticism into the national debate to curb illegal immigration, which has focused in large part on gaining control of the borders.

Critics have charged that a Republican-led Congress and President Bush approved legislation with much fanfare this fall authorizing the construction of a 700-mile fence along a third of the Mexican frontier without funding the work.

Now, the feasibility of the Bush administration's preferred plan, to which Congress has dedicated $1.2 billion and which is beginning on a pilot basis along a 28-mile stretch south of Tucson, drew fresh doubts from Congress as it moves into Democratic control.

Immigration-policy experts said the red flags raised over the border-security initiative could increase pressure on Congress to act on other measures they say are needed, such as stepping up enforcement against U.S. employers who hire illegal workers, cracking down on immigrants who overstay their visas, and overhauling legal immigration channels.

"If it's going to cost 8 to 30 billion dollars," asked Deborah W. Meyers, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, ". . . is that really the most effective way of achieving the policy goal?"

Bush administration allies said the report underscores the need for a guest-worker program, which the president has proposed, to meet the demand for labor in this nation and reduce pressure at the border by illegal crossers.

Members of a House homeland security oversight panel stressed yesterday how the government's poor track record on border enforcement undermined their confidence. A much smaller attempt in the 1990s to deploy remote-sensing technology on the border "started as a $2 million program and turned into a quarter-billion-dollar disaster," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), becoming "a poster child of government waste and mismanagement."

"It seems like deja vu all over again," said Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.).

Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) contrasted the administration's assertion that it could gain control of the border by 2009 with what the White House was prepared to pay for. Souder said he was "baffled" by the department's selection in September of aerospace giant Boeing Co. to lead the open-ended effort without more certainty about final cost.

"It could be between 2 and 30 billion dollars, you're not sure which? . . . So it's pie in the sky, 'give us your best shot'?" Souder said. "It just seems extraordinary."

Gregory Giddens, director of the DHS Secure Border Initiative program, and Deborah J. Spero, deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said cost estimates are premature because the administration has not settled on a strategy or decided what it will buy. The cost could be far lower and, responding to congressional pressure, DHS will provide a more detailed blueprint of its plans by Dec. 4.

"We do not have a cost estimate publicly," Giddens said.

Industry sources also expressed surprise at the inspector general's estimate, which ranged from $8 billion to $30 billion. The lower figure had been discussed informally, according to people familiar with competition among Boeing and four other firms. The consensus estimate given publicly, though, was that the project would be worth $2 billion to $2.5 billion.

Former DHS inspector general Clark Kent Ervin said agency officials have underestimated the cost of major programs in the past, partly to sell them to Congress and partly because DHS contracting officers were overwhelmed. In August, 69 of 252 jobs in the office managing the Secure Border Initiative Network project were filled, Skinner reported, and plans call for two-thirds of contract overseers to be contractors.

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