For Residents of Arizona Border Town, Towers Are Unwelcome Eyes in the Sky

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By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

ARIVACA, Ariz. -- The document arrived at the library one sleepy Saturday morning, without warning and without explanation. The librarian recalled that the messenger simply said: "This is sensitive."

It turned out to be much more than that to this quirky desert community of 2,500 residents, who learned from an environmental assessment study that they were in the cross hairs of the Bush administration's high-tech plan to use a "virtual fence" to stop illegal immigration.

One of nine 98-foot towers, equipped with long-range cameras, radar and night vision, has been erected on the outskirts of town. And most residents -- iconoclasts who prize this unincorporated patch of desert for its isolation and lack of formal government -- don't like it one bit.

"It's so close . . . that we feel like we're under the scope of the cameras and the radar units and the night-vision cameras, and that's troubling to the people here," said Roger Beal, owner of Arivaca Mercantile, the town's only grocery store. "It's like having an unwanted family member in your life all the time."

A simplified version of this technology is already in use in places along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. But for the people of Arivaca, the towers represent one more sign of the militarization of the border, which is 11 miles south of town. Residents share the roads with hundreds of Border Patrol agents in sport-utility vehicles and National Guard troops in Humvees. Buses packed with armed guards and illegal immigrants rumble through. Temporary Border Patrol checkpoints where officers stop vehicles and ask people about their citizenship are often set up on highways outside of town, and a permanent checkpoint is under discussion.

The towers, many Arivaca residents contend, will not solve the economic, social and political problems behind illegal immigration.

"I can't blame the little guys who are coming in. They get taken advantage of. The way I see it, it's another slave trade," said rancher Rob Kasulaitis, who spends hours collecting trash and fixing fences on his property, which is heavily traveled by illegal immigrants. "Congress has to get off its dead end to let these people in, have them checked carefully, work and go home. . . . I want order."

The sensor towers are the stanchions in the Department of Homeland Security's plan to secure the nation's borders with a virtual fence. The department estimated the cost of virtual fencing at $2.5 billion, but a report issued to Congress in November by the agency's inspector general warned that the ambitious plan could cost as much as $30 billion because of poorly defined objectives, vague benchmarks for success and a stretched contracting staff. The U.S.-Mexico border security plan, which includes 370 miles of fencing, 200 miles of vehicle barriers and the hiring of 6,000 more border agents, could cost as much as $7.6 billion and will not be completed until 2011, the report said.

With failed border technology programs having cost taxpayers $429 million since 1998, lawmakers have ordered the department to submit a multiyear strategic plan for the Secure Border Initiative (SBI) and the virtual fence system, called SBINet.

The initial nine towers in SBINet are part of a $70 million contract awarded to Boeing last year. A tower half a mile from Arivaca and eight others south and west of the community were completed a week ago.

The towers will begin operating in the next few days, officials said, in a test to determine whether the sophisticated technology can enhance the work of border agents who patrol a landscape of canyons, ravines and hills.

The towers will be used to monitor a 28-mile stretch southwest of Tucson on the Tohono O'odham reservation. It is a rugged and hazardous spot -- and one of the most heavily traveled. The Border Patrol's Tucson sector leads the country in apprehension of illegal immigrants, drug seizures and migrant deaths.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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