U.S. Tests 'Virtual' Border Fence in Arizona

The federal government has begun testing a virtual fence along parts of the Arizona-Mexico border where there are steep hillsides that make a real fence impractical. The fence works via ground sensors, radar, cameras on towers and computers.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Congress will also be returning to the immigration bill after an effort last week by President Bush to revive it. For any bill to survive, it has to address border security, and the president has promised - among other things - billions of dollars and extra spending on security.

The Department of Homeland Security right now is testing out one new method developed for them by Boeing. It is a virtual fence that's being tried out on a 28-mile strip of Arizona desert.

NPR's Ted Robbins got a preview of this new security measure, which combines sections of physical fences with invisible technology.

Good morning, Ted.

TED ROBBINS: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: So if you go out in the desert and look at a virtual fence, what do you see?

ROBBINS: You see a stretch of pretty rough desert near Sasabe, Arizona, and part of the Tohono O'odham Indian nation. It's about an hour and a half drive southwest of Tucson.

And this is a stretch - a very active stretch, where smugglers have tested the boarder patrol, drug and people smugglers for a long time, so that's why they chose it. They're calling it Project 28 because it's 28 miles.

INSKEEP: But what do you see? Is there anything there?

ROBBINS: Oh, well, yeah. I think integration is the key word here for this -it's called the SBI Net, Secure Border Initiative Network.

And so, you see actual fencing, vehicle barriers, ground sensors under the ground, radar, cameras on towers, satellite phones and computers that are in individual border patrol vehicles. So you'll see this all sort of stretched out along the border, and in the places where there are not actual fences, you will see towers. And in some stretches, you won't see anything.

INSKEEP: What's the point of not having a real fence?

ROBBINS: Well, this is what at least the Department of Homeland Security has been saying. You know, steep hillsides have long stretches that are not in urban areas, and it's not practical. It would take forever and cost far more than even the estimated 8 billion that this is going to cost through 2011.

INSKEEP: So the hope is that even though this is a very expensive way to monitor the border, it's cheaper. But how do people know if it's going to work?

ROBBINS: Well, if they either catch most everyone who enters - immigrants and drug smugglers - or people stop trying. The question always has been how do they know if they don't catch someone, of course.

So I think what they're going to be doing here is once the technology works more or less seamlessly - for instance an agent will see someone crossing on their vehicle laptop, and then they can phone in another agent nearby and intercept the crosser, then they'll roll it out elsewhere along the southern border. And then eventually, they want to roll this sort of virtual fence concept out through the northern border as well.

INSKEEP: So Ted, when you went on to the border to take a look at this fence, did you inadvertent set off any alarms?

ROBBINS: No, I didn't. I - although, cows have been known to set off the sensors, and that's one of the problems. Steve, I'll tell you, I'll strategy in this is fascinating.

What they do is they've taken aerial photos of the border, and they're determining how long it'll take for an illegal crosser to blend in with civilization, more or less. So near a city or a highway, a crosser could get lost almost immediately, just blend in with the foot traffic or the vehicle traffic.

That's where they build the real fence. Now in places where someone might have to walk for, say a couple of hours in the desert or in the mountains, that's where they place the virtual - the high tech stuff, the radar the sensors, because then they only have time to track and catch the people - at least this is the theory. And as I said, some places are just too steep or rough for a real fence to be practical.

INSKEEP: And I suppose in those open areas, you got that time to track a target, so to speak, and determine if it's a person or a cow.

ROBBINS: That's the hope.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ted Robbins is in Tucson. Thanks very much.

ROBBINS: My pleasure.

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