U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP
A prototype of a tower for a virtual fence along the U.S.-Mexico border at a test facility in Playas, N.M.
A prototype of a tower for a virtual fence along the U.S.-Mexico border at a test facility in Playas, N.M. U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP
The Department of Homeland Security's plan to build a virtual fence across the U.S.-Mexico border has come to a crashing halt just days before the release of a report expected to slam the system.
Homeland chief Janet Napolitano beat the Government Accountability Office report to the punch when she announced Tuesday that she's freezing funding for the Secure Border Initiative Network.
Homeland Security hired The Boeing Co. 3 1/2 years ago to build a string of towers along the 2,000-mile border. The towers were to integrate off-the-shelf products — cameras, radar, connections to ground sensors — so that Border Patrol agents could see who and what was coming across in real time.
Boeing made big promises about SBInet's capabilities.
"Ninety to 100 percent of all illegal crossers, this camera system was going to identify and characterize this threat," said Rich Stana, who wrote a report on the project last year for the GAO.
Boeing built a 28-mile test section in the Southern Arizona desert. It didn't work. The company regrouped, redesigned and redeployed one set of towers near the first set. It is building another section right now. The entire border was supposed to be covered a year ago, but after three years — and $1.4 billion — the system is still full of bugs.
"Well, it sort of works," Stana said.
A new GAO report obtained by NPR says the bugs are coming faster than the fixes.
"It's not a matter of, you know, do you look at the screen and see things?" Stana said. "Yes, you're going to see some things. The question is: Are you going to see things over time? Is it a quality image and is it a reliable image?"
So far, the answer is no. The new report even says some tests have been rigged to guarantee success.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said DHS is to blame for letting things go this far.
"The department could've been far more vigilant in its oversight," the Mississippi Democrat said. "But I can tell you there's no energy or stomach on this committee for this project continuing in its present form."
An executive from Boeing, which referred questions to Homeland Security, is set to appear before the House Committee on Thursday. Although fence funds have been frozen, DHS spokesman Matt Chandler said $50 million will be diverted to buy things such as mobile cameras, ultralight aircraft and more radios for the Border Patrol. "This is going to immediately improve our ability to secure the U.S.-Mexico border by redirecting these funds to proven solutions that meet the urgent needs that exist right now," Chandler said.
For years, a majority of lawmakers in Congress have said the border needs to be secure before they will consider immigration reform. So will the failures of SBInet serve as more justification to delay it? Former Immigration and Naturalization Service director Doris Meissner said that would be a mistake.
Virtual fencing or real fencing, she said, will help. But it will not stop people from trying to cross the border for jobs.
"The border is not the single answer to the problem of illegal immigration," Meissner said.
The virtual fence may have had a stake driven through its heart, but it's not dead yet. Homeland Security says it needs to complete a review of the program before deciding how or whether to continue the program.