Border Security Challenges Next Administration

Memo To The President

In this occasional series, NPR will follow the transition from one administration to another through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that will outline the many issues and challenges facing the new occupant of the White House. From a broken military to a troubled economy to a National Park Service in need of a major overhaul — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

Two years ago, then-Sen. Barack Obama voted to pass the Secure Fence Act. The law authorized nearly 700 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. It was part of a three-pronged strategy to beef up border security. Now as president-elect, Obama is set to turn over that strategy to Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who knows the subject firsthand. If she is confirmed as head of the Department of Homeland Security, she will have to assess whether the strategy is working.

The U.S.-Mexico border just east of the twin cities of Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Ariz., rattles with construction noise. It's part of the DHS plan to build more than 350 miles of fence along the border by the end of this year.

Add to that a couple hundred miles of vehicle barriers, thousands of new border patrol agents and a virtual fence — and you have the current strategy.

Current DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff says almost all the fence will be finished by the time the next secretary comes in. Napolitano was critical of the fence plan when it was proposed. "Build a 50-foot fence," she said, "and they'll find a 51-foot ladder." But Chertoff points to a drop in illegal crossings where it's been built — mostly near cities where the fence slows people who would otherwise blend quickly into the urban environment.

Critics of the strategy say the fence is a negative symbol for America, it cuts off wildlife corridors and it's expensive. The latest cost estimate weighs in at about $3 billion. No one is talking about tearing down the fence, but look for Congress to try to take away a controversial power it gave to the DHS secretary to build the fence in sensitive areas: the right to waive more than 30 environmental and land use laws. It's especially contentious now in South Texas where the remaining fence has not yet been built.

The second part of the strategy is the huge border patrol buildup — 18,000 agents by the end of this year. Even critics of border policy agree this part of the strategy is working. The U.S. Border Patrol expects to have another 2,000 agents by the end of January.

The last part of the strategy, though, is way behind schedule.

As DHS secretary, Napolitano would have to make a decision about the high-tech virtual fence, or SBINet. It's supposed to be a series of towers with radar, video and microwave links. The idea is for agents to quickly spot, track and catch smugglers. But a pilot project last year was so fraught with bugs that DHS forced its designer, Boeing, to forfeit some of its payment. Boeing's contract is up next fall. Meanwhile, Chertoff has ordered redesigned towers.

No one knows how much the virtual fence will cost, because no one knows exactly where it will go or how well it will work. In the long-run, though, Napolitano says border security strategy will be far more effective if there's immigration and visa reform.

"You've got to have the comprehensive immigration reform," she told Phoenix public radio station KJZZ. "You can't just stop with ground sensors and fences. You've got to have more to deal with the labor issues that underlie this migration."

Both Democrats and Republicans said they would deal with those issues once the border was secure. But the economic downturn may be taking away pressure to deal with the issue. The Mexican government reported this week that the number of people leaving the country dropped by 42 percent over the last two years.

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