LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Two years ago, Senator Barack Obama voted to pass the Secure Fence Act. The measure authorized nearly 700 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, and it was part of a three-pronged strategy to beef up border security.
Now, President-elect Obama is set to turn over that strategy to someone who knows it firsthand, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. As head of the Department of Homeland Security, she would have to assess whether the strategy is working. NPR's Ted Robbins has this report as part of our ongoing series, Memo to the President.
TED ROBBINS: I'm on the U.S.-Mexico border just east of the twin cities of Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Arizona. That construction you hear behind me, that's part of the Department of Homeland Security's 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 - you have the present strategy.
Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Securities): I think that puts us in a position to get control of the border during the next administration.
ROBBINS: Current Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says almost all the fence will be finished by the time the next secretary comes in. That could be Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who 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 the illegal crossings where it's been built, mostly near cities where the fence slows people who would otherwise blend quickly into the urban environment.
Sec. CHERTOFF: That is visible, clear proof of the fact the fence works in any appropriate place.
ROBBINS: Critics of the strategy say the fence is a negative symbol for America. It cuts off wildlife corridors, and it's expensive, latest estimate 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.
Unidentified Man: Let's go gentlemen, come on.
ROBBINS: The second part of the strategy is the huge border patrol buildup - 18,000 agents by the end of this year, like these in Nogales. That's triple the number that were there eight years ago. Even critics of border policy like Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat whose district lies on the border, agree this part of the strategy is working.
Representative RAUL GRIJALVA (Democrat, Arizona): I would concede to the secretary that the attention on the border and the manpower presence has had an effect.
ROBBINS: The 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.
Governor JANET NAPOLITANO (Democrat, Arizona): I am talking about the virtual fence, which is virtually missing.
ROBBINS: As DHS secretary, Governor 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, DHS forced its designer, Boeing, to forfeit some of its payment. Boeing's contract is up next fall. Meanwhile, Chertoff has ordered redesigned towers. So, are you saying that you think all the bugs have been worked out?
Sec. CHERTOFF: I will never say all the bugs have been worked out because I've never seen a complicated system, either in government or in the private sector, that had no bugs. What I'm saying is, we have improved it to the point that I think it is clearly ready for operational deployment next year.
ROBBINS: 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, Janet Napolitano says border security strategy will be far more effective if there's immigration and visa reform. Here she is on Phoenix member station KJZZ.
Gov. NAPOLITANO: You've got to have the comprehensive immigration reform. 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.
ROBBINS: 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 that the number of people leaving that country dropped by 42 percent over the last two years. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.