ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In addition to the measures currently being considered in Congress, the government is going ahead with plans for new security equipment along the border and it appears that the Boeing Company has been picked as the contractor for the new multi-billion dollar project.
It calls for a mix of sensors and communications equipment to help stop illegal crossings from both Mexico and Canada. Construction of the first part of this virtual fence is planned for the Arizona border within the next year. The Department of Homeland Security is expected to officially announce the Award tomorrow.
NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.
PAM FESSLER: There was fierce competition for the contract, which is eventually expected to reach more than $2 billion over the next few years. Neither Boeing nor the Department of Homeland Security will confirm the company's selection, but Congressional aides and industry sources say the choice has been made.
Wayne Esser led Boeing's contract bid. He said the company's proposal envisions a communications network using some 1,800 towers constructed across both the northern and southern borders.
Mr. WAYNE ESSER (Boeing): Towers with fairly high powered radars and electro-optical infrared cameras that can see at night, which is when most of the activity is.
FESSLER: And a system that would tie all that information together, feeding the data to area command centers where dispatchers can spot activity that often can't be seen by widely dispersed Border Patrol agents.
Mr. ESSER: Then inform the agents of what they need to do and give the agents good situational awareness, what's happening around them and where they need to be.
FESSLER: Esser says under the plan, agents would be in constant contact with dispatchers using satellite phones and other new equipment. Boeing, unlike some of its four competitors including Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, decided against proposing extensive use of unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct surveillance.
Esser says the company thinks it would be too expensive, but it has proposed that Border Patrol agents be given smaller, unmanned aerial vehicles that they could launch from their trucks.
There are plenty of skeptics in Congress and elsewhere that the project, part of something called the Secure Border Initiative, will actually work. James Lewis is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He thinks the technology available today is certainly better than that used in previous government efforts to monitor the borders.
Mr. JAMES LEWIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies): In the past you had sensor networks that would detect, you know, cows or coyotes and then it would alert on them. And that's not very helpful, right? Because you have people then chasing wildlife.
FESSLER: He expects there will be far fewer mistakes under the new proposals. Lewis says the big question, though, is what those guarding the border will do with the information once they get it.
Mr. LEWIS: Initially, the problem will be that suddenly we're going to have this much more complete picture of how many folks are coming across. There are a lot of them and they're going to be swamped. I wonder if they expect that?
Mr. T. J. BONNER (National Border Patrol Council): It is in our experience that technology is incapable of catching people. It spots people, but I've never seen a camera jump down off the pole and aid in the apprehension of a single individual.
FESSLER: T.J. Bonner's the president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 11,000 Border Patrol agents. He says those agents are already overwhelmed and he doesn't think the new technology will have much impact unless something is done to get at the main reason so many people are trying to enter the United States illegally.
Mr. BONNER: As long as we're not cracking down on the employers, people will continue to come across the border regardless of the number of cameras or fences that you have.
FESSLER: The Bush administration agrees. It says this new system needs to be part of a bigger border control effort, one that includes immigration changes, such as a temporary worker program. But for now, some of the efforts are taking a back seat to the idea of building a virtual fence.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.