Photo: U.S. Mexico Border Security
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s announcement that she will be leaving her cabinet post to head up the University of California system injects even more uncertainty into the fate of the on-again, off-again development of a so-called virtual fence along the U.S. border with Mexico.
It was Napolitano who pulled the plug on Boeing’s attempts in 2011 to implement her department’s vision of the high tech Secure Border Initiative, or SBInet, a planned network of cameras and sensors that would alert Border Patrol agents of border incursions in order to stem the tide of illegal immigration and drug runners in high-trafficked areas like Arizona’s Tucson sector.
But Napolitano was too quick to shut down the Boeing project. Plagued by bad headlines resulting from the company’s ill-fated prototypes, the contractor was never able to get back in Napolitano or Congress’ good graces, despite later rollouts that showed dramatic improvement and effectiveness in meeting the program’s goal.
Having personally visited with Tucson sector agents in late 2010 who spoke with confidence of the technology’s capabilities to allow agents to do their jobs safely and effectively, the U.S. government is now back at the drawing board and in its final stages of its solicitation and input from contractors in an attempt to reinvent the wheel.
All this is happening against a backdrop of debate over a comprehensive immigration bill in Congress. A bill passed by the Senate is heavy on border security, too heavy I would argue. The bill calls for the addition of another 350 miles of border fencing, an impractical and budget-busting expenditure.
Congress instead should be ensuring that a new virtual fence comes online in the areas of greatest need. Despite its termination by Napolitano and Co., the Boeing experience demonstrated that there is off-the-shelf technology that exists that can secure our borders and serve as a force multiplier for our Border Patrol agents. If we get this right, not only will more fencing not be necessary, but neither will the Senate’s call to double the size of the Border Patrol to an astounding 40,000 agents.
Past experiences with cameras mounted on towers and ground sensors received unwarranted criticism from armchair security experts for what they claimed was the technology’s ability to identify more cows and tumbleweeds that actual illegal crossers. But unlike physical barriers, technology is adaptable to the situation, allowing it to be calibrated to meet new demands and even moved to areas of greater need.
More importantly, a virtual fence will keep our agents safe, allowing them to engage in a pursuit armed with more information about their target than they’ll ever get from fence posts and sheets of metal. I hope that this time, CBP will do the right thing and not only look at the areas like Arizona, but also the south Texas border, which as of the past few months has had more apprehensions and illegal incursions from non-Mexicans crossing that part of the border than anyone would like to count.
CBP has the tools in its arsenal to do the right thing, let’s hope that the winner that is slated to be announced in the next 60 days does not get caught up in a whirlwind of circular reporting from a campaign of mis-information.
Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido