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Great Barrier Grief

Sealing the U.S.-Mexico border is not an easy task

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In May 2006, President George W. Bush interrupted prime-time programming to announce that the United States was getting serious about stopping the steady flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico into the United States.

"The United States must secure its borders," Bush declared. "This is a basic responsibility of a sovereign nation. It is also an urgent requirement of our national security."

Five months later, Congress approved $1.2 billion for more Border Patrol agents, 700 miles of fencing and other measures--although, in the fine print of the bill, lawmakers withheld $950 million until Customs and Border Protection came up with a plan to spend the money.

As part of this Secure Borders Initiative, CPB has hired thousands of new Border Patrol agents and put the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Guard and private contractors to work building steel walls, vehicle barriers and even a high-tech virtual fence.

Between the physical and virtual fences, CPB spokesman Brad Benson says CPB hopes to gain "operational control" of the border by 2013.

"We'll keep plugging it in until we've got full operational control of the border, which seems like a miracle, because we've never had it in the past," Benson says.

Benson says Homeland Security set a goal of building 70 miles of fence in the current fiscal year, which ends September 30. That would nearly double the 75 miles that existed before the work began, although Benson expressed some skepticism that the agency would make its deadline.

By the end of 2008, the agency hopes to have completed a total of 370 miles along the 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico border, according to Benson. Most of the fence will ultimately be built by private contractors.

Benson can't provide a cost estimate for the fencing work, because the agency is still trying to get a handle on that figure. Costs can vary wildly depending on the terrain and the type of fence that's built, so there's no accurate way to gauge an average cost until contracts are signed, and work begins.

Here in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, which includes 262 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, nearly 22 miles of so-called "pedestrian" fencing--solid or nearly solid fence that blocks people from just walking across the border--has been built in Nogales, Naco and Douglas as of July 15, according to local CPB spokesman Sean King. In addition, the feds have installed 41 miles of permanent vehicle barriers and nearly 30 miles of temporary vehicle barriers.

The progress wouldn't have been possible without the aid of the National Guard and Army Corps of Engineers, who have been put to work in several border states through the Operation Jump Start program, and have done most of the early work on the fencing.

"It's an incredible amount compared to what we've been able to put up in nine months in the past without their help," King says. "It used to be Border Patrol agents building fences, and you might get a mile every six months, because our job isn't putting up fences."

While the work is progressing, it's not without its critics, including Congressman Raúl Grijalva. Although he supports vehicle barriers, especially in environmentally sensitive areas, Grijalva remains unconvinced that a pedestrian fence along the border will work, because border-crossers will move to other areas.

"I've been opposed to that from the get-go," Grijalva says. "It's a waste of money."

Grijalva complains that the Department of Homeland Security isn't paying enough attention to the concerns of border residents. He says the agency needs to get more public input before it "just goes ahead, irrespective of community desires, irrespective of environmental impact, irrespective of anything ... and draws a line and builds a fence."

Grijalva is more amenable to Homeland Security's plan for a virtual fence that will use electronic sensors to detect border crossers so the Border Patrol can intercept them.

But Grijalva says Homeland Security still needs to prove that the technology works.

"The virtual fence is less intrusive, but the jury is still out on that," he says.

The virtual fence, known as SBInet, is designed for remote areas where border-crossers have to travel for hours before they can blend into the population, says Benson, who explains that in areas such as the Tohono O'odham reservation, "you don't gain anything by putting a fence up in the middle of the desert."

The first portion of the virtual fence, dubbed Project 28, is a 28-mile stretch of the border near Sasabe.

The system, built by Boeing, includes buried sensors and nine towers equipped with ground radar. When an alarm gets tripped, agents can use video or infrared cameras to view the scene at their headquarters, or even on laptop computers in their trucks as they're guided by a GPS system.

Project 28, which faced stiff opposition from area residents who didn't like the idea of surveillance cameras in their backyards, was supposed to be up and running last month. But Boeing, which agreed to use off-the-shelf technology when it won a $20 million contract to show "proof of concept," is running into technical problems syncing different systems.

Until federal officials see how well Project 28 works, it's difficult to say how the program will be expanded or what it will cost, says Benson. But last week, Tucson Sector officials launched an public-outreach program as a first step toward expanding the program.

In its push to get SBInet up and running, however, the agency has drawn criticism from its own watchdog agency. Last week, in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner said that the SBI program continued to be beset by managerial problems.

"Due to its size and scope, the SBI procurement presents a considerable acquisition risk," Skinner said. "DHS is embarking on this multibillion-dollar acquisition project without having laid the foundation to effectively oversee and assess contractor performance and effectively control cost and schedule."

Skinner expressed concern that the agency has continued to underestimate the number of project managers needed to manage a such a massive program.

Benson says CPB is trying to hire enough managers for an upcoming avalanche of projects.

"It's a legitimate concern, because we're trying to do a whole lot with a sense of urgency," Benson says. "They are bringing people on. They're training people like crazy and bringing on more program managers."

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