January 23, 2011
by Stewart Powell
WASHINGTON — The invisible fence once envisioned along the U.S.-Mexico border was born in an era of political opportunity and optimism when then-President George W. Bush and congressional Democrats thought they could strike a deal on immigration reform.
The compromise meant paying for unprecedented high-tech security along the porous 1,969-mile border in trade for a legal path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
But by the time the troubled "virtual fence" was canceled by the Obama administration five years later on Jan. 14, the first 53 miles of sensors, cameras, radar and towers at two locations in Arizona had become a $1 billion white elephant, a latter-day equivalent of the Reagan-era "star wars" defense that promised to intercept enemy warheads but never could.
The technical challenges of remotely spotting immigrants, smugglers and drug traffickers across rugged, open desert bled momentum and support in Congress.
The precipitous U.S. economic downturn shifted the political landscape from receptivity to reform in 2007 to outright hostility by 2010, the year Congress shelved legislation offering children of illegal immigrants a route to citizenship through college or the armed forces.
Deepening near-border warfare among Mexican drug cartels only stoked widening anti-immigrant sentiment, scuttling the bipartisan collaboration that briefly raised the possibility of long-sought immigration reform.
In the end, the demise of the virtual fence could be traced to technical glitches, domestic politics, turnover in leadership in the program, border landowners' resistance to a federal takeover and the inability of a newly created Department of Homeland Security to effectively manage its first long-term research and development project.
"The virtual fence was never meant to be a fence - it was rhetoric to enable officials in the Bush and Obama administrations to claim stepped-up enforcement to persuade Congress to act on amnesty for illegal immigrants," said James Carafano, a retired Army officer serving as a security analyst with the Heritage Foundation.
The fitful, five-year history of the invisible fence zigzagged between progress and problems in Arizona and efforts in Congress to pursue or sidetrack reform.
"We've been punting this issue down the field for almost a decade," said Rick Nelson, director of homeland security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's difficult to determine what the technical solutions should be … before we know what our immigration policies really are."
Complaints from Cornyn
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he pressed both the Bush and Obama administrations to remedy alleged "mismanagement" in the program to no avail.
"DHS spent a billion dollars on a failed project which did little to protect our border with Mexico," complained Cornyn, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who played a key role in earlier negotiations for reform.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat and former chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee's panel on border security, rejected suggestions the project was a debacle, calling it "a genuine attempt by two administrations and the private sector to make this work."
Bush, the former border-state governor, was eager in 2005 to strike a political balance between visible border enforcement and satisfying companies' appetite for workers, when his administration launched the so-called Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet). Officials promised "the most effective mix of current and next generation technology" to stem the flow of people illegally crossing the border.
The GOP-led House quickly adopted the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act calling for enhanced border security including 700 miles of pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers at the most popular illegal crossing points. With the 2006 midterm congressional elections only months away, the Republican-led Senate followed suit with its own version that went beyond the House to include a controversial pathway to citizenship.
Contract with Boeing
The Bush administration hoped to hasten a House-Senate compromise to create a temporary worker program by dispatching Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to sign a three-year, $2.5 billion contract with the Boeing Co. to build the invisible fence. The contract called for the defense contractor to fashion a prototype in Arizona, near Tucson and Ajo, with off-the-shelf components, 15 sensor towers, 13 communications towers, 400 unattended ground sensors and 12 miles of access road.
The timetable: Deploy the pilot project in Arizona as quickly as possible before covering the entire border by 2012 at an estimated cost of as much as $8 billion.
Yet despite the prospect of high-profile security enhancements, the House and Senate failed to resolve differences on a pathway to citizenship. Congress' last major attempt at overhauling immigration ended in January 2007.
Without legislative progress, the "virtual fence" increasingly drew congressional criticism over schedule delays, cost overruns and technical snafus. Congress' watchdog Government Accountability Office churned out at least 17 studies featuring criticisms of DHS management or Boeing's progress. One GAO investigation spotlighted 1,300 separate project problems over a 15-month period.
"I am not going to buy something with U.S. government money unless I'm satisfied it works in the real world," Chertoff told Congress.
By February 2008, the GAO was telling Congress the radar signal used to "target" people or vehicles was too slow to appear on U.S. Border Patrol monitoring screens and also was triggered by rain or other weather conditions.
"It appears that after nearly two years of an extremely expensive project, we are farther away from the deployment of a virtual fence technology than we were when the project was initiated," Cornyn warned the Bush administration's DHS leadership.
The 2008 presidential campaign ended any pretense of collaboration on immigration reform.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain called for barriers, walls and virtual fences, insisting: "The American people want our borders secured first and then we will address the issue of comprehensive immigration reform."
Democratic candidate Barack Obama vowed to "preserve the integrity of our borders" with added personnel, infrastructure and technology in a political minuet designed to enlist wary independent voters concerned about border security without alienating Hispanic voters.
Once in office, Obama reviewed the beleaguered project before initially vowing to carry on in hopes of winning congressional action on immigration reform. His administration cleared the way to resume virtual fence construction in Arizona by claiming that the technology challenges had been overcome.
"This is the initiation of the no-kidding, real, SBInet system," SBInet chief Mark Borkowski said in May 2009.
Fence funds diverted
Yet in 2010, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano launched a yearlong inquiry into the project. "Americans need border security now - not 10 years down the road," said the former governor of Arizona.
Within weeks of Napolitano's review, the administration outlined a 28 percent cut in spending on border fencing to $574 million. A month later, she diverted $50 million in economic stimulus funds to other security measures.
"Not only do we have an obligation to secure our borders, we have a responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible," Napolitano said.
And the news just kept getting worse. The GAO alerted Congress that technical requirements for the virtual fence were being downgraded. The administration began increasing personnel to bolster border security, deploying unmanned drones and sending 1,200 National Guard troops to the border at federal expense, including 250 in Texas.
Napolitano in October scrapped a one-year renewal of the contract with Boeing in favor of month-to-month contracts. The last monthly contract expired Jan. 14.
"SBInet cannot meet its original objective of providing a single, integrated border security technology solution," Napolitano said. "There is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution."
And with that, the project came crashing down, and the $1 billion with it.
"The program faced challenges from the get-go," said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, who plans to have his Homeland Security Committee panel look into suspected waste within the $56 billion-a-year Department of Homeland Security.
"The virtual fence was clearly a bipartisan idea that didn't work," added University of Virginia scholar Larry Sabato, author of The Year of Obama: How Barack Obama Won the White House. "The chances for immigration legislation in this divided Congress were always small - but now the prospects are even dimmer."