April 24, 2008
So much for the "virtual fence"

Why am I not surprised by this?

In a sign of the challenges facing the federal government's ambitious effort to police the country's border with Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security has ordered adjustments to a "virtual fence" project near Tucson that has been beset with technical problems.

A spokesman said Wednesday that the department will make modifications to the 28-mile project in Arizona. The changes include moving or replacing some of the nine surveillance towers and installing new equipment on them.


On Wednesday, Homeland Security officials defended their actions in Arizona, saying they had expected difficulties with the virtual fence prototype.

The initial project, known as P-28, "was never intended or purported to be the perfect, end-state solution," said Russ Knocke, a department spokesman.


The high-tech approach has not been without its problems. A February report by the Government Accountability Office pointed out flaws in the virtual fence. Inadequate software, it said, had been used and the project had been developed with limited input from the Border Patrol.

The report also cited complaints that it was taking too long for information detected by radar to be displayed on computers in a command center and that some of the radar systems were set off by rain or other environmental factors.

I had an earlier version of this story flagged originally. It had some more detail about that GAO report:

Less than a week after [Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff accepted Project 28 on Feb. 22, the Government Accountability Office told Congress it "did not fully meet user needs and the project's design will not be used as the basis for future" developments.

A glaring shortcoming of the project was the time lag between the electronic detection of movement along the border and the transmission of a camera image to agents patrolling the area, the GAO reported.

Although the fence continues to operate, it hasn't come close to meeting the Border Patrol's goals, said Kelly Good, deputy director of the Secure Border Initiative program office in Washington.

"Probably not to the level that Border Patrol agents on the ground thought that they were going to get. So it didn't meet their expectations."

The Border Patrol had little input in designing the prototype but will have more say in the final version, officials said.

Let that be a lesson: Never roll out a deliverable without performing usability testing first. You'll have a much lesser chance of looking foolish that way.

[S]ome critics of the government's approach said it confirms their fears that the feds are acting without adequate consultation with local residents.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., called the fence plans "a half-baked political response" to voter anger about illegal immigration that has resulted in the waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.

"The fence has become more political symbol than deterrence substance," he said.


The fences were part of a get-tough, anti-immigration measure pushed through Congress by conservatives in 2006 and approved by President Bush as a way of placating Republicans opposed to his plan for overhauling immigration law.

But the initiative has sparked controversy since its inception, especially in Texas.Those who live in its path on the Rio Grande have resisted efforts by federal authorities to survey their lands for the proposed fence. Others have complained the fence would divide not only their property but also wildlife refuges and university land.

Chad Foster, the mayor of Eagle Pass and chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, said many problems result from the federal government's pushing through the fence projects too quickly. "I think they should slow down a little bit," he said.

But the virtual fence, using high-tech equipment, has been hailed not only by Bush but also by Democratic and Republican presidential contenders.

Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama have said the surveillance equipment could reduce the need for physical barriers on the border.

Well, I'll say this much for a virtual fence: It's not as bad as the physical fence that DHS wants to build. At least it won't have the environmental impact of bricks and mortar, and it should be less costly to maintain. But it suffers from the same shortcoming as the physical fence in that it's a shortsighted and narrow-focused response that really isn't a solution to the problem it wants to address. A big reason why so many people are here illegally - and remember, a huge number of them entered by legal means, then overstayed their visas - is because we've created an artificial shortage of immigration visas, and we have such a time-consuming and burdensome process for getting those visas. If we allowed more people in, and we made it easier to go through that process, a lot of the black market that we helped materialize would dry up. This is not an intractable problem. It's a situation of our own making, and just as we made it, we can fix it.

But that requires leadership, and unfortunately there's a lack of that.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus denounced House Democratic leaders Wednesday as "spineless" and little better than Republicans for failing to take on comprehensive immigration reform.

Leaders of the all-Democratic caucus, which numbers two dozen, criticized their party leadership at a news conference for instead scheduling hearings on enforcement legislation and specific visa issues.


Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona called the Democratic caucus "spineless."

"Today my party wants to do what is easy, not exactly what is right," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.

The lawmakers were particularly incensed because hearings have been scheduled on a bill by moderate first-term Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., that focuses on enforcement and would add border patrol agents.

If a Democratic majority can allow such a hearing, "then we are no better than the Republican majority we replaced," Gutierrez said.

I believe they are referring to the so-called SAVE Act, which would be fiscally irresponsible in addition to being bad public policy. And it's co-sponsored by the xenophobic Rep. Tom Tancredo; why any Democrat would want to associate himself with that guy is a mystery to me. I know I hoped for better than this when the Dems took over the Hill last year, but it's been nothing but disappointment on this issue so far. Stace and Marc Campos have more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 24, 2008 to National news

One of the few things a few of my wingnuttier friends and I agree on is that ICE, the fence and everything else is BS.

If they really want to staunch the flow of illegals, throw a few CEOs and business owners in prison. It's illegal to hire them, enforce the law. Until they do, everything else is red meat for the base, looks good, spends money and expected to fail.

Posted by: Charles M on April 24, 2008 9:23 PM