Virtual fence an actual flop

During the 2006 debate over immigration and border security, some argued that a “virtual fence” could secure the southern border as or more effectively than a physical barrier. It would create less environmental issues and require less use of eminent domain to implement. As it turns out, however, it also doesn’t stop illegal immigrants from coming across the border:

The government is scrapping a $20 million prototype of its highly touted “virtual fence” on the Arizona-Mexico border because the system is failing to adequately alert border patrol agents to illegal crossings, officials said.

The move comes just two months after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced his approval of the fence built by the Boeing Co. The fence consists of nine electronic surveillance towers along a 28-mile section of border southwest of Tucson. …

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.

The fence has not been entirely scrapped. Boeing claims it has better technology on the way, and that Project 28 was never supposed to be the state of the art. They have already begun replacing that prototype with another, more robust version. However, DHS chief Michael Chertoff had already accepted the Project 28 plan as the basis on which to expand the virtual-fence project in February, giving the agency a black eye on its oversight.

Project 28 captured 3,000 illegal border crossers in four months. That sounds impressive, but in the areas it covered, hundreds attempt to cross each day. The Border Patrol would have done just as well with that $20 million if they had hired 200 more agents and bought 200 new vehicles with the money.

Of course, they would have done even better had they focused on building an actual fence in the area instead of a virtual fence. Perhaps we should focus on the latter first, and then experiment with the former later.