On the Border: The 'Virtual Fence' Isn't Working

Presidential candidates talk big about security to the south, but so far electronic surveillance costing millions is doing little to keep illegals out
"Show me a 50-foot wall and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder," says Arizona Governor Napolitano Jeff Topping

It's a scene replayed often along the southwestern border of the U.S. Helicopter-borne Border Patrol agents cruising above a stretch of harsh Sonoran Desert known to immigrants as la puerta dorada (the golden door) spot a white Ford F-150 pickup truck packed with a dozen Mexicans barreling northward on Arizona's State Road 286. The migrant smuggler driving the truck whirls around, floors the accelerator, and zips 20 miles back to the border, swerving wildly to avoid tire-puncturing metal spikes placed on the two-lane highway. Two helicopters and five patrol cars follow in hot pursuit. The truck screeches to a halt at a brand-new border fence, and four of the men, including the suspected smuggler, scramble onto the cab's roof, shimmy over the barrier, and drop to the Mexican side.

The 18-foot fence—an impressive-looking series of vertical steel bars, three inches in diameter, filled with concrete and reinforcing rods—is a prototype designed especially to thwart climbers. As shotgun-toting agents arrest the eight migrants left behind, the four who got away watch from a hilltop on the Mexican side until a Chevy Suburban pulls up next to them, doubtless ready for the next run around the seven-mile-long barrier. "Border fences don't keep people out—they just slow them down," muses Jesús Rodríguez, a 15-year Border Patrol veteran, after the Jan. 23 chase near Sasabe, Ariz., one of the most popular crossing points for migrants trying to get to prized jobs as cooks, nannies, and construction workers. "People who want to get into the U.S. really badly won't let something like a fence get in the way."


That's not exactly how Republican Presidential candidates make it sound these days with their tough talk about "sealing off the border." Some 12 million or so unauthorized immigrants are already in the U.S., and nearly half a million more sneak across the border every year. Comprehensive immigration reform is stalled until a new President takes office, so Republican candidates are racing to offer simpler solutions. On the stump, John McCain, once a booster of more sophisticated remedies, now pledges that "as President, I will secure our borders" first. Fellow GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee also call for a fence. Huckabee blames a "dysfunctional" government for failing to keep migrants out.

Anyone who has spent any time along the no man's land separating Mexico and the U.S. realizes that the proposition of a sealed border is iffy at best. From Tijuana to Texas, along nearly 2,000 miles of scorching desert, steep canyons, winding rivers, and urban mazes, Federal agents routinely strive for the unattainable—to stop the flow of people so desperate for better lives that they will climb, run, swim, tunnel, bribe, and even hide in car undercarriages to get into the U.S. In the past 15 years the government has erected nearly 300 miles of fencing, including sturdy sheet-metal barriers. The number of Border Patrol agents has almost doubled since 2000, to 14,900, supplemented now by up to 3,000 National Guard troops. Still, migrants continue to cross. And they'll continue to as long as Mexico's per capita income remains one-fifth that of the U.S.—and employers in El Norte welcome them.

The latest chapter in the effort to seal the border is an experiment called Project 28. No one thinks building a metal fence along the entire border is practical. It would cost billions to build and tens of billions more to maintain, and migrants would still climb over it at unpatrolled spots. So the Bush Administration has embarked on what it hopes is a lower-cost, more effective alternative, borrowed from Pentagon plans for future warfare. The idea is to connect a web of radar, infrared cameras, ground sensors, and airborne drones to extend the eyes and ears of the Border Patrol. This "virtual fence" is taking shape along a 28-mile stretch of the border just south of Tucson—right where the high-speed chase occurred. Nine futuristic towers rise 98 feet above the desert.

Each is equipped with radar, cameras, and Wi-Fi transmitters assembled by aerospace and defense giant Boeing (BA) to beam images and information to a command center in Tucson and to laptops installed in 50 patrol cars.

But Project 28 is failing to do the job even on the small pilot patch it is meant to fortify. The effort has been "more challenging than we anticipated," concedes Deborah D. Bosick, senior communications manager for the Boeing unit that is stitching together the government's Secure Border Initiative. Embarrassing equipment and software glitches have plagued Project 28, troubles Bosick attributes to the difficulty of quickly "integrating complex, off-the-shelf technology." Congressional investigators have warned that if the system fails a series of tests now under way, they may urge pulling the plug. Homeland security officials, meanwhile, want to stick with Boeing and are spending an additional $64 million to come up with another, more reliable version.


The contractor believed its expertise assembling complicated surveillance systems and software for the armed forces would help it build the better barrier of the future. But Boeing lacked much awareness of how the Border Patrol operates and, with only an initial $20 million fixed contract, Boeing "did it on the cheap," says Alison Rosso, staff director of a Democratic-controlled House homeland security subcommittee. That conclusion is echoed by investigators from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Homeland Security Dept.'s Inspector General. Boeing responds that it is spending more than $40 million of its own money on the prototype and that it's trying to do a lot on a tight deadline.

Among Project 28's problems: Wind and rain affect the cameras' image quality. Radar has been unable to distinguish between mesquite bushes and clusters of people or animals. In early tests, the laptops in the patrol cars couldn't take the jostling of rough terrain. And Boeing has had trouble bundling infrared images, radar scans, and ground sensor readings so that they reach the Border Patrol in time for agents to pursue targets. "It blows the mind, the issues they've had," says Rosso. Boeing's Bosick says the glitches have been "ironed out."

If Project 28 does, in the end, produce technology that can be deployed along the whole border, some specialists estimate that the Border Patrol would need an extra 100,000 agents to go after all the migrants spotted by enhanced technology. Even then, undocumented migrants would find golden doors, say experts like Wayne A. Cornelius, who teaches the political economy of immigration at the University of California at San Diego. Sealing the border would simply displace illegal traffic to the Gulf and Pacific coasts, he says. Already, smugglers' small boats are transporting migrants to California from the Baja peninsula. "Building an effective Fortress America," says Cornelius, "is a project that would require many years and huge expenditures, with dubious prospects of success."

Some advocates still urge a focus on real walls (BusinessWeek, 02/07/08), whose effectiveness, they say, has been amply demonstrated near heavily populated areas. One of the more celebrated physical fences is a 14-mile-long barrier the federal government built along the border between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, a decade ago at a cost of $9 million per mile. The 10-foot-high double fence, made of steel mesh and welded metal panels—surplus airplane landing mats from the Vietnam War—dramatically cut the number of illegal crossings from Tijuana, the Border Patrol says. Still, many migrants find a way across, sometimes through tunnels. As Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, has said: "Show me a 50-foot wall and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder." Fences also force migrants to cross at more remote, dangerous locales in the mountains and deserts.


The bigger problem may be those who don't bother with tunnels and ladders. Immigration specialists estimate that one-third to one-half of undocumented migrants in the U.S. didn't scale any border fence. They are believed to have entered the country legally and then just overstayed their visas. Some critics, including former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, think the rise in patrols and fence-building has actually encouraged unauthorized migrants to put down permanent roots in the U.S.—these Mexicans dare not travel home and run the risk of capture while trying to cross back north. "We have more boots and binoculars down at the border than we've ever had, yet we have a larger immigrant population than ever before," says Angela M. Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center, a pro-immigration Washington think tank.

The most effective solution would probably include increased border vigilance, better workplace enforcement, and more visas for the many unskilled workers needed by the U.S. economy. The comprehensive immigration-reform bill pushed by McCain that failed to pass Congress last year included 200,000 two-year visas for temporary workers, a path to legal residence for undocumented migrants if they paid a fine and agreed to learn English, and a requirement that companies ensure their employees were in the country legally. "You would do so much to secure the U.S.-Mexico border if you just widened the legal path to enter and work in the U.S.," says David A. Shirk of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. "If you had wide legal gates, you wouldn't need high walls."


Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama favor comprehensive immigration reform rather than a single-minded focus on border enforcement. But the GOP candidates have insisted the effort must start at the border. Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Mitt Romney, says that while his candidate favors sending millions of undocumented workers home, "the first line of defense has to be a robust approach to border security. It's important to show voters you have a strong approach." Douglas J. Holtz-Eakin, a senior economics adviser to McCain, acknowledges that the goal of sealing the border is "a formidable task." But he adds: "If you use all of the tools—fencing, more agents, unmanned aerial vehicles, ground sensors, aerial barriers, and so forth, you can establish control over the border. It's just a matter of will and money."

Do fences ever work on borders anywhere? The threat of lethal force makes sealed-off borders such as the DMZ between the Koreas and the Palestinian-Israeli barrier highly unusual cases. Along the Strait of Gibraltar and around the Canary Islands, Spain built a chain of high-tech radar stations to deter migration from Africa—only to watch illegal-immigrant traffic flow to other sea lanes.

Ordinary Mexicans, meanwhile, seem unfazed by all the efforts to wall them out. Ramiro, who didn't want to give his surname, is a 21-year-old born in the Mexican state of Guerrero. He was deported from Arizona in mid-January after police pulled his sister's van over for expired license plates and discovered he was there illegally. Ramiro has lived in Phoenix since he was 7, and he has no intention of staying in Mexico, where he feels out of place. Scarfing down beans and rice at a charity shelter for migrants in Nogales, Mexico, Ramiro says he plans to head back to the U.S. in a couple of days. What about the new fence and a beefed-up Border Patrol? "I'll just find a path around the fence, or I'll climb it at night," he says, shrugging. "There's always a way to get around obstacles."

Sure enough, three days later, Ramiro leaves Nogales at 3 a.m., walks just west of a new section of fence under construction, and in five hours reaches the town of Rio Rico, Ariz., where that night he hops a freight train for Phoenix. Time elapsed: 26 hours. "Mexican ingenuity," says Ramiro, laughing, when contacted on a friend's mobile phone. That's ingenuity even the powerful U.S. cannot fence out.

Join a debate about employer enforcement of immigration policy vs. barricades along the U.S.-Mexican border.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.