America’s $1.25 Billion Invisible, Unreliable Border Fence is Fallen

Not that we'll stop dumping hundreds of millions into border militarization boondoggles.

By Julianne Hing Oct 22, 2010

The plan, back in 2006, was to build an invisible 2,000-mile fence across the U.S.-Mexico border. It would nab people as they try to cross into the U.S. from Mexico using sensors, radar and infrared cameras. It would make policing the border so easy; the machines would do all the work, and it would stretch from coast to coast and finally make the U.S.-Mexico border impenetrable.

But these days, with 2011 just around the corner and $850 million signed away to defense contractor Boeing alone, just 54 miles have been built. And the project is, by all accounts, a total failure.

The LA Times’ Brian Bennett runs down the troubled history the virtual fence, known as SBInet:

The virtual fence was intended to link advanced monitoring technologies to command centers for Border Patrol to identify and thwart human trafficking and drug smuggling. But from the beginning, the program has been plagued by missed deadlines and the limitations of existing electronics in rugged, unpredictable wilderness where high winds and a tumbleweed can be enough to trigger an alarm.

Daytime cameras are able to monitor only half of the distance expected. Ground sensors can identify off-road vehicles, but not humans, as initially envisioned by the government.

"It turned out to be a harder technological problem than we ever anticipated," said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the electronic fence program at the Homeland Security Department, earlier this year. "We thought it would be very easy, and it wasn’t."

Kind of like the whole notion of creating a false barrier to migration driven by very real forces like economic interdependence and family bonds. 

SBInet was part of the $4.4 billion Secure Border Initiative that organized Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Coast Guard to patrol the border and enforce immigration laws in the interior. It immediately ran into trouble trying to connect policing realities with the political rhetoric of its creators.

In 2008, the Governmental Accountability Office found that SBInet "still lacked an approved schedule to guide its execution, and key milestones continued to slip," and that "the program was not on a path for success and that change was needed." In January, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a review of SBInet after the $8 billion program stalled again. Finally, the Obama administration halted construction of the virtual fence in March of this year because of the constant delays. 

The prospects for the virtual fence now are not bright. On Sept. 21, the Department of Homeland Security decided, after awarding Boeing $1.25 billion in contracts since 2006, that it would not sign another check for the invisible, non-performing fence.

But don’t take it as a sign that DHS is re-evaluating border militarization policies. That same week, Napolitano diverted $50 million of stimulus funds to other, more traditional border militarization efforts.

The $600 million that Congress approved this summer for border enforcement programs will be spent to pay for 1,000 Border Patrol agents, communication and surveillance equipment and two more unmanned aerial drones. Already, the surveillance aircraft patrol the entire U.S.-Mexico border.