High-tech Border Fence Boondoggle Doesn’t Pay

By Michelle Chen Jun 21, 2010

Remember that superduper high-tech border fence that lawmakers were gunning for a few years ago, the one that was going to turn the U.S.-Mexico boundary into a wonderland of militaristic gadgetry? A government audit unearthed the long-dormant multibillion-dollar project to determine whether it’s a worthy investment. If all those deficit-conscious GOP lawmakers are seeking a boondoggle to excise from the federal balance sheet, please consider SBInet. A byproduct of the first major immigration reform debacle under the Bush administration, the program aims to militarize the border with sophisticated surveillance technology, including cameras, radars and sensors to monitor border activity. In partnership with Boeing, the first chunk of the project was to be deployed at the border areas of Tucson and Ajo, Arizona, which is fitting, since the idea of peppering the border with mobile sensor towers and other "next generation technology" would no doubt please a law-and-order governor like Jan Brewer. But in testimony at a House hearing last week, GAO representative Randolph Hite delivered a sobering progress report on the project. Back in 2008, GAO had reported that "the program 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." A recent follow-up investigation has showed "a growing number of system performance and quality problems, which we said was not indicative of a maturing system." The research led GAO to conclude that more than three years on, the Department of Homeland Security "had yet to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of the proposed SBInet solution, and thus whether the considerable time and money being invested represented a prudent use of limited resources." Hite described SBInet as "a program that has for too long been oversold and under delivered." Translation: Militarizing the border just isn’t the best use of taxpayer funds at a time when conservatives are bleating about cutting the deficit. And that’s not counting the devastating social, civil rights and environmental costs that Homeland Security hasn’t bothered calculating, even when the price is paid in human life. But even if Homeland Security shelves SBInet‘s high-tech toys, the government may continue to throw funds at more traditional attempts to plug up the Southwest’s porous edges. Obama has hastily proposed to drop another $500 million on border security and station 1,200 National Guard troops at the Arizona border. Brewer will reportedly soon be briefed on the initiative by the administration, in an effort to prove the feds are doing their part on immigration control. Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain–who brought us the "Complete the Danged Fence" YouTube sensation–scored a photo-op at the border in Cochise County with Sen. John Kyl this weekend. Along with the usual beef-up-the-border soundbytes, the senators emphasized their support for Arizona’s SB 1070 racial profiling law. Though the Obama administration and the GOP may differ on SB 1070–Kyl chafed at the supposed wastefulness of a potential federal lawsuit to check the legislation–both appear to be competing eagerly for Arizona’s affections. Back in Washington, Congress continues to let Homeland Security fashion its border-security fantasy out of contractor pork and political fairy dust. As "oversold" as the program may be, lawmakers are too busy buying votes with their anti-immigrant agendas to pay attention to the price tag. Image: GAO analysis of DHS data, Art Explosion (clip art).