The deployment of a so-called “virtual fence” along the United States border with Mexico – the most easily identifiable technology component of the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative, or SBInet – has been the subject of criticism for years from the media, Congress, and the Government Accountability Office.
Last month, board members of the Border Trade Alliance, a group that for 25 years has been working to promote secure cross-border trade and travel, had the opportunity to sit down with Border Patrol agents at the Tucson Sector headquarters to a get first-person perspective on why such controversy has surrounded this project. Our group is generally supportive of using technology to secure the border, but we were concerned over the negativity surrounding SBInet. We wanted to use our visit as an opportunity to get agents’ insight into how SBInet is working, learn if it’s effective and hear from the agents whether they would recommend that the program move forward with further deployments.
We learned that some of the criticism of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the program’s prime contractor Boeing is valid, as the government and the company set out to do something that has never been done before: gain operational control of the country’s southern border through a system of sensors, radar and cameras.
As the contractor and the government worked toward deployment of a prototype system in the Tucson Border Patrol sector, priorities shifted, requirements changed and oftentimes unrealistic expectations went unmet.
But according to what we heard in Tucson, things have changed.
Despite what the media is reporting, we learned that the system is passing its most important test: Border Patrol agents like the system and they say that it greatly improves agent safety and situational awareness. This allows agents to coordinate law enforcement actions at the time and place of their choosing with a properly equipped and informed team.
According to the agents we met with, SBInet has been instrumental in the apprehension of thousands of illegal aliens and more than $25 million worth of narcotics seizures. Simply put, the system lets agents do their job more effectively, get home safely, and provides vastly improved security to communities along the border. SBInet also allows the Border Patrol to deploy agents more effectively. For example, the number of agents required in the area where the first deployment took place, south of Tucson, has dropped from 24 to four—allowing the Border Patrol to put agents in high traffic areas where the system is not yet deployed.
We were shown video evidence of agents in the field receiving communications from their team back at headquarters who were using SBInet to watch a group of illegal aliens on television monitors. The field agents were expertly guided to the illegal crossers, allowing them to safely apprehend the group when and where they wanted to; a strategic capability that does not exist elsewhere along the 2,000 mile southern border.
But what about the cost to the taxpayer? Isn’t the system too expensive? Wouldn’t we better off getting the Border Patrol more tactical capabilities such as mobile surveillance units and building a physical fence along the entire 2,000 mile border?
Not so. We learned that while more trucks could be a great tool, they require more agents to operate them. And the SBInet system can be deployed in the rugged borderenvironment, where roads are not always available, for about $2 million per mile, compared to up to $6 million per mile for a physical fence. Additionally, the lifecycle costs of the SBInet technology are lower than any other technology, infrastructure, or personnel alternative examined. SBInet means better border security and a better deal for taxpayers.
The agents we met with made clear that they don’t care who manages SBInet, whether it’s Boeing or some other contractor. They left no doubt, however, that they need the capability that SBInet provides.
While we heard a lot of good things about SBInet, we were disappointed to hear that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had not been to Arizona to see the system in action.
SBInet works, the Border Patrol agents like it, and it’s cost effective. While DHS may be unsure whether to go forward with further deployments of the system, the department should check with its agents in the field before making a final decision.
Nelson Balido is president of the Border Trade Alliance. Since 1986, the organization has worked to influence public policy and private sector initiatives for the facilitation of secure cross-border trade and commerce in North America. The group can be reached via their website at thebta.org.
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