E.g., 12/03/2023
E.g., 12/03/2023
Quiet Demise of the Virtual Fence

Quiet Demise of the Virtual Fence

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Officials from the Coast Guard and Border Patrol meet along a stretch of SBI fence in Arizona.

In January, the Obama administration put an end to a costly program to build a "virtual fence" along the southwest border of the United States. The move, which comes after several years of continued political support for the program despite major setbacks in its implementation, garnered little press and political attention.

The Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) program was originally intended to facilitate the construction of an integrated border surveillance system comprised of cameras, heat and motion sensors, radars, and other technology along most sections of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

Despite the $1 billion in congressional funding allocated to the program between fiscal year (FY) 2006 and FY 2010, SBInet was ultimately deployed to just over 53 miles of the southwest border near Tucson and Ajo, Arizona.

In announcing the decision to end SBInet, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that the program had been "consistently over budget, behind schedule, and simply not delivering the return on investment needed to justify it." She also stated that the funding originally allocated for the program would be redirected to fund other "proven technologies" that are either already commercially available or that had been successful elements of SBInet. These technologies will be customized to each distinct border region and will include, for example, unmanned aerial vehicles, thermal imaging, and tower-based remote video surveillance.

Technology-Focused Border Control

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) first launched SBInet in 2005 as a key element of its Secure Border Initiative (SBI), and in 2006 awarded a three-year contract to Boeing, with the option of yearly renewals, to build the SBInet program.

The program was intended to work in conjunction with the other initiatives of SBI — including the construction of 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicle fencing and plans to increase the size of the Border Patrol — to enable U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to achieve "operational control" of the southwest border.

In particular, DHS officials hoped that SBInet technology would allow CBP to develop a "common operating picture" of the border through a computer-based "snapshot" made up of integrated information submitted by sensors, cameras, and radar. In July 2006, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff emphasized that the goal of SBInet was to integrate multiple forms of technology into a "single, comprehensive, border security suite" for the department.

While SBInet was hailed by the Bush administration and by many members of Congress as a new and innovative approach to border security, the program actually marked the third iteration of a technology-centered border control initiative launched several years earlier by the federal government.

In 1997, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) introduced the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS), which sought to use remote video surveillance, underground sensors, and computer-assisted detection technology to deter unauthorized immigrants from crossing the border. In FY 2005, DHS renamed ISIS the "America's Shield Initiative" (ASI), maintaining the program's goals and focus on high-tech border security.

According to reports issued by the inspector general of DHS in 2005 and by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2006, both programs encountered substantial technology difficulties, including a lack of integration between radars, cameras, and motion sensors that were prone to frequent false alarms.

However, despite the critical reviews of ISIS and ASI, there was at that time growing political momentum in support of new border fencing initiatives, both physical and virtual. Through passage of the REAL ID Act in 2005, Congress authorized the secretary of homeland security to waive "all legal requirements" that were deemed obstructive in order to ensure the expeditious construction of any and all "barriers and roads" to be built at the border.

Congress then passed with an overwhelming majority The Secure Fence Act in October 2006, which mandated DHS to construct a "systematic surveillance system" that included technological components and additional physical fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Eight months later, in June 2007, Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar hailed the SBInet program at a hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security as "crucial" to Border Patrol's mission, and announced that DHS hoped to deploy SBInet technology along 387 miles of the southwest border by December 31, 2008.

A Long List of Problems

From its launch, SBInet was plagued by technology failures and schedule delays.

In 2007, CBP officials announced that technology problems had delayed the implementation of an initial SBInet pilot project known as P-28, which consisted of a series of nine high-tech towers of cameras, sensors, and satellite phones along 28 miles of the border near Sasabe, Arizona. CBP ultimately launched P-28 in February of 2008, eight months after the pilot project was scheduled to be operational.

That same month, GAO published a report published a report criticizing various aspects of P-28, finding that several of the technology components were not fully integrated and that sensors and radars were being accidentally triggered by environmental factors, such as heavy rains. In September 2009, GAO published another report indicating that DHS had pushed back its scheduled date of completion for SBInet from FY 2009 to FY 2016.

In January 2010, GAO reported that it had identified 1,300 defects in the program between March 2008 and July 2009. It also found that the rate at which new defects were being identified outpaced the rate at which previous defects were being fixed.

GAO also reported in May 2010 that DHS had lowered its "threshold requirements" for acceptable technology. While the department had initially indicated that it would only "accept" SBInet blocks (portions of completed virtual fencing) that were able to detect 95 percent of movement across the border, it would now accept blocks that yielded as little as a 70 percent success rate.

Beginning of the End

Throughout 2008 and 2009, officials of both the Bush and Obama administrations generally maintained their support for SBInet, publicly stating that while the program was behind schedule, it was "on the path toward improvement."

The program also continued to receive ample funding from Congress, as well as support from a number of key congressional leaders. In its FY 2009 report on recommended DHS allocations, for example, the Senate Appropriations Committee noted that it was "confused by opponents of either construction of physical fencing or success of the 'virtual fence' solution," and that "those who are concerned that physical fencing will destroy the environment and animal habitats should embrace a 'virtual fence'."

SBI's Physical Border Fence
Although DHS has terminated the virtual fence portion of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), the physical fencing components of SBI have largely moved ahead as planned. There has also been some controversy surrounding the construction of the physical fence, however.

Border communities, environmentalists, and local land owners initially protested against the fence and filed lawsuits to halt construction, arguing both that the REAL-ID Act (which grants DHS the authority to construct the fence despite standing environmental and property law statutes) constituted an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power to the executive branch, and that the act's provisions violated the state sovereignty guarantee of the 10th Amendment.

Thus far, no federal district court has ruled against the planned construction. According to media reports, DHS has now completed 646 miles of physical fencing along the southwest border.


Following GAO's January 2010 report on continued SBInet integration problems, however, Secretary Napolitano ordered a freeze on all SBInet spending, and instructed her department to conduct a review of the program. Napolitano then redirected $35 million that had been initially allocated for SBInet to other "stand-alone" technology components. The Department also requested a reduction of $158.3 million for the program in its FY 2011 budget request.

These decisions were the first indication of strong doubts regarding the continued viability of the virtual fence program.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last February, the executive director of SBInet, Mark Borkowski, said the program "was a great idea, but it didn't work." Such statements were echoed by other top DHS officials, including Secretary Napolitano who recently labeled SBInet an "expensive, yet ineffective system."

The termination of the virtual fence program received almost no attention on Capitol Hill. Interestingly, none of the members of the House homeland security committee or the Senate homeland security committee — including those who had been among SBInet's most vocal supporters — issued a statement regarding the announcement or the fact that program had failed to meet expectations.

The decision to discontinue construction on the virtual fence comes on the heels of a State of the Union address in which the president emphasized the need to make tough budget cuts in order to trim the growing national deficit, and just weeks before the Obama administration is expected to submit its budget requests for FY 2012.

At a time of increasing pressure to make spending cuts, it seems GAO's criticisms of the fence's technology failures and inquiries into whether the program was a "prudent use of limited resources" hastened SBInet's quiet demise.

Policy Beat in Brief

Delays in U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Transformation. A plan to modernize U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) by converting paper-based files into electronic ones and allowing immigration applications to be submitted online is over-budget and facing delays, according to media reports. The plan, known as the USCIS Transformation project, was launched in 2006 after GAO concluded that USCIS's ability to process immigration applications was hindered by its "inefficient" paper-based processing system. In 2008, the agency awarded a five-year, $491.1 million contract to IBM to launch the initiative. According to government watchdog groups, USCIS has now spent more than $631.1 million on the project.

  • Read more about delays caused by the USCIS paper-based processing system in the February 2008 Policy Beat.
  • Read the 2006 GAO Report on problems with USCIS's paper-based processing system.
  • Read more about the status of USCIS Transformation on the website, IT Dashboard, which tracks government spending.

Increasing Immigration Court Case Load. Two new reports from the Transactional Access Records Clearinghouse (TRAC) indicate that during the first two years of the Obama administration, the number of immigration-related criminal prosecutions and the number of cases pending before immigration courts increased dramatically.

According to TRAC, between FY 2007 and FY 2010, the number of immigration-related criminal cases that were filed in federal courts increased by 77 percent along the southwest border and by 31 percent in other areas of the country. During the same time period, the number of non-immigration felony prosecutions filed in federal court districts outside of the southwest border decreased by 6 percent. A separate TRAC report found that the backlog of cases pending in immigration courts continued to grow during the first quarter of FY 2011; it now stands 44 percent higher than it did at the end of FY 2008.

  • Read more about immigration enforcement in the Obama Era on the Source.
  • Read the new TRAC Report on the surge in immigration-related criminal prosecutions.
  • Read the new TRAC Report on the growth in the backlog of immigration court cases.

Application Deadline for Haitian TPS. USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas announced that just over 53,000 Haitian nationals participated in the government's Temporary Protected Status (TPS) registration program, which enabled Haitians who were residing in the United States as of January 12, 2010 to apply for 18 months of work authorization and protection against deportation.

DHS designated Haiti for TPS protection after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which killed an estimated 200,000 people and devastated the country's infrastructure. DHS initially set a deadline of July 20, 2010 for Haitian nationals to apply for TPS; that deadline was later extended to January 18, 2011 and just expired.

Final Rule Issued on H2B Wage Calculation. The U.S. Department of Labor issued a new rule changing the formula used to calculate the minimum wage that must be paid to workers entering the United States under the H-2B temporary worker program. The new rule requires employers to pay H-2B workers a wage that meets or exceeds the highest of: the prevailing wage for the specific job, the federal minimum wage, the state minimum wage, or the local minimum wage. The H-2B visa program is used by U.S. employers to bring foreign-born workers to the United States to perform temporary non-agricultural work when they cannot find qualified U.S. workers to fill job shortages.

Ease in Travel Restrictions, Rules for Remittances to Cuba. The Obama Administration issued a series of new administrative rules that relax the requirements for students and church groups traveling to Cuba, and allow a greater number of airports in the United States to offer chartered flights to the country. The new rules will also allow U.S. residents to remit up to $500 every three months to Cuban nationals who are not their family members, as long as the recipients are not part of the Castro administration or members of the Communist Party. The United States began restricting travel and remittances to Cuba in the early 1960s in response to the 1959 takeover by the Castro regime.

H-1B Visa Cap Reached. USCIS announced that on January 26, 2011 the congressionally mandated cap of 65,000 applications for H-1B visas had been met for FY 2011. It is the latest date that the cap has been reached since 2004. Through the H-1B visa program, U.S. employers can sponsor high-skilled foreign nationals such as computer scientists and engineers for temporary visas valid for up to six years.

Birthright Citizenship Measure Introduced in the Senate. Senate Republicans David Vitter (LA) and Rand Paul (KY) have introduced a resolution that would amend the U.S. Constitution in order to deny birthright citizenship to children who are born in United States to unauthorized immigrant parents. The resolution comes on the heels of a bill with a similar goal introduced in the House of Representatives by Steve King (R-IA) in January.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, approximately 340,000 of the 4.3 million children born in the United States in 2008 had at least one parent who was an unauthorized immigrant. Both the Vitter/Paul resolution and the King bill are expected to face uphill battles in Congress.

Unauthorized Population Stabilizes, Says New Pew Report. A new report from the Pew Hispanic Center states that, while the number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States dropped somewhat from the 12 million estimated for 2007 to the population of 11.1 million in 2009, there was virtually no change in the number of unauthorized immigrants between 2009 and 2010. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the reduction in the size of the overall unauthorized population in recent years can be attributed to a reduction in the number of unauthorized Mexican immigrants entering the United States. Unauthorized Mexican immigrants make up roughly 58 percent of the U.S. unauthorized population.

Reports on E-Verify. A new report from GAO found that USCIS has improved the accuracy of the federal E-Verify program, an online system that employers may use to confirm that new employees are authorized to work in the United States. According to GAO, E-Verify now immediately confirms as work authorized 97.4 percent of the employee names that are entered into it. USCIS estimates that more than 243,000 employers are currently using the E-Verify program.

In related news, a recent customer satisfaction survey conducted by the consulting group Claes Fornell International (CFI Group) found a very high level of employer satisfaction among employers using E-Verify. CFI Group reported that E-Verify earned a score of 82 out of 100 on the American Customer Satisfaction Index Scale.

State and Local Policy Beat in Brief

Reversal of Executive Order on Immigration Policy in New Mexico. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez issued an executive order on January 31 stating that state and local police officers are no longer prohibited from asking about the immigration status of individuals encountered during the course of law enforcement operations. The move reverses a prior policy implemented by Martinez's predecessor, Governor Bill Richardson. Under the new executive order, the New Mexico police are still prohibited from asking crime victims and witnesses about their immigration status.

Birthright Citizenship Bill Introduced in Arizona. State lawmakers in Arizona introduced two separate bills aimed at eliminating birthright citizenship for children born to unauthorized immigrant parents in the United States.

The first bill states that Arizona citizenship applies only to individuals who are born in the state and who are "subject to the jurisdiction thereof." It further clarifies that for a child to be subject to said jurisdiction, the child must have at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen, U.S. national, or a lawful permanent resident. The second bill would require the state to create separate birth certificates for children who are born in Arizona to unauthorized immigrant parents.

It is unclear whether the two measures are likely to pass in the Arizona legislature, but either would almost certainly face legal challenges in court if they did pass.