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Balancing Border Security (Cover Story)

By Karoun Demirjian

Since Texas Rangers began patrolling the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border on horseback in the late 19th century, the government’s approach to securing the frontier has been decidedly hit-and-miss.

Ad hoc efforts to block illegal crossings were limited by scarce resources and the considerable logistical challenges of covering vast amounts of desolate territory. Only since the 1980s have authorities begun to employ a targeted strategy built around using new technology and concentrating agents at key crossing points.

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As a former governor of a border state, President Bush decided to stake much of his second-term domestic agenda on taking the surveillance to another level. In 2006, his Department of Homeland Security proposed an ambitious plan to reinvent the border using an elaborate network of motion sensors, radar, physical barriers and sophisticated software, all fortified with 6,000 new Border Patrol agents, bringing the total force up to 18,000.

The multibillion-dollar effort was intended to seal a sieve-like frontier that has been a haven for drug runners, smugglers and “coyotes” who abet human trafficking, and it has been the primary conduit for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States. Officials spoke confidently about imposing order on the desolate badlands and simultaneously addressing a major post-Sept. 11 security concern.

But with just three months left in the president’s tenure, his vision of a fortified Southern border is half finished, the victim of bureaucratic miscues, cost overruns and an inability to make all of the high-tech gadgetry work. No one is certain when the administration’s Secure Border Initiative can be completed or whether it will markedly slow down the flow of undocumented workers. And with the economy swooning and the government on the hook for a sweeping rescue of the financial system, there is intensifying talk of trimming back some of the more than $50 billion in projected border modernization and maintenance costs by sacrificing some of the technology for more physical fencing and taking steps to help the Border Patrol cope with a flood of new hires and high attrition rates.

Figuring out where to make trade-offs will be difficult and politically perilous, because it involves deciding whether to cut the government’s losses by emphasizing one component of the border strategy over another or to forge ahead on all three fronts — electronic barriers, physical fencing and increased hiring of agents — and risking further delays and cost overruns. There is also the added unknown of whether the components can be combined into a seamless border security network or whether the government will wind up with an expensive, gap-riddled system.

The border conundrum presents a huge challenge for the next administration, which will have to re-evaluate the Bush strategy and make tough judgment calls. Even if the next president concludes that the administration’s three-pronged approach can be sustained, he will have to decide whether to devote increasingly scarce dollars to securing the border or spend more cracking down on workplaces that employ illegal immigrants and are widely viewed as the magnets for many of the nation’s immigration problems.

Perhaps mindful of the thorny debate ahead, neither the Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, nor his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, has spent much time discussing border strategy, though each has endorsed the need for a physical fence and has spoken of the need for robust enforcement. McCain, an Arizonan well-acquainted with border issues, was closely allied with Bush in a failed 2007 attempt to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws that both took up border security and proposed a so-called path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States.

Analysts say the next administration and members of both parties in Congress will have to set aside abstract benchmarks for evaluating border security and find a more realistic way of evaluating whether illegal activity is being curtailed.

“The matrix that Congress has established and that we politically fixate on — ‘How many Border Patrol agents have we hired?’ or ‘How many miles of fence did you build?’ — are kind of useless,” said James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow in international studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “The only useful one is: ‘How much border security do you get?’ ”

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said the next president and the 111th Congress would be wise to take a critical look at Bush’s strategy, because in Thompson’s view, the White House talked big but never devoted enough time to planning how all the major components would come together.

“They’ve been more or less piecemealing this effort by their own playbook,” Thompson said.

In its final months in power, the administration is shuffling priorities to meet some key deadlines. Homeland Security Department officials remain confident that the physical fence can be completed by 2011. In September, the department won permission from congressional appropriators to reprogram $400 million in fiscal 2008 funding originally allocated for surveillance technology so that it could be spent on the physical barrier. The move satisfied the toughest anti-immigration lawmakers in Congress, who believe a brick-and-mortar approach to border security is the most effective way to cut off the flow of undocumented workers and deliver the most effective return to taxpayers.

“We have to go flat out and get as much as we can get,” said Indiana Republican Rep. Mark Souder, ranking member of the Homeland Security subcommittee that deals with border security, who strenuously urged the government to award contracts to build all 670 miles of planned physical fencing before Bush leaves office, or risk losing the political momentum to complete the project as envisioned. “Even if everybody wanted to continue what we’re doing [after the election], we’re going to have a potentially very serious break in execution,” Souder said.

Yet shifting money between accounts won’t solve other problems plaguing virtually every component of the border initiative.

In the area of manpower, the Border Patrol is on target to meet a goal of hiring 6,000 more recruits, but it is also grappling with high attrition rates and a lack of experienced personnel. Concern about a staffing crunch is acute, because the National Guard units that had been stationed at the border since mid-2006 as a stopgap while the Border Patrol staffed up have almost entirely been withdrawn.

A high-tech “virtual fence” that was supposed to be the manned patrols’ new eyes and ears has been stymied by technological glitches and bureaucratic foul-ups. Tests on a 53-mile section of the smart fence near Tucson, Ariz., have been delayed until at least January because the Homeland Security Department failed to file for the necessary public land-use permits in time to install surveillance towers and cameras on schedule. Though the department has since acquired a handful of the necessary permits from the Department of Interior, officials say a lack of progress and insufficient funding will prevent new sections of virtual fence from being installed until next year.

There are also obstacles surrounding the construction of the physical fence. Costs have nearly doubled, from $4 million per mile to $7.5 million per mile, due to rising transportation expenses, higher prices for steel and concrete, and lax government oversight of contractors, according to federal audits. The overruns have emboldened critics in border communities, who have long contended that a border fence is a xenophobic and easily penetrated eyesore that discourages trade and cultural ties with Mexico.

Department of Homeland Security officials say it’s too late to abandon one or more aspects of Bush’s strategy, because the components are far enough along in development — for example, construction contracts have been awarded to complete nearly all the planned sections of the border fence — and because each has selected constituencies in Congress. In effect, past and current government officials predict that the next administration will have to juggle priorities, adjust budgets and extend deadlines, if necessary, until all of the pieces come together.

“If they ask the grunts what our opinion is, the priority is clearly to finish the tactical infrastructure,” said Jayson Ahern, deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection and a career employee of the agency. “We’ll have to make some shifts, but . . . it’s always going to be a combination of people, technology and a physical fence. It’s not one or the other, it’s all of the components.”

Border Patrol’s Growing Pains

The backbone of Bush’s border security initiative, and many congressional proposals, consists of aggressively expanding the ranks of the Border Patrol, officially U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The administration plan anticipates making the agency the largest law enforcement organization in the country— ahead of the FBI— by increasing staffing to at least 18,000 at the end of fiscal 2008, compared with 12,349 at the end of fiscal 2006.

This personnel surge has proven popular with Democrats and Republicans in Congress because the act of adding agents carries with it an implied notion of greater security. Congress appropriated about $500 million for hiring new agents in fiscal 2008, and fiscal 2009 spending drafts contain another $362 million to train and deploy an additional 2,200 agents.

But past and present border security officials say the unprecedented growth is severely taxing the agency’s resources by forcing it to train large numbers of recruits at the same time and swelling the ranks with inexperienced agents.
“There are limitations to being able to shove X number of agents down the throat of any agency,” Texas Democratic Rep.
Silvestre Reyes, who served as a Border Patrol agent for 26! years and headed the El Paso sector before running for Congress, told a Homeland Security Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism Subcommittee hearing earlier this year. “You’ve got to be able to maintain a ratio of expertise to trainees.”

The administration tried to buy time for the Border Patrol to train the first wave of recruits by deploying National Guard units across California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to support regular Border Patrol units. But the deployments ended in late June, leaving the agency reliant on a largely untested force: As many as 40 percent of the agents who will be in place next year will have two years or less of experience.

T.J. Bonner, executive director of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents border agents, said aggressive efforts to put more bodies out in the field is compromising a longstanding tradition of targeted monitoring at key border crossings and intensive on-the-job training.

“There’s a lot of concern about so many people being brought on so quickly, that it’s diverting our resources from the core mission,” Bonner said. In one sign of a resource mismatch and a shortage of experienced staff, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year found the aggressive hiring pushed the Border Patrol’s agents-to-supervisor ratio from customary 5-to-1 levels to 11-to-1.

Border state officials echo the concern. The governors of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, Democrat Janet Napolitano, Democrat Bill Richardson and Republican Rick Perry — unsuccessfully petitioned Bush to extend the Guard deployment. “Those are brand-new, inexperienced hires, and they’re still hiring at a fast pace,” said Napolitano’s former chief of staff, Dennis Burke.

Such worries about the Border Patrol’s capabilities are compounded by high attrition rates that plague the agency. New agents are typically paid starting salaries of $35,000 to $45,000 and often have to work in near-isolation in remote locations. The two constants are boredom and danger. Many smugglers and drug dealers are heavily armed. And some coyotes, aware of agents’ low pay, proffer bribes to U.S. authorities.

About one-quarter of Border Patrol recruits drop out before even completing training at the agency’s academy at Artesia, N.M. More leave after they graduate, sometimes lured by better-paying jobs as air marshals or in other lines of government security work. The dropout rate is so pervasive that the normally low-profile agency has created a nationwide recruiting campaign featuring print and television ads and is visiting job fairs to attract qualified candidates. But officials say the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have siphoned away the candidates with military or law enforcement experience and those they most covet, candidates with a commitment to public service. In fact, the agency this year changed a requirement that all candidates submit to extensive FBI background checks so that individuals deemed “low risk” could be more quickly integrated into the force.

Despite the growing pains, the administration remains confident that its strategy is working. Apprehensions along the Mexican border fell 20 percent in 2007, to 858,638 — a sign, officials say, that they’ve made progress in deterring and disrupting illegal immigration. But critics question whether the decline is attributable to other factors, such as the weakening U.S. economy and slower job creation, and whether the numbers have much significance, given that the government has no accurate way of counting attempted border crossings.

In what might be the most visible sign of internal discomfort with the hiring surge, even Border Patrol officials are openly urging Congress to look beyond merely hitting hiring benchmarks and to focus on building a tactical infrastructure with which to police the border more efficiently.

“What we need at this current time is an opportunity to mature our organization,” Border Patrol Chief David V. Aguilar told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border security earlier this year. “We cannot skew too far in any one direction: infrastructure without personnel, personnel without technology and so forth. It’s that right mix that we need in order to be as effective as we can and to expand to the degree that we need to.”

In a perfect world, Aguilar says, agents in the field would have sufficient technology and resources to severely restrict illegal border crossings. And his agency wouldn’t have to scramble to find enough experienced agents and hope that less-experienced personnel can adapt on the job.

A ‘Smarter’ Fence

The Bush administration’s strategy not only envisioned fortifying the border with thousands more agents but also creating a virtual tripwire across 2,000 miles of frontier, using a combination of high- tech ground sensors, radar, thermal imaging equipment, unmanned aircraft and software that would provide officials with a “common operating picture” of border entries in real time.

The Homeland Security Department in September 2006 awarded a contract to Boeing Co. to develop the technological component, known as SBInet, and test it on a 28-mile stretch of border near Tucson by mid-2007. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff pledged to build “a smart fence, not a stupid fence; a 21st century fence, not a 19th century fence” at a total cost of $933 million, though the sum would be parceled out in small increments.

So far, not much has gone right. With less than one year to deliver a working prototype, Boeing decided to use off-the-shelf technologies largely adapted from defense systems and connect the new network with existing surveillance equipment. However, the government didn’t set specific performance criteria before awarding the contract, and Boeing sought little input from the Border Patrol agents who will wind up using the system. To make matters worse, Boeing soon was unable to make the physical sensors and other equipment sync up with its software, forcing the company to miss the June 2007 deadline to complete the 28-mile test section.

When officials finally tested the section last February, agents reported gaping holes in communications, including delays in information transmission, incomplete surveillance pictures, and dead pockets along the border that left them relying on cell phones and face-to-face conversations to track down illegal border crossers. Motion sensors
proved incapable of distinguishing among patrol vehicles, people and animals. And laptop computers broke when they were jostled in patrol vehicles.

When asked about the problems, a Boeing spokeswoman deferred to the Homeland Security Department for comment. Department officials say they are working out the assorted problems, adding that the test system is now continuously running and recently helped agents intercept a 4,000- pound shipment of marijuana. Boeing in mid-September also replaced its program manager with retired Air Force Col. Mark Borkowski, who is reviewing the management structure and personnel.

“We take our stewardship of taxpayer resources seriously, and we will continue to address challenges associated with developing and deploying both technology and tactical infrastructure in a manner that balances our nation’s security with sound financial management,” W. Ralph Basham, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told Thompson’s Homeland Security panel in September.

Despite the technical problems, the Homeland Security Department awarded Boeing a $56 million follow-on contract to build new surveillance towers and install cameras, sensors and other equipment along two new sectors of the border, near Tucson and Ajo, Ariz. Work on that segment was halted in July, though, after the Homeland Security Department failed to obtain the necessary construction permits. Government officials submitted an application to build on portions of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge five days before construction of the towers was set to commence. Rick Schultz, the Interior Department’s national border lands coordinator, said it customarily takes 60 to 90 days to secure a permit, meaning field testing probably won’t take place until January at the earliest.

The delays and logistical problems have heightened already considerable skepticism in Congress about whether the virtual fence will ever work. But key Democrats are reluctant to back out of the project, believing border security requires a strong technological component.

“If the results (of future tests) are better . . . we’ll have a better feel that things might go better on other pieces of the border,” said California Rep. Loretta Sanchez, chairwoman of the subcommittee on border security.
Experts in surveillance technology say part of the frustration surrounding SBInet is due to the fact that contractors can’t always predict how reliably a system works until all of the equipment is installed and subjected to tests in the actual border environment.

“They’re not using anything that hasn’t been successfully deployed elsewhere,” said Brian Damkroger, chief of the border and maritime security program at Sandia National Laboratory. “The challenge in a project like this is the integration of the systems. It’s not finding technology that works; it’s making it work together.”

Beyond such mitigating factors are political considerations that argue in favor of moving forward with SBInet. West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a staunchly anti-immigration lawmaker, has objected to efforts to attach preconditions to border security funding that could add to delays. Prior to adjournment, Byrd struck language in a fiscal 2009 Senate Homeland Security spending bill that would require Customs and Border Protection to submit to the committee plans for Southern-border fencing projects in order to release $175 million in related funding.

However, government audits continue to cast the future of the virtual fence in doubt, and they will force the next administration to make some tough calls about how the effort is managed. The GAO in late September issued a report saying the program is “ambiguous and in a continued state of flux,” which makes it difficult to tell when and how the project will finally take shape. It suggested that a new contractor could take over for Boeing should improvements not materialize.

Thompson, the House Homeland Security chairman, has demanded more details on Boeing’s contract. And other Democrats argue that more oversight of the project is necessary to prevent the government from essentially writing a blank check.

“Careful analysis is needed; billions of dollars are at stake,” said North Carolina Democrat David E. Price, chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee.

Back to Basics?

The lingering concerns over the virtual fence have led many conservatives in Congress, some immigration hawks in the Democratic caucus and even the Bush administration to call for increased investment in the 670-mile physical fence, which the administration originally hoped to have completed by year’s end. This line of thinking holds that the investment surest to deliver a return to taxpayers is to put bricks and mortar on the ground.

Yet refocusing efforts in this manner is a risky political move. The costs of hauling steel, concrete and other building materials to remote locales in the Southwest, combined with a shortage of construction labor and unresolved land-acquisition claims, are driving the cost of the physical fence steadily higher. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the costs of building and maintaining the barrier over its expected 25-year lifetime will total $49 billion.

What is more, officials and residents in border communities with large Hispanic populations hate the barrier, saying it cuts economic ties with Mexico and is ineffective from a security standpoint. The majority of congressional Democrats, as well as Republicans from states along the border, tend to prefer deploying surveillance technology over building physical fences, and they would like to restrict fencing to a handful of urban environments along the border.
These lawmakers point to evidence showing that physical fences tend to slow down, but not stop, illegal entrants. Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego, said his studies conclude that 97 percent of illegal entrants who are foiled in their first attempt to cross a border fence make it over on their second or third try. Even Thomas Winkowski, Customs and Border Protection’s assistant commissioner of field operations, has cautioned Congress against putting too much faith in physical fencing.

“We’re conveying a false sense of security to middle America with the fence,” said Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass, Texas (population 22,413), on the Rio Grande, and the head of a coalition of border-community mayors that’s calling on the Homeland Security Department to scale back its designs. “What works in California, Arizona or New Mexico maybe doesn’t work in Texas. If we can have some open-ended conversations, we could communicate that . . . but it’s been very one- sided.”

Fence supporters counter that a physical barrier is a more practical deterrent than a network of sensors, radars and motion detectors operating in an inhospitable environment.

“How do you vector an SUV through roadless country at night to effectively catch a moving target, even if you know exactly where they are?” asked California GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, one of the most outspoken advocates of physical fencing. “It’s very difficult to catch people at night in rugged terrain with an SUV. There’s a reason why there’s a real fence around the White House. Real fences work.”

This was the prevailing view in 2006, when strong majorities of the Republican-controlled House and Senate voted to authorize 700 miles of metal fencing along the border by the end of Bush’s presidency.

But the mandate changed by late 2007 when Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison attached an amendment to a fiscal 2008 omnibus spending bill that relaxed the strict deadlines and gave the Homeland Security Department latitude to determine how much and what type of fencing should be deployed sector-by-sector, in consultation with local landowners and officials. In the time since, the department has embraced a new set of targets, using a combination of artificial berms that can block vehicles and traditional fencing, but without establishing standards for the barriers.

In concept, the original plan for 700 miles of double-layered fence was little more than a reproduction and expansion of a border fence constructed near San Diego in the 1990s.

Designed by Sandia Labs, the barrier was based on the concept that successive hurdles make it harder for would-be border crossers to reach the so-called melting point, where a person can “melt” into a U.S. city or landscape and evade the Border Patrol.

The infrastructure isn’t particularly novel or revolutionary, and consists of two metal fences with a paved highway in between, to be used by Border Patrol vehicles. But proponents cite uncommon successes in the areas in which it has been deployed. Customs and Border Protection credits double- layer fencing for a reduction of about 80 percent in illegal border crossings near San Diego in the decade after its construction. In Yuma, Ariz., where the government has also employed the double- fence model, crossings have dropped by more than 70 percent in the past year.

Still, many along the border maintain that physical fencing remains a source of false hope. The double-layered fence has been used only in urban areas where there is a need for a significant physical demarcation between neighboring U.S. and Mexican communities and where border crossings would otherwise be continuous and hard to detect. Elaborate fences, critics say, aren’t practical in vast stretches of desert and other areas that define most of the 2,000-mile frontier.

“It began as political symbolism, and it really hasn’t grown out of that,” said Arizona Democratic Rep. Ra??l M. Grijalva, whose Tucson-area district is home to both a physical fence and the prototype virtual fence and who opposes the widespread use of physical fencing. “That infrastructure has taken away from other infrastructure needs along the border — including port-of-entry improvement, technology improvement, transportation issues, using technology as an alternative for the permanent-fencing idea. All that has been put onto the back burner because you have to accomplish this symbolic act. It’s a short-sighted solution.”

Homeland Security officials had completed more than 363.2 of the 670 miles of planned physical fencing as of Oct. 14, with work under way on an additional 167 miles. The department expects to break ground on all the remaining fence sectors before the end of this year.

But the timetable might yet slip due to environmental and landowners’ concerns. Because the fence crosses several federally protected tracts and private property, Congress granted Chertoff authority to obtain waivers from environmental statutes. Although the Supreme Court in June rejected a constitutional challenge by conservation groups on a two-mile section of fencing in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area near Naco, Ariz., several dozen private landowners are pressing similar claims in federal courts that could delay planned acquisitions.

“The last thing that has to be done is acquiring the land,” said Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues for the GAO. “There are laws that favor the Department of Homeland Security in almost every jurisdiction, but there are delays scheduling court actions and having court decisions come down.”

Defining Progress

Experts say the multiplicity of problems will leave the next administration and Congress compelled to reconceive the border strategy, but without a consensus on how to measure progress. Such considerations will play out against the backdrop of the first comprehensive re-evaluation of the government’s homeland security apparatus since it was established in 2003. According to one former Department of Homeland Security official-turned-consultant, the goal of the Secure Border Initiative is to reach 90 percent security, as measured by the ratio of apprehensions to total border crossings.

However, that data can be gathered only through the use of improved surveillance. The former official spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the political sensitivity surrounding the discussion of such internal benchmarks.

“Having the detection technology is so important to the solution because if you don’t have the denominator, you can’t manage it,” the official said. “When Congress makes mandates about getting fencing done, it can create the wrong priorities. If I were putting a priority, it should be certainly getting the agents on board because that takes time . . . [and] getting the detection technology right. We ought to have no more miles of fencing than we need to accomplish the goal.”

Price, the House appropriator who oversees homeland security spending, says the challenge ahead is to apply meaningful oversight to an increasingly complicated project without weighing down the effort.

“We’re not in a position to micromanage the endeavor. But we are in a position to require a serious expenditure plan,” Price said during a recent House Appropriations debate over whether to attach strings to funding for the virtual fence. “My attitude is not one of holding a thread over the department and pulling the plug . . . but I’m not going to do anything that encourages a slapdash process just to meet a deadline.”

Source: CQ Weekly
The definitive source for news about Congress.
© 2008 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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