Arizona's 'virtual' border wall gets a reality check
The viability of a high-tech barrier to detect illegal border crossers remains uncertain, after a pilot project struggles.
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But DHS officials have moved to dispel the notion that the project was stalled or scrapped. They say the technology is still in use, that it is being tested to improve various designs and capabilities.Skip to next paragraph
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It has been responsible for catching more than 2,400 migrants in the desert testing areas, the DHS claims.
DHS withheld part of the $20 million original funding until Boeing made the necessary corrections, according to DHS press secretary Laura Keehner. "As good stewards of the taxpayers money, DHS delayed acceptance of P-28," says Ms. Keehner. "After a period of operational testing, additional deficiencies were identified and subsequently corrected to the department's satisfaction."
DHS has requested $775 million next fiscal year to continue to develop and deploy such technology. "There are some things we want to improve and there are some things that probably it turns out we don't really need," DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a press conference in Washington Feb. 28. "But I envision we will use this design in other parts of the border."
Congress raises questions
Some congressional investigators have warned that if they judge the system to be underperforming in their eyes, they may urge ending the project.
Many were not impressed with the shadowy footage taken in late February in which Project 28 cameras tracked three large groups of immigrants crossing the border before relaying the images to a command post in Tucson 70 miles away.
"Project 28 was supposed to be an example of how we could use technology to secure the border. The lesson is we can't secure 28 miles of our border for $20 million," said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D) of New Jersey, House Homeland Security Committee member at a hearing Feb. 27. "After so many years of promises and tests and millions of dollars spent, we are no closer to a technological solution to securing the border. This is unacceptable."
Another possible problem, experts say, is that the radar is easily foiled by terrain that is not flat. And operator training appears to be important if the system is to be effective.
"Parts of Project 28 hold much promise if you can nurture experienced operators who can detect migrants and then guide other agents to intercept them," says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents more than 12,000 United States border patrol agents. "The radar doesn't give you depth perception, and the same can be said of the cameras especially at night. So it's easy for contract employees who are trying to sector in the precise locations to be way off."
Some investigators of the US Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, have said that the initial investment was too paltry to expect significant results and that Boeing was not given enough time to complete the fairly complex project.
The company has also received $64 million for a new contract, according to Keehner, to develop new command-and-control software, improved identification capability, and greater range.
After testing, she says, the new hardware and software are intended to be installed in two locations, one in Texas and one in Arizona.