High-tech towers as border wall

Times Staff Writer

Federal authorities have begun testing a sophisticated camera tower system along the Arizona-Mexico border, the first phase of a plan that envisions a high-technology “virtual fence” instead of physical barriers to control much of the frontier.

The project, which began testing two weeks ago, consists of nine 98-foot towers -- bristling with camera, radar and communication equipment -- strung along 28 miles of a busy immigrant corridor southwest of Tucson.

Part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative, the closely watched project could determine the border’s future landscape.


If successful, it could take pressure off the Bush administration to erect more fencing, and bolster claims that the enforcement buildup is disrupting migration patterns.

Under the plan, dozens of towers would be placed along the border. They would be equipped with thermal-imaging cameras that can pinpoint people as far as five miles away, illuminate them at night and outline their images behind bushes.

In a control room in Tucson, operators watching monitors will transmit detection information to border patrol agents, who will use global positioning systems and live video feeds to locate and intercept the migrants.

Similar systems already exist in most populated areas along the border, but they are not as sophisticated. Despite some early technical problems and cost overruns, the camera systems have been effective in San Diego, Nogales, Ariz., and other areas.

The virtual-fence option is raising hopes among some lawmakers that it offers a better enforcement solution than erecting physical barriers along the entire border.

“The reality is we don’t want to build a wall.... Many of us realize that,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism. “There are much smarter ways of figuring out who’s entering our country than seeing who’s coming over a wall.”

The system is being tested in the busiest illegal-immigrant corridor in the country, a cactus-dotted desert valley north of Sasabe, Mexico, where people hike for days toward Tucson.

More than 1 million migrants have crossed the desert, a vast human tide that many experts believe will be deterred once the towers are fully operational.

“I think that if it works the way it’s supposed to work, you’ll see arrests go to near zero in that area,” said Michael Nicley, the former chief of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector.

But migration flows would probably move to other areas -- much as they have in past enforcement efforts.

Federal officials said they hoped to expand the program rapidly, erecting about 70 more towers by the end of 2008. About 350 miles of fencing is also slated for installation by 2008.

The $67-million contract to launch the project, called SBInet, was awarded in September to Boeing Co., which will manage numerous subcontractors. Under SBInet, a mix of high-technology tools, infrastructure and fencing will be used to secure the border, at an estimated cost of about $8 billion.

But a report in February by the Government Accountability Office found that the program lacks sufficient management controls and could be marred by cost overruns and performance problems.

Members of the House border subcommittee this week questioned why the system was not operational Wednesday as planned.

Russ Knocke, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman, said Boeing was trying to address some technical “glitches.”

He did not know when the system would be turned over to the U.S. Border Patrol, but said the situation was being handled with urgency.