A high-tech, low-result border fence

It turns out the smart fence was kind of a dumb idea after all.

The virtual border wall, a network of sensors, cameras and radar meant to help the Border Patrol nab illegal crossers, has never worked as planned, and according to the Government Accountability Office, even the tests designed to evaluate it are badly flawed. After ordering a reassessment of the project two months ago, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that she would freeze all funding for the 2005 Bush administration initiative until the probe is complete.

Rarely has a president been as optimistic about the power of technology as was George W. Bush, who also thought he could solve the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions by building a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately for Bush, the technology for reliably intercepting missiles still wasn’t much closer to reality than when President Reagan proposed a missile shield in the 1980s; moreover, the shield was terribly expensive to develop, and it would have inspired ceaseless antagonism from Russia, which was convinced the system was intended to render its nuclear arsenal obsolete. There was also the niggling fact that Iran didn’t have the long-range missiles the system was intended to intercept. President Obama wisely scrapped the project in September.

Bush believed that technology also could be used to secure the border. Hoping to placate Congress, which scoffed at his proposals on comprehensive immigration reform and seemed solely interested in halting the flow of immigrants, Bush called for a virtual fence that by 2011 was supposed to cover nearly the entire 2,000-mile southern border. Roughly $1 billion later, we have two testing sites in the Arizona desert, where drifting sagebrush and wildlife often set off the sensors. The system is so slow that on the rare occasions it does sense a human border crosser, by the time cameras can focus on the area, the lawbreaker is gone.

It would be great if there were a technological solution to illegal immigration. But it would be extraordinarily hard, not to mention expensive, to develop an effective technology that couldn’t be speedily defeated by clever human smugglers. And even in the unlikely event that a foolproof fence could be built, it wouldn’t address the huge number of immigrants who cross the border legally but then overstay their visas.

In addition to Bush’s missile shield, Obama aims to kill his predecessor’s misguided mission to put astronauts back on the moon. While he’s at it, he should scrap the border fence too, and focus on real-world policies that would not only secure the borders but deal humanely with the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.