OPINION

Nelson Balido: Technology Offers Better Security Than More Fencing

SONOITA, AZ - FEBRUARY 26:  An American flag flies at the U.S.-Mexico border on February 26, 2013 near Sonoita, Arizona. The Federal government has increased the Border Patrol presence in Arizona, from some 1,300 agents in the year 2000 ro 4,400 in 2012. The apprehension of undocumented immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico has declined during that time from 600,016 in 2000 to 123,000 in 2012.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

SONOITA, AZ - FEBRUARY 26: An American flag flies at the U.S.-Mexico border on February 26, 2013 near Sonoita, Arizona. The Federal government has increased the Border Patrol presence in Arizona, from some 1,300 agents in the year 2000 ro 4,400 in 2012. The apprehension of undocumented immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico has declined during that time from 600,016 in 2000 to 123,000 in 2012. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2013 Getty Images)

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s announcement that she will be leaving her cabinet post to head up the University of California system injects even more uncertainty into the fate of the on-again, off-again development of a so-called virtual fence along the U.S. border with Mexico.

It was Napolitano who pulled the plug on Boeing’s attempts in 2011 to implement her department’s vision of the high tech Secure Border Initiative, or SBInet, a planned network of cameras and sensors that would alert Border Patrol agents of border incursions in order to stem the tide of illegal immigration and drug runners in high-trafficked areas like Arizona’s Tucson sector.

The Boeing experience demonstrated that there is off-the-shelf technology that exists that can secure our borders and serve as a force multiplier for our Border Patrol agents.

- Nelson Balido

But Napolitano was too quick to shut down the Boeing project. Plagued by bad headlines resulting from the company’s ill-fated prototypes, the contractor was never able to get back in Napolitano or Congress’ good graces, despite later rollouts that showed dramatic improvement and effectiveness in meeting the program’s goal.

Having personally visited with Tucson sector agents in late 2010 who spoke with confidence of the technology’s capabilities to allow agents to do their jobs safely and effectively, the U.S. government is now back at the drawing board and in its final stages of its solicitation and input from contractors in an attempt to reinvent the wheel.

All this is happening against a backdrop of debate over a comprehensive immigration bill in Congress. A bill passed by the Senate is heavy on border security, too heavy I would argue. The bill calls for the addition of another 350 miles of border fencing, an impractical and budget-busting expenditure.

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Congress instead should be ensuring that a new virtual fence comes online in the areas of greatest need. Despite its termination by Napolitano and Co., the Boeing experience demonstrated that there is off-the-shelf technology that exists that can secure our borders and serve as a force multiplier for our Border Patrol agents. If we get this right, not only will more fencing not be necessary, but neither will the Senate’s call to double the size of the Border Patrol to an astounding 40,000 agents.

Past experiences with cameras mounted on towers and ground sensors received unwarranted criticism from armchair security experts for what they claimed was the technology’s ability to identify more cows and tumbleweeds that actual illegal crossers. But unlike physical barriers, technology is adaptable to the situation, allowing it to be calibrated to meet new demands and even moved to areas of greater need.

More importantly, a virtual fence will keep our agents safe, allowing them to engage in a pursuit armed with more information about their target than they’ll ever get from fence posts and sheets of metal.  I hope that this time, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will do the right thing and not only look at the areas like Arizona, but also the south Texas border, which as of the past few months has had more apprehensions and illegal incursions from non-Mexicans crossing that part of the border than anyone would like to count.

CBP has the tools in its arsenal to do the right thing, let’s hope that the winner that is slated to be announced in the next 60 days does not get caught up in a whirlwind of circular reporting from a campaign of misinformation.

Nelson Balido is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.  Follow him on Twitter: @nelsonbalido

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