Why a 'Virtual Fence' Is a Virtual Farce

The latest threat to building an effective border security system is the claim that, thanks to technology, we no longer need to build a physical fence — we can secure the border with a "virtual fence" instead. Like many techno-come-ons, this one sounds good at first. Who doesn’t want to use the latest technology? But when you get past the sizzle, it turns out that there’s no steak. The so-­called high-tech solutions proposed do not constitute a substitute for a physical barrier; they are merely new ways of detecting intruders.

The notion that cameras mounted on Predator drones obviate the need for physical barrier infrastructure should be dismissed as absurd on its face, yet several senators are promoting it seriously. Upon examination, however, what they describe as a virtual fence is no such thing. They do not describe a barrier, they describe a detection system.

For example, one senator said in a recent interview, "We need to invest in technology, heat sensors and a virtual fence, unmanned drones that can patrol the border and use infra-red sensors to detect people crossing at night." Another senator was quoted as supporting "the idea … for a ‘virtual fence’ providing electronic monitoring along the entire 1,900-mile border with Mexico."

They may be taking their lead from President Bush, who said, "You’re going to have a virtual fence on the border when we bring technology to bear — infrared, cameras, drones." Note that not one of them describes a barrier. The only "virtual" technologies that would truly act as barriers are unthinkable: lethal or near-lethal devices such as lasers.

A wide-open border, with camera-carrying drones flying noisily overhead, sending images to Border Patrol computers in ground stations, which then direct and deploy agents to the observed intrusion, will lead to an absurdly 21st century version of a scene from the Keystone Cops. Just think of it, a half dozen agents swirling around in ATV’s, chasing after a dozen intruders, trying not to crash into each other. As soon as several agents take off in pursuit of a group of illegal aliens detected by the drone, a much larger contingent of aliens will flood across whatever section of the nearby border is temporarily unpatrolled because the agents assigned there are assisting their colleagues at the decoy intrusion. Does any serious-minded senator really want to be associated with such a farce?

A fence is fundamentally a barrier. Cameras and sensors are fundamentally depiction and detection devices. There is no substitute for a secure physical barrier, patrolled by an adequate force of human agents. That’s what we have proposed: a state-of-the-art border security system. It consists of six parallel elements, plus a patrol road and detection devices, and is based on the highly effective Israeli fences on the West Bank and in Gaza. Forty yards wide at its minimum, it cannot be easily be climbed over, tunneled under, cut through or rammed through without triggering devices that will alert mobile agents in time to thwart the attempted intrusion.

We also propose up to 200 legal crossing points and patrol stations, so that trade, commerce, tourism and legal immigration are not affected. The cost of the system that we advocate is far less than either the cost of securing the border with manpower alone, or the cost of medical and social services provided to illegal aliens by local, state and federal governments. In short, we need a fence, not a farce.