Virtually De-Fenceless

The first 28 miles of “virtual fencing” being deployed along our Southern border has failed to meet expectations according to last week’s congressional testimony by Richard Stana, Director of Homeland Security for the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Stana’s indictment of the hugely expensive, over-complicated and so far unworkable alternative to real border security reminds us of what we have known all along: that virtual fencing is virtually useless.

Despite Director Stana’s report on the failures of this system, the Bush administration and its Department of Homeland Security continue to stand behind the virtual fence as a good  substitute for the less artistic but repeatedly proven reinforced physical fencing. While technology can effectively augment security fencing, we know – and have always known – that technology alone fails to deliver the same level of border security as physical fencing.     

It has been nearly a year and a half since the Secure Fence Act, which required the construction of 700 miles of double-layered security fencing between the United States and Mexico, was signed into law by President Bush. Yet about only 80 miles of new, single-layered pedestrian fencing has been installed along the border and DHS remains committed to building only 370 miles of pedestrian fencing.

What that means is that DHS remains steadfast in its opposition to the border fence initiative itself and continues to fail in one of its principal responsibilities.

If DHS is were committed to closing the dangerous smuggling corridors that exist along our Southern land border, as it claims, it would have strongly supported and adhered to the mandates of the Secure Fence Act. However, soon after the enactment of the Secure Fence Act, DHS committed to only building half of the required fencing, opting instead for a combination of single-layered fencing and technology. 

The double-layered fence design that was originally presented to DHS was intended to replicate the success of the 14-mile San Diego Border Fence. In San Diego County, border fencing remains a critical part of our effort to prevent and deter illegal foot and vehicle traffic from crossing into the United States. Since its construction more than 10 years ago, the smuggling of people and narcotics has dropped drastically; crime rates — according to FBI statistics — have been reduced by half, vehicle drug drive-throughs have been eliminated; and apprehensions have decreased due to fewer crossing attempts. 

This rate of effectiveness can be directly attributed to the design and function of the fence itself, as well as the continued efforts of our border security officials. A double-layered fence, separated by a high-speed access road, provides Border Patrolmen with a clear sight of vision and the opportunity to immediately apprehend those attempting to cross the border. As a physical impediment, unlike virtual fencing, it also reduces the frequency and likelihood of confrontation between Border Patrol agents and illegal crossers. 

The simple fact is that border fencing works, while the alternatives proposed by DHS, including virtual fencing and vehicle barriers, will do little, if anything, to control the border. We should stick with what we know works and what is capable of providing the highest level of enforcement. 

Illegal immigration is no longer just an issue reserved for border states and communities. It is now a national security issue and we must anticipate that the same human and drug smugglers that cross the border on a daily basis would not hesitate to help terrorists cross the border into the United States. 

Consider that in 2005 alone, 155,000 foreign citizens from countries other than Mexico were apprehended attempting to cross our border with Mexico. These individuals came from countries all around the world, several of which have an adversarial relationship with the United States. If it is accurate to assume that an estimated 4 out of every 10 crossing attempts are successful, as some reports suggest, then we can infer that at least 62,000 individuals from countries like China, Iran and Syria, made it into the United States. 

Understanding today’s security threat, we must know who is crossing the border and what they are carrying with them. Unfortunately, we are incapable of ascertaining either and, without a physical impediment along our Southern border, achieving these objectives remains nearly impossible. 

According to GAO, DHS spent more than $20 million experimenting and developing the virtual fence. DHS may argue that this is a worthy expenditure, given the agency has received more than $2 billion to date for border infrastructure, but in reality, it is a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. 

Securing the border is no easy task, but it is certainly not as difficult as DHS wants us to believe. The only thing holding DHS back from building the infrastructure that was originally required under the Secure Fence Act is DHS itself. 

Even though the double-fence requirement was eliminated in the recently enacted omnibus spending bill, Secretary Chertoff retains the resources and mandate to build 700 miles of reinforced fencing. However, the Secretary has made it clear that the agency will continue on its current course and build mostly single-layered fencing along 370 miles of border.

It is for these reasons that I have introduced the Reinstate the Secure Fence Act in the House of Representatives. My bill restores the most important elements of the Secure Fence Act, requiring 700 miles of double-fencing to be constructed within six months of the bill’s enactment. If we hope to bring some sense of security to our Southern border, then we must build this infrastructure in the timeliest manner possible. 

The GAO report to Congress demonstrates that virtual fencing and other costly technological alternatives offer insufficient protection. It is time we get serious about border control, do what is right, and build the border fence.