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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

Boundary news

Boundary news Headlines

Virtual fence project on Mexico-U.S. border officially disbanded

(17 January 2011)

On 14 January, 2011, the U.S. government announced it will officially end the ‘virtual fence’ project planned for the Mexico-U.S. boundary. This followed an earlier decision in March 2010 to freeze funds to the project and redirect US$50 million to instead purchase existing technology for border security purposes. Although it has been known for some time that the project was likely to be ended, the official announcement by Janet Napolitano, head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has removed any doubt of the future of the virtual fence.

As part of the wider Secure Border Initiative, which was launched in 2005 by the DHS under the Bush administration, a series of surveillance towers and related infrastructure were proposed for the southwest border of the United States. This part of the initiative was commonly referred to as SBInet, launched in 2006, and was intended to create “a single, integrated border-security technology solution.” Specifically, SBInet encompassed the implementation of surveillance towers along or nearby to the international boundary. The two test sites, referred to as Tucson-1 near the town of Sasabe, and Ajo-1 near the town of Ajo, covered approximately 53 miles of the 2000 mile boundary. Boeing was hired as the primary contractor for the project, and was awarded over US$1 billion from the DHS. Initially the virtual fence was expected to cover 655 miles of the border, and was later scaled back to a goal of 387 miles, before the recent decision to terminate the program.

Since the implementation of the towers, there have been ongoing problems with their operation, leading to substantial critique. The towers, which were intended to replace the use of physical fencing, or operate in tandem with the fencing, were found to be ineffective in detecting migrants or drug smugglers crossing in to the United States. The U.S. Government Accountability Office provided five reports on the surveillance towers, including findings that stated that the DHS “has not effectively monitored the SBInet prime contractor's progress in meeting cost and schedule expectations.” The towers also drew criticism from local residents who felt they were intruding upon their privacy, and environmental advocates following their approval to be placed on wildlife refuges such as Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, located near Sasabe. Napolitano has stated that the USBP will revert to using existing technology that has previously proven effective in the field.

Source: ‘Napolitano puts an end to border’s virtual fence’, Suzanne Gamboa, Associated Press, 15 January 2011; ‘Secure Border Initiative: DHS needs to strengthen management and oversight of its prime contractor’, U.S. Government Accountability Office, 18 October 2010; ‘Virtual fence gets a flogging’, Brady McCombs, Arizona Daily Star, 18 June 2010