Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?

Stephen DeAngelis

September 25, 2006

Illegal immigration has been a hot topic in this election year. Congress, trying to look security conscious as this term ends, has passed legislation to build 700 miles of border fence and adding about 2,500 border agents. The issue recently came to the fore again when Boeing was selected as the prime contractor for constructing a “virtual fence” along much of America’s 6,000 mile long border [“Plenty of Holes Seen in a ‘Virtual Fence’: Border Sensors Not Enough, Experts Say,” by Spencer S. Hsu and Griff Witte, Washington Post, 21 Sep 2006]. The virtual fence will be part of the government’s $2.5 billion Secure Border Initiative Network, or SBInet. In work that Enterra is beginning with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, we foresee a time when systems like SBInet are part of a larger Resilient Net.

Although we live in a wonderful age of technology, experts are noting that technology alone cannot solve U.S. border challenges. What is true for borders is also true for companies. When Enterra goes into a business, we take a holistic view of the challenges it faces and recommend integrated solutions for them. That is basically what experts are saying about the “virtual fence” approach.

Congress and the Department of Homeland Security must focus on overcoming technology and management problems that have derailed similar remote-sensing networks set up over the decades by the military and border agencies from Vietnam to Iraq to the southwestern United States, they said. They also must acknowledge that as much as half of the illegal-immigration problem is driven by the hiring of people who enter the United States through official border points but use fraudulent documents or overstay visas to become part of the estimated population of 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, former immigration officials and members of Congress said. … “Boeing and its subcontractors should be pushing the hardest for a comprehensive immigration solution,” [C. Stewart Verdery Jr., a former Bush administration assistant secretary for border policy] said.

The identification and documentation challenges require solutions like those addressed in yesterday’s post about the criminal justice system. But those solutions are costly [“ID Program Will Cost States $11 Billion, Report Says,” by Darryl Fears, Washington Post, 22 Sep 2006], and you can’t always rely on the fact that other countries will implement complementary solutions. According to Fears:

The Real ID Act was passed last year to protect against terrorist infiltration and crack down on illegal immigration. Without the new identification, citizens will be barred from airplanes, sections of airports, and military bases and other federal facilities, unless they have another form of federally issued identification, such as a passport. The report, “The Real ID Act: National Impact Analysis,” does not say whether the cost of implementation will be passed on to drivers and holders of state identification cards. But Homeland Security officials said the price of similar new smart cards for 750,000 workers at ports and other transportation facilities will be about $140 each. The State Department recently raised passport fees for adults to $97 to incorporate security into new e-passports, and a smart ID card for federal workers is expected to cost $100 to $150. State officials have complained about the costs of Real ID since the law was passed. Re-enrolling drivers and other cardholders alone will cost about $8.5 billion, according to the report. An additional $2.5 billion will be spent to vet applicant information through various agencies, store the data and design new cards.

SBInet, however, is a start to more comprehensive border security.

Boeing proposes to construct a necklace of 1,800 towers equipped with cameras, sensors and links to sophisticated computers along the nation’s vast frontiers with Mexico and Canada. … Boeing’s plan rests heavily on adapting military technology from the battlefield to the border. The company has suggested, for instance, flying a camera-equipped, truck-mounted, 10-pound drone called the Skylark that Israeli and Australian forces have used to track suspects for as long as 90 minutes at a range of six miles. Boeing also proposed a variety of ground-based sensors, including underground seismic sensors and tower-mounted motion and heat detectors that have been used to thwart insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congressional backers and military experts are confident that technologies devised to detect troop movements and tank formations can be adapted for homeland security and, by extension, individual border crossers.

As one can imagine, this collection of sensors is going to be able to collect massive amounts of data. Sorting through, correlating, and analyzing the data (especially if real-time warning and response is the goal) will require sophisticated IT integration techniques we are just now developing. Rule set automation will be critical in this process. Without such an architecture, the venture, according to most experts, will likely have little effect. One expert (from a team that didn’t win the contract) asserts:

“I don’t think you’ll make a dent really,” because of the difficulty of managing information from 6,000 miles of sensors and the economic incentives for illegal migrants and their smugglers, he said. “I’d love to say that if you put thousands of sensors in that you could really solve the problem. But I think the help is going to be minimal.”

One of the lessons of the information age is that technology can’t fully replace the requirement for human intervention in most spheres of activity. A blending of technology, processes, and personnel is required in order to establish a resilient system. No one claims the challenge is not daunting or that past efforts have been unsuccessful. Hsu and Witte point out some of the discouraging facts:

Since 1995, spending on border security has increased tenfold, from $1.2 billion to $12.7 billion, and the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled, from 5,000 to 12,319, according to the House Appropriations Committee. Yet the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has jumped from 5 million to more than 11 million. … The Department of Homeland Security and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service spent $429 million since 1998 on video and remote surveillance on the borders. But nearly half of 489 planned cameras were never installed, 60 percent of sensor alerts are never investigated, 90 percent of the rest are false alarms, and only 1 percent overall resulted in arrests, the Homeland Security inspector general reported in December.

One of the challenges of any automated system is false alarm rates. Boeing will certainly have to do better than a 90 percent false alarm rate. Although SBInet is going to receive some funding in coming fiscal year, it will only be a small portion of what will eventually be required. Congress, DHS and Boeing would be smart to perfect the sensor net along a critical piece of the border before they attempt to install an unproven system, at enormous cost, along all 6000 miles of U.S. border.