Easy Chair — From the June 2014 issue

Beyond a Boundary

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It was the piecemeal nature of the fence — its gap-toothed failure to enclose about two thirds of the 1,969-mile border with Mexico — that prompted a high-tech fiasco called the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) back in 2005. The project came out of the Department of Homeland Security, which at the time was something of a surprise. After all, DHS had not been created to chase undocumented immigrants through the Sonoran brush or round them up in the San Diego suburbs. Tom Ridge, who first ran the department, under George W. Bush, seldom discussed immigration. In fact, the department focused most of its initial efforts on the Canadian border, where Al Qaeda had actually tried to enter the country.

But Michael Chertoff, who took over DHS in 2005, was quick to pour resources into the southern border (though he would later admit that he was unaware of a single case in which a terrorist had crept into the United States from Mexico). Chertoff soon unveiled SBInet, which he envisioned as a “virtual fence” — a network of movement sensors, radar arrays, and cameras that would detect intruders and instantly tip off Border Patrol squads. “It’s going to be a smart fence, not a stupid fence,” he promised. “A twenty-first-century fence, not a nineteenth-century fence.”

DHS soon awarded Boeing a contract to develop the technology. Like many firms dependent on highly trained immigrant employees, Boeing had earlier protested the government’s new restrictions on visas for foreign workers. But as Edward Alden notes in The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11, the aviation giant “discovered that closing borders was almost as lucrative as opening them.” At a cost of more than $1 billion, the company built a fifty-three-mile prototype along the Arizona border — choosing the Tucson Sector for the first leg of this pricey test run.

The project was bedeviled from the start. There were delays and cost overruns. When DHS deployed one of its ninety-eight-foot-tall mobile radar towers around Arivaca, a hippie-and-cowboy outpost about thirteen miles northeast of Sasabe, many locals assumed that the futuristic structure was being used to spy on them, and they sent up a communal howl. The biggest problem, though, was that the technology didn’t work. Boeing initially promised that its sensors would be able to identify 90 percent of suspicious movements along the border, a number they soon adjusted to a less-than-inspiring 49 percent. What the company didn’t anticipate was that the sensors would mistake rain or a strong gust of wind for the stealthy gait of a wage-depressing immigrant. Nor had they foreseen that CBP agents in rough terrain, who were often on horseback, would be unable to track suspects (or wind, or rain) on their laptops.

In June 2010, Mark Borkowski, executive director of the project for DHS, questioned the entire undertaking rather pointedly. “Even if it works,” he asked, “is it worth it?” By then Chertoff had passed the baton to Janet Napolitano, who seemed the ideal steward for this technocratic fantasia. During her tenure as governor of Arizona, Napolitano had expressed her disdain for the panacea of physical barriers. “You show me a fifty-foot wall,” she declared, “and I’ll show you a fifty-one-foot ladder.” Still, it was Napolitano who wearily called an end to the experiment in early 2011 and sent the bordercontrol visionaries back to the drawing board.

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October 2019