Fencing the Border: Boeing's High-Tech Plan Falters

Sonoran Desert PHOTO Ken Lund

Sonoran Desert PHOTO Ken Lund

A 28-mile stretch of the Sonoran desert that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border west of the city of Nogales, Arizona, is a sun-baked battleground. Pronghorn antelope, javelina, rattlers, a few pigmy owls, and even jaguars compete for scarce resources amidst the saguaro, mesquite, and prickly pear.

Also struggling for survival in the parched landscape are hundreds of migrants who hike the miles of uncharted northbound trails and roads pursued by border patrol officers, security contractors, and law enforcement agents. Many of the would-be immigrants are captured, processed and deported; some are identified as criminal aliens and detained; others make it into the U.S. to take low-wage jobs; and hundreds more die every year in the searing desert heat.

A new predator is on the horizon. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has issued task orders to physically and electronically seal this stretch of the desert under a multi-billion dollar contract named the Secure Border Initiative Net (SBInet) to curb the flow of undocumented immigrants, drugs, and potential terrorists by 2013. This first $20 million pilot phase, which is named Project 28 after the length of this part of the desert that it is supposed to cover, was to be completed by mid-June 2007.

The SBInet contract was awarded in September 2006 to Boeing of Seattle, the company best known for its wide-bodied aircraft that dominate the world's airline fleets. The company is also a major military contractor, manufacturing warplanes like the F-18 Hornet, the F-22 Raptor and the Joint Strike Fighter/F-35 as well as the Brimstone, Hellfire and Tomahawk missiles.

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The subsidiary that makes these weapons -- Boeing Integrated Defense Systems Unit -- will try to achieve what previous border surveillance programs like America's Shield Initiative, Border and Transportation Security Network, and others have failed to do so far: create a mix of infrastructure, technology and personnel that will make the border impermeable.

The minimum cost of setting up the system is estimated at $1 million a mile but that figure does not include the ongoing costs of maintaining the infrastructure and staffing it.

SBInet will go beyond just the physical construction. "Virtually every detail is being outsourced from the government to private contractors," says California Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman. "The government is relying on private contractors to design the programs, build them, and even conduct oversight of them."

The federal government's role will be limited to actual apprehension, which remains, for now, the domain of trained U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. (Although that too may change if the U.S. Congress accepts a proposal by DynCorp to deploy 1,000 private agents for border patrol duties, under a separate contract.)

Boeing Takes Charge of the Border

Most of the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the U.S is comprised of desert plains, steep ravines and hills that are difficult to cross. About 88 miles of physical fencing exists in some of the more easily accessible areas, which are often breached by immigrants who dig under or knock down the barriers. While the U.S. government plans to increase the physical fences to 370 miles by the end of next year, Boeing's Project 28 is intended to showcase a more high-tech approach in the Arizona desert.

To do this, Boeing, as the prime contractor, has selected nearly 100 of the 900 subcontractors that applied to work on the contract. A partial list, compiled from Boeing, DHS, military and local sources, includes Booz Allen Hamilton, Centech, DRS Technologies, Kollsman, Inc., LGS, L-3 Communications Government Services Incorporated, Perot Systems, Pinkerton Government Services, Power Contracting, Inc. Reconnaissance Group, Sandia National Laboratories, the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University in College Station and Unisys.

Finding out what each subcontractor is doing requires more effort than searching for water in the desert. Boeing protects its subcontracting plan as an industrial secret. It also operates under a guidance order from DHS not to talk on the record about SBInet, and refers all inquiries back to the federal agency. That agency, for its part, does not provide specific details about the work being performed under the contract, purportedly to keep the  information from falling into the wrong hands.

Part of Boeing's job will be to integrate these and dozens more subcontractors into what SBInet director Greg Giddens calls a "Common Operating Picture." A key component of the fence is a string of tower-mounted cameras that can sweep a 10-mile wide radius. This virtual fence is designed to monitor the border more effectively than human patrols, and with less environmental impact than a physical wall.

The plan is that when migrants cross the SBInet's virtual fence, a LORROS camera, manufactured by Kollsman, Inc. of Merrimack, New Hampshire, will instantly detect their entry. These cameras will sit on top of specially designed towers (erected by DRS Technologies of Parsippany, New Jersey), that are almost 100 feet tall and are each surrounded by a six-foot high chain link fence. These towers are equipped with Man-Portable Surveillance and Target Acquisition Radar (MStar) devices, that relay real-time electronic images to a private sector communications center.

When suspected migrants are spotted, a private enforcement contractor can take manual command of the camera, zoom in and identify the number of individuals as well as their means of transport. After classifying the  "threat,"  the contractor electronically transfers the entrants' coordinates to Border Patrol agents via laptop computers mounted inside their vehicles.

"The coordinates allow the Agent the ability to understand where they are in proximity to the threat," a Border Patrol official wrote recently in SBI Monthly, a newsletter published by the agency, in an attempt to describe how SBInet would work. "Moments later, the agent locates the illegal aliens and makes the apprehensions."

Boeing has so far erected nine of the towers, each almost 100 feet tall, that scan a 360-degree radius for a distance of ten miles. Ground radar sensors will also attempt to detect footsteps, bicycles and vehicles.

Some 50 retrofitted SUVs and three emergency response vehicles will receive wireless surveillance data and non-line-of-sight communications. Boeing has also contracted out to build an SBInet command center and operating base in the Tucson sector.

Over Budget, Behind Schedule

"These first 28 miles of virtual fencing are key to gaining effective control of the border region," U.S Customs and Border Patrol spokesperson Michael Friel told CorpWatch. "(This) is the first task order of what is expected to be multiple task orders."

Almost a month after the initial deadline of June, 2007, this first phase is yet to come on-line. DHS attributes the initial delays to poor integration of communication technology between U.S. Border Patrol and Boeing's team of private contractors.

Right now, the project is variously described as a work-in-progress or a boondoggle in the making - by assorted U.S. governmental investigators, the Mexican government, as well as citizens on both sides of the border, who note that, in addition to being behind schedule, it is also already over-budget.

In Washington, U.S. Congressional representatives are already bristling at the skyrocketing costs of SBInet. Since Boeing won the contract last year, the estimated cost of securing the southwest border has gone from $2.5 billion to an estimated $8 billion just a few months later. When Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter asked SBInet Director Giddens for the real costs at a February 2007 hearing of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, Giddens replied: "I wish I could answer that with greater clarity."

At the same Congressional hearings, Boeing vice president and SBInet program manager, Jerry McElwee, took heat from Congressman William Lacy Clay who demanded information about the ballooning costs and the extension of the contract period. "You bid on these contracts and then you come back and say, 'Oh we need more time. It costs more than twice as much.' Are you gaming the taxpayers here? Or gaming DHS?" the Missouri Democrat asked.

DHS's own inspector general, Richard Skinner, says that the Boeing contract is in the "high-risk" category for waste and abuse because of its scope, its dollar value, and "the vulnerabilities stemming from the lack of acquisition management capacity."

A major concern is the pyramid-like management structure that critics say have led to cost overruns and poor quality in other major projects. They note that the multiple subcontracting tiers allow Boeing to exact a cut at every turn, and create a conflict of interest because the company is also in charge of oversight.

"The last time I saw this type of model for managing a project was 'the Big Dig' in Boston," said Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Steven Lynch referring to a highway rerouting mega project that included a 3.5-mile long tunnel under Boston. "This is exactly what they did. They fused the oversight function with the engineering and construction function. Everybody was in the same tent. Nobody was watching out for the owner, who in this case is the US taxpayer. This is a terrible model and I see a lot of it. Generally when this model is in place, we see colossal failures and huge cost overruns."

Indeed last June, the very same Congressional committee cited Boeing, and its team members L-3 and Unisys, for wasteful spending and mismanagement of DHS contracts. (See/ Dollars, Not Sense: Government Contracting Under the Bush Administration/, US House Oversight Committee Report, June 2007.)

Legal System Overwhelmed

Apart from problems with the contracting model, many critics of current policy question what they see as over-emphasis on securing the border without either addressing the causes of undocumented immigration or developing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with it. Particularly worried are Arizona law enforcement officials, who sometimes have to handle more than 250 immigration-related cases a day, and have been overwhelmed with issues around illegal immigration.

Paul Charlton, who served for six years as U.S. attorney for the state of Arizona, recently told an audience of border reporters: "We're always willing to think about putting a fence up or adding more border patrol agents, but we don't think about adding more deputy US marshals, more district courts judges, more magistrates judges, more pre-trial service officers, more prosecutors. It's a little like building a great football team and only having a bunch of linemen and nobody playing in the backfield. You can have a great line but if nobody's playing in the backfield, you're going to lose every game."

Despite the fact that his office was ranked fifth in the nation for immigrant prosecutions and 20th for narcotics prosecutions, Charlton was one of the nine U.S. attorneys purged by the office of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

"I think it's sexy for politicians to say we're going to do something about the border by putting more border patrol agents on the line," Charlton continued. "It doesn't sound quite as appealing to your constituents to say, 'what we really need are more pre-trial services officers, more probation officers and prosecutors, otherwise the system fails because the deterrent effect is lost. Once people realize that they can cross the border time after time because the criminal justice system that supposed is to pick them up after the arrest isn't capable of following through, then that desired deterrent effect fails. When I was the U.S Attorney I argued for those resources unsuccessfully."

David Gonzalez, the U.S. District Marshal in Tucson agrees with Charlton. Gonzalez is responsible for maintaining prisoners, getting them to court and, once they're sentenced, into prison.

"Border Patrol, ICE, DEA, FBI, and a lot of the other investigative agencies down there are literally crippling the court system. There are so many cases going through the system now. We cannot keep up with the amount of prisoners. We don't have any bed space to put federal prisoners," González complained.

Privatizing Deportation

The Border Patrol has come up with a new plan to take care of this problem - hire yet more private contractors. For example, the transportation and deportation of undocumented immigrants was outsourced to the Geo Group (previously known as Wackenhut), under a five-year, $250 million contract awarded in October 2006. (The contract was a joint venture with Chenega Security & Protection Services, an Alaskan company that benefits from minority contracting rules that favor indigenous tribes.)

The contract requires the company to deploy 100 buses initially, together with more than 270 armed security personnel from the company's Custom Protection Division to cover the "transportation" aspect of the agreement.

"We're so busy in this sector that it took a lot of agents to do the transportation part. Pretty much every time we had to put an agent on a bus, we had to take an agent out of the field, where they're really needed," Jim Hawkins, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, told the Tucson Weekly. "What we've done is basically turn over all of our transportation to this contractor."

Almost every day Wackenhut drivers take three-to-four busloads of newly apprehended migrants each ten-hour shift from Highway 286 north from Sasabe to Highway 86 east to the processing center in Nogales.

In Nogales, those suspected of being coyotes (traffickers) or drug smugglers are detained, and usually sent to Florence, where they are imprisoned by yet another contractor: Corrections Corporation in America (CCA), which runs Arizona's largest private prison. (See This Alien Life: Privatized Prisons for Immigrants)

González, the Tucson marshal, estimates that 50 to 55 percent of prisoners in Florence are immigrant detainees.  "I send [CCA], in fact I sent a check yesterday, and this is every month -- $9 million a month to house these prisoners," he says. "And this is just my district."

Human Rights Implications

Immigrant support groups in Arizona like Border Action Network (BAN), No More Deaths, and Samaritan Patrol are disturbed by the humanitarian implications of U.S. border policy as envisioned and implemented by private contractors. These groups have been outspoken in their criticism of the rising toll of people that either die of thirst and heat exposure crossing the desert or end up in detention prisons.

"The privatization of prisons has led to even worse conditions in immigrant detention centers," says Zali Zalkind, BAN's program support coordinator. His group is "concerned with potential human and constitutional rights abuses at the hands of subcontractors like Boeing and Wackenhut when there is so little accountability built into federal agencies themselves, like DHS and the Border Patrol."

Others argue that SBInet's Project 28 invades their privacy. For example, one new tower erected by Boeing sits 12 miles north of the border, in the town of Arivaca, Arizona. Its population of 1,500 is one-quarter Hispanic and one quarter military veterans.

Alex Hues, a 50-year-old pilot from Arivaca expressed a common view about the Boeing towers: "We have a tower here that does not look at the border. It looks into our town. It looks into my neighbor's yard. It looks into my yard. That's an issue to me about civil rights. I know there are cameras on street corners and intersections, but those are public places. My yard is not a public place.

"They're talking about if this project is successful, there'll be another tower down here. There'll be another tower somewhere else in another town watching somebody's daughter swimming in their swimming pool or whatever. It's a tower coming to your town soon."

Some Arivacans also predict false detections by the Boeing towers. Local grocer and mother Andrea Morondos is concerned about profiling. "My teenage son looks very Hispanic and he's very young and he's got a shaved head and he drives an old car. He was probably pulled over every other day on his way to school last year. So I think about what they're going to do with this surveillance tower in town. If he's standing at the pay phone, if he's hiking, they're probably going to question him."

The surveillance towers "will be going off constantly," says Walt Staton, spokesperson for No More Deaths. "When Border Patrol misidentifies us as migrants, they waste resources."

Destined for Failure?

West of Arivaca, SBInet's Project 28 has also placed three Boeing towers in Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge. "We have one of the biggest problems with smuggling anywhere in the country," says Mitch Ellis manager of the refuge, who has worked closely with the Boeing contractors in implementing the towers.

Ellis believes that the project may not ultimately succeed. "The jury is out. If they can gain operational control of specific areas with this package of surveillance, detection and detention, then that's fine, but will it stop illegal immigration? No. It's not going to stop it. It's just going to go somewhere else. Because it's not practical to seal up 2,000 miles of the international boundary."

Research support provided by the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund.


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