Don't fence US in?

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The James Bond virtual border fence to nowhere appears to have run aground on the same bureaucratic shoals that have curtailed or sunk other similarly super sophisticated and expensive projects: the dread technical difficulties with a dash of cost overrun and extreme behind-schedule tendencies. While defense projects that begin to suffer from the above problems can languish for years on the federal budget, there is talk already of pulling the plug on what had been a fairly ambitious plan to trace the U.S.-Mexico border with ground sensors, radar, and digital video outposts that would have formed an invisible barrier to undocumented migrants crossing the border from Mexico.

The idea was that, much as the Pentagon conducts its "drone wars" in Afghanistan and Pakistan from the comfy environs of Langley, Virginia, border agents could track activity along the border virtually and send out actual humans only when events merited an interdiction. The $6.7 billion project was supposed to have been completed by 2011 and that grand opening has already been pushed back to 2014. So far feds have spent $672 million since 2005, but reportedly have little to show for it except for 23 miles of glitch-enriched virtual fencing near Sasabe, Arizona that is apparently keeping Boeing engineers in head-scratching overdrive. According to the Associated Press:

Among other things, the radar system had trouble distinguishing between vegetation and people when it was windy. Also, the satellite communication system took too long to relay information in the field to a command center. By the time an operator moved a camera to take a closer look at a spot, whatever had raised suspicion was gone. The Homeland Security Department and Boeing said the early problems were fixed, but other glitches keep popping up. The latest: a software bug that causes video recording devices to lock on to the wrong cameras, hindering agents trying to collect evidence against illegal border-crossers.

The virtual fence is offering every indication of developing into a serious boondoggle, costly, ineffective but a worthy lobby target for Boeing and its subcontractors to root on through a few more budget rounds before moving on to the next technological non-fix for the nation's purported immigrant problem. The AP reports that Washington may decide to make the project itself virtual, scaling it back dramatically and installing the high-tech surveillance gizmos only along a few segments of the nation's 2,000-mile southern boundary and then dropping plans for any further expansion.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered the entire project reassessed on Jan. 8, and according to the 2011 budget just proposed by President Obama, spending on the virtual fence has been cut back by almost $200 million. Those concerned that the federal government is still spending too much on border-ish stuff will be pleased to learn that economic aid to Mexico has been reduced 36 percent from a recent high of more than $89 million in 2009 to about $57 million proposed in 2011. Yes, that's millions.

Perhaps the policy geniuses in Washington might considering redirecting $6 or $7 billion or so for a fence that apparently won't work to economic or infrastructural improvement efforts in Mexico itself that might encourage the development of an economy and society worth staying in. That's one way to check the flow of undocumented migrants that will still allow the deer and the antelope to roam without Flash Gordon tracking them on bordervision.