Tear down this fence

Virtual Failure


After five years and $2.4 billion, America's experiment with a virtual border fence—the supposed high-tech answer to illegal immigration—seems to be coming to an end. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a funding freeze for the troubled project in March, just before the release of a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that detailed a host of problems with the project.

"Not only do we have an obligation to secure our borders, we have a responsibility to do so in the most cost effective way possible," Napolitano said in a March 16 statement. "The system of sensors and cameras along the Southwest border known as SBInet has been plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines."

The GAO found that between March 2008 and July 2009, 1,300 new problems with the program arose. Problems were still arising faster than they could be solved, which the report dryly noted was "not indicative of a system that is maturing." The agency also found that the testing of the system was inadequate. Some changes to the testing procedures were made mid-trial, seemingly to allow the system to pass.

The fence experiment is not officially dead: The Department of Homeland Security will be reviewing the program before making a final decision on its fate by early next year. So far the most trenchant assessment of the virtual fence was offered by a GAO spokesman on National Public Radio: "Well, it sort of works."