No fence, physical or virtual, will ever control the border

Posted on June 18, 2007

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Hey, I don’t believe that any system is totally secure.
-David Lightman(Matthew Broderick), War Games

Building a physical fence along the entire southern border is exorbitantly expensive. I ran through my own quick-and-dirty cost analysis once and was quite surprised at my low-end cost: $30-50 billion for the entire 1951 mile-long border (my original analysis). The federal government has realized this as well, so they’ve hired Boeing to build “Project 28,” a 28-mile long virtual fence project near the Sasabe border crossing that integrates physical barriers and technological monitoring into a single system that is designed to catch everyone passing through the area.The technology employed is pretty impressive. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, there will be redeployable sensor towers, unattended ground sensors, communications upgrades to CBP vehicles, and mobile command and control vehicles. According to an NPR story (U.S. Tests ‘Virtual’ Border Fence in Arizona), some of the sensors include radar, optical and infrared cameras, and ground-base sensors that detect footsteps. And Boeing has used satellite photography to determine where physical fences were necessary to prevent border crossers from blending into the local population in less than the minimum response time of the border patrol.

Like I said, impressive technology. And if we deployed it over the entire non-fenced 1951 miles of the border, it’d cost only $4.4 billion (calculated using the pilot project’s costs per mile over 95% of 1951 miles), a significant savings over $30-50 billion. Of course, this isn’t the (likely classified) total costs of the project, so the Arizona Daily Star’s estimate of $2 billion over 6 years is probably a better guideline. Which would put the costs at something like $333 million per year, or $11.9 million per year per mile. Extending that to the rest of the southern border, that’s about $22 billion per year in today’s dollars.

(NOTE: It will probably take 10-20 years to roll out this system across the entire southern border, so the actual costs will be significantly higher by the time its done. Also, keep in mind that the U.S. government wants to roll out the virtual fence project along the longer, rougher terrain, and harsher weather of the U.S.-Canada border too.)

As I alluded to in the War Games quote above, however, there’s no such thing as a perfect security system. Every technology can be beaten. Every physical barrier can be bypassed. Guards can be bribed, drugged, or just plain avoided. The point of security systems isn’t to make them truly impregnable, but rather to make the so hard to get through that it’s not worth the hassle. But people who are suffiently motivated will always, always find a way through. It might take bribing a guard or four to leave a blind zone in the camera net, or it may require special low-impact shoes that don’t set off the ground sensors (or riding a cow, since cows presently set off the sensors), or using camoflage netting, or any combination of technological and psychological methods to avoid detection. As former Border Patrol and INS agent and author of The Reaper’s Line Lee Morgan says in the Arizona Daily Star article I linked to above, “‘The end result is it will always be defeated by desperate people, whatever you put out there.'” The only sure-fire way to keep people from breaking through the border security is to first remove the motivation to break through.

And economics is the motivation. Drug smugglers haul pot, cocaine, heroin, et al across the border because we’ve got a massive number of drug addicts creating a huge market for illicit drugs. Migrant workers come north because, as bad as they have it here sometimes, the working conditions and pay are still better than at home.

According to a study by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, approximately 86.8% of illegal immigrants in 2005 were Mexicans, while the vast majority of the other 13.2% came from Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. According to the USAID Greenbook, we spent a total of $2.26 billion in loans and grants to all of Latin America. Of that, $166.4 million went to Mexico, $42 million to Brazil, $55 million to El Salvador, $68 million to Guatemala, $270 million to Honduras, and $67 million to Nicaragua.

If we used the $333 million expected per year cost of just Project 28, we could boost total aid to Latin America by 15% over 2005 numbers, and if we divided it up just over the six nations that account for 99.6% of all illegal immigration, we would boost our total aid to those six nations by 50%. And if we expand Project 28 to the entire southern border (the $22 billion/year expense I mentioned above), we could instead use that money to increase our total aid budget to the entire world by 81%.

Now, there’s a chance that pure aid isn’t the best approach. Scholars & Rogues coblogger Gavin Chait has worked in this area in South Africa for a long time, and he’s pointed out that standard aid isn’t necessarily a good thing. So maybe we should subsidize U.S. industry to invest in Latin America instead of providing direct aid to potentially corrupt governments. Or maybe subsidizing a micro-loan program would work. But the illegal immigration problem won’t go away until we eliminate the economic motivation to immigrate. And until we reduce the demand for illicit drugs on our nation’s streets, we won’t stop the drug smuggling trade across the border either.

Now, I haven’t even addressed finding the money to secure our border without (further) breaking the national budget, nor have I addressed other, potentially even better uses for all this money (if we can find it at all) like education or developing non-carbon based energy sources. But if we can find the money to build a virtual fence along the southern border, there’s every reason to believe that the money involved would be better spent helping our neighbors improve their economies and reduce their respective poverty gaps than building better fences and hiring more border patrol agents.

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