February 25, 2008

Virtual Fence Ready for Service Along Southern Border

Department of Homeland Security Secretary (DHS) Michael Chertoff announced Friday that a new "virtual fence" to help fight illegal border crossings along part of the U.S.-Mexico border is now ready for service.   

Chertoff made the report at a briefing about the country's border-control efforts, at which authorities also announced higher fines for employers who hire illegal immigrants.  

"What we are doing is using all of the tools at our disposal to get the maximum leverage for our border patrol agents who have a very tough and important job to do," Chertoff said during the briefing.  

The $20 million virtual fence, known as Project 28, covers 28 miles of border near Nogales, Arizona, according to a Reuters report. Constructed by Boeing, the virtual fence includes sensor towers and advanced mobile communications. It was supposed to be completed last summer, but was delayed by software issues.

"As you know, we have been carefully evaluating our P-28 technology prototype in a portion of the Tucson sector of the border in Arizona, and we have now fully accepted that P28 technology deployment," Chertoff said.

"I have personally witnessed the value of this system, and I have spoken directly to the border patrol agents"¦ who have seen it produce actual results in terms of identifying and allowing the apprehension of people who were illegally smuggling across the border."

Immigration is a politically contentious issue, and has been hotly debated during this presidential election year.  Republican Senator John McCain, the party's frontrunner, has faced criticism from conservatives that he is not tough enough on illegal immigration.  Democrat presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been openly critical of what they say is the Bush administration's use of heavy-handed tactics on the issue of immigration.

Chertoff said the virtual fence would be deployed along much of the border, but would not change plans for a physical fence.

"In some form or fashion, technology is going to be virtually every place on the border, but it's not necessarily going to be in the configuration of P28," Chertoff said.

He added that in addition to deploying the virtual fence technology, DHS is acquiring a fourth unmanned aerial vehicle for patrols and has plans to purchase two more after that. It also plans to increase the number of ground-based mobile radar surveillance systems from 6 to 40 this year.

Earlier this month, President Bush requested $775 million from Congress to construct more fencing and install high-tech surveillance equipment and other infrastructure along the southern border.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), head of the Homeland Security committee in the House of Representatives, said the virtual fence relied too much on contractors and that Border Patrol agents were blocked from pointing out "obvious flaws" that impaired performance.

"I would hope that they (Homeland Security officials) have learned from these mistakes," Rep. Thompson said.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey joined Chertoff at the news conference, and announced an increase in employer fines for companies employing illegal immigrants.  "We are increasing civil fines imposed on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants by (an average of) 25 percent, the maximum allowed by law and the first such increase since 1999," he said.

The new maximum fine for multiple violations will rise from $11,000 to $16,000 per illegal hire, and the Justice Department will step up criminal prosecutions against the most egregious employers, according to a Reuters report.   Mukasey also announced Justice Department plans to add 50 attorneys and 100 deputy U.S. marshals this year, all of whom would be dedicated to border enforcement.


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