Virtual Fences Can Help Make Real Good Neighbors

James Carafano /

TUCSON, AZ: During my visit to the Tucson border area, I visited “P-28,” a test-bed of cameras, radar, and other sensors that cover 28 miles of the border. Often referred to as the “virtual fence,” it was the first step in the Secure Border Initiative or “SBI Net,” Homeland Security’s effort to bring technology to the border. Mired in controversy and bad publicity, P-28 is really a good news story that bodes well for the future of the department’s effort to secure the border.P-28 runs along more than two dozen miles of open desert near Sasabe, Arizona. P-28 had two problems (1) Bad PR and (2) nobody asked the Border Patrol what they really needed.

The first phase of SBI Net was never more than a test-bed, an experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. Much of the criticism of the project ignores the fact that it was one big experiment—and that putting technology in hostile, desert border environment is a lot harder than it looks.

The second problem is that the department built its virtual fence first and then asked the Border Patrol how they liked it. Needless to say a bunch of engineers who are not seasoned border agents would have benefited from more customer input from the start.

Despite all the missteps, the Border Patrol learned a lot from P-28. The system also showed that virtual fences can help. P-28 was responsible for over 3,600 apprehensions. In addition, the radars gave valuable intelligence that helped the Border Patrol understand smuggling routes, making interdiction efforts more effective.