WASHINGTON, D.C. — A 28-mile "virtual fence" that will use radars and surveillance cameras to try to catch people entering the country illegally has gotten final government approval.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Friday was to announce approval of the fence, built by the Boeing Co. and using technology the Bush administration plans to extend to other areas of the Arizona border, as well as sections of Texas. These projects could get under way as early as this summer, officials said.
The virtual fence is part of a national plan to secure the southwest border with physical barriers and high-tech detection capabilities intended to stop illegal immigrants on foot and drug smugglers in vehicles. As of Feb. 8, 295 miles of fencing had been constructed.
The virtual fence already is working.
On Feb. 13, an officer in a Tucson command center - 70 miles from the border - noticed a group of about 100 people gathered at the border. The officer notified agents on the ground and in the air. Border Patrol caught 38 of the 100 people who tried to cross illegally, and the others went back into Mexico, a Homeland Security official said.
The virtual fence system includes 98-foot unmanned surveillance towers that are equipped with an array of sophisticated technology including radar, sensor devices and cameras capable of distinguishing people from cattle at a distance of about 10 miles. The cameras are powerful enough to tell group sizes and whether people are carrying backpacks that may contain weapons or drugs.
Last year the government withheld some of Boeing's payments for the system because technology the company used in the test project did not work properly. Boeing also was late in delivering the final product, known as Project 28. Because of this, the department received a $2 million credit from the company to go toward maintenance and logistical support of the system, the Homeland Security officials said.
The government paid Boeing $15 million of its initial $20 million contract before determining that there were glitches in the test project. The department gave a conditional acceptance in December.
Lawmakers have been skeptical of the product Boeing delivered.
"This is not the end of the Project 28 story," Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Pa., said in a statement Thursday. "We need to understand what went wrong with Project 28 to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and taxpayer dollars are not squandered."
Carney chairs the House Homeland Security management subcommittee.