Fri Feb 22, 2008 9:32pm EST
By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A high-tech “virtual fence” on part of the U.S. border with Mexico is finally ready for service and the technology can fight illegal crossings all along the frontier, the Homeland Security chief said on Friday.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made the announcement during a review of border-control efforts, at which officials also unveiled higher fines for employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Immigration, a highly charged political issue, has been at the forefront in this presidential election year. Republican front-runner Sen. John McCain of Arizona is fighting conservative criticism he has been too soft on illegal immigration, and Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama accuse the Bush administration of heavy-handed tactics.
The so-called Project 28 “virtual fence” was built near Nogales, Arizona, by Boeing Co, covering a 28-mile (45-km) stretch of the border. The $20 million project of sensor towers and advanced mobile communications was supposed to be completed in mid-2007 but was delayed by software problems, drawing congressional criticism that continued on Friday.
“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,” Chertoff said.
Clinton and Obama suggested in a debate on Thursday that high-tech surveillance could lessen the need for a planned 700-mile (1,130-km) border fence that has drawn opposition along its route.
Chertoff indicated the physical fence plans would not change, but said advanced technology would be deployed along much of the border.
The Homeland Security Department is acquiring a fourth unmanned aerial vehicle for patrols and plans to get two more, he said. It also plans to increase the number of ground-based mobile radar surveillance systems to 40 this year, from six.
“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.
President George W. Bush asked Congress this month for $775 million to build more fencing along the southern border and install high-tech surveillance equipment and other infrastructure.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who heads the House of Representatives Homeland Security committee, said the virtual fence project relied too much on contractors and that Border Patrol agents were blocked from pointing out “obvious flaws,” impairing performance.
“I would hope that they (Homeland Security officials) have learned from these mistakes,” he said.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey announced the increase in employer fines at the news conference with Chertoff. “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 to $16,000 per illegal hire, from $11,000 currently.
Mukasey said the Justice Department also aimed to step up criminal prosecutions against the most egregious employers. It plans to add this year 50 new attorneys and 100 deputy U.S. marshals dedicated to border enforcement.