Washington — In the midst of a national debate over the status of millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States, the Bush administration last week quietly launched a new plan for stopping future illegal border crossings.
In a tacit admission of the government’s failure to gain control over border areas, the Department of Homeland Security has asked private industry to submit bids for fixing the problem.
The department said it is looking for a company to design a comprehensive strategy using technology such as remote cameras, as well as federal agents, to detect and stop illegal traffic across the nation’s vast northern and southwestern borders.
Although the $2 billion project, dubbed the Secure Border Initiative, has received relatively little public attention outside industry circles, administration officials describe it in glowing terms.
Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson introduced the idea at an industry conference in January as «a truly transformational opportunity.»
Jackson said the government has «never» had a credible plan for controlling the border with Mexico. He told the gathering, «I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business.»
But as competing companies prepare proposals, due by the end of May, skeptics are raising questions about whether the new approach will offer more security than past projects.
«The immigration service does not have a good history of contract supervision,» said Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group that favors tighter immigration controls.
He added that a history of lax border policing also raises concerns.
«Successive administrations have put a very low priority on immigration enforcement,» he said. «There’s nothing that this administration’s done to show that’s changed.»
Recent investigations by government auditors have given the Homeland Security Department low marks on managing surveillance technology now deployed at the borders.
The department’s office of inspector general issued a report late last year describing the technology along the U.S. borders, much of it installed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It concluded that camera equipment was poorly utilized and often slow to be installed and that sensors were so prone to false alarms that they could be set off by the movement of animals, trains and even wind.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, panned the government’s oversight of private contracts for border surveillance in a February report.
The reviews apparently helped persuade the Department of Homeland Security and its Customs and Border Protection division to turn to the private sector.
Industry officials maintain that they can make the difference.
The department has bought many items such as cameras and sensors and computerized monitoring systems, but it has not integrated the equipment into its operations, said Jay Dragone, the executive overseeing the border project for Lockheed Martin Corp., one of the competitors for the contract.
«This clearly falls in Lockheed’s capacity,» said Dragone, whose company is assisting the Coast Guard in efforts to secure U.S. coasts.
At Raytheon Corp., Ray Wheeler, director of homeland security solutions development, said the government’s latest border security project is looking for «an optimal mix» of federal agents and infrastructure, such as roads and monitoring stations, before installing more surveillance technology.
Wheeler cited his company’s recent completion of a security system to protect 2.3 million square miles of Brazil’s Amazon rain forest from interlopers.
Other eligible competitors include Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Corp., as well as Ericsson Inc., the Swedish company that provides security for Finland’s border.
The outreach for the project is unusual because it is very open-ended, said Marcus Fedeli of Input Inc., a Reston, Va., based market research firm that specializes in government technology contracts.
«They are presenting the problems to the industry, and they are asking industry to provide the solution,» Fedeli said.
Asked whether the approach will be successful in plugging the leaks in America’s borders, Fedeli said, «I really don’t know. It’s tough. There’s a lot of land there. There’s a lot of politics involved.»