After more than a year of work and a $20 million investment, the United States apparently has a functioning virtual fence on 28 miles of our border with Mexico.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced approval of the fence west of Tucson Friday. And while it is good to hear the fence apparently is working, it is naive to think this network of cameras and radar is the answer to our illegal immigration problems. Even if this fence works, it is only a small part of solving a complex problem.
The fence has hardly been the picture of success. It was supposed to be working in June but has been bedeviled by technical problems.
Although Chertoff said the fence is working, there is not universal agreement that is the case. A spokesman for a union representing Border Patrol officers says problems persist.
Radar has confused raindrops for illegal immigrants, T.J. Bonnor with the National Border Patrol Council told an El Paso television station. And a group of 80 illegal immigrants seen by an agent on the ground was not spotted by the radar, Bonnor said.
But even assuming the fence is working as designed, this is not a practical way to secure the entire 1,969-mile border between the United States and Mexico. At a cost of more than $714,000 per mile, it would cost $1.4 billion to extend the virtual fence the length of the border.
In isolated parts of the border, a virtual fence is clearly preferable to a solid wall, which causes environmental problems and prevents authorities from looking across the border to see what is happening.
A virtual fence will help secure the border, but that is only part of the comprehensive approach that is needed. A guest worker program would give America the workers it needs and assure that those entering the country have clean backgrounds.
That also would greatly decrease the flow of people crossing the border illegally, allowing authorities to focus on smugglers and other criminals as opposed to people who want only to work.
A virtual fence is a help. A virtual fence is not the answer.
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