National Immigration Forum

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What We Can Learn From the SBInet Fiasco

January 25, 2011 - Posted by Maurice Belanger

Border surveillance equipment


When the Department of Homeland Security recently announced its cancelation of the failed SBInet program, congressional lawmakers from both sides of the isle expressed approbation.  According to a Department Report on the Assessment of the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) Program, the Department has concluded that “the SBInet program, as originally proposed, does not meet current standards for viability and cost-effectiveness.”  Since its inception, SBInet has been plagued with cost overruns and technical problems.


Instead, DHS will “utilize existing, proven technology tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each border region.”


Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King (R-NY), expressed ambivalence at the decision to pull the plug on SBInet. He stated,


“While I understand the Department of Homeland Security decision to end the SBInet program, I continue to have serious concerns about the Obama Administration’s lack of urgency to secure the border. Since announcing a moratorium to SBInet, it has taken DHS a full year to make the final decision to cancel the program…These delays are unacceptable. The Obama Administration must promptly present the people of this country with a comprehensive plan to secure borders”.


The real problem may be that the borders are about as secure as they can be without reforms to our immigration system that provide additional legal channels through which immigrants coming to work and join family members can come to this country legally.  The facts show that the number of illegal border crossings has steadily declined under the Obama Administration.  The way immigration hardliners talk, however, the Administration is doing very little to “secure the border” or, as Representative King put it, the Administration is showing a “lack of urgency.”  They want to spend even more. 


With all the additional money being thrown into border enforcement by immigration hardliners in Congress, is it even possible to spend it effectively?


With Representative King and others pressuring the Administration to spend more on the border, it will be a challenge for the agency not to rush into new multi-million dollar security projects that won’t be effective.  SBInet cost the taxpayers approximately $1 billion over four years to monitor just 53 miles of the border in Arizona.  (The U.S.-Mexico border is 1,969 miles long.)  That is taxpayer money down the drain.  DHS’s “new path forward” will cost an additional $750 million  for the Arizona border, making it that much more important for the Department to get it right once and for all.


The agency’s record does not instill confidence.  Back in September 2008, the Washington Post reported that SBInet was just one of many failed projects at DHS.  According to testimony and figures prepared for a hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Management Investigations and Oversight, the Department had racked up at least $15 billion worth of projects that were over-budget, delayed or canceled when only partially complete.


Representative King hasn’t supported legislative measures to fix the broken immigration admissions system, nor to provide the most deserving immigrants already here a legal path to citizenship.  Most recently, he voted against the DREAM Act in December.  (He has filed a bill to provide permanent residence to an individual constituent.)  


If all Congress does is look at the mistakes of SBInet in the context of how it might alternatively attempt to buy border enforcement, then we are likely to see a repetition of the wasteful spending that now plagues our border enforcement strategy.  DHS says it needs immigration reform.  It’s time Congress stopped throwing money at a failed approach.


Adam Salazar contributed to this blog post.


Image by Flickr user tomcoolinmiami.

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