Homeland Security admits to cost, time overruns in border fence

The Department of Homeland Security said at Congressional hearings Sept. 10 that cost overruns, legal obstacles and other problems imperil its goal of completing the 670 miles of fencing and technological improvements on the Southwest border. Rising construction costs and delays in acquiring land from owners could thwart efforts to build the fence by the end of the year, said officials, who are seeking more money for the project.

The Department has 341 miles of new fencing in place along the 2,000-mile border. But officials said completing the project depends on redirecting $400 million in department funds from other purposes—much of which requires Congressional approval.

Since 2005, Congress has appropriated $2.7 billion for the Secure Border Initiative, a combination of physical barriers and an electronic “virtual fence.” The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said in a report Sept. 10 that Homeland Security had no projections for the total cost of building or maintaining the fencing.

The report said the average cost had risen this year to $7.5 million per mile for pedestrian barriers—typically large steel and mesh plates—and $2.8 million per mile for vehicle fencing, usually an array of short thick poles. February’s estimates were $4 million for pedestrian fencing and $2 million for vehicles.

W. Ralph Basham, the commissioner of the department’s Customs and Border Protection division, told lawmakers: “We are going to be out of business unless we get some relief. The operation will stop.”

At the hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee, officials also noted delays plaguing the virtual fence, being developed with the Boeing Corporation. The GAO report said environmental reviews the department had not anticipated will now postpone the project. The report said DHS lawyers had concluded that waivers used to bypass environmental laws in construction of the fence did not apply to the virtual one—meaning it will not be operational until early next year and only at limited parts of the border in Arizona.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the committee chairman, said, “The partnership between DHS and Boeing has produced more missed deadlines and excuses than results.” Basham said in his agency’s defense: “If we move too fast and don’t test enough we are criticized. Yet when we slow down to test we are criticized for not meeting our own goals and timelines.” (NYT, Sept. 11)

South Texas farmer Paul Loop told National Public Radio in July that he agreed to negotiate a deal with DHS over the border fence right-of-way—but said he was left with more questions than answers about what the fence’s impact will be. Loop and his brother grow corn and soybeans on 2,400 acres just outside of Brownsville. When the fence is built, roughly half their farm will be on the north side; the other half will be on the south. Despite months of surveying, planning and negotiating, Loop says he doesn’t really know how the fence will work. There will be some kind of gate, but “they have not told us exactly how they’re going to work these gates,” he said. Loop said the government promised he’ll have perpetual access, but no one has told him how that access will be secured. (NPR, July 8)

See our last posts on the politics of immigration and the struggle for the border.