The Department of Homeland Security is planning to put up 45 surveillance towers to spot illegal immigrants and upgrade 12 existing ones to create a virtual fence targeting 81 miles of Arizona's U.S.-Mexican border.
Plans revealed in a draft environmental assessment for the "Tucson West" project — the next phase of the Boeing Co.-led SBInet — shows 57 proposed tower sites throughout Southern Arizona with most, 47, in the border region between Sasabe and Sierra Vista.
The 10 other proposed locations are scattered farther north near Ajo, Phoenix, Casa Grande and Tucson. The map shows one existing tower in Tucson and another in the Catalina Mountains that would be upgraded.
The towers will stand 80 to 200 feet high.
The largest cluster of towers totals 27 proposed sites along 40 miles of border from Sasabe to Nogales within about 12 miles north of the border.
At a community meeting in Arivaca Thursday, Border Patrol officials said they are expecting work to begin in the fall, said Peter Ragan, an Arivaca construction worker and writer who attended.
Officials in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector deferred questions about the project's timeline to headquarters in Washington, D.C., and officials there weren't able to respond immediately.
Supporters applauded the plan as another tool to help Border Patrol agents slow illegal immigration and drug smuggling in the Southwest border's busiest stretch.
"Anytime you can deter traffic and make it easier for the Border Patrol to do their jobs, I encourage that kind of project," said Al Garza, executive director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. "This is what the fight is all about."
Critics of the plan, however, are skeptical about Boeing's competence, doubt the towers will have a tangible impact and decry the accumulating damage on habitat and wildlife from an array of border-security projects in the past several years.
"At this point it looks exactly the same as P-28," said Ragan, referring to a $20.6 million Boeing Co. test project known as Project 28 that consisted of nine camera and radar towers flanking Sasabe. "They are rolling out a project before they have tested or confirmed any of the technology. It's hard to be anything but skeptical about what they are going to accomplish with this."
Plans call for a mixture of two types of towers: camera and radar towers, and communication-relay towers.
Radar and remote video-system towers will be equipped with multiple cameras (electro-optical/infrared sensors and video cameras), radio-frequency radar and data-receiving antennas.
Communication-relay towers will be equipped with one or more parabolic dishes, microwave relays and receiving antennas. Some towers will be a combination sensor and communication tower, the document says.
The towers will be erected inside a fenced-in area no larger than 80 by 80 feet. Access roads will be created near the 45 new towers as well. They will typically be 12 feet wide with parallel drainage and surfaced with on-site materials, the document says.
The information gathered by the sensors, radar and cameras will be transmitted to Border Patrol stations and help agents more efficiently track and catch illegal immigrants and drug smugglers, the agency says.
The plans elicited mixed responses from a sampling of Southern Arizonans.
Garza said he's confident that Boeing — which has the contract for the towers — will produce a quality product this time around despite less-than-glowing reviews about Project 28.
Project 28 towers have been operational for five months but have failed to meet expectations since going up last summer.
A host of glitches delayed implementation of the system for eight months and rendered the test project a disappointment to many in the Border Patrol and a failure to critics. The problems included software glitches, rain setting off radar, camera resolution beyond three miles and nearly unusable laptops in agent vehicles, according to a February Government Accountability Office report.
Boeing and Homeland Security officials dispute claims that the test project was a total failure and say they've learned from the test system.
"Boeing is a very reputable company," Garza said.
Others aren't as confident.
"The Boeing system has proven to be a failure, so why is Boeing allowed to continue?" said Dave Stoddard, a former Border Patrol supervisor who retired in 1996 after 27 years with the agency and lives in Cochise County. "What makes Boeing and DHS think that putting in 57 more towers is going to be advantageous?"
In September 2006, Homeland Security awarded the prime contract for the Secure Border Initiative to Boeing for three years with three one-year options. That made Boeing the prime contractor responsible for acquiring, deploying and sustaining selected technology and tactical infrastructure, or fences, roads and vehicle barriers.
Through Feb. 15, Boeing had been awarded $1.154 billion in contracts for Secure Border Initiative projects, the report states. The price of the contract for Tucson West is unknown.
Stoddard has seen several failed high-tech border-security efforts in his three-plus decades on the border.
No matter how great the cameras, they still can't see illegal immigrants who walk in low hills, mountains, arroyos and through trees, Stoddard said. The money would be better spent on steel fences and additional agents, he said.
"Based on DHS' previous record, I would have to see it operational and working before I change my mind," Stoddard said. "Taxpayers have spent millions of dollars on this electronic crap, and it has all proven to be faulty."
Despite more agents, barriers and technology, the illegal immigration continues, Ragan said.
"There are still huge amounts of people taking a very dangerous trek through this desert, and this kind of stuff doesn't seem to be solving any of the problems," said Ragan, who has lived in Arivaca for five years.
"And it's making it hard on people who live here. … A lot of people who live here do feel like, basically, they live in a war zone and are living in the middle of an ongoing low-level conflict."
Virtual fences are a preferred border-security alternative to steel fences because they are less damaging to the ecology, leave a smaller footprint and are better for wildlife, said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife.
"But the Department of Homeland Security is not currently viewing it as an alternative," Clark said. "It's more like an 'and' than an 'or.' "
Many of the 81 miles of the border the project targets already have pedestrian fences or vehicle barriers, or have plans for one of the barriers.
Clark commended Homeland Security for going through the proper National Environmental Policy Act process and producing an environmental assessment, but said the finding of "no significant impact" is inappropriate. Many of the proposed sites are in or near critical habitat areas for wildlife, he said.
More important, Homeland Security needs to own up to the cumulative impacts all the border fencing, road and technology projects rolled out in recent years are having on the habitat and wildlife, Clark said.
"These remote surveillance cameras and their access roads should be evaluated, in tandem, with other border-security projects," he said.
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