On Tuesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano halted further funding for SBInet, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program designed to create a virtual fence of sensors and cameras along the U.S.-Mexico border. This may be one of those confusing acts of alleged fiscal responsibility that is applauded by liberals and panned by conservatives.
Liberals have never cared for the SBInet program and its commitment to spending billions of dollars to secure our borders. These groups did not support a fence of any kind, whether it was solid concrete and metal or highly advanced sensors and cameras. They will likely hail – albeit quietly and behind closed doors – this reduction of funds as a continued reprioritization of immigration enforcement priorities under the Obama Administration.
At the same time, conservatives who wanted a more physical fence – none of this virtual stuff – never liked SBInet but have grown to accept it as a solid pro-enforcement alternative. They will not accept the halt in spending as a capitulation in efforts to protect our nation, particularly given the recent increase in border violence due to Mexican drug wars.
To be fair, SBInet has not proven to be an overwhelming success since its inception in 2006, but securing our 2,000 mile southern border and preventing smugglers, terrorists, and illegal aliens from entering the country is no small task. Like many large-scale projects that aim to do difficult things, particularly those that strive to incorporate innovative technology, the SBInet program has undergone a variety of setbacks. The underlying purpose of the program was sound. The main contractor, Boeing, and CBP have made great strides in improving the delivered product, and the Border Patrol does benefit from the current expenditures.
But given the shortcomings of the program, it would be premature to completely pan this halt in funding until we actually know what DHS plans to do with the SBInet money. Unfortunately, this may be Secretary Napolitano’s greatest mistake; she has no plan for the money as yet. Napolitano, in a statement Tuesday, said that the funds will be used for “other tested, commercially available security technology along the southwest border.” What does that mean? Until we know and can judge whether these other technologies are more effective than those pursued under SBInet, we cannot discount this move as a total abdication of responsibility.
This policy change (and make no mistake, a decision to end your largest Border Security procurement project with no alternative is a policy change) is instructive in two other ways.
First, as I have argued in the past, the importance of border security in the development of a potential Comprehensive Immigration Reform package cannot be overstated. The previous administration invested steadily increasing amounts of money and manpower to better secure our borders to prove to the public that preventing illegal immigration was a priority. Conversely, current plans to reduce spending on big ticket homeland security programs with no plan for how to fill that capability gap do not foster public confidence.
Given the current Administration’s previously established anti-enforcement tactics, this most recent scheme may be too much for a public disinclined to trust Washington with immigration reform. Reinstituting “Catch and Release,” reducing the number of detention beds in use, terminating the use of worksite enforcement actions, and now, prematurely ending SBInet – all steps taken over the last 14 months – are telltale signs that skeptics of reform will be unlikely to miss.
Second, where is the CBP Commissioner during this discussion? While Congress has been distracted with the endless media circus that is ObamaCare, the head of the largest federal law enforcement agency is still waiting for a Senate vote – now 14 months into a new Administration. While the acting head of CBP, Chief of the Border Patrol David Aguilar, is a tremendous leader and law enforcement officer, he is not the proper advocate with the White House and Congress for a billion dollar program like SBInet. Instead, the job of defending SBInet from its detractors has fallen to the Secretary, and given her many other responsibilities and SBInet’s track record, she may have just decided this was one headache she didn’t need any more.
The lasting legacy of this decision will be how it is interpreted when immigration reform begins anew. If Napolitano is serious about using the funds for other more effective projects, the chances of adopting reform increase. But if the public believes this was just one more attempt to make illegal immigration an accepted reality, then reformers will have problems finding support for any legislation.