- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The federal government hasn’t come up with a comprehensive strategy to secure the U.S.-Mexico border even as an all-out war between Mexico and its violent drug gangs has claimed 35,000 lives and pushed hundreds of thousands of immigrants into the United States.

The U.S. government has spent nearly $4 billion on various approaches, including a $2.4 billion border fence effort, two deployments of National Guard troops to temporarily bolster the Border Patrol, and a now-defunct $1 billion “virtual fence” that covered 53 miles of the 2,100-mile U.S.-Mexico border until the Obama administration scrapped it earlier this year.

“In spite of an effort to do more, there does not appear to be a plan in place that actually accomplishes the objectives of a secure border,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, in a speech this month to the U.S.- Mexico Congressional Border Issues Conference.

Drugs were catapulted over the physical fence, tunneled under it and even driven over it with homemade ramps. “Show me a 10-foot fence, I’ll show you an 11-foot ladder” became common wisdom along the border.

And the Department of Homeland Security is facing lawsuits from landowners who found their property in a no-man’s land on the other side of the fence, inaccessible to the rest of the United States.

The U.S. also tried the SBInet virtual fence plan, abandoned earlier this year after a billion-dollar expenditure. There’s a new plan to install cameras, radar and other gadgets, but that gear won’t be in place borderwide until at least 2021 and maybe not until 2026, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says these efforts are working, and she points to a 36 percent drop in apprehensions at the border and the addition of thousands of newly hired Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection agents. Those successes, she tells Congress, need to be built upon.

“In March 2009, the Obama administration launched the Southwest Border Initiative to bring focus and intensity to Southwest border security, coupled with a reinvigorated, smart and effective approach to enforcing immigration laws in the interior of our country,” Ms. Napolitano said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee this month. “We are now two years into this strategy and, based on our own indicators of progress as well as previous benchmarks by Congress, it is clear that this approach is working.”

But that initiative focused almost entirely on adding people and financial resources to the border, an effort analysts say is incomplete without a wider strategy that focuses on hard information about what and who is getting across the border daily, statistics the administration has been unable to collect.

Define ‘secure’

Most of the planning at the moment is focused on the Arizona-Mexico border, the busiest section of the border in terms of smuggling drugs and people. For that, Homeland Security has crafted a plan to replace the virtual fence at a cost of another $775 million and five years.

Yet an overall strategy from the Pacific to Gulf coasts is lacking, critics say.

Bradley Schreiber, a former Homeland Security senior adviser and current vice president for the Applied Science Foundation for Homeland Security, said the government has employed a piecemeal strategy using technology or personnel. So far, the government hasn’t developed a solid way to measure the threat and therefore can’t know for sure if it is really responding to it in the best way, he said.

“We don’t know what the threat is because we haven’t done a thorough assessment,” Mr. Schreiber said. “We don’t know what’s coming across, and we don’t have a strategy to address it.”

Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute and one-time head of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, said she doesn’t see a clear goal or way to get there.

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