A virtual wall, not a physical wall, is the key to stopping illegal immigration

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Construction of President Trump’s promised southern border wall could begin as soon as spring 2018, provided Congress hands over more than $1 billion in funding. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Acting Chief of the Border Patrol Carla Provost told the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee on Tuesday that with the $1.6 billion in the 2018 budget request set aside for wall construction, work on the wall could start in March or April 2018.

Investing in border security infrastructure is important, but Congress should dedicate funds to technological solutions, rather than a contiguous concrete barrier that anyone who works in border security knows is a waste of money.

The White House’s 2018 budget calls for $2.6 billion in border security spending, $1.6 billion of which is intended for wall construction. The other $1 billion is set aside for needed border security tools, such as aircraft to monitor the border, new Border Patrol equipment (e.g., vehicles, radios and weapons), monitoring technology (e.g., cameras and sensors) and inspection equipment.

Funding a border wall is one of the most contentious issues on Capitol Hill, and many legislators consider a physical barrier to be antiquated and ineffective. There’s a reason why not one member of Congress hailing from a border state, Republican or Democrat, supports a physical barrier. As Texas Republican Representative Will Hurd said, “Building a wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to go about” securing the border.

Meanwhile, CBP continues to push ahead with its bidding process for selecting a company to design the border wall. In May, CBP notified an undisclosed number of finalists that they were chosen to build prototypes in San Diego near the Otay Mesa border crossing. The existing fencing in this area has been illegally bypassed some 800 times a year. Overall, the 654 miles of fence on the southwest border was breached more than 9,000 times between 2010 and 2015, according to the Government Accountability Office. And when it comes to trafficking narcotics, the cartels have already embraced new technology, such as by using drones to monitor Border Patrol movements and carry drugs across the border. How could a border wall, of any height, stop these drones?

One productive exercise for the White House would be a close assessment of why the current fencing is insufficient and a narrow description of why a new barrier – whatever the prototype – would be more effective. Indeed, how does the Administration plan to measure effectiveness? What is the baseline for determining whether a wall has any impact on illegal crossings? Even now, CBP does not have a method for measuring how effective the existing fence is in preventing crossings – or any other incursions for that matter.

When it comes to security along the U.S.-Mexico border, what’s needed is a more strategic initiative relying on 21st century technologies. And the $197 million the White House requested for border security technology is laughably insufficient. In a time of ubiquitous smartphones, autonomous vehicles, drones, artificial intelligence and increasingly sophisticated monitoring equipment, we have the expertise and tools to build an effective virtual wall. The United States is the richest, most powerful and technologically advanced country in the world. Why would we use a crude 15th century technology (i.e., a physical wall) when we have such a wealth of tools at our disposal?

This is something leaders from border states, as well as private sector organizations (such as the Border Commerce and Security Council), have been requesting for years—a suite of technological tools that gives us greater awareness and visibility along the border, serving as a force multiplier for Border Patrol agents to more effectively respond to attempted crossings and other illegal activity. Ultimately, border security infrastructure needs to be a deterrent, a system so vastly superior that potential border crossers know to a certainty that they will be spotted coming a mile away. A wall gives people something to climb; a network of cameras, sensors, communications tools and other equipment gives border crossers nowhere to hide.

The requested monies for building a wall could be put to better use. Imagine how much technology we could acquire with those funds. What’s needed is the political will to call for a technologically driven border security solution and the legislative grit to put real funding behind it. Absent that, the private sector, citizens and others are left with little choice but to fund their own tech-focused border security prototypes. Data from such efforts may help pierce the illusion some hold that a physical barrier alone will be anything other than a higher climb for border crossers and a massive waste of taxpayer money.

Nelson Balido (@NelsonBalido) is the managing principal at Balido and Associates, chairman of the Border Commerce and Security Council, and former member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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