SBInet now a factor in immigration debate

Lawmakers may heighten oversight of the $2 billion Secure Border Initiative.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Secure Border Initiative program

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Curbing illegal immigration and securing U.S. borders will be at the top of the congressional agenda when lawmakers return this week from recess. Public concern about immigration could also inspire them to appropriate funds for the Secure Border Initiative.

Through that initiative, known as SBInet, the Homeland Security Department is seeking bids to secure U.S. borders. Five companies — Boeing, Ericsson, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon — are expected to submit proposals, which are due May 30. DHS officials want to award a three-year performance-based contract by Sept. 30.

The comprehensive program to control illegal immigration through the use of information technology, additional Border Patrol agents and better physical barriers, roads and detention facilities could cost as much as $2 billion.

Some lawmakers are already uneasy about the new initiative, however, citing the failure of two previous border security programs: the Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS) and America’s Shield Initiative. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee, raised doubts about the new program during an April 6 hearing.

“How is SBI not just another three-letter acronym for failure?” he asked. “We do not want more of the same tired formula of throwing money at a problem with limited results.” Without a plan, Congress won’t appropriate any money, he added.

Several analysts and homeland security experts said DHS is on the right course with SBInet by turning to the private sector. Michael Gambale, a former Border Patrol assistant chief and ISIS program manager, said DHS cannot simply place more agents at the border and expect to solve the illegal immigration problem. He said the department needs a balanced solution that integrates technology, addresses processes and policies affecting immigration, and improves the physical infrastructure along the borders.

The SBInet request for proposals, released April 11, reflects a balanced approach to the problem, said Gambale, who is now a project manager at CLMS, a technology firm based in Arlington, Va. Enterprise architecture, modeling and simulation will be important elements in any proposal, he said.

Under SBInet, DHS’ Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency wants to create a common operating picture for agents via the use of integrated sensors and other interoperable technologies and systems. The technologies would help agents detect, identify and respond to illegal activities.

DHS officials have hired more Border Patrol agents, increased detention space and streamlined processes to deport illegal immigrants. They have increased the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol certain areas. But they are looking now for a broader, more integrated plan.

Jeff Vining, vice president of Gartner Research, said CBP wants to establish a computer-aided dispatch system with a vast web of sensors that provide audio and video alerts to portable devices. The system would help immediately deploy agents to a possible situation. Whether that system can be replicated across thousands of miles of border in remote terrain and urban areas is problematic. “I think the federal government is kind of hoping from an RFP standpoint that the private sector can figure it out for them,” Vining said.

Marcus Fedeli, an analyst at market research firm Input, said DHS doesn’t have to award a contract if none of the vendors proposes a good solution. “It very well might not be the right answer whenever the proposals are received,” he said. “At least Homeland Security [officials] aren’t arrogant enough to think that they have the answer because I don’t think there’s necessarily a cut-and-dried answer.”

Fedeli said, however, that if DHS makes an award, the contract must be flexible enough to accommodate future congressional legislation, and it must allow for participation by state and local governments.

Of the five vendors who are expected to submit proposals, Swedish-based Ericsson is considered a surprise bidder. Doug Smith, the company’s general manager of government solutions, said Ericsson developed one of the first border security systems as part of the European Union’s Schengen Agreement, which authorized the creation of a common border system and unified immigration policies.

Smith said the United States’ border security problems are almost identical to Europe’s, except they are on a larger scale. The way DHS is addressing the problems is similar to the European Union’s approach, he said. “It is really defining what we call service-level agreements [or] key indicators of performance and letting industry decide how to meet those indicators.”

Public concern about immigration issues will likely push federal lawmakers to appropriate money for SBInet, Vining said. Lawmakers want credit for doing something about illegal immigration, but they probably will exercise vigorous oversight, he added. “I don’t see them holding back money initially now, but when the first big screw-up happens, that may become more of a sticky issue.”

Border security exempt from budget tightening

The Bush administration’s fiscal 2007 budget request includes $1.3 billion for programs that enforce border security and strengthen immigration enforcement activities inside the United States. That request includes $100 million for electronic surveillance and operational responses that are part of the Secure Border Initiative. The initiative would replace a piecemeal approach to border security and internal enforcement with an integrated solution.

Other major planned investments in border security in fiscal 2007 include:

  • About $460 million to hire 1,500 more Border Patrol agents, bringing the total to nearly 14,000.

  • About $390 million for 6,700 additional beds and employees to manage the detention of illegal immigrants.

  • $51 million to deploy tactical infrastructure, such as vehicle barriers, in Arizona.

  • $30 million to build fences and roads to help Border Patrol agents assigned to the border near San Diego.

  • — Dibya Sarkar