Secure Border Initiative:

Technology Deployment Delays Persist and the Impact of Border Fencing Has Not Been Assessed

GAO-09-896: Published: Sep 9, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 17, 2009.

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Securing the nation's borders from illegal entry of aliens and contraband, including terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, continues to be a major challenge. In November 2005, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the launch of the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), a multiyear, multibillion dollar program aimed at securing U.S. borders and reducing illegal immigration. Within DHS, U.S. Custom and Border Protection's (CBP) SBI program is responsible for developing a comprehensive border protection system using technology, known as SBInet, and tactical infrastructure--fencing, roads, and lighting. GAO was asked to provide periodic updates on the status of the program. This report addresses (1) the extent to which CBP has implemented SBInet and the impact of delays that have occurred, and (2) the extent to which CBP has deployed tactical infrastructure and assessed its results. To do this work, GAO reviewed program schedules, status reports, and previous GAO work; interviewed DHS and CBP officials, among others; and visited three SBI sites where initial technology or fencing had been deployed at the time of GAO's review.

SBInet technology capabilities have not yet been deployed and delays require Border Patrol, a CBP component, to rely on existing technology for securing the border, rather than using newer technology planned to overcome the existing technology's limitations. Flaws found in testing and concerns about the impact of placing towers and access roads in environmentally sensitive locations caused delays. As of September 2006, SBInet technology deployment for the southwest border was planned to be complete by early fiscal year 2009. When last reported in February 2009, the completion date had slipped to 2016. As a result of such delays, Border Patrol agents continue to use existing technology that has limitations, such as performance shortfalls and maintenance issues. For example, on the southwest border, Border Patrol relies on existing equipment such as cameras mounted on towers that have intermittent problems, including signal loss. Border Patrol has procured and delivered some new technology to fill gaps or augment existing equipment. However, incorporating SBInet technology as soon as it is operationally available should better position CBP to identify and implement operational changes needed for securing the border. Tactical infrastructure deployments are almost complete, but their impact on border security has not been measured. As of June 2009, CBP had completed 633 of the 661 miles of fencing it committed to deploy along the southwest border. However, delays continue due mainly to challenges in acquiring the necessary property rights from landowners. While fencing costs increased over the course of construction, because all construction contracts have been awarded, costs are less likely to change. CBP plans to use $110 million in fiscal year 2009 funds to build 10 more miles of fencing, and fiscal year 2010 and 2011 funds for supporting infrastructure. CBP reported that tactical infrastructure, coupled with additional trained agents, had increased the miles of the southwest border under control, but despite a $2.4 billion investment, it cannot account separately for the impact of tactical infrastructure. CBP measures miles of tactical infrastructure constructed and has completed analyses intended to show where fencing is more appropriate than other alternatives, such as more personnel, but these analyses were based primarily on the judgment of senior Border Patrol agents. Leading practices suggest that a program evaluation would complement those efforts. Until CBP determines the contribution of tactical infrastructure to border security, it is not positioned to address the impact of this investment.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2010, the Homeland Security Institute (HSI) began work on a cost-effective evaluation of the impact of tactical infrastructure on effective control of the border, in response to GAO's recommendation. In February 2012 HSI presented an interim report on this analysis to the DHS Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition (OTIA) leadership during which GAO was present. Based on the interim report, OTIA leadership determined that additional data needed to be obtained to increase the level of confidence in the assessment. OTIA also determined that to assess the cost effectiveness of tactical infrastructure on border security, the HSI team needed additional data collection and analysis of the Border Patrol operations history over an extended period of time. Specifically, because of the complexity of determining an analytical methodology for measuring the mix of deployed resources, engagement of peer reviewers and collecting a sufficient amount of data to ensure a creditable Return on Investment (ROI) analysis, HSI estimated that an additional 3-5 years of operational history would be required. OTIA tasked HSI to continue with the next phase of the analysis that will specifically address the ROI analysis associated with deployment of tactical infrastructure (fencing) on the border. CBP has taken and continues to take steps to address this recommendation to evaluate the impact of tactical infrastructure. Based on the interim assessment, CBP should be better positioned to understand the impacts of tactical infrastructure on border security and gathering and analyzing additional data over the next 3-5 years should allow them to deepen this understanding and, as a result, this recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve the quality of information available to allocate resources and determine tactical infrastructure's contribution to effective control of the border, the Commissioner of CBP should conduct a cost-effective evaluation of the impact of tactical infrastructure on effective control of the border.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection


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