By EILEEN SULLIVAN / Associated Press
The head of the agency that oversees the Border Patrol said Wednesday he cannot promise to meet President Bush's goal of completing a Southwest border fence when he leaves office in January.
The plan calls for finishing building 670 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border by year's end; so far, 344 miles are complete. But Ralph Basham, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, told lawmakers he only could assure that the remaining portions of fence would be under contract or under construction when the Bush administration is over.
He also said the agency needs an additional $400 million to complete the project. Basham cited higher costs for fuel, steel and labor.
"We face many challenges in achieving our goal," Basham told the House Homeland Security Committee.
The Sept. 11 attacks revived the immigration debate and advanced the idea of a border fence. Intelligence officials have said gaps along the southwestern border could provide opportunities for terrorists to enter the United States.
The fence is not intended to stop illegal immigration altogether, but make it more difficult for people to get into the U.S. illegally, administration officials say.
The overall plan for security on that border includes additional Border Patrol agents, more enforcement of immigration laws, the fence and a high-tech "virtual fence" with surveillance technology.
Boeing Co. has the contract for the technology portion of the fence, as well as for some construction work. Boeing's contract for the technology is up in 2009. If the administration is not satisfied with the work Boeing has done, the Government Accountability Office — Congress' investigative arm — suggested that a new contractor take over. According to the GAO, Boeing has $933 million worth of work on the project.
Since 2006, Congress has set aside $2.7 billion for the fence. But there's no estimate how much the entire system — the physical fence and technology — will cost to build, let alone maintain.
The technology portion has run into problems. It once was billed as a relatively easy plan to use off-the-shelf technology to help federal spot illegal crossers. When a GAO investigator toured a stretch of the "virtual fence" three months ago, it took 45 minutes to get the surveillance system up and running. The system includes towers with radar, cameras and communications equipment.
Basham told lawmakers, however, that the priority is to complete the physical fence.