DHS unveils massive, fast-track border project

The Homeland Security Department today took the wraps off its ambitious plan to quickly gain control of the U.S. northern and southern borders by hiring a systems integration contract team to carry out the Secure Border Initiative (SBI).

DHS plans to request proposals in March and award a contract by Sept. 30 to deploy new technology as part of a comprehensive overhaul of security between ports of entry along the land borders.

SBI.net replaces the America's Shield Initiative (ASI), the Border Patrol's more limited and now canceled plan to modernize the sensor networks along the borders. The fiscal 2006 budget includes $31 million for ASI, but plans that DHS officials announced today at the SBI.net industry day strongly suggested that the new project would cost much more.

Homeland Security deputy secretary Michael P. Jackson told an audience of hundreds of vendor representatives and federal employees gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington that secretary Michael Chertoff has tagged SBI as ' one of most important public policy priorities.'

He added, 'The America's Shield Initiative is dead, but its [impetus] has been strengthened, refined and renewed.' Jackson emphasized that 'our objective is to have a procurement completed by the end of this fiscal year.'

After Jackson expressed DHS' desire to field proven systems rather than experimental projects, and to do so in an innovative fashion, the attendees heard from a who's who of SBI.net officials, including Deborah Spero, acting commissioner for Customs and Border Protection; Kevin Stevens, the acting program director for SBI in Customs and Border Protection; SBI program executive director Greg Giddens; and John Ely, SBI procurement executive.

An overarching theme of the industry day was expressed by Jackson as SBI being the nation's first comprehensive attempt to gain control of the southern border, a region characterized by one speaker as chaotic. 'We have never had a credible plan to enforce the southern border,' said Jackson, who noted that political conditions now are aligned to permit a thoroughgoing approach to border management.

Spero emphasized that DHS has 'an extremely aggressive and ambitious implementation schedule.' After DHS issues its proposal request in March, officials plan to hold a preproposal conference the following month to respond to questions from industry.

DHS plans to launch a Web site for SBI.net and post a transcript of the industry day presentations there. Officials said the department would release details about the Web site on the fedbizopps.gov Web site Jan. 30.

Giddens, who joined the SBI.net project from a previous assignment in the Coast Guard, said, 'This is a signature effort for the department.' He emphasized the need to take a systems approach to the SBI.net project, and said that it would include several aspects, such as ending the 'catch and release' approach to illegal border crossers, deterring cross-border crimes, strengthening employer compliance programs, removing incarcerated aliens and bolstering interior enforcement.

Attendees watched a PowerPoint presentation that depicted crowds of illegal aliens storming urban border crossings, assembling in long lines of trucks carrying border crossers and trudging in long columns along rural trails. The presentation showed how the geography of the southern border funnels illegal human migration into three main routes. When the Border Patrol floods enforcement resources into one illegal crossing zone, the human traffic displaces'sometimes hundreds of miles'to easier crossing sites, according to the Border Patrol.

SBI.net will have to use existing federal infrastructure as well as Border Patrol staff and their various kinds of equipment already in use, officials said. Officials encouraged the gathered vendors to consider innovative but proven technologies, such as satellite communications, to weave together a comprehensive method of managing border issues.

Those issues include human bondage, banditry targeted at border crossers, safety of border crossers and Border Patrol agents, border intrusions by thousands of violent criminal aliens and environmental degradation, among other problems, officials said.

Because SBI itself won't begin until fiscal 2007, its funding likely will form a key part of the administration's pending budget proposal for the department. Even as former DHS secretary Tom Ridge told his team that the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator System would be the program by which the public would judge the department's success, it appears possible that the ambitious SBI.net project could become secretary Chertoff's hallmark.

SBI.net will use program offices in three separate DHS directorates: CBP, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services. The department will draw on the efforts of 11,000 Border Patrol personnel, as well as other DHS staff, to stem the tide of illegal crossings that led to 1.2 million arrests at the borders last year, according to statistics presented at the industry day.

Jackson said that DHS expects vendors to form teams and to involve small businesses in their SBI proposals and added that some teams have been forming already. The industry day attendees included not only representatives of vendors large and small but also brokers who sought to form alliances among vendors, at a price.

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