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Arizona's 'virtual' border wall gets a reality check

The viability of a high-tech barrier to detect illegal border crossers remains uncertain, after a pilot project struggles.

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– At first glance, it looks like an ordinary, TV antenna tower, Anywhere, USA.

Thirty-five miles of dusty desert from the nearest highway, it telescopes almost a hundred feet up in the air, topped with cameras and radars.

Nearby, a security man from Pinkerton National Detective Agency sits in a dark-colored SUV, watching movies on a laptop. Two giant tanks of water apparently for wandering migrants have been placed close at hand by the human rights group Derechos Humanos. The hum of a gas generator is the only sound among the mesquite bushes and paloverde trees.

The tower is one of nine surveillance turrets strung across 28 miles of Arizona border north of Sasabe that are supposed to communicate coordinates and images of moving figures to remote centers and laptops in border patrol vehicles.

They are part of "Project 28," a Department of Homeland Security initiative meant to test the viability of a "virtual fence" – a high-tech, possibly more effective alternative to the fencing the US is erecting across hundreds of miles of the southwestern border. The idea that radar towers could help fill in the current gaps in the physical wall, and the technology could even be transported to problem areas at will appealed to the DHS.

President Bush touted the project in May 2006 as "the most technologically advanced border security initiative in American history."

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