Imagine I’m a contractor at Boeing or Lockheed Martin. (This might be easier if you picture me with a Snidely Whiplash mustache.) My sights, as is traditional, are trained on the DoD. The political landscape looks pretty bad from here: a massive budget deficit, a public pretty well convinced that money needs to be spent on domestic priorities, and a defense secretary who could dominate the NYTimes bestseller lists of 2018 with the memoir-slash-self-help-book “The Pentagon Diet.” As Richard Stallman once memorably sang, that’s not good, hackers, that’s not good.

But let me turn my gaze to the Department of Homeland Security, and the view changes dramatically. Sure, the $11 billion that Customs and Border Protection has requested for FY 2011 (for example) is small potatoes compared to what I’m used to. But where the DoD is strong enough to shove people around a bit, DHS is almost comically weak. The department’s been in a PR nightmare for the entire Obama administration. Secretary Janet Napolitano’s comment in the wake of the underwear bomber mishigas that “the system worked” is probably the most tone-deaf statement made by a member of this Cabinet, and one from which her reputation still hasn’t recovered. Meanwhile, her department is trying to prove that it’s solid enough on immigration enforcement to create some political space for comprehensive immigration reform — but when it can’t even correctly count how many people it deported last year, nobody seems to be buying it. Plenty of reasonable people agree that the department was a bureaucratic mistake to begin with. Those who disagree want it to double down, particularly on border security.

Hm, border security. I think I can help with this!…or at least push products that will give the appearance of helping, which is almost as important to DHS and every bit as important to me. Flashy technology is certainly not the cheapest way to fix DHS, and it’s almost certainly not the most effective. But DHS doesn’t need actual effectiveness right now as badly as it needs the appearance of effectiveness — or, really, toughness — to fight back against continued hammering, especially from congressional Republicans.

All of which is to say that the news, now a few weeks old, that Janet Napolitano is shutting down the “virtual border fence” — after three years and over a billion dollars — is only moderately welcome news (to me as DFH blogger, not me as imaginary mustache-twirling defense contractor). Sure, the GAO report that precipitated the virtual-fence funding freeze is pretty damning, all but accusing DHS of rigging its tests — but it assigns blame to DHS’ improper oversight rather than to the contractor (Boeing, in this case). It’s a vicious cycle: PR setbacks create the need to look tough, which incentivize investment in big, flashy, untested technology, which fails and creates more PR setbacks. So I’d be shocked if the money that DHS might have continued to shovel out to Boeing for the virtual fence doesn’t go to other bandito contractors for other projects — say, for example, the Predator drones that have been patrolling the border for months.

Meanwhile, Citizenship and Immigration Services — another DHS agency — is fighting tooth and nail to get its Office of Citizenship’s $11 million annual budget covered through appropriations rather than user fees, so it will no longer have to charge would-be citizens $675 per application. Republicans are worried about passing those costs onto the taxpayer. Go figure.

Permadisclaimer: My opinions about immigration politics and policy are entirely my own and are in no way associated with my employer or any other organization. My taste in music is also entirely my own and is in no way associated with the proprietor of this blog, who was probably way cooler than this in ’96 — or, for that matter, at birth.

Dara Lind

Dara Lind

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