Producers of the reality show “Homeland Security USA” airing this season on ABC promised it would deliver to America’s living room day-to-day excitement from several of the law-enforcement missions for which the Department of Homeland Security is responsible: coastline protection, airport security and customs inspection.

But a prominent focus of the show after several episodes has specifically been the enforcement of immigration laws.

While such television is ratings gold, in order for the show to preserve the sense of adventure involved in chasing immigrants across the frontier, its producers must all-but-skip any serious conversation about the true cost of beefing up immigration enforcement, as the Bush White House did with massive investments in new technology and personnel to protect the nation’s borders and stop the wave of people attempting to enter the United States.

Unfortunately, the much-ballyhooed immigration suppression efforts—such as constructing hundreds of miles of fencing—have been racked with delays and outsized project costs, according to recent reports.

The show’s inherent voyeurism is exciting, to be sure. Suspense builds as the narrator asks intriguingly whether an immigration suspect being approached carefully under night cover by border agents is armed and will put up a fight. After waiting dutifully through a commercial break, the viewer learns there will be no thrilling shootout and the hapless detainee goes away quietly.

Or the U.S. Border Patrol discovers a group of men traversing the desert on their way to America. The suspects have tattoos and the narrator implies that they must be gang members coming here to commit crimes rather than find work. The arresting officers seem to feel more at ease, too, having established that they possess tattoos, as if otherwise they’d experience a moral dilemma in simply enforcing immigration laws.

A scene in episode three of the show opens on the Sonoran desert, which covers parts of Arizona and California straddling a 400-mile section of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“For the air and marine interdiction team, protecting it from drug smugglers and human traffickers requires a number of innovative techniques,” the narrator tells viewers. Customs and Border Protection, for instance, has groups of ATVs, officers on horseback, helicopters and a network of unmanned aerial vehicles with which to guard the border.

The predator drones are part of a multi-million dollar fleet of sophisticated toy planes that with the assistance of remote control and a series of ground antennas can sweep across the desert “like a silent watchdog in the sky,” the narrator marvels.

Guided from inside a fortified RV trailer near Tucson, the drones have a wingspan of 66 feet and are armed with powerful cameras that enable their earth-bound pilots to identify smugglers from 19,000 feet in the air and many miles away. After what seems like just a few moments of the show’s team being present, the drone operators spot what looks like a line of ants crossing a television monitor in front of them. A horse patrol is immediately dispatched to where the drone spotted the would-be migrants who are quickly overcome in the desert.

“I see moms with young kids who really have no idea what they’re getting into. They have sweatshirts on but no blankets,” Border Agent Dove Haber tells viewers. ” … I’m a mom and can’t help but empathize with these kids who have no say in what happens.” Another agent says “coyotes” who are paid to help immigrants across the border frequently tell them it’s only a short journey, but the long trek can actually take six or seven days on foot.

It’s not the only time the show seems to encourage the audience to feel for the plight of immigrants. At the El Paso, Texas border in one scene, a woman crosses the pedestrian bridge from Mexico and arrives at the checkpoint with gauze stuffed into her mouth claiming she is a legal citizen and simply returning to the United States after receiving dental work.

A border protection agent is doubtful, however, and becomes convinced the woman’s legal residency card, which purports to show she’s already a U.S. resident, is bogus and the stuffing in her mouth used to make her look slightly more like the photo on her documents.

During a pat-down the officers find two cards containing the image of St. Toribio Romo, the patron saint of migrants that some devout Mexican Catholics believe will help ensure their safe passage across the border.

On this day, St. Toribio is up against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the keepsakes only give the woman away. She’ll be headed back to Mexico. Before doing so, the show’s camera crew interviews the woman briefly as a soundtrack of compassionate piano notes plays softly. She’d saved her money for five years in order to make the journey, the woman says, and it was her first attempt to cross the border.

“Where I live there is little work and I believed there were other possibilities,” she says in Spanish. She is afraid of being sent back to Juarez, the Mexican border town currently engulfed in some of the worst drug-war violence the area has ever seen. In the end, the show seems to say, the Department of Homeland Security has a job to do.

Meanwhile, all of this great television comes with a pricetag. The U.S. Coast Guard alone plans to spend $2 billion during 2009 on its drug and migrant interdiction efforts, nearly as much as it budgeted for search and rescue operations and reducing maritime fatalities and injuries.

That money is in addition to the amounts already appropriated for the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, which share similar homeland security responsibilities with the Coast Guard. The money spent by ICE alone for removing deportees from the United States doubled in just a few years to more than $3 billion in 2009.

In late 2005, the Department of Homeland Security launched the Secure Border Initiative, which included constructing hundreds of miles of fencing along the nation’s borderlines and using new surveillance widgets to expand the eyes and ears of authorities. Congress appropriated approximately $3.6 billion for the initiative between 2006 and 2009 alone.

As part of the program, the feds hoped to have two different types of new fencing stretched across the U.S. border with Mexico. One was an anti-vehicle barrier made of concrete pylons hammered into the sand every few meters, while in other areas, cross sections of steel are used that look like large Xs necklaced for miles across the earth amid the desert sagebrush and cacti.

But most of the fencing is designed to block entry by pedestrians and comes in different types, from tall, steel picket fencing to walls of chain link.

The federal government hoped to have 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle fencing completed as part of the program by December of 2008. But the United States shares nearly 2,000 miles of border with Mexico, and as a Government Accountability Office report published Jan. 29 pointed out, the costs were ballooning by September of last year as homeland security officials negotiated with private owners over land acquisition. As of October, only about 215 miles of combined vehicle and pedestrian fencing had been finished.

Customs and Border Protection, which is responsible for the fence, estimates that building it on private property costs the American taxpayer $800,000 in additional funding on top of what it already takes to erect just one mile of it. Pedestrian fencing during 2008 cost the federal government an average of $3.9 million for each mile, but at times it reached as high as $15.1 million per mile. Vehicle fencing required an average of about $1 million per mile but climbed as high as $1.8 million.

Authorities had constructed about 32 miles more of secondary fencing by October that runs parallel to the primary fence for additional protection. It cost approximately $2 million per mile. The difficult terrain that surrounds major cities like San Diego can cause the per-mile cost of secondary fencing to climb even higher to as much as $16 million. Included in such extra costs are a “need to undertake significant earth and drainage work, construct all-weather access roads, and deploy additional lighting,” the GAO report points out.

The per-mile price tags described above are far more than what the Congressional Budget Office had originally estimated for the fencing project.

Using private contractors, as the Bush Administration has done significantly, is supposed to make the cost of government cheaper for the American taxpayer. As much as 40 percent of the Department of Homeland Security’s activities are outsourced to private corporations. But last month’s GAO report found that “costs for fencing completed by commercial contractors are higher than for fencing built by the Border Patrol or the military.”

Steel alone for the fence project has reached $224 million so far.

A program within the initiative known as SBInet called for deploying a “virtual border” of ground sensors, cameras, radars and lights strung on towers. Combined, planners hoped the massive IT deployment would figuratively and physically throw a spotlight on the southwest border and prevent illegal entry. But a prototype of the system experienced significant delays “because the contractor-delivered system did not perform as intended,” the GAO concluded in another report last year, stating in addition that “contractor oversight was limited.”

The Inspector General’s Office for the Department of Homeland Security came to its own conclusions in a November 2006 report:

The department does not have the capacity needed to effectively plan, oversee, and execute the SBInet program; administer its contracts; and control costs and schedule. The department’s acquisition management capacity lacks the appropriate work force, business processes, and management controls for planning and executing a new-start major acquisition program such as SBInet.

In fact, the inspector general noted then that in hastily rolling out the Secure Border Initiative, the Department of Homeland Security had sacrificed key oversight functions that could have saved vast sums of money.

Overall, the tech side of the program suffered multiple glitches throughout 2008 and the department could have saved the nearly $400 million spent on SBInet last year alone to construct 200 additional miles of physical vehicle barriers instead, the GAO found. Work being conducted by the contractor Boeing Company had to be halted last summer after it was discovered that homeland security officials had not obtained the required permission to build on some land controlled by the Department of the Interior.

Individual states have attempted to launch their own border protection initiatives, but those efforts, too, have suffered from unexpected costs or logistical setbacks. Gov. Rick Perry handed $2 million in federal grant money awarded to Texas over to a coalition of border sheriffs last year to launch a Web camera program that citizens could watch online and use to aid in the capture of illegal immigrants and smugglers.

But the El Paso Times obtained documents under the Texas Public Information Act in January showing that the project “fell short of expectations during the first six months of operation.” Perry’s office admitted to the newspaper that the program had experienced some failures but said the problem was the yardstick measuring outcomes rather than the concept itself.

Only a dozen or so cameras out of 200 promised had been installed during the six-month period. The coalition had vowed to conduct as many as 1,200 arrests in the first year of the project, but after six months just three had occurred based on tips from viewers. They hoped in addition to report 4,500 suspected immigration violations during the year, but again the first six months netted only six.

A similar early attempt by the governor had already proved problematic even before the coalition of sheriffs received the $2 million. According to the El Paso Times:

The camera project is one Perry has been struggling to get off the ground since he announced in June 2006 he would spend $5 million to line the Texas border with hundreds of cameras and stream the video feed live on the Web. Anyone, anywhere with an Internet connection could troll the border for scofflaws, he promised. … After several starts and stops, Perry launched a $200,000 month-long test with 21 cameras in November 2006. An El Paso Times review of documents from the test showed despite the 28 million hits on the test Web site, the cameras helped border law enforcement apprehend only 10 undocumented immigrants, make one drug bust and interrupt one smuggling route. Some lawmakers panned the program as ineffective, and in 2007 legislators denied Perry’s request to fund more cameras and resume the online offensive.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.