Dario Lopez-Mills, Associated Press

It seemed so simple and easy at first. Problem: illegal immigrants sneaking largely unimpeded across our border with Mexico. Solution: Build a fence. Or rather, two fences, one physical, the other virtual.

So in 2005 Congress enacted the Secure Border Initiative and since 2006 has spent $2.7 billion on the project. As so often seems to happen with Uncle Sam, the fences are behind schedule and over budget.

The timetable called for 670 miles of physical fence to be built by the time President Bush leaves office; 344 miles have been completed. Maybe the rest can be done some time in the spring, but that would require redirecting the $400 million or so needed to finish it from other programs.

The fence building has been dogged by property owners balking at letting the government take their land and rising material prices. Since last February the price of building the more elaborate barriers needed to keep out people trying to sneak in by foot has gone from $4 million a mile to $7.5 million a mile.

The virtual fence is to be a network of towers loaded with cameras, sensors and communications equipment that can spot anybody trying to slip through. The plan called for using existing, off-the-shelf technology, but the Department of Homeland Security and its principal contractor, Boeing, have had problems making the system work. DHS says, not unreasonably, that it wants to be sure the virtual fence works before finishing, but $933 million has already been spent on it.

The fence is the only part of the immigration debate that has gone anywhere, largely because it's the one area where the different sides agree. Meanwhile, the congressional Government Accountability Office says the Department of Homeland Security has no idea what the ultimate cost of the fence will be or how much we'll have to spend to maintain it.

And it all seemed so simple and easy at first.

By Dale McFeatters

Scripps Howard News Service