By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona could spend $30 million to construct a "virtual fence" to ensure the federal government is securing the U.S.-Mexico border from drug smugglers and illegal immigrants under a measure that has narrowly advanced in the state legislature.
State Senator Bob Worsley has proposed putting 300 watch towers, complete with the latest technology, to put what he called extra "eyes on the ground" capable of watching over the roughly 350 miles of border Arizona shares with Mexico.
"People in my state don't trust what the federal government is telling us when it comes to border security," said Worsley, a Republican. "This is a way to verify what we're being told."
The virtual fence bill narrowly passed a Senate committee on Monday, with Republican lawmakers concerned about the price and privacy problems. It was expected to be tough-going before the Senate appropriations committee and would need to be approved by the full Senate and House and signed by the governor before it becomes law.
"I'm not sure that it's a good, wise use of money just to tell the federal government, ‘ha ha we can see what you're doing and we don't agree with what you're doing,'" Republican Senator Chester Crandell said during committee debate.
Crandell also said the federal government should be paying for such projects.
Arizona, with its Republican-controlled legislature and governor, has clashed repeatedly in recent years with President Barack Obama's Democratic administration. Chief among the battles is how to handle the flow of people illegally coming across the porous border into Arizona from Mexico.
Worsley said the virtual fence would allow Arizona to be better prepared if a federal immigration bill sought by Obama is passed this year and signed into law.
Under Worsley's proposal, the virtual fence would consist of towers placed within one mile (kilometer) of the sprawling border in southern Arizona that would be equipped with radar and video cameras. Anyone with an Internet connection would be able to see what was happening, according to the plans.
Worsley said he already has been in contact with a Utah company that produces such systems and that there are plans to erect a test unit at the state capitol in a few weeks.
In January 2011, the Obama administration blocked a virtual fence project, which had come under criticism, in favor of other security measures. That project cost about $1 billion and was designed to pull together video cameras, radar, sensors and other technologies to catch illegal immigrants and smugglers trying to cross the border.
(Editing by Ken Wills)