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Presidential contender Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, has expressed support for a "virtual fence" scheme in which Eye-of-Sauron-style scanner towers would be used to monitor the southern US border. He sees this as a good alternative to controversial plans for a physical fence in the Rio Grande Valley, which covers part of the border between Texas and Mexico.

Many locals along the Rio Grande, including elected officials, oppose the building of the physical fence. Giuliani sees scanners and patrols as a way forward, controlling illegal immigration while still allowing access to the river.

"Frankly, the virtual fence is more valuable because it alerts you to people approaching the border, it alerts you to people coming over the border," Giuliani told reporters on Monday during a tour of the region.

At present, the main technology being developed for use as a virtual border fence is Boeing's SBInet, the networking and hardware part of the Department for Homeland Security (DHS)'s Secure Borders Initiative. Each 98-foot-tall spy tower can sweep the surrounding country with moving-target-indicator radar, and then zoom in on likely blips with telescopic thermal cameras for a positive identification. A data network allows incoming huddled masses to be plotted on laptop maps, permitting border patrolmen to intercept them efficiently.

Giuliani reportedly said that this kind of approach could end illegal immigration within three years.

All US presidential hopefuls need to tread a line between appearing soft on immigration and antagonising the large numbers of first and second generation Americans. In office, US politicians often find it necessary to avoid driving illegals totally underground, as well. Giuliani himself has faced criticism from fellow Republicans for New York's "sanctuary" policy, in which his city officials weren't allowed to rat out suspected illegal immigrants seeking medical care or public education for their kids.

"Mayor Giuliani created an amnesty haven in New York City," according to Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Mitt Romney - one of Giuliani's rivals to be Republican candidate for president.

"As a result he hampered enforcement efforts and hurt our nation's ability to secure our borders. He has exactly the wrong approach to a very serious problem."

Giuliani says he was hard as nails on illegals, and that letting them use hospitals and schools was the best way to handle them.

"The policies that I utilized with regard to illegal immigration were in the context of overall policies that probably were the most successful in the history of the country in creating an orderly, legal, lawful society," he said.

At the moment, the SBInet scanner-barrier programme is still at the demonstration stage. If fully rolled out, however, the DHS inspector general has estimated that it could cost anywhere from $8bn to $30bn. ®

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