WASHINGTON The United States will miss its deadline to complete a security fence along the Mexican border this year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Thursday.
"I don't think we're going to hit the nail on the head and be done by the end of the year," Chertoff told Reuters, adding that about 370 miles of the planned 670-mile (1,070-km) fence had been completed.
Chertoff said he hoped when the Bush administration leaves office in January about 90 to 95 percent of the fence -- a controversial measure that has raised hackles both with Mexico and with U.S. landowners along the proposed route -- would be completed or under construction.
"We've gotten most of the way there. We will be very substantially close," he told Reuters in an interview.
Congress has mandated that the fence, which will eventually stretch from California to Texas to help stem the tide of illegal immigration, be finished this year but law suits have slowed its progress.
"We've had some delay because the court proceedings in Texas have gone more slowly than I thought ... Although every time there's actually been a legal challenge, we've won," Chertoff said.
The nearly 2,000-mile 3,200-km border with Mexico is the main entry route for illegal immigrants into the United States, which is already home to 11 million to 12 million undocumented aliens, or one in every 20 workers in the country.
Better enforcement and mounting U.S. economic troubles have slowed the influx however. Border patrol agents arrested 880,000 people crossing illegally in 2007, down from 1.1 million a year earlier.
PROPERTY, ENVIRONMENT FEARS
The fence is aimed at slowing the migration further, but it has been hit by delays.
About 54 percent of the proposed fence is to be built on private property, raising concerns among ranchers who fear they will lose access to irrigation pumps and ecologists who worry it will block the migration of endangered species such as the jaguar and ocelot.
The U.S. Justice Department has filed dozens of lawsuits seeking court orders to gain access to property for surveying while the Supreme Court has rejected a legal challenge by two environmental groups to Chertoff's decision to waive 19 federal laws to speed construction of the fence.
Chertoff said progress was being made on other measures aimed at boosting border security, including moves to double the number of border patrol personnel on the job to more than 18,000 by the end of 2008.
"We will hit the 18,000 target," he said.
He said that plans for a $21 million expansion of a high-tech "virtual fence" along parts of the border were being implemented and the first test section was yielding results.
"We've used it to catch thousands of illegal migrants we've also seized several tons of marijuana," he said.
The government announced this year that it was awarding Boeing Co contracts to build two sections of the fence that would include fixed towers, radar and ground sensors, remote control cameras and software linking border agents.
Newspapers have reported delays with the system, but Chertoff said there were still plans to deploy elements of the virtual fence around Tucson and Yuma in Arizona over the next year or so.
Chertoff said U.S. officials were working with their Mexican counterparts to develop measures such as border checks to help stem the trafficking of guns southward from the United States, a major complaint in Mexico.
"There's no question that having some border control facility will be an important part of their strategy for keeping guns out," he said.
(Editing by Randall Mikkelsen and Cynthia Osterman)