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U.S. to erect more "virtual" border fences

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. officials announced plans for more high-tech border fencing and rules making it harder for federal contractors to hire illegal workers, but said on Monday it would take another three years to declare victory in immigration control.

In an election-year update on immigration policies -- a simmering issue in this year’s presidential campaign -- the Bush administration said its control efforts were making progress.

But they said a major policy overhaul was needed to ensure there were enough immigrant workers for high-skilled technical jobs as well as low-skilled agricultural labor.

“We simply do not have enough foreign workers at both ends of the spectrum,” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said at a news conference with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

President George W. Bush failed last year to get Congress to pass a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, which would have combined a crackdown on illegal immigration with a new guest-worker program.

The administration instead imposed a patchwork of administrative measures and moved ahead with plans to construct 670 miles of barriers along the 2,000-mile (3,200 km) border with Mexico.

Chertoff said the government had decided to award Boeing Co contracts to build two sections of a high-tech fence in Arizona.

The new sections would be an “operational configuration” of a much-criticized 28-mile (45-km) “virtual fence” built by Boeing and tested earlier, Chertoff said.

It would include fixed towers, radar and ground sensors, remote control cameras, and software linking border agents. Officials plan to deploy elements of the technology as needed elsewhere along the border.

Chertoff dismissed earlier reports of deep trouble with the test section, which had been delayed by several months due to technical problems, including communications and software glitches and fuzzy video images.

FEDERAL CONTRACTORS

Chertoff also said the government would make all federal contractors participate in an electronic system to verify that employees are not illegal immigrants.

The decision could affect hundreds of thousands or millions of workers, he said. The government has heavily promoted the “E-Verify” system, which is voluntary for other private employers.

Gutierrez said the United States had a shortage of workers that it was having trouble filling with immigrants, despite steps to streamline paperwork.

Some Republicans have criticized the party’s presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, for not being tough enough against illegal immigration. Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama has called for more opportunities for legal immigration and for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Chertoff said apprehensions this year of people trying to illegally cross the border were running about 16 percent behind last year’s pace. That was a sign, he said, that fewer would-be immigrants were trying to cross, deterred by stricter enforcement and penalties.

He said the U.S. goal remained on track to gain effective control of its borders by “sometime in 2011” -- at least two years after Bush leaves office.

Also on Friday, the Justice Department inspector general reported that an FBI backlog in background checks had held up U.S. citizenship applications of tens of thousands of people.

The report said the FBI’s system of running background checks for names submitted by agencies including Citizenship and Immigration Services has been unable to cope with a surge of requests since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States led to tightened security standards.

Some Democrats have accused the Bush administration of stalling to limit new voters in the November 4 election.

But FBI and immigration officials told reporters they were making gains on the backlog. They projected that by the end of November, the number of citizenship background checks that had been pending for more than a year would fall to about 20,000, compared with about 50,000 in March.

Editing by Eric Beech

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