| Border security or boondoggle?
A plan for 700 miles of Mexican border wall heads for Senate -- its future is not assured
Tyche Hendricks, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006
A proposal to build a double set of steel walls with floodlights, surveillance cameras and motion detectors along one-third of the U.S.-Mexican border heads to the Senate next month after winning overwhelming support in the House.
The wall would be intended to prevent illegal immigrants and potential terrorists from hiking across the southern border into the United States. It would run along five segments of the 1,952-mile border that now experience the most illegal crossings.
The plan already has roiled diplomatic relations with Mexico. Leaders in American border communities are saying it will damage local economies and the environment. And immigration experts say that -- at a cost of at least $2.2 billion -- the 700-mile wall would be an expensive boondoggle.
The December House vote of 260-159 is the strongest endorsement yet for building a wall, which Rep. Duncan Hunter, a San Diego County Republican, has been pushing for two decades as a tactic against illegal immigration. Support for the wall was even stronger than for the bill it was attached to -- a larger plan to curb terrorism and illegal immigration sponsored by Wisconsin Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner that passed 239 to 182.
"It is a tangible demonstration of the seriousness of the United States in not permitting illegal migration into the country," said Jack Martin, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that favors tighter immigration controls.
Hunter estimates that building two rigid, steel-mesh barriers with a paved road between will cost $2.2 billion, though the price tag could be almost twice that, based on the actual cost of a similar but much shorter fence now under construction in San Diego.
Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said the money would be well spent.
"The fence in itself is a force multiplier," Kasper said. "It allows Border Patrol agents to refocus their attention to other areas because it won't require as many Border Patrol agents to monitor a location as it would without a fence."
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in an e-mail interview that she opposes the Sensenbrenner bill, though she supports a similar fence now being built along 14 miles of the border in San Diego County.
"Fencing in combination with other things, is useful," she said. "One of the things I believe is you have to enforce our nation's borders."
Residents fear impacts
The fence plan is likely to change significantly in the Senate when it takes up immigration reform, border security, employment verification and guest worker proposals in March. Two versions of immigration reform have been introduced in the Senate, but a third, released Friday by Sen. Arlen Specter, was the first to mention a fence, calling for a study of building a "physical barrier system" along the U.S. borders with both Mexico and Canada.
Leaders in many border cities already have vehemently objected to a fence. The city of Calexico in Imperial County passed a resolution in early January opposing it.
"We should be in the construction of bridges of good relationships with Mexico," said Calexico Mayor Alex Perrone, whose city has mutual aid agreements with the police and fire departments in neighboring Mexicali, just over the border in Baja California. Calexico's retail economy depends on Mexican shoppers, he added. "If we don't have Mexico, we don't have Calexico."
Mike Allen, director of the McAllen (Texas) Economic Development Corp., said leaders from along the Rio Grande agreed at a recent gathering: "Every single mayor from Brownsville to El Paso is against it.
"We want people to support our immigration laws because we live here," said Allen, who lives a half-mile from the border. "But this will be a tremendous waste of money, and it will not stop (illegal) immigration. People will just go around it."
Among those hurt most by illegal immigration are members of the Tohono O'odham Indian tribe, whose desert land stretches along 70 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border. But tribal leaders don't want their land to be fenced, as proposed under the Sensenbrenner bill, because that would prevent Indian people and wildlife from crossing the border as they are accustomed to. "We need the Border Patrol, but we have to balance that with respecting the sovereignty of our nation, our land and our people," tribal Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders said in an interview last year. "It's a sensitive balancing act."
Outside Douglas, Ariz., ranchers Warner and Wendy Glenn have seen the number of illegal immigrants crossing their land skyrocket over the past decade. The Glenns rely on the Border Patrol but enforcement doesn't stop the influx; it just shifts where migrants cross, Wendy Glenn said.
A "monster fence" would block migration paths for deer, javelina, coyotes and mountain lions, and damage the sensitive desert ecosystem; accompanying new patrol roads could even create easier routes for smugglers, she said.
"It will only open up more access for drugs and illegals, with more traffic and more damage," Glenn said. "Washington policymakers have no clue what is happening out here on the ground."
Barrier takes many forms
Fencing of some kind already exists along 106 miles of the border, mostly near cities, including San Diego, El Paso and Nogales, Ariz. Most of it consists of welded panels of corrugated steel recycled from portable landing strips the Army used in Vietnam.
Elsewhere, the international line varies from a few strands of barbed wire tacked to wooden fence posts to a winding river where egrets and roseate spoonbills forage.
A fence could be a valuable tool for the Border Patrol, said spokesman Sal Zamora, but building it will be easier said than done.
"Though in theory it might sound like a viable option, in practice it might not be," he said. "I don't know that environmental impact assessments or feasibility studies have been done."
Zamora also said manpower and technology -- night-vision cameras, motion detectors, helicopters and unmanned aerial drones -- are as important as fencing in cutting off illegal border crossings.
Even as fencing and patrols increased steadily over the past dozen years, the number of people arrested trying to cross illegally fluctuated. Illegal crossings may be more reflective of the international economy than border patrol efforts, according to immigration experts.
San Diego's 14-mile double fence has been in the works since 1996. But construction of the 15-foot-high, rigid, steel-mesh barrier, which is the model for the proposed fence, has been stalled by environmental concerns even though Congress gave the Department of Homeland Security authority to disregard environmental and other laws in an effort to speed fence construction.
Roughly $39 million has been spent on the project so far, according to Hunter's office, and Homeland Security plans to spend $35 million more.
If that $74 million is enough to finish the job (Border Patrol officials say the cost could keep rising) and the price is multiplied over the proposed 700 miles, the new fence could run $3.7 billion. Even that estimate doesn't take into account the expense of purchasing or condemning many miles of privately owned land abutting the border or of potential legal challenges.
Other avenues to entry
Illegal border crossings and drug smuggling have dropped in urban areas over the past dozen years, a sign that fortifying walls there and reinforcing them with cameras, buried motion detectors and a doubling of Border Patrol personnel may have worked.
Typical migration routes have shifted to more remote and treacherous regions, however, and border-crossing deaths have increased eight-fold over the past decade to 473 last year. Migrants increasingly hire smugglers, at $1,500 a pop, to help them make the three-day hike through parched and rocky terrain.
The number of unauthorized immigrants to the United States remained more or less steady from 1996 to 2005, according to demographer Jeff Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C. He said 700,000 to 750,000 people enter the country illegally each year, helping raise the total to a record 11 million in 2005.
As many as one-third of those 11 million people did not walk across the border illegally, instead entering the country on tourist, student or work visas and simply staying after the visas expired, Passel estimated.
These visa "overstays" are from China, the Philippines, India, South America, Canada, Ireland and many other countries, said Passel, whose estimates are used by the Department of Homeland Security. Passel emphasized that more than 99 percent of the 25 million to 30 million legal foreign visitors to the United States each year follow the law in general and obey the terms of their visas.
All 19 of the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the country on legitimate visas and only six had violated them by overstaying, enrolling in school when they entered as tourists, or failing to enroll when they entered as students.
Effectiveness is debatable
Building a wall won't address overstays, and it may not even slow foot traffic across the border, many analysts said.
"People will seek other ways to come into the country," said Maria Echaveste, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank in Washington, D.C. "I suspect more use of water, more use of fraudulent documents, more use of criminal smuggling.
"So long as there are jobs and there is a demand for labor and we are not serious about cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers, people will seek to come in," Echaveste said.
Deborah Meyers, an expert on Mexican immigration at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said a crackdown at the border without new legal avenues for immigrants to come and work in this country is doomed to fail.
"We cannot nor should we barricade ourselves off from everything. It's completely unrealistic," Meyers said. "With the money we spend on a fence, we could be reducing the backlogs in processing for legitimate applicants, we could be putting in a system for verification of work authorization, we could be helping Mexico create jobs so people wouldn't have to leave."
The $2.2 billion Hunter estimates the fence would cost could fund almost 2,500 new Border Patrol agents for five years, a 22 percent increase in the force. Or it could increase 15-fold the U.S. Agency for International Development's spending on economic development in Mexico over the next five years.
After the Sensenbrenner bill passed in mid-December, Mexican President Vicente Fox condemned the fence as "shameful" and dispatched his foreign minister to Washington to raise concerns with senior State Department officials.
"It has become very emotional in Mexico," said Allen, the Texas economic development official. Fence backers "say it's not akin to the Berlin Wall," he said.
"But it is," Allen said. "Mexico is our second-largest trading partner, and we're building a wall to keep them out."
Wall is the first step
Hunter, the wall's key backer, is not worried about the impact on this country's relationship with Mexico, his aide said.
"Homeland security cannot be put on hold for diplomatic concerns," Kasper said. "We don't need permission from any other nation as to how best to protect our communities."
Al Garza, executive director for the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a self-appointed militia group that has been patrolling the border and drawing public attention to the issue of illegal immigration, said before the Senate considers guest worker programs or any other immigration reform, it must beef up border enforcement as a matter of national security.
"The first thing is to secure the border, the rest will take care of itself," Garza said.
Walls around the world
Mexican President Vicente Fox has likened the $2.2 billion double fence proposed for 700 miles of his northern border to the Berlin Wall, a comparison angrily rejected by fence supporters. Throughout history, nations have built walls to keep people in, keep people out or both.
Great Wall of China: One of the greatest construction projects in world history, the Great Wall runs, with branches, about 4,500 miles. Large parts of it date from the seventh through fourth centuries B.C. Built of dirt, stone and brick, the wall ranges from 15 feet to 25 feet wide and 15 feet to 30 feet tall with a 13-foot-wide road on top and watchtowers at regular intervals.
Berlin Wall: The barrier that separated West Berlin from East Berlin and surrounding areas in the former East Germany from 1961 to 1989 was a series of concrete walls up to 15 feet high topped with barbed wire and enhanced with watchtowers, stationary guns, mines and electrified fencing. By the 1980s, the wall ran 75 miles around West Berlin and 28 miles through Berlin.
Morocco / Western Sahara: The Moroccan Wall is a 1,600-mile system of sand berms and rock walls built in the 1980s by Morocco to control Western Sahara, where tensions continue between Morocco and Polisario Front separatists despite a U.N.-brokered cease-fire. The wall is an earthen mound about 7 feet high fronted by a 23-foot-wide ditch and studded with bunkers, barbed wire, and anti-personnel and anti-tank mines.
India / Bangladesh: India has built more than 1,300 miles of a planned 3,034-mile barrier at its border with Bangladesh. The fence will be patrolled by 50,000 officers and key stretches will be electrified. Construction of the $1 billion double fence -- which is 10 to 12 feet high, floodlit and razor-wire filled -- began in 1986 and will be done next year. It may extend near a demilitarized zone separating the two countries, to enclose Indian villages on the border.
Israel: Israel has built about 170 miles of the barrier separating it from the Palestinian-dominated West Bank. Another 140 miles are planned or under construction, and 155 more are under review. The barrier, a wire fence in some places and concrete wall in others, has additional enhancements such as barbed wire, electricity, sensors, watchtowers and sniper posts. Supporters say it has been routed to foil terrorists and critics say it unfairly incorporates Palestinian land into Israel.
Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Global Security, CIA FactbookCompiled by Chronicle research librarian Johnny Miller and staff writer Matthew B. Stannard