Dispatch From the Mexican Border

Why the security fence will never be built.

People walk alongside a U.S.-Mexico border fence

CABORCA, Mexico—Francisco is a young, brash marijuana “mule” from this Mexican town 95 miles from the border with Arizona. While a phalanx of Border Patrol agents, National Guardsmen, and the technological shield designed to deter and catch people like him waits on the other side, he doesn’t seem at all intimidated. “Crossing the border is pretty easy,” he told me. “You have to know where you’re going, and you have to work with the right people, but you can make it.”

It is the ease with which people like Francisco have slipped across the border that has inspired fiercer border-enforcement measures.

Ever since October 2006, when President George W. Bush signed a bill authorizing the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the border with Mexico, top-ranking Latin American politicians have denounced the plan, calling it unnecessary, offensive, and, in the words of former Mexican President Vicente Fox, “deplorable.”

What few Latin Americans—or residents north of the border for that matter—seem to realize is that there is little chance this monster wall will ever be built, at least in its entirety.

“This was more of a piece of symbolism than a practical piece of legislation,” says Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former commissioner of what was then the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “The fencing element of border security has been exaggerated politically in terms of the expectations that politicians have set for it.”

The bill, called the Secure Fence Act of 2006, called for a double-layer fence with stadium lighting to be built along a third of the border, with sections in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Many immigration experts say the proposal was a political ploy at a critical time before the midterm elections. In the new session of Congress, lawmakers may return to proposals for comprehensive immigration reform that could reduce the need for more physical barriers.

The exorbitant costs, the difficulty of appropriating funds, the construction challenges along rough patches of terrain, and local opposition to shorter sections of fence already under construction suggest that it will be almost impossible to construct such a massive barrier.

A handful of border cities including San Diego; El Paso, Texas; and Nogales, Ariz., already have some type of fencing—mostly composed of welded strips of corrugated steel—in place. These fences were built in the mid-1990s in U.S.-government operations designed to crack down on the busiest crossing points. These and other physical barriers helped to redirect people away from urban points of entry into more remote areas, like the Arizona desert and south Texas. Although fewer people cross where there are currently barriers, studies show that overall inflows of immigrants have not slowed. According to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center, between 700,000 and 850,000 illegal immigrants have entered the United States every year since 2000, bringing the total unauthorized migrant population to nearly 12 million.

Even though San Diego now has 9 miles of fence, the Department of Homeland Security has been struggling to extend the wall an additional 3-and-a-half miles through a zone called Smuggler’s Gulch. Environmental groups in San Diego opposed the plan to fill in the uneven terrain to provide a more stable base for the fence and have gone to court to prevent it. Though DHS has the authority to waive any U.S. law—including environmental laws—in the name of homeland security, the process has been stalled, and the costs have steadily increased.

Cory Briggs, a lawyer who represented the Sierra Club and other groups in their attempt to sue DHS, said that he expects other environmental groups along the border to fight attempts to build more fencing if the federal government were to proceed. “I think that enviros learned a valuable lesson on the San Diego-Tijuana border fence and will therefore be much more active on the 700-mile fence,” said Briggs.

DHS would also likely have to wrestle with local land owners, as well as the National Park and Forest Services, who manage many parcels of land adjacent to the border where new sections of fence could be built. “There are sure to be a lot of ‘Not in my backyard’ interests along the border, and the government will run up against permit issues with private landowners and tribal leaders,” said Rey Koslowski, a professor of political science and public policy at the State University of New York at Albany.

Prohibitive costs may be another crucial factor. Already, homeland-security watchdogs like the DHS inspector general’s office are grumbling about underestimates for the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet), a high-tech DHS plan to transform border control through technology and infrastructure. In September, DHS announced it was awarding the primary $2.5 billion SBInet contract to Boeing. Boeing is building a string of 1,800 towers and associated sensors along the borders with Mexico and Canada. The towers will be equipped with cameras and motion and heat detectors linked to computers in the Border Patrol’s control room and mobile vehicle units. The initiative also calls for more Border Patrol agents. In November 2006, the inspector general’s office said that SBInet could cost as much as $30 billion, nearly 15 times the original estimate. (No firm estimate has ever been available for the cost of the 700-mile fence, but the San Diego portion alone has cost upward of $74 million so far.)

But even as the plan to build the fence looks shaky, few disagree that increased enforcement could be part of an effective plan to deal with the chaotic situation at the border. The Border Patrol claims that recent advances in manpower and technology have discouraged would-be migrants from crossing illegally into the United States from Mexico—quantified by an 8.4 percent decrease in apprehensions between 2005 and 2006. And in the first four months of fiscal year 2007, arrests of illegal immigrants from along the southern border have dropped 27 percent compared to the same period in fiscal 2006. They have also seized more drugs: The agency grabbed 1.3 million pounds of marijuana in 2006, up 13 percent from 2005.

But the Border Patrol has acknowledged that “effective control” of the entire border remains far out of reach. The agency aims to control 345 miles by the end of 2007 and the whole thing in five years.

Some experts worry that new barriers would only encourage would-be crossers to find other ways to get across—for instance, by using forged documents or by hiding in vehicles and crossing at legal crossing points. “Barriers make it more difficult to cross, of course,” said Koslowski. “But more barriers between the ports of entry will drive people through those ports; they will figure out more clandestine ways of hiding.”

For Francisco, the smuggler, business will continue as usual, as long as there’s good money to be made transporting people and drugs across the border. And as a friend of Francisco’s commented, “El desierto es todavía bien grande, gracias a Dios.” The desert is still very big, thank God.