Dispatch From the Mexican Border
Why the security fence will never be built.
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.
Eliza Barclay is a writer in Washington, D.C.
Photograph of U.S.-Mexico border fence by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.