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Border security or boondoggle?
San Francisco Chronicle


February 28, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO - 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, R-Calif., 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."

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."


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