By BRADY MCCOMBS
Arizona Daily Star
April 29, 2008
Private contractors have been paid $279 million by the Department of Homeland Security to construct 58 miles of primary fence -- fencing meant to stop people on foot -- and 32 miles of vehicle barriers in the past nine months, figures from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show. The projects are part of an effort to complete the construction of 670 miles of fencing and barriers by the end of 2008.
By the end of the year, nearly 110 of Arizona's 350 miles of U.S.-Mexican border are scheduled to have primary fences -- more than seven times the 15 miles of two years ago, Homeland Security environmental assessments show.
Homeland Security officials acknowledge that the 15- to 18-foot-high barriers aren't a panacea but say they are a key element in the strategy to slow illegal immigration through the Southwest border's busiest stretch. Border-security proponents applaud the efforts and say fencing is long overdue.
"I believe in a strong, secure fence," said Patrick Flanagan, who has 40 acres about four miles north of the border in the Kino Springs area east of Nogales. "It's the principle of it -- I think we need to defend our borders."
Each new project, however, brings out a flurry of concerns from environmentalists, immigrant advocates and some border residents who contend fences don't stop illegal immigration or drug smuggling, and merely push traffic into more remote and fragile terrain. That's dangerous for the people crossing illegally and Border Patrol agents trying to catch them, and harmful to habitat and wildlife that depends on riverbeds and mountains, they say.
"It's a foolish waste of money to try to stop people from coming because they are just going to come around the fence," said Barbara Johnson, who lives about a half-mile north of the border near the Santa Cruz River in the Kino Springs area. "All they are doing is moving the traffic."
Homeland Security officials are working furiously to complete the remaining 361 miles of projects by the end of the year to meet the mandate of 670 miles of primary fencing and vehicle barriers established by the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Through March, the agency had completed 309 miles.
To reach that goal, on April 1 Secretary Michael Chertoff invoked a waiver granted to him by the 2005 Real ID Act that will allow his department to build fences, roads and towers on 470 miles of border in Arizona and Texas without having to comply with environmental regulations.
The new fences sprouting up are taller, sturdier and, in some cases, more environmentally friendly than the steel landing-mat fences that went up in the mid- to late 1990s in urban centers such as Nogales.
They are also a lot more expensive.
It cost about $1 million a mile to put up the old fences. All six of the recent primary-fence projects in Arizona have cost at least $3.2 million per mile.
Environmental assessments indicate that officials plan to leave very mountainous areas and riverbeds open as they continue building fences.
That triggers a key argument from fence critics: Arizona's stretch of U.S.-Mexican border will eventually become a patchwork of steel fences and vehicle barriers with only the most rugged mountains and largest riverbeds left open.
That would funnel illegal immigration through sensitive corridors that are home to a large amount of biodiversity in the region, said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife.
"We've basically pointed an arrow saying, 'Go here, there's not a fence here, and bring your friends,' " Clark said. "Because there is nothing there to stop them."
The consequences of pushing people into remote and rugged areas worries Kino Springs resident Stephanie Campbell, whose house sits on the bank of the Santa Cruz River near the golf course.
"All fences do is push them out to farther areas where they end up dying," she said. "There is no way they are going to say, 'Oh well, they built a fence, I'm not going to come into the United States.' "
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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