October 15, 2008
A dubious attempt to deter immigrants
By Geri Smith
Geri Smith is the Mexico Bureau Chief and Senior Correspondent for Latin America for BusinessWeek magazine. She has lived in the region for 28 years, covering economic policy, business and industry, and politics. During her time in Mexico, Smith has taken many trips to the U.S.-Mexican border, the most recent of which occurred in January during the final testing of the Bush administration’s proposed “virtual fence.”
Stretching for nearly 2,100 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico border meanders through grassy plains, steep canyons, rattlesnake-infested desert terrain, a muddy river with treacherous currents, and people’s backyards. Apart from the busy official crossings, where billions of dollars in trade and hundreds of thousands of commuters cross daily, much of the border is unmarked and unfenced. With the exception of prosperous San Diego County, there is little to indicate that this is the boundary of the world’s richest nation: ramshackle trailer homes, dusty, unpaved roads, and payday loan shops give this dismal stretch of the U.S. the look of a hardscrabble developing country.
Yet, for many Mexicans and Central Americans, the U.S. border beckons: migrants refer to a popular crossing point near Sasabe, Arizona as “la puerta dorada”—the golden door—their gateway to a more prosperous future. The estimated half-million migrants who manage to sneak illegally into the U.S. each year are drawn by the prospect of jobs paying five times more than they can earn back home. For that, they are willing to risk their lives making the often dangerous journey across the borderlands; over the past decade, around 500 migrants a year have perished while crossing.
As the United States heads into a recession, public opinion is turning against undocumented migrants, believed to depress wages and take jobs that unskilled Americans might want. Even presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, who last year co-sponsored a comprehensive immigration reform bill that failed to pass, is now making a more simplistic promise to voters: he pledges that “as president, I will secure our borders” first. Democratic contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both advocate exploring high-tech solutions to boost border security. It’s understandable that politicians believe they must show voters they are serious about solving the problem of illegal immigration, but the current focus on fence-building will achieve little if it is not accompanied by meaningful immigration reform that recognizes the strong economic and labor links between Mexico and the U.S.
Building fences to keep unwanted migrants out is tempting, but it is a dubious proposition because fences are easy to breach, especially in remote areas that the Border Patrol cannot regularly police. Just 300 miles of fencing have been erected over the past 15 years, most of it clustered around a half-dozen main ports of entry along the southwestern border. That fencing, floodlit at night and monitored by video cameras, is designed to keep migrants from crossing in urban areas, where it is easier for them to quickly melt into the crowd. Congress in 2006 approved the Secure Fence Act, authorizing construction of another 700 miles of fences. But it’s slow going: just 70 miles were built last year, with another 225 miles planned for 2008. Since President George W. Bush took office in 2000, the number of Border Patrol agents has nearly doubled to 14,900, supplemented by up to 6,000 National Guard troops, whose deployment ends this summer. The Department of Homeland Security credits the additional fencing and manpower with helping cut apprehensions of migrants by 20% last year, to 877,000.
Recently, I traveled to Nogales, Arizona, just south of Tucson, to see if the new fencing was deterring migrants. Private contractors were finishing up a seven-mile-long segment of 15-foot-high barriers made of cement-filled steel tubes anchored three feet deep in the desert sand. Designed to resist blowtorches, climbers and the impact of a heavily-loaded vehicle, the fence looked pretty formidable. But when I witnessed a Border Patrol chase a few hours later, I realized there is only so much a fence can do. Smugglers driving a pickup truck packed with a dozen would-be migrants, pursued by two helicopters and five patrol cars in a high-speed highway chase, screeched up to the brand-new barrier, easily shimmied over and dropped to safety on the Mexican side. As one of the Border Patrol agents told me, “Border fences don’t keep people out—they just slow them down.”
Smugglers are ingenious: Some use blow-torches to cut door-size holes in the fence, to which they attach hinges and a padlock for regular use. Officials recently seized a truck retrofitted with extendible ramps allowing other vehicles to drive up and over any barrier. As Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has remarked, “you show me a 50-foot fence, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.”
Fences are expensive, too, with one Army Corps of Engineers study estimating that erecting and maintaining a sturdy barrier along the entire border for 25 years could cost from $37 billion to $150 billion. In the 1990s, the government installed ground sensors and cameras to keep better track of would-be crossers. The Bush Administration hoped to harness that technology to create a “virtual fence” to substitute for some on-the-ground patrols, and it paid aerospace and defense contractor Boeing Corp. $20 million to build nine communications towers along a 28-mile stretch of the Arizona border to test the concept. The towers, rising 98 feet above the desert scrubland, are equipped with radar and infrared cameras that use Wi-Fi technology to transmit images and data to a command center in Tucson and to laptops installed in 50 Border Patrol vehicles. But the experiment was plagued by software and equipment glitches—cameras couldn’t distinguish between coyotes and humans—and in February, Homeland Security scrapped plans to deploy the virtual fence along the Mexican and Canadian borders.
For more than a century, Mexicans have been crossing into the United States to work, with migration flows expanding and contracting in response to economic circumstances in the two countries. Under the World War II-era “bracero” program, some 4.2 million Mexicans worked six months each year in the U.S. on farms and in factories to replace American G.I.’s fighting abroad. When that formal program ended in 1964, illegal immigration began to rise.
In 1986, Congress granted amnesty to around 3 million Mexicans and introduced workplace sanctions for companies found to have undocumented employees. But the sanctions were ineffective, and in the early 1990s, when voters in California and several other states balked at providing education and health services to growing numbers of illegal immigrants, the Clinton Administration again turned its focus to border enforcement. A 14-mile-long double fence made of steel mesh and welded metal panels—surplus airplane landing mats from the Vietnam War—was built between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. It wasn’t cheap, costing $9 million per mile, but it did dramatically cut the number of illegal crossings in that area, which led many to believe that fences were the solution. Yet, migrant flows simply moved to other stretches of the border, because demand was high: the American economy was booming and workers were needed to build, landscape, and clean thousands of homes, hotels, and shopping centers.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, prompted a serious tightening of border security, though, and migrants who used to travel home periodically to visit family instead stayed put, paying smugglers known as coyotes as much as $3,000 per person to bring in their spouses and children to live in the U.S. Ironically, the expanded border fence, rather than keeping people out, may actually keep many migrants fenced in. And immigration experts estimate that one-third to one-half of the 12 million undocumented migrants in the U.S. didn’t scale any border fence at all: they entered the country legally and then overstayed their visas.
Ralph Basham, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), told a Congressional hearing in March that it may be impossible to meet CBP’s own timetable for having “operational control” over the border with Mexico by 2011, in spite of $2.7 billion spent since 2006 and another $775 million requested for fiscal year 2008. That goal, he said, had assumed that comprehensive immigration reform would be in place by now. The bill that the Senate failed to pass last year would have created 200,000 two-year visas for temporary workers and offered a path to legal residence for migrants if they paid a fine and learned English.
As long as the incomes of Mexicans remain just one-fifth of those of Americans, people will continue to breach the border, fenced or not. Exaggerated sales pitches for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) promised that the pact would dramatically narrow the wage gap, reducing migratory pressure, but that has not happened; Mexico consistently fails to create enough jobs for the 1 million young people who enter the work force each year. Certainly, the government could take steps to improve working conditions: Mexico’s insufficient protection of independent labor union organizing has contributed to continued low wages by weakening workers’ collective bargaining efforts. That has led to calls by both of the Democratic presidential candidates for renegotiation of NAFTA to strengthen its labor-protection provisions. If NAFTA is re-opened, however, Mexico will surely push for freer cross-border movement of labor.
President Felipe Calderón says building a border fence is not a neighborly solution and insists the U.S. should reform its immigration laws to “recognize reality, our complementary economies, and the importance of the free movement of labor to increase North America’s competitiveness.” Mexico, he says, cannot afford to continue losing some of its most enterprising citizens to the U.S., but at the same time, many Mexican communities have become dependent on migrant remittances from the United States, which reached $24 billion last year, outstripping foreign direct investment in the country. As the U.S. economy slows, affecting industries that employ undocumented labor, some Mexican migrants will return home In January, remittances were down 5.9% from the same month in 2007, the largest drop in 13 years, indicating tougher times ahead for migrants.
For many migrants, the writing is already on the wall. At a shelter in Nogales, on the Mexican side of the border, I met 21-year-old Ramiro, who had lived most of his life in Arizona but was deported after a minor traffic violation revealed he was in the U.S. illegally. The new border fence didn’t worry him in the least: he planned to leave Nogales on foot at 3 a.m., walk seven miles to detour around the fence, and then hop a cargo train to Phoenix. Two days later, he made the 26-hour journey, and when I tracked him down on his sister’s mobile phone, he cockily chalked up his feat to “Mexican ingenuity.” He no longer had his job as a restaurant cook, though: the owner, fearful of losing his business license under Arizona’s tough new workplace-enforcement rules, said Ramiro had to prove legal residence in order to work there. In the end, it wasn’t the expensive new fence that had deterred him.