November 13, 2008
NACO, Sonora - Mario Garcia Salcido and a friend left home in Culiacán for this dusty speck of a border town last week, headed for jobs in an Idaho milk-processing plant.
They met up with the tallest obstacle the U.S. government has ever erected along the Mexican border: an 18-foot, mesh-metal fence west of here, with poles sunk deeply into concrete.
Garcia hoisted his friend, who wouldn't identify himself, up the barrier, and in 20 minutes, they clambered into the United States illegally. An hour later, the U.S. Border Patrol arrested them for the third time in a month.
Garcia and his friend say the tall fence won't deter future illegal immigrants.
"Everybody can climb it. They cross by every manner," Garcia's 42-year-old friend said as he waited in Naco's Migrant Resource Center after being returned to Mexico.
The United States is spending $700 million to build 670 miles of new fencing along the border, but lured by U.S. jobs with higher wages, immigrants are adapting.
The tallest portions of the fencing are 15 to 18 feet high, aimed at stopping both pedestrians and vehicles. The shortest barriers are 3 to 4 feet high and designed to stop vehicles in remote areas.
The large fences stretch in broken but growing segments across the 1,950-mile border. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it has put up 114 miles of truck barricades and 118 miles of new 15- and 18-foot fences. That's about half of the total planned.
The fences are high enough to deter some would-be illegal immigrants. But the Border Patrol and immigrant-aid centers report that people are devising ways to scale the fences, be it by two-by-four ladders, tree limbs or rope - and some are injuring themselves in the process.
The Border Patrol says the fence is doing its intended job.
"The border fence is a speed bump in the desert," spokesman Mike Scioli said. "It slows them down long enough for us to respond."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff talks of the fence as just one facet of a more comprehensive strategy to secure the border. The fence is intended to complement, not replace, extra agents, surveillance sensors, inland checkpoints and technology.
Border Patrol Agent William Schaeck was amazed at the feeble barriers when he came to Naco three years ago. "All of this was barbed wire," he said, motioning to a stretch of 18-foot fence that went up in the past year.
The fence stands in the windswept scrub like a line of crooked teeth, as far as the eye can see.
East from the Naco port of entry, there are six types of fence in the first 2 miles. Types range from 10 feet to 18 feet, from corrugated-steel wall to a picket of metal poles to reinforced-wire mesh. A freshly graded dirt road runs alongside, and in some places, a string of floodlights sit atop tall aluminum poles.
"It has helped," Schaeck said.
Borderwide, arrests by agents dropped 18 percent this year, although a slowing U.S. economy is a major factor.
For the past six months, crews have been building a 15-foot mesh fence about 15 yards behind the main 12-foot corrugated-steel wall west of the crossing.
Security purists want such a double barrier along the length of the border.
When Congress passed the Secure Fence Act in 2006, it authorized 670 miles of double fence.
Last year, the act was amended to give Chertoff discretion to build 670 miles of any barrier he saw fit. Last month, Chertoff conceded that a deadline to finish that work by January will not be met and that 90 to 95 percent would be under contract.Near Douglas, 25 miles east of Naco, there is no double fence and very little of the 18-foot barrier. A few miles east, the fence turns into 3-foot-high barricades intended to stop drug smugglers' trucks. Walkers can easily slip through and reach a highway 5 miles north.
"Just look at how open this is," said Ray Borane, former Douglas mayor and now Gov. Janet Napolitano's border adviser.
Borane does not think even a continuous 18-foot barrier will stop immigrants. There's just too much open territory to patrol, he says.
Garcia and his friend say they scaled the fence by hand because they couldn't afford the $2,500 smugglers' fee. The desert around Naco is littered with makeshift ladders, shelter volunteer Cecile Lumer said, showing a picture of a ladder made of weathered two-by-fours. It lies in the dirt 20 feet from the new fence, waiting to be reused.
Across the border, in the Border Patrol office, Schaeck holds up a ladder fashioned from barbed wire twisted around rungs made of wooden dowels. He has seen others made from thick tree branches, through which holes were bored and rope strung. He has seen crude grappling hooks, ropes with knots and ladders with barbed-wire rungs.
Lumer and Mexican border agents say they have seen more people trying their luck on the fence and more injuries in recent months. The immigrants come into the shelters with broken ankles, swollen knees, dislocated fingers and bad cuts.
The fence is the last resort for illegal immigrants, especially those who've been arrested by the Border Patrol after paying all their money to coyotes. Some coyotes now charge 1,000 pesos, or about $80, to let immigrants use their ladders.
Garcia and his friend said the journey into the United States was too difficult. They were going home to stay.
Not everybody makes that choice. The Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego found that nearly half the illegal immigrants whom its researchers surveyed in 2007 and 2008 in Mexican villages and U.S. cities had been arrested during their previous journey. Two-thirds also said the crossing was difficult. But nearly all made it to their U.S. destinations eventually, a consistent finding since 1995.
Asked what the U.S. government could have to do to keep all illegal immigrants at the border, Garcia answered in pantomime: jiggling spasmodically, closing his eyes and sticking his tongue out.
"Electrify it," he said, laughing. "That, or post soldiers every 10 meters."