Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Border-Fence Project Hits a Snag

Wall Street Journal
February 4, 2008
By Stephanie Simon

Opposition From Environmentalists, Property Owners Slows Construction of Final Leg

Construction of the final stretch of a 670-mile security fence along the southern U.S. border has hit a series of legal, political and engineering obstacles that are slowing completion of the yearlong project.

More than 600 miles of fencing are already up -- a hodge-podge of metal panels, wire mesh and steel posts. The California, Arizona and New Mexico portions were finished largely without incident. But the last 70 miles, mostly along the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, are proving a challenge.

Opponents of the fence have petitioned the Obama administration to halt construction. Environmentalists are demanding a top-level review of the route, which they say would block such rare species as the ocelot from critical habitat. Property owners are contesting federal seizure of their land. Engineers are struggling to address flooding concerns.

And all the while, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants continue to breach the fencing that is up, forcing Border Patrol agents and contractors to return again and again for repairs. The smugglers build ramps to drive over fencing, dig tunnels under it, or use blow torches to slice through. They cut down metal posts used as vehicle barriers and replace them with dummy posts, made from cardboard.

Citing the problems, opponents of the fence are pleading with the new administration to call a time-out.

As a senator, Barack Obama voted for the border fence. But during the presidential campaign he expressed doubts about its effectiveness. "There may be areas where it makes sense to have some fencing. But for the most part, having [the] border patrolled, surveillance, deploying effective technology, that's going to be the better approach," Mr. Obama said in a primary debate.

President Obama's new secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, was a skeptic as well during her time as Arizona governor, once quipping that building a 50-foot fence would simply spur invention of a 51-foot ladder.

But neither Mr. Obama nor Ms. Napolitano has signaled plans to stop construction. "Mr. Obama supports the fence as long as it is one part of a larger strategy on border security that includes more boots on the ground and increased use of technology," a White House spokesman said. A spokeswoman for Ms. Napolitano echoed that thought, though she also noted that the secretary has called for a review of border policies.

The fence isn't meant to stretch across the entire southern border; across much of Texas, for instance, the terrain is so rugged that Border Patrol sees no need.

Where fencing is going up, the look varies from place to place. In high-traffic pedestrian areas, such as around ports of entry, the barriers include 10-foot-tall mesh fences, angled to deter climbers, and solid walls made from Army surplus steel originally used to create landing strips during the Vietnam War. There are about 300 miles of these pedestrian barriers up now, built at an average cost of $3.9 million per mile, including land acquisition, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In remote regions where drive-through smuggling is the top concern, the Border Patrol has built vehicular barriers, often steel posts driven into the desert ground at close intervals. The average cost is about $1 million per mile, according to the GAO.

Apprehensions, a rough proxy for measuring illegal crossings, were down 18% at the southern border last year and Border Patrol attributes some of that to the fence. But a report in May by the Congressional Research Service found "strong indication" that illegal crossers had simply found new routes.

Even staunch advocates of the fence say it slows, but doesn't stop, illegal crossing. "It's not the whole fix, not even most of the fix," said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies. Mr. Camarota said he expected Mr. Obama to complete the project, with perhaps a few tweaks to the route.

But wall opponents aren't giving up. Many approve of the massive buildup in Border Patrol agents in recent years -- the force has doubled since 2001, to more than 18,000 -- and call for more aerial surveillance and motion detectors along the border. They just don't want the fence cutting through their land.

"What we see is a muro del odio" -- a wall of hate, said Texas state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, a Democrat from El Paso. "Simply put, it doesn't work. We hope Obama will take the wall down."

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