April 24, 2009
by Jared Janes
The border wall was no barrier to 10 or so people who climbed it one night late last month carrying several bundles of marijuana.
U.S. Border Patrol agents driving along the wall that night saw the men as they scaled the top. A chase resulted in the arrest of four of the men and the recovery of several hundred pounds of pot.
The scaling of the wall provided more fodder for border wall detractors, who have long argued that no fence could ever be too tall, too deep or too long for anyone who really wanted to get past it.
But Border Patrol officials who see the wall as a crucial tool in their security efforts insist it's functioning perfectly in line with its intended purpose.
Apprehensions of illegal immigrants are down in Hidalgo County since the wall neared completion, an indicator that fewer people are trying to cross, said Dan Doty, a local Border Patrol spokesman.
The decline is in line with a national decrease in apprehensions since federal officials started constructing 670 miles of border fence two years ago.
While Washington officials acknowledge the decline may be due in part to factors such as the economy, Doty said the numbers don't present the whole picture of how the wall is working in the Rio Grande Valley.
The barrier directs illegal entry away from populated areas into rural areas, making it easier to apprehend drug smugglers and illegal immigrants and reducing dangers posed to the city residents, Doty said. And in those instances when illegal crossers have sought to circumvent the wall, the barrier has worked as intended.
"It slowed them," Doty said of the late March smuggling attempt. "They got over it but we caught them. It served its purpose and did exactly what we planned it to do."
Going over it is only one option.
Since Congress authorized nearly $3 billion for 670 miles of fencing from Brownsville to San Diego, authorities have encountered a variety of ways smugglers and illegal immigrants continue to thwart the fence, said Lloyd Easterling, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Washington.
In Nogales, Ariz., repeated tunneling by drug smugglers has been deterred by a 12-foot underground concrete barrier that a private contractor built last month. In New Mexico, illegal immigrants who attack the wall with torches and hacksaws force agents to make daily fixes.
And in San Diego, which has had double and triple fencing near Tijuana since the 1990s, the border fence leads some to take chances with the waves, hoping the tide carries their small boats around the barrier to a favorable spot.
Easterling said breaches aren't necessarily failures.
"It stands to reason that it's a success if they're trying so hard to defeat that fence," he said. "We all realize ... it's not going to stop people - it is meant to give us time."
With improved technology, more manpower, extra lighting, new surveillance equipment and the border fence, the number of apprehensions of illegal immigrants - the most reliable measure of those trying to slip into the United States from Mexico - was down nearly 50 percent last year from the Border Patrol's peak of about 1.6 million apprehensions in 2000, Easterling said.
The national numbers are poised to fall again this year as Border Patrol reported a 24 percent decrease in apprehensions for the most recent six-month period compared to the same time frame one year earlier.
In the Yuma, Ariz., region, the single-busiest Border Patrol sector, apprehensions dropped from a high of 138,000 in 2005 to 8,363 in 2008, the first year the sector had the fence.
A weaker U.S. economy is also impacting the number of illegal entries by reducing economic incentives for crossing, Easterling said. But tough enforcement measures - from the fence to adding more Border Patrol agents to prosecuting more people - are deterring some would-be crossers.
Easterling likens the fence to one leg in a three-legged stool that also includes new technology such as motion sensors and cameras and additional manpower in the form of 6,000 new agents.
"You really do need all of those things," he said. "If you only have two legs, the stool collapses."
The best way to see how the wall is helping the Border Patrol stop illegal entries is to look at the ground, Doty said. Near Granjeno, a well-worn path once led illegal immigrants away from Mexico toward the center of the city.
But as crews started construction on the barrier outside the city, he said, the path moved away from the city, toward an area where the wall was not being built.
Unlike sections of the wall in New Mexico and Arizona where the intent is to deny access, the easiest way for people to thwart the levee-barrier is to go around it, Doty said. The result is that they are directed away from the urban areas into places where they are easier to apprehend, which reduces the danger to residents.
But in Granjeno, where "No Border Wall" signs still line chain-link fences despite the barrier looming in view from people's backyards, lifelong resident Gerardo Mata Jr. worries the fence might increase the danger.
A staunch opponent of the wall, the 32-year-old said the barrier could lead desperate drug runners to try more violent ways to smuggle their product into the country.
The barrier has reduced the number of people he sees coming through his backyard, which abuts the wall, but he estimates three out of five still find a way around.
"It was always the wrong approach," he said. "They still get around it. It's not keeping away everybody."
That view was once shared by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who as Arizona governor remarked that a 12-foot fence would be conquered with a 13-foot ladder.
However, Napolitano has since reversed that stance, saying the fence can be an effective border security tool if used wisely. She also has said she may consider more fencing in some areas as crews finish the last 50 miles of border barrier being built under the current mandate.
Doty acknowledged some will find a way around the Hidalgo County levee-wall, which is now effectively complete. But regardless of how they try to do that, he said, the fence gives Border Patrol agents a better chance of stopping them.
"If we see someone with a 20-foot ladder running toward the fence, we're going to catch them," Doty said in jest. "There's going to be ways around (the fence), but it wasn't meant to be the only solution."