Arizona Daily Star
July 20, 2011
by Brady McCombs
The website where people can donate to build a state-supported border fence is up - but it'll likely take millions of dollars for the ballyhooed plan to lead to actual construction.
Modern, sturdy border fences are expensive - it cost between $2.6 million to $7.4 million per mile to build hundreds of miles of new fencing in Arizona over the last five years. The most recent project, replacing 2.8 miles of old fence in Nogales, cost $4.14 million per mile.
The Arizona lawmaker who sponsored the fence bill is aware of the high costs, but Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, says that standing by and accepting the federal government's refusal to build more fences is not an option.
"Somebody has to put the first foot on the ladder and start climbing," said Smith. "Border security is the name of the game. That's why we are doing this."
Under the legislation passed in April, the governor is allowed to enter an "interstate compact" to build and maintain an international border fence using private or public donations.
Critics call Smith's plan a misguided stunt that will only inflict more damage on the border environment that has already been harmed by the unprecedented buildup of barriers, roads and agents in the last decade.
"Their intent is to score some cheap political points by acting tough on immigration," said Dan Millis, program coordinator for the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign. "These lawmakers are misled if they think this a project they are going to be able to complete."
More than four-fifths of Arizona's 378 miles of Mexican border have some type of border barrier already. There are 123 miles of pedestrian fences, 12- to 25-foot-high barriers designed to stop, or at least slow down, people. There are another 183 miles of vehicle barriers, waist- to chest-high barricades designed to stop cars.
The rest of the Arizona-Mexico border doesn't have barriers due to natural barriers such as mountains and other difficult terrain, said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Victor Brabble.
The agency declined to comment on the state project because it is a state legislative issue, Brabble said.
The federal government spent $2.4 billion to build 264 miles of pedestrian fencing and 226 miles of vehicle barriers from 2004-2009, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2009. Today, there are a total of 350 miles of pedestrian fences and 299 miles of vehicle barriers along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
Customs and Border Protection officials acknowledge that fences are not a panacea, but say they help deter, slow and funnel traffic. The impact of barriers on illegal immigration and drug smuggling is unknown because it has not been measured, according to a September 2009 GAO report.
Saying the fence is "basically complete," as President Obama did during a May 10 speech in El Paso, is disingenuous because the vehicle barriers are not fences, Smith said.
"It might stop a car, but it certainly isn't going to stop anyone on foot," Smith said. "If we really had a secure border and fencing that is adequate, explain to me how we have 12 million illegal aliens in this country?"
The type of fence built will be contingent on how much money is raised and upon the decision of the committee that will be formed, Smith said. But his wish would be to build an 18-foot high steel beam fence such as a the one up along 6.24 miles of border west of the San Pedro River in Cochise County.
"That's exactly what I think the state needs," Smith said.
That fence was built by Kiewit Western Company under a $16.6 million contract in 2008 - an average of $2.6 million per mile, information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows.
But this fence should cost less because under the legislation approved in April, the state would use inmate labor at 50 cents an hour, Smith said. He also expects very competitive bids from construction companies.
Ideally, they'll be able to build fence on the federal government's 60-foot "Roosevelt easement" right next to the border, Smith said. But he's not expecting to get permission and said he's already identified several tracts of state or privately owned land that are highly trafficked areas where a fence would be helpful.
If they are able to raise enough money to build fences, it will be bad news for border wildlife and habitat, Millis said.
While it could take years to fully gauge the environmental toll of border fences, there are already examples of flooding caused by the barriers and wildlife being blocked by the barriers.
A recent study in the Diversity and Distributions journal of amphibian, reptile and some mammal species that live along the border found that additional barriers would further increase the number of threatened species whose survival would be at risk, Millis said.
"That's why we are fighting so hard against additional barriers," Millis said. "We're already seeing problems."
Smith said they won't build fences through riverbeds, for instance, and that there will always be open sections for animals to migrate.
The website - www.buildtheborderfence.com - will be simple, offering opportunities to donate online or by mail with a simple click of a button. It will also feature a letter from Smith about why the fence is needed.
"No matter if you live in Arizona or Maryland, you will be able to clearly understand the problem we are facing and why we need to do something about it," Smith said.
He hopes to get donations from all over the country from people who recognize illegal immigrants and drug smugglers who cross through Arizona end up throughout the nation. Donors will be able to print out a certificate that shows they donated to the border fence, he said.
If they can't raise the millions needed to build a fence, Smith said the project may at least pressure the federal government into continuing to build more fences.
This isn't the first time the state has set up a special fund for a border-related cause. In 2010, Gov. Jan Brewer set up a defense fund to accept private donations to pay the legal costs in fighting challenges to SB 1070. To date, more than 45,000 people had given almost $3.8 million to the fund, said spokesman Matthew Benson.
As soon as they have enough money in the fence fund, construction can begin, Smith said.
"I have teams that are ready now," he said. "It's all contingent on the amount of money raised."