New York Times
October 19, 2011
by Julia Preston
In the debate over immigration among the Republican presidential candidates, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota signed a pledge last week to build double-fencing the entire length of the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
Herman Cain called for an electrified border fence, 20 feet high with barbed wire.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, claiming superior experience as the leader of the state with 1,200 miles of the border, advocated a more complex strategy, combining fencing and surveillance technology with “a lot of boots on the ground.” Mr. Perry said that building a border-length fence would take “10 to 15 years and $30 billion” and would not be cost-effective.
Proposals for an imposing border fence have drawn cheers at Republican rallies. Border security appears to be an area where some Republican candidates are ready to set aside their priority on fiscal discipline, since security analysts say very little research is available on how much a border-length fence would cost.
Based on what studies do exist, the analysts say that building and maintaining a fence through the remote or hostile terrain along the border would run into billions of dollars, with no documented impact on diminishing illegal crossings.
So far border authorities have built 650 miles of hard fence along the southwest border, including about 299 miles of vehicle barriers.
In 2009, the Congressional Search Service reported that the Department of Homeland Security had spent roughly up to $21 million per mile to build a primary fence near San Diego. The cost had ballooned as the fence extended into hills and gullies along the line.
The same year, Customs and Border Protection estimated costs of building an additional 3.5 miles of fence near San Diego at $16 million per mile. Even this lower figure would yield a rough projection of $22.4 billion for a single fence across the 1,400 miles remaining today.
These estimates do not include the costs of acquiring land, nor the expense of maintaining a fence that is exposed to constant efforts by illegal crossers to bore through it or under it or to bring it down. In March, Customs and Border Protection estimated it would cost $6.5 billion “to deploy, operate and maintain” the existing border fencing over an expected maximum lifetime of 20 years. The agency reported repairing 4,037 breaches in 2010 alone.
Border Patrol officials have not been eager to extend the fence beyond its current length. In testimony in the House of Representatives on Oct. 4, Michael J. Fisher, the Border Patrol chief, said the existing fence covered the ground “where Border Patrol field commanders determined it was operationally required.”
The Border Patrol has welcomed fences in urban areas or at heavily traveled crossing points, where they slow illegal crossers, giving agents time to detain them. But border authorities have focused instead on flying unmanned drones to more accurately scan the length of the border and building forward stations so that agents can be posted closer to the line.
Richard F. Cortez, the mayor of the Texas border town of McAllen, noted that much of the state’s border is defined by rivers. “It is a winding river,” Mr. Cortez, a political independent, said in an interview on Wednesday. “Where in the world are you going to put fencing? To propose that suggests ignorance of the border and the terrain.”