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Build a Fence? Intruders Might Get Over It

Times Staff Writers

To protect the United States against foreign intruders, the government can deploy motion detectors, infrared sensors, biometric ID cards, look-down radar, even unmanned spy planes that keep watch from the stratosphere.

But only one device seems to count in the current debate in Washington on how to protect the southern border against illegal immigrants: one of man’s oldest and simplest inventions, the fence.

On conservative talk radio shows, on websites and blogs devoted to stopping illegal migrants, and in the halls of Congress, the idea that any overhaul of immigration policy must begin with construction of more fences has become a symbolic litmus test.

And they mean physical barriers of wire and steel and concrete as high as 15 feet. Administration officials this week argued in vain that a high-tech “virtual fence” would work better. Senate moderates, struggling to pass an alternative to the enforcement-only approach adopted by the House, could not prevent a proposal for more fences from being adopted as the first amendment to their bill.

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Even President Bush, who as recently as March told CNN en Espanol, “It’s impractical to fence off the border,” embraced more fences in his Oval Office speech Monday.

But will more fences actually make the 2,000-mile-long U.S. border with Mexico more secure? Will they stop the tide of illegal workers, or even reduce it significantly?

Currently, some 75 miles of security fence and 50 miles of vehicle barriers are scattered in segments along the southern border. And the evidence of their effectiveness is mixed. So far, migrants have tunneled under fences, scaled them and cut their way through with blowtorches. When all else failed, they have gone around.

“Fences help when they are part of a broad combination of people, equipment and technology,” said Doris Meissner, who served as immigration commissioner during the Clinton administration, “but in the current debate, they have taken on a life of their own.”

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Congressional estimates put the price of proposed fencing at up to $2.2 billion. There are various types of fencing along the border. Some are formidable metal barriers constructed from surplus military “landing mats” -- huge slabs of metal originally used in makeshift airstrips. There are also concrete “bollards.” And there is barbed wire.

The Senate bill would rebuild and extend double- and triple-layer fencing and barriers near Douglas, Lukeville, Nogales and other Arizona border towns. It also would add 370 miles of triple-layer fencing and 500 miles of barriers to various areas frequented by smugglers and illegal immigrants.

Rep. Dan Lungren, (R-Gold River) said immigration bills based on improved fences appealed to Republican moderates in Congress concerned about approving a guest worker program without enough border security.

The construction of more formidable fencing along the border began in the 1990s. While it has diverted illegal immigrants from urban areas where they can cross quickly and blend in easily, it has not reduced the overall influx of migrants, estimated at about 750,000 a year.

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Even in the San Diego area, with its triple-layer fence that could soon be a model for the rest of the border, federal officials say it takes more than fences to keep immigrants out.

The fortification of the San Diego-Tijuana border, called Operation Gatekeeper, was launched in 1994 with the construction of a 14-mile fence, consisting of 8-foot-high steel panels. A few years later a secondary fence -- a more formidable nine-mile barrier -- was erected. Hundreds of new agents were also added over the years.

The beefed-up border dramatically reduced illegal crossings. The apprehension numbers dropped from 524,231 in 1995 to 126,908 last year in the San Diego sector, which stretches 66 miles. Rapes, killings and other violent crime along the border also dropped substantially, according to federal and local officials.

The improvement cannot be attributable only to the construction of the fence, according to outside experts and Border Patrol officials. Increased staffing, stadium lighting and motion sensors were crucial factors.

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“There is not one single element that is going to achieve border security,” said Richard Kite, spokesman for the Border Patrol in the area. “It is not a fence, it is not personnel, it is not technology, it is not infrastructure -- it is the proper combination of those factors.”

Maintaining fences is also labor -- and resource -- intensive. All-weather access roads must be built for patrol vehicles. Cameras and sensors must be installed to monitor critical areas. Border Patrol agents must be available to respond when an intruder is detected.

The barrier itself becomes a target for people smugglers and drug runners, and must be maintained and repaired. Agents patrolling the fences have come under attack.

“There is a steady crew working for the Border Patrol to resolder the holes in the fence that have been made the night before,” said Ray Borane, mayor of Douglas, Ariz., where landing mats have been used.

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Illegal immigrants “brought a portable metal grinder to cut through the landing mats,” Borane said. “The fences may as well not exist to them.”

Where more fences have been combined with intensive patrolling, smugglers have sometimes responded with greater violence, according to Kite of the Border Patrol.

One type of assault involves ambushing U.S. patrols with a flaming homemade missile -- a heavy rock wrapped in kerosene-soaked rags and set alight.

“The types of rocks they’re throwing are not the little ones,” Kite said. “It can be a grapefruit-sized rock that could kill or maim anyone.”

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Advocates of more fences see them as more than a tool in the security arsenal.

Colin Hanna, president of the Philadelphia-based WeNeedAFence.com, calls them “the centerpiece of any serious attempt to secure the border.”

The founder of the California-based Minuteman Project, Jim Gilchrist, said: “A physical barrier will send a message to those south of the border that you are trespassing, you really are going to have to go out of your way and know you are breaking the law.”

Gilchrist said he lost faith in the president and Congress. He fears they would “ram an amnesty down the throat of this nation.”

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That mistrust is widespread among fence advocates, including those in Congress, who say Bush has talked about tougher border enforcement but has repeatedly failed to deliver.

On Monday, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Julie Myers drew criticism from conservative blogger and radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt when she suggested Bush intended to invest in added personnel and surveillance technology, known as a “virtual fence.”

“The White House isn’t surrounded by a ‘virtual fence,’ ” Hewitt wrote.

Times staff writer Richard Marosi contributed to this report from Yuma, Ariz.

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