Fenced off with paper, hot air

WHAT, no land mines?

If the United States really means business with that fence along the Mexican border, why flinch at installing things that go blooey?

If we’re going to stop illegal immigrants by taking borderland hundreds of miles long and nearly a football field wide, scraping it bare of any living thing, raising up two- and three-layer fences, putting in lights and cameras, laying down sensors and endless border-patrol blacktop, all in the name of national security ... then dammit, I want land mines! If this is about keeping our nation safe, let’s stop at nothing!

At least until after the election.

The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to consider considering the fence bill, possibly by Monday.

The U.S.-Mexico border is about 2,000 miles long. The bill authorizes only 700 miles of fence in five spots. You do the math. You tell me how this once and for all stops illegal immigration.

It’s been tried before. In San Diego, the feds kept extending the fence and extending it, and what happened? People just went around it. They started walking east until they came to a place where they could climb or crawl across. So much for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s pronouncement: “Republicans believe we can have a no-penetration border” -- with a 700-mile fence on a 2,000-mile border. That’s like putting your faith in half a condom.


Because it’s for national security -- and of course nothing can ever be more important than national security -- the Secure Fence Act will bulldoze through nearly 40 years of laudable laws: the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, California coastal regulations, the Federal Water Pollution Act, the Clean Air Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It’s like they never existed.

This fence can run through hell, high water and west Texas and no law on the books can stop it, even if it somehow ends up poisoning wells in 10 states, flattening every historic Indian village between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and wiping out what turns out to be the last family of ivory-billed woodpeckers on the planet, deep in the heart of Texas.

If you want to see what 700 miles of this dead zone will look like, go check out San Diego, where a shorter fence has gone up. Jim Pugh of the San Diego Audubon Society and some other folks spent a couple of days last week on their knees in the dirt where bulldozers are shaving the land for the last of the 14 miles of fencing that starts at the ocean. They were trying to dig up and move out of harm’s way, one at a time, some of the last surviving specimens of a plant called the Baja bird bush.

What they won’t be able to save is the wildlife, sea life and plant life that will die when the feds cut off the tops of two mesas and dump the dirt -- more than 2 million cubic yards of it -- into a canyon called Smuggler’s Gulch. For decades, illegal immigrants have crossed here. The feds want to fill up the gulch with dirt and build patrol roads and fences on top of it. But then the rain will carve gullies and send muck into the Tijuana River estuary that has taken years and millions of dollars to clean up. “They’re going to be spending tens of millions of dollars to destroy nature,” says Pugh, where “a good single fence ... would do pretty much everything a double or triple fence would do.”

Let’s consult my inner Donald Rumsfeld: Do we have an illegal immigration problem? Claro que si. Do we have a labor problem? With American growers and even Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig caterwauling for more hands for the harvest, that’s a big “yes” there too.

Instead of a single good, solid fence, a good, solid guest worker program and a good, solid national immigration policy, we get a bill that prostitutes “the war on terror” just to slaughter environmental laws, big-foot local authorities and reelect some chest-beating dopes.

Did I mention the cost? Two million dollars a mile? In their dreams. For what this fence would eventually cost, you could hire enough border patrol officers to hold hands the length of the border and taunt in singsong, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Pancho come over.” El Monte Democratic Rep. Hilda L. Solis has no use for legislation that got hustled through Congress “to whip up the neocon folks who don’t like environmental legislation, period,” and all to build “this horrendous fence that we know there isn’t any money for this year.”

At last, the good news. Four months ago, the Senate voted to build a border fence. Two months ago, it voted against paying for it. For the moment, there’s $1.8 billion in an entirely different bill for a fence, but even that money may wind up being spent on something else.

Everyone who votes for this photo-op law now gets to go home and campaign on how tough he is on homeland security, voting for a monster fence, never mind that there may never be any money to build it. That’s the beauty of it, after all -- a 700-mile fence made of ink and paper and hot air. It could be the best bargain Congress ever gave us.