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Where U.S.-Mexico border fence is tall, border crossings fall

In Yuma, Ariz., border patrol agents tout the success of a high
triple-and double-layered wall. But such a fence is unlikely to stretch the
entire border.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 1, 2008

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Yuma, Ariz.

US border patrol agent Michael Bernacke guns his SUV down the wide desert-sand road that lines the US-Mexican border through urban San Luis, Ariz.

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To his right stands a steel wall, 20 feet high and reinforced by cement-filled steel piping. To his left another tall fence of steel mesh. Ten yards beyond, a shorter cyclone fence is topped with jagged concertina wire. Visible to the north, through the gauze of fencing are the homes and businesses of this growing Southwest suburbia of 22,000 people.

"This wall works," says Mr. Bernacke. "A lot of people have the misconception that it is a waste of time and money, but the numbers of apprehensions show that it works."

The triple-and double-layered fence here in Yuma is the kind of barrier that US lawmakers – and most Americans – imagined when the Secure Fence Act was enacted in 2006.

The law instructed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to secure about one-third of the 1,950-mile border between US and Mexico with 700 miles of double-layered fencing – and additionally through cameras, motion sensors, and other types of barriers – by the end of the year to stem illegal immigration.

Bankrolled by a separate $1.2 billion homeland security bill, the Secure Fence Act would, President Bush said in 2006, "make our borders more secure." By most recent estimates, nearly half a million unauthorized immigrants cross the border each year.

On the ground, though, things have turned out differently.

The DHS scaled back its ambitions early on, trimming its end-of-2008 target down to 300 miles of vehicle barrier and 370 miles of pedestrian barrier.

As of February, 302 miles of barrier have been constructed mostly on federal land in Arizona, New Mexico, and California, and slightly over half of this has been built under the new law.

Just $200 million will have been spent by June, according to Lloyd Easterling, the border patrol public information officer.

Only a fraction of the new barriers resemble anything like the images of formidable fencing – the Berlin Wall or the bleak monolith that divides Israel and the West Bank – envisioned by the initial proposal. Most of the new fencing is not a double wall, but a combination of regular vehicle blocks and pedestrian barriers that range from metal mesh and chain link to traditional picket fences.