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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.

(Page 2 of 4)

And partly because of resistance from local landowners, the December deadline would be tough to meet, US government auditors have warned.

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Yuma's formidable fence

In Yuma, at least, the fence seems to be preventing illegal border-crossings.

Bernacke, the patrol agent, says that since the triple fence was finished in October, there has been a 72 percent decline in illegal migrant apprehensions in the 120-mile swath of the US-Mexican border known as the Yuma sector. Eight hundred people used to be apprehended trying to cross the border here every day. Now, agents catch 50 people or fewer daily.

The 1.5-mile strip of triple fencing that cuts through suburban San Luis is the most impenetrable, says Bernacke.

That's because the three walls are separated here by a 75-yard "no man's land" – a flat, sandy corridor punctuated by pole-topped lighting, cameras, radio systems, and radar units, where unauthorized migrants can be chased down by border agents.

The triple-layer fencing begins at the San Luis port of entry, one of a handful of formal checkpoints where cars and trucks from Mexico line up, waiting for the US border patrol to inspect them for illegal contraband or migrants before they cross over. One-and-a-half miles east of San Luis, the triple fencing gives way to double fencing for about five miles, after which come another 39 miles of so-called "primary fencing" – a combination of steel mesh and steel panels fitted over bollards, or small metal and cement pillars, that stick up from the ground.

"Back in 2005 when President Bush came here, newspapers were writing that Yuma was the most dangerous place to live – and he came in and said, 'I am going to fix this' and he did," says Yuma Mayor Larry Nelson.

Conversations with residents and business owners in this town suggest the fence is not such a hot-button issue. But, violent drug smugglers aside, neither has the flow of illegal immigrants been a big issue, observers say.

That's partly because the migrants are headed through to Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Midwest.

Still, most residents support the idea of a barrier, says Terry Ross, editor of The Sun, a daily newspaper in Yuma, but also feel that "the wall is a temporary measure that won't solve the problem [of foreign workers] in the long run."

Displacing the problem

Border security has been beefed up considerably during President Bush's tenure, reflecting heightened security and immigration concerns. The budget for border security has more than doubled in this time, as has the number of border patrol agents, which is anticipated to top out at 18,000 agents by the end of this year.

But as with 1994's Operation Gatekeeper – when the Border Patrol's San Diego sector beefed up fencing, agents, and technology to keep out border-crossers from Mexico only to find they entered the country elsewhere – critics say Yuma's apparent success does not necessarily translate into a permanent solution.

Strengthening border security in Yuma may be diverting illegal immigration to rural and desert areas.