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Along U.S.-Mexican border, an erratic patchwork fence

At the border near Naco, Arizona, there are as many kinds of fences as there are ways over them.

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As the landscape turns desolate and the terrain rough, the fencing alters even more. In some places are vertical metal slats that look like suburban picket fences, only higher. In others, the fence is made of steel girders pounded into the ground vertically, with some laid across at waist height – able to stop cars but easy for people to step over or crawl under.

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This patchwork fence is interspersed with 100-yard gaps where there's no barrier at all or traditional barbed-wire fencing.

Out in the desert, "vehicle barriers" begin to appear, made of used railway rails that resemble Abe Lincoln-era split-rail fences. "Well, these are sturdier than they look and it seems they would stop a car," acknowledges Garner. "But as you can see, anyone in a car could simply drive around one of these."

An excuse for a wall?

Ranchers here say they don't understand the logic behind the eclectic potpourri of fence styles. It's just politics, says Richard Hodges, owner of a 372-acre cattle ranch whose family has lived here since homestead days. "[It's] because they need to say they got a wall up."

But the US border patrol says a patchwork wall isn't as bad as it seems. Using leftover materials means huge savings, agents say. Funding for the original 700-mile fence envisioned by the 2006 Secure Fence Act was about $1.2 billion. Only $200 million has been spent so far and the goal has been scaled back some, but there is still more than 370 miles of fence to be built by the end of 2008.

Costs have been mounting – a mile of metal fencing costs $3 million to $4 million, according to border patrol – and include putting up National Guard troops in local hotels.

Border patrol officials say that in places like Naco, it is not necessary to build an impenetrable fence. "In urban areas like San Diego, once a migrant jumps the fence, he has only a few yards to disappear into the city," says Mike Scioli of the Tucson Sector Border Patrol. "But down here, we only need to slow them down."

Using mesh and bollard allows the border patrol to see through to the Mexican side of the fence – a critical tactical ploy that allows agents to see someone trying to cut or torch through from the other side, Mr. Scioli says. Also, in the cat-and-mouse games that occur daily in these areas, an eclectic fence forces illegal migrants to choose a section of fence to climb over, dig under, or cut through. Then, when border patrol agents chase them back, they have to find the exact hole they came through – making them easier to catch.

Still, not everyone is convinced. The patchwork barrier reflects the impracticality of border fencing, say some observers. "The nation is caught between the forces saying something must be done and the practicalities that it can't properly be executed," says Patricia Hamm, assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University. "And so we end up with what we've got – so many miles of wall that officials can point to from Washington to say 'We've done it.' And local residents and others who see what's in front of them say, 'It doesn't matter, it won't work'."

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