On a fence at the U.S.-Mexican border

Resistance to fencing on the US southern border is building. Washington must stand firm.

Enforcement of America's southern border is sizzling with controversy. This week, it was reported that the US will delay building an electronic "virtual fence." Texans, meanwhile, are resisting a solid barrier. It would be easy for Washington to give up this project, but it shouldn't.

It's a matter of trust. For decades, elected leaders have talked about better enforcement of immigration laws, such as tougher border controls and cracking down on illegal hires by employers. But when winds of resistance roar up like a prairie tornado, politicians run for shelter.

Yet Americans want lawmakers to do their job and to first uphold the law. That's why Congress wasn't able to pass a grand plan that covered enforcement, guest workers, and a path to citizenship for the 12 million illegal migrants in the US.

Their constituents' message was this: Show us that you can enforce the law on illegal migrants, then let's see what other solutions are needed. And so Congress approved a plan to add roughly 700 miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile border. It is one of several enforcement steps that include more border guards and prosecution of illegal migrants. As a result, border apprehensions are down substantially.

But as the administration takes Congress's lead, it's encountering serious roadblocks. The ones with the virtual fence may be easier to overcome than the political backlash against real fences in Texas.

A 28-mile pilot virtual fence, being built by Boeing in Arizona, is made up of radar, cameras, and border patrol agents in vehicles with laptops and satellite phones. But the system doesn't work in the field. Rain triggers the radar. Cameras can't resolve images. And so building the first phase of the fence is being delayed to the end of 2011 instead of the end of this year, according to the Washington Post.

There is plenty of blame to go around for this failure, from lack of oversight at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to lack of coordination between Boeing and the border patrol. But insofar as these are technical problems, they are ultimately fixable.

More worrisome is the crescendo of complaints from Texas farmers and mayors over a solid fence.

So far DHS has installed 302 miles of fence out of the 670 miles it plans to finish this year. This has mostly gone smoothly in California, Arizona, and New Mexico, because much of the land is government owned. But the land in Texas is privately held, and that's the source of lawsuits and complaints that the government is ignoring local concerns.

Actually, DHS has been listening to the locals. It compromised with the Texas town of McAllen, for instance. It is willing to talk – just not endlessly. As with the US Interstate system, some private owners will have to be compensated for a loss that is suffered, in this case, for the national good of enhanced security.

DHS secretary Michael Chertoff got it right when he commented at a Monitor breakfast this week that the reason his predecessors could not get control of the border was not because they were "feckless or not faithful public servants," but because "they were worn down [by] lawsuits, political pressure."

Should that happen on the fence, public trust will once again be broken, and a larger immigration deal will be even further off.

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