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.

Robert Harbison, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Robert Harbison/ Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Rich Clabaugh

After driving 10 miles along the expanded US-Mexican border fence near her farm, Dawn Garner offers her dour assessment: "Anyone can plainly see this wouldn't stop a flea, let alone a migrant or terrorist."

A jagged patchwork of metal mesh, corrugated steel, vertical bollards, chest-high railroad rails, and waist-high barbed wire has been cobbled together along the southern border east of Naco by various National Guard units over the past summer. Hard-hatted workers from a general contractor, Sundt Inc., continue to dig ditches and grade terrain across plains of fluorescent-green prairie grass framed by saw-toothed mountains.

"This [fence] is just too easy to cut into, climb over, or go under or around," says Ms. Garner. Twenty to 40 illegal migrant workers cut across her five-acre farm daily, she says.

Unlike in San Luis, Ariz., and San Diego, where double-and- triple metal walls are backed by lighting and cameras, the fencing being built along this part of the US-Mexican border is piecemeal. Such a fence is pointless, say local ranchers.

The border patrol, however, contends that it is cost-effective, and more potent than it seems.

A mishmash of material

Here in Naco, the wall is being built on mostly federally-owned land. So there is little of the outrage over fair compensation and invasion of private property as there is in Texas, or complaints about cutting landowners off from land that falls on the Mexican side of the wall, as in the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation to the west.

Neither has there been as much ecological concern as farther north near San Pedro – though this may change, as the Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday it would waive certain environmental and land rules for 470 miles of the border from California to Texas and another 22 miles in Hidalgo County, Tex.

Rather, most local residents seem concerned about building a wall that actually stops illegal immigrants.

"We don't want a Berlin Wall or anything, just something that keeps migrants from flooding our backyards," says Garner, accelerating her bright yellow Jeep down the gravel road that runs alongside the newly-built fencing stretching east from the tiny border crossing at Naco toward New Mexico.

As Garner drives, an eclectic array of fence styles and materials flutter by in the bright sun.

One stretch of the fence is made of a kind of steel, Vietnam-era material – once used as landing mats for helicopters touching down on the jungle floor – held together vertically by steel girders. Another stretch of the fence comprises corrugated steel bars placed one on top of the other to a height of 10 feet, and capped by another three feet of metal mesh.

A third style is built of staggered, cylindrical pillars known as bollards, with just enough of a crack between them to allow small rodents or birds through – but not humans.

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.

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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