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The Border Fence Folly

Six simple reasons the border fence is terrible policy.

In this political season, immigration is the issue that everyone’s taking pains not to discuss. The presidential candidates are merely paying the same lip service to border security. Congress has all but abandoned comprehensive immigration reform, and the Bush administration continues to pile all their immigration-policy eggs in the border-security basket. But that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff, in an April trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, made clear his determination that 670 miles of border fence, already under construction in Arizona and California, be completed by the end of the year. The border fence project has faced embarrassments--illegal immigrants employed to build the wall, a “Virtual Fence” project that cannot distinguish humans and vehicles from livestock and bushes--but those setbacks pale in comparison to its fundamental flaws. Below, six simple reasons a fence spanning the U.S.-Mexico border is bad policy:

It doesn’t work. Most experts say that physical fencing would not drastically decrease the number of illegal immigrants entering the country. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that as much as 40-50 percent of the U.S.’s unauthorized migrant population entered the country through legal ports of entry, either with nonimmigrant visas that subsequently expired (known as “overstayers”) or by using a Border Crossing Card that allows for short visits to the border region. A fence spanning the border would not prevent their entry to the country. And there is little evidence that a fence would be a successful deterrent to other would-be border crossers. In a survey done by Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego, 90 percent of respondents who intended to migrate to the United States were aware that border crossing was “very dangerous,” but this failed to discourage them from their plans. Apprehensions by the border patrol do little to dissuade repeat border-crossing attempts. In Cornelius’ survey of migrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, 48 percent were apprehended on their most recent trip to the border. 96 percent of those migrants were able to enter eventually. Migrants intent on crossing the border will repeatedly try to do so--often successfully--no matter the obstacles in their way.

It exacerbates the problem. Prior to the increase in border enforcement, many unauthorized migrants from Mexico followed a circulatory migration pattern, where mostly male migrants would spend part of the year in the United States, performing seasonal jobs or short-term work. They would often return for holidays, and their families tended to remain in Mexico. As border crossings have become more difficult, the rate of return among unauthorized migrants has decreased. Audrey Singer, an immigration expert with the Brookings Institution, explains that “more men are staying, women are coming and families are consolidating on this side of the border.” Also compounding this consolidation within the U.S. is the increased use of smugglers to facilitate border crossings. From 2005-2007, 80 percent of undocumented migrants used smugglers, known as “coyotes,” to help them across the border, according to Cornelius. With coyotes’ fees at several thousand dollars and growing, migrants are unlikely to make circular trips across the border using coyotes and are therefore more inclined to stay in the U.S. permanently. Douglas Massey, professor of sociology at Princeton University, sums it up: “The ultimate effect of the border fence policy is to increase the size [of the undocumented population] and to make it more permanent.”

It’s inhumane. Major border enforcement operations have focused on urban areas, where border crossers have only a short distance to traverse. With increased enforcement, people have, according to Singer, abandoned these “institutionalized crossing patterns” and moved to places with “harsher climate, harsher terrain, and a greater likelihood of injury and death.” Deaths along the border have increased substantially since the mid-1990s--500 fatalities in 2007 alone. According to Cornelius, “women and children are overrepresented in fatalities, in proportion to their numbers among clandestine entrants. In several recent years, about 18 percent of the fatalities have been women and minors under 18.”

It’s enormously costly. Though the exact figure is a matter of some dispute, there’s no disagreement that a fence would be a tremendous expense. The Congressional Budget Office predicts $3 million per mile in construction cost. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that the San Diego portion of the fence alone would cost $127 million for a length of 14 miles, roughly $9 million per mile. Factoring in repairs and maintenance, the Congressional Research Service estimates that a 25-year life span of a 700-mile fence (far short of the entire 1,952-mile border) would cost up to $49 billion.

It’s environmentally damaging. The border region is an environmentally sensitive area, providing for numerous imperiled species. The fence proposed by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 would cross multiple protected federal lands. Biologists worry that jaguars, extremely rare in the United States, would see their cross-border migration patterns disrupted, threatening their survival. To see how a fence may negatively affect environmentally valuable land, one need only look to the state of limbo facing the Sabal Palm Audubon Center in Brownsville, Texas. If DHS has its way, a border fence constructed to the north of this bird sanctuary would essentially cede the land to Mexico, upsetting conservationists and ecotourism promoters alike. Michael Chertoff’s recent waiver of more than 30 environmental and land-management laws (see below for more on this) means that DHS will not have to examine in detail the fence’s effects on wildlife, water quality, and vegetation prior to construction.

It’s legally dubious. Chertoff’s ability to waive those laws is derived from a 2005 law passed by Congress that allowed the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive “all legal requirements” in order to speed up the construction to the fence. The bill sharply limits judicial review to a single District judge; any appeal from that ruling can only go to the Supreme Court at the Court’s discretion. The Supreme Court recently declined to hear a challenge from the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife. Both organizations, along with New York Times columnist Adam Liptak, argue that Congress’s voluntary delegation powers to the executive branch threatens the basic Constitutional principle of separation of powers. Oliver Bernstein, a spokesman for Sierra Club, told the Los Angeles Times that the Supreme Court’s hands-off approach “leaves one man--the secretary of the Homeland Security--with the extraordinary power to ignore any and all of the laws designed to protect the American people, our lands and our natural resources.”

So, if not a fence, then what? Most experts on all sides of the immigration debate agree that the border fence is a political band-aid for a larger policy problem. Mark Krikorian of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies believes that “politicians tend to over-emphasize the importance of fencing.” Cecilia Muñoz, of the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza calls the fence a “monument to Congress’s efforts to look like they’re doing something.” The enforcement-first approach of the Bush administration does nothing to deal with the 12 million undocumented immigrants already in this country, or American employers’ demand for cheap immigrant labor, or the lack of a legal path for entry for future immigrants. Ways of dealing with this demand can--and should--be debated, but let’s cease to delude ourselves that this fence offers the answer.

Melanie Mason is a journalist living in Washington DC.