In GOP primary politics, the U.S.-Mexico border fence is an immigration litmus test, but an apparently unhelpful one. Experts close to the issue agree that the fence may be a nice symbolic sound bite for candidates to show border security bona fides, but it does little to address the nation's complex immigration quagmire. "It's three quarters symbolic and very expensive," says immigration policy expert Rick Swartz, who helped construct and advocate pro-immigrant legislation since the 1980s. Swartz says fencing has definitely helped curb illegal crossings and drug smuggling in some places, but it's "more promoted as a panacea that it is in fact a panacea."
Nevertheless, some 2012 candidates continue to find political capital in touting the fence.
Former Customs and Border Protection Commissioner W. Ralph Basham last month called the idea of constructing a physical fence along the entire border one of the "dumbest" ideas he was presented with during his tenure. A better way, according to Thad Bingel, a security and intelligence consultant who served as Basham's chief of staff, is a mix of infrastructure, like fencing, combined with people and technology, like sensors and unmanned aircraft. "There's a fundamental misunderstanding about what a fence—even the triple-layer fencing in San Diego—actually does for you. All it really does is buy you time," he explains. "None of the fencing is impenetrable. People will eventually dig under it or cut through it or go over it, but it gives you enough time to respond and apprehend them."
Since the border terrain varies so widely, different areas call for different types of fencing, if any, designed to hinder either pedestrian traffic or vehicles. And some areas have a natural fence to slow illegal crossers or smugglers already: mountains and the Rio Grande.
In urban areas like San Diego, Bingel explains, "you have seconds or minutes to respond to an incursion before they disappear into a building or somebody's car and get away," he says, explaining why a fence to block pedestrians is helpful there. But in a rural area, like Arizona's Sonoran Desert, it takes a day or two to walk to a paved road from the border, and a simple vehicle barrier can do the trick. "You've got time to track them and apprehend them at a more convenient point than needing a fence out there that would really be a waste of resources."
And wasting resources is never a popular idea, particularly at a time when federal budgets are tight. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office estimated the cost at $6.5 million per mile for pedestrian fencing and $1.8 million per mile for vehicle fencing. The same report found that there had been 3,363 breaches in the border fence as of May 2009, each costing an average of $1,300 to repair—that's more than $4 million.
The real immigration problem is far more complex, experts say. Approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants are already in the country and have been for years. Anywhere from one third to one half of those entered legally and overstayed visas, according to estimates by the Government Accountability Office and the Pew Hispanic Center. And illegal border crossings have decreased markedly in the past decade, likely from a combination of increased security, economic doldrums in the United States, and an improved Mexican economy. The border is a just a small part of the problem—a symptom. And treating a symptom won't cure a disease.
"When you're really making a point that we don't like what's going on in suburban Phoenix," Bingel explains, "building a triple-layer fence down in the west desert of Arizona won't actually do anything to improve the situation."
The push for more fencing at the border, he adds, is like trying to solve yesterday's problem. "The damage was done 10 years ago. It's a matter of interior enforcement now," Bingel says. "In some ways, we're fighting the last war on that, and in some cases a war that's already being fought and won with the additional resources that have actually come since 2003, 2004."