Still, several of the 2012 GOP candidates push the fence idea, or attack Texas Gov. Rick Perry—who has a comparably moderate immigration record—for suggesting the fence is a waste of resources, and saying, "If you build a 30-foot wall from El Paso to Brownsville, the 35-foot ladder business gets real good."
Last week, Rep. Michele Bachmann said she will build the fence, "every mile, every yard, every foot, every inch." Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain joked about creating something like an electrified Great Wall of China with an alligator moat, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney supports a "high-tech" fence, though he hasn't fleshed out the details.
"It's a preposterous oversimplification, but it's one that has political currency," says Chris Newman, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network's legal programs, who thinks focusing the debate on the fence is a harmful and manipulative distraction. "Like most things in the immigration debate, it plays to people's fears as opposed to providing legitimate solutions to problems facing the country."
But simplifying the issues is just the way of politics, says Jim Carafano, immigration analyst at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. It's a bumper sticker debate. "Border security is about what's going on inside Mexico; it's about what's happening at the border; it's about what's going on inside the United States; it's about economics; it's about transnational criminal activity; it's about how people feel about their communities," he explains. "Anybody that can fit that on a bumper sticker, God bless them."
Republican strategist Luis Alvarado of the political consulting firm Revolvis also blames primary politics for the focus on the fence as a tangible object that serves as a proxy for the complex issues at the heart of the immigration debate. "In a certain way, it's one way of relegating all the problems of immigration to one specific issue," he says, adding that this is something both parties do. "Politically, we all know that it's not a viable issue for either party until after 2012 elections are done and over with."
And though Latino voters are not a monolithic, single-issue group, Alvarado explains, those focused on immigration "feel that they've been shelved until 2013" by the president and by GOP candidates. "They're so frustrated with everybody that they've become apathetic," he says. "I don't think they're going to come out and vote in volumes like they did in the 2008 presidential cycle."
Bingel, the former Customs and Border Protection chief of staff, says he understands that support for a physical fence, particularly in places like Arizona, comes from frustration that the federal government hasn't brought immigration policy up to date. He doesn't believe the conversation about the fence itself is bad, as long as it doesn't stop there. "If the fence is a symbol of how to talk about the range of different things we still need to do, then that's a good thing in my mind," he says. "But I hope people don't literally take it as the fence and the fence alone is the solution for that 2,000 miles of border; that would be short-sighted."