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."
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."