The Appeal of a Simple Plan: Fencing Them Out
SAN YSIDRO, CALIF.- A few traffic signs on the freeways here provide sober reminders of the drama. The signs show a man, woman, and child running hand in hand-emblems of the chaos that reigned when immigrants rushed headlong into freeway traffic. That ended about a decade ago, the result of a massive border security effort called Operation Gatekeeper. Now federal officials want to build on the Gatekeeper model.
Begun in 1994, Gatekeeper included more agents, stadium-style lights, and a variety of high technologies. But it also focused on a primitive notion: building a fence and then building another. Before the fences went up, more than half the undocumented immigrants caught trying to enter the United States were arrested in the so-called San Diego sector, a 66-mile stretch of border that covers beaches, mountains, urban areas, and parched desert. Now, about 11 percent of the arrests occur here.
Some 44 miles of the sector are now fenced. The majority of the fencing is a rusting wall of corrugated steel, cobbled together from panels once used as portable airfields in the Vietnam era. A tougher fence on which construction began in 2000 covers 6.5 miles; it is crowned with a 2-foot-high wing that makes it harder to scale. "We're under no illusion that automatically we'll stop everybody," says Mike Hance, the Border Patrol's tactical infrastructure coordinator in San Diego. But the fences are critical, he contends, "because they are here 24 hours a day." That thought is echoed by Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, who has championed funding for the fences. "As long as you have a moderate presence of the Border Patrol," says Hunter, "[illegal immigrants] can't get through the double fence."
Pushing ahead. In September, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced his intent to fill in a canyon known as "Smuggler's Gulch" and then build a fence over it. Construction there was sidelined for almost a decade because of environmental and legal challenges. Congressional Republicans recently pushed through legislation that allows environmental regulations to be waived in the gulch, which has enraged activists.
Since Gatekeeper, other, urban parts of the border have gotten their own fences. And more are coming. U.S. News has learned that as part of Chertoff's plan, San Luis, Ariz., an area that saw a more than 10 percent jump in arrests this past fiscal year, will be equipped with a double-layer fence. Hunter is pushing a plan that would cover the entire U.S.-Mexico border with fencing. Some 27 lawmakers have signed on as cosponsors. But even Hance says, "We don't need that type of infrastructure the whole length of the border." Others wonder whether fences are really the answer. Said Arizona Sen. John McCain: "They'll parachute in."
This story appears in the November 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.