- The Washington Times - Friday, October 27, 2006

Both proponents and opponents of 700 miles of fences along the U.S.-Mexico border question whether the Bush administration can deliver the barriers — whose exact location, price tag and construction start date remain unknown.

The Secure Fence Act, signed yesterday by President Bush, does not require the government to show any results of fence construction until May 2008 and while it does specify where along the 1,951-mile U.S.-Mexico border the barriers should go, there’s no guarantee they ever will.

State legislatures, governors, and city and county governments, along with Indian tribal councils, have veto power over fencing locations.

“Even if Congress funds the construction of 700 miles of border fencing — and that is a big if — the fence will do nothing to stem the tide of illegal immigration,” said T.J. Bonner, a 28-year U.S. Border Patrol veteran and president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents all 10,000 of the agency’s non-supervisory personnel.

The fence act calls for 698 miles of border fences, along with lighting, roads, sensors, cameras and other security devices. A separate $33.8 billion Homeland Security funding bill signed by Mr. Bush on Oct. 10 authorizes $1.2 billion to begin building it.

But fence proponents and opponents agree that the $1.2 billion allocation is far short of the up to $9 billion it will take to build the proposed fencing. Congress has withheld $950 million pending a breakdown of how the money will be spent.

The fence bill also has irked the Mexican government, where President-elect Felipe Calderon has described the proposal as “deplorable” and outgoing President Vicente Fox told reporters in Mexico City he was “confident” the fence would never be built.

The act calls for the construction of “at least 2 layers of reinforced fencing to prevent unlawful entry by aliens into the United States,” although it does not specify what type of fencing to build.

“At best, the type of fencing that is contemplated will serve as a speed bump that slows illegal crossers by perhaps a minute or two,” Mr. Bonner said, adding that the Border Patrol would have to be increased tenfold to “to intercept these law-breakers.”

Mr. Bonner said experience has “amply demonstrated” that increases and declines in the number of illegal aliens coming across the border “are almost exclusively influenced by the amount of law-enforcement personnel assigned to an area rather than the length or type of fences and barriers.”

On Wednesday, a poll conducted for CNN by Opinion Research Corp. found that 74 percent of the 1,013 Americans surveyed were in favor of hiring and assigning more Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border, while 45 percent said they wanted a 700-mile fence built.

And while the act was passed by Congress last month, lawmakers waited until just prior to the Nov. 7 elections for the president to sign it. With a gaggle of Republicans looking on, Mr. Bush said the legislation modernized the nation’s southern border “so we can assure the American people we’re doing our job of securing the border.”

The act instructs the secretary of homeland security to “take all actions” deemed necessary to “achieve and maintain operational control over the entire international land and maritime borders of the United States” within 18 months.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has voiced his support for a “virtual fence” on the border, which would rely instead on cameras, motion detectors and other security devices to detect people illegally entering the United States.

During a press briefing last month to announce the award of a contract to the Boeing Co. for sophisticated border-detection technology, Mr. Chertoff said the department was looking to build “a 21st-century virtual fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a statement yesterday, Mr. Chertoff said the act will help “build upon the substantial progress” that has been made in better securing the nation’s borders, noting that traditional fencing is a “core element” of the Secure Border Initiative — once funds for the project are appropriated by Congress.

“Comprehensive immigration reform begins with a secure border, and it will help to sustain the significant advancements that have been made by relieving growing pressure on the Border Patrol,” he said. “We are turning that corner with the Secure Fence Act, and I commend Congress for their efforts.”

But Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat and a 26-year Border Patrol agent and supervisor who headed the agency’s field offices as sector chief in McAllen and El Paso, Texas, has called the bill signing “election year desperation,” adding that “a 700 mile fence along a 2,000 mile border … doesn’t come close to solving our problem.”

Mr. Reyes, who retired from the Border Patrol in 1995, is the architect of the Border Patrol’s “Operation Hold the Line” in El Paso, which continues as a Homeland Security strategy for the Southwest border. The operation featured the assignment of additional agents along the border as visible deterrents and was credited with reducing crime and achieving a marked reduction in illegal immigration in the El Paso area.

Immigration-enforcement authorities and others think efforts by the administration to better secure the border with fences, additional Border Patrol agents and upgraded technology will be effective only if there is a corresponding reduction in employment opportunities through effective work-site enforcement.

“If this administration and Congress were truly sincere about securing our borders, they would enact legislation that eliminates the root cause of illegal immigration — the employment magnet,” Mr. Bonner said.

“With today’s technology, it would be a simple matter to develop a ‘smart’ counterfeit-proof employment-verification document for that purpose. The only thing preventing that from happening is a lack of political will on the part of our elected representatives.”

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