Border Fencing: One Tool among Many

by Mark Krikorian
We need fences in some places, and not in others.

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
We need a fence on the Mexican line.
But to the south where the land is forbidding,
Agents and cameras and sensors are fine.

  (with apologies to Marty Robbins)

The border fence with Mexico looms large in the ongoing debate over immigration. The Secure Fence Act of 2006, the “Where’s the Fence?” ad in 2007, John McCain’s “Complete the Danged Fence” ad in 2010, and the meretricious Corker-Hoeven amendment to last year’s Senate amnesty bill all point to the importance of border fences in the popular mind and the policy discussion.

Some hawks insist on fencing the entire border, while many enforcement opponents dismiss the very idea of fences, insisting that smugglers will scale them with impunity.

Neither position is correct, as became clear when I traveled earlier this month along the border in West Texas, from El Paso downriver to Big Bend National Park. The occasion was the Center for Immigration Studies’ annual border tour (cheaper than the NR Cruise! — but no all-you-can-eat buffet), and we saw that fencing works, but it isn’t needed everywhere.

There’s a lot more to controlling immigration than the work of the U.S. Border Patrol, of course. Perhaps 40 percent of the illegal population entered legally and then overstayed their visas — pointing to laxity not only in tracking foreign visitors but also in issuing visas to them in the first place. What’s more, many illegal aliens sneak through the legal crossing points — called ports of entry — by either using fraudulent documents or hiding in vehicles.

Nevertheless, controlling the long stretches of the border between ports of entry is essential, and fencing is an important tool in the border patrol’s kit. Consider the situation in El Paso, which used to be one of the main gateways to the United States for illegal aliens.

In the early 1990s, nearly one-fourth of all illegal-alien arrests took place in the border patrol’s El Paso sector, reaching 286,000 in 1993. In that year, the border patrol in the city launched Operation Blockade (later given the friendlier name Operation Hold the Line), which involved forward placement of agents to prevent crossings, instead of chasing aliens after they’d infiltrated across the border. This was followed by expanded fencing, which now extends almost continuously from near Boundary Marker #1 west of El Paso downriver for about 45 miles.

As a result, apprehensions of illegal aliens (an imperfect yardstick, but the only one available) have plummeted. From the peak of 286,000 in 1993, El Paso apprehensions by the border patrol fell pretty steadily to a 2012 total of about 9,700. Last year saw a 15 percent increase in arrests, in line with the overall rise in arrests along the border; but it’s still only about 11,000, down 96 percent from two decades earlier.

People in the neighborhood of Chihuahuita, now in the shadow of the border fence, at the time erected banners thanking the border patrol for restoring order to their community, which had been overrun before the agency’s initiative and the fence.

Local residents told me that illegal aliens still occasionally get through — sometimes navigating the narrow space between the old chain-link fence and the newer, hardened one — but it’s nothing like it was before the barrier was installed. Their main complaint is that when the wind blows hard enough through the fence, it makes an eerie wailing sound that can be unnerving.

Some 40-plus miles to the southeast, near the El Paso County line, the fence stops. It ends at Las Pompas, a colonia (unincorporated border community) named for the irrigation pumps that draw grey water released by a nearby sewage-treatment plant out of the canal just north of the fence. The retired border patrol agent showing us around said the fence made an enormous difference, helping restore order to a lawless area.

But why end it there? Fences are obviously needed in built-up areas, but how far out into the countryside do you go? Aside from the opportunity it presents for me to clown around for the camera, the end of any segment of border fence raises this question. Often the decision to stop in any particular place is driven not by operational needs or terrain but by politics or finances. Pictured here, for instance, is the eastern end of the border fence at the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, where it meets the Coronado National Forest, whose administrators, I was told when I visited a couple of years ago, resisted a real fence to deter foot traffic, and got instead “vehicle barriers,” which your grandma can hop over.

(A few more satellite images of the ends of portions of the fence, with no apparent reason related to the terrain, are here, here, and here.)

It’s entirely possible that the fence east of El Paso will have to be extended at some point. Right now a surge in illegal crossings is taking place in south Texas, but better control there could well lead to another shift in the flow. This is especially true because there is no river at Las Pompas. There’s a canal on the U.S. side, but as for the river, all the water — and I mean all the water — has been sucked out of the Rio “Grande” for irrigation, leaving a dry-land crossing from Mexico, just as in Arizona or California.

The greater difficulty of controlling illegal crossings in built-up areas, even with a fence, suggests another strategy, which I do not believe has been considered. Preventing the expansion of urban development along the border would seem to be an essential part of any long-term effort to maintain control; if there are many buildings on the border, infiltrators can more easily evade detection. This would entail a federal veto on any commercial or residential development within a certain distance of the border, and acquisition of land with an eye toward federal ownership of as much of the land abutting the border as possible.

A last bit of fence — a lonely five-mile segment — ends about 80 miles or so east of El Paso. After that, there’s some 500 miles of border with no fencing of any kind. It’s remote and primitive country, appealing to makers of Westerns because there aren’t even any jet contrails overhead. In Boy Genius, the authors wrote that gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush gushed in private about illegal aliens: “Hell, if they’ll walk across Big Bend, we want ’em.”

But the isolated and inhospitable nature of the area means there aren’t many people walking across Big Bend. The border patrol’s Big Bend sector records the fewest arrests of any part of the border, less than 1 percent of the nationwide total, fewer than 4,000 illegal aliens last year. It’s safe to say that if the Border Patrol is arresting an average of only about ten people a day along a 500-mile stretch of border, we probably don’t need fencing there.

This must be the way it was in the old days, before mass violation of the border became routine. The only man-made barriers, if you can call them that, are warning signs: “Up to $5,000 fine for crossing the border other than a point of entry” [sic]. Nature’s barriers are formidable; our guide on a canoe trip pointed out what he called the Great Wall of Chihuahua, cliffs and canyons that render portions of the border uncrossable.

The primary infiltrators are wandering Mexican cattle that a lone USDA cowboy has to round up and quarantine so they don’t spread contagion.

The retro feel of the border at Big Bend extends to the border patrol. While they have all the modern tools of the trade — including a tethered blimp bristling with surveillance equipment — the low level of traffic means they have more opportunities for “sign-cutting,” their term for tracking down infiltrators by following footprints and the like. The Border Patrol Museum in El Paso displays wooden blocks carved to resemble a cow’s hooves, which illegals tied to their shoes to make their tracks look like the work of cattle. (Agents were never fooled, since we two-legged animals have a different gait from our quadruped cousins.)

The Mexican side along this long stretch is home to only one actual town — Ojinaga, or O.J., in local parlance – and its people wouldn’t fill even half the seats in Yankee Stadium. The only other border settlement for hundreds of miles is the lonely village of Boquillas del Carmen, home to fewer than 200 souls, four hours from the nearest gas station and unconnected to the electrical grid. Even though the river has water again at Boquillas, there’s no bridge — you either pay the guy with the rowboat or, like so many before you, simply wade across the Rio Grande.

Reentering the U.S. there is similarly relaxed. The DHS port of entry has no DHS agents — just a kiosk with a video hookup (though there is a park ranger there to help you figure out how it’s supposed to work).

This splendid isolation may not last. Within the year, Ojinaga, now connected only to the interior of Mexico, will have new highways coming in from both the west and the east. This will open hundreds of miles of now virtually inaccessible border to smugglers of all kinds. Several years ago, local opposition succeeded in killing plans for a border fence in Presidio, the Texas town opposite Ojinaga. Once the Mexican side is connected to the metropolis of Juarez (across from El Paso), a fence will likely become imperative.

Border fences have an understandable appeal for people concerned about protecting America’s sovereignty. They’re a concrete, physical symbol of control, easier to envision than the work of a visa officer or USCIS adjudicator.

But it’s important to remember that they’re just tools, like ground sensors or cameras or helicopters, useful in some instances and not in others. Making a fetish of fencing merely enables backers of amnesty and unlimited immigration to use hyperbolic expressions of support for such fencing as political cover for their harmful agenda.

— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.