I got a look at the good news and the bad news during my trip. First the good news: Almost the entire length of the border between Yuma and Nogales has some kind of fencing, either vehicle barriers or pedestrian fencing. And the fencing works. At the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, during the peak time six or seven years ago, 3,000 illegal aliens a day would walk, drive, and bike across the border and through the protected habitat, cutting roads, killing the tall grass, and threatening the Fish and Wildlife Service workers who live in staff housing in the remote area. Smugglers routinely abandoned cars in the refuge, and part of the area abutting the border was closed to the public for safety reasons. (In the understated words of the 2006 announcement, “The situation in this zone has reached a point where continued public use of the area is not prudent.”)
Then the fence went in, and the tide subsided. The grass is growing back. There’s only one abandoned car left in the back country to haul out and dispose of. Young female rangers no longer return alone to their quarters after a busy day of tending quail to find illegal aliens in their kitchen stealing food. There’s even discussion of reopening the land abutting the border to the public.
To the west, in the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector, apprehensions of illegal aliens have dropped 96 percent from the 2005 peak (compared with a 73 percent drop along the whole southwest border taken together). Apprehensions aren’t a foolproof yardstick for measuring the actual volume of illegal crossings, but that kind of drop means something’s happening. Much of the decline in crossings is due to the weak U.S. economy, of course, and perhaps also to a stronger economy and falling birth rates in Mexico, plus fear of transiting the violent northern part of the country, which is wracked by drug wars. But the disproportionate drop in Yuma suggests something else. A large factor is Operation Streamline, started under the Bush administration, which actually prosecutes every single illegal alien caught sneaking in, incarcerates him for a week or two, and only then sends them back, now with a criminal record and a sense that we’re serious about this border business.
It’s much the same story at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where more than two-thirds of the park is closed to the public and two Park Service officers armed with rifles had to accompany us to the border. That precaution is a consequence of its being named the most dangerous national park in America, an understandable designation considering that park ranger Kris Eggle was murdered there ten years ago this August by cartel gunmen. That prompted significantly increased presence of Border Patrol and Park Service police, along with fencing and camera towers, which have reduced illegal crossings significantly and pushed them to a corner of the park, prompting management to consider reopening some closed sections to the public.
Now the bad news. Pedestrian fences, even at 18 or 20 feet, can be climbed over by resourceful young people. But that’s inevitable and not really a downside — it still slows people down, a lot, and makes escape back into Mexico to avoid arrest very difficult. But that’s why double-layered fencing is needed, with a dirt road in between that is dragged smooth so footprints are easily visible. Unfortunately, less than 2 percent of the border has such a barrier, even though that’s what Congress thought it was voting for in the Secure Fence Act of 2006.
Even worse is that the fence ends. Unsurprisingly, smugglers just keep going till they get to the end of the fence, and cross there. For instance, the whole border portion of the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge has a pedestrian fence — but on either side, where it abuts land owned by other government agencies, the pedestrian fence abruptly stops and is replaced by vehicle barriers.
These barriers are another piece of the bad news. Much of the 700 miles of border fence touted by this administration is just four to six feet high, designed to stop cars from driving straight across the border, but little else. Your grandma could get over or under them; heck, I have gone over and under them. (See examples from the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and Organ Pipe.) The fencing is so low that smugglers have simply built ramps to drive over it; only the fencing designed for pedestrians actually prevents drive-throughs, because there’s no practical way to drive trucks over a 20-foot fence.