Campaign Spending: 2 Billion Dollar Border Fence genre: Econ-Recon & Polispeak & Six Degrees of Speculation

Securing the border

The press enjoys providing details on the money raised by politicians and keeping track of the total funds raised by Republicans and Democrats to influence voters. Unfortunately, the reported numbers often fail to account for the many other ways that money is spent to win elections. A perfect example of that process is the planned 2 billion dollar, 700 mile long border fence intended to halt the exodus of Mexicans into the United States. Frankly, what this proposed fence demonstrates is the level of disregard for prudent spending that leads politicians to dole out money indiscriminately if they believe it can offer political benefit. The Washington Post offers a somber assessment of the fence in today’s edition.

Critics said the fence does not take into account the extraordinarily varied geography of the 2,000-mile-long border, which cuts through Mexican and American cities separated by a sidewalk, vast scrubland and deserts, rivers, irrigation canals and miles of mountainous terrain. It also seems, they say, to ignore advances in border security that don't involve construction of a 15-foot-high double fence and to play down what are expected to be significant costs to maintain the new barrier.

And, they say, the estimated $2 billion price tag and the mandate that it be completed by 2008 overlook 10 years of legal and logistical difficulties the federal government has faced to finish a comparatively tiny fence of 14 miles dividing San Diego and Tijuana.

I hate to be a skeptic but what makes us believe a fence will succeed in keeping people from crossing the border? Look, Americans struggle to keep their pets in their own fenced back yards, businesses invest billions in security systems to prevent break-ins, the Drug Enforcement Agency struggles to reduce the flow of drugs into our cities, and homeowners are constantly seeking new products to secure their homes...so just what do we believe a fence is going to achieve when we're dealing with highly motivated people as opposed to the family's best friend Fido? Pardon my snark, but this fence idea is a joke.

If we're going to rely on the technology that resulted in the building of the Great Wall of China to deal with twenty-first century problems, why not build a moat as well? This plan to secure our borders isn't anymore serious than the plan enacted in the 1980's to limit illegal immigration...and that is likely because the politicians that approved this fence are still taking money from the many businesses that relied on cheap illegal labor some twenty years ago. Sadly, it is the many voters who believe that these meaningless symbolic measures will be effective that encourage politicians to continue to approve such programs.

There also are questions of whether the fence will be more of a symbol to be used in elections than a reality along the border. For one thing, shortly before Congress adjourned, the House and Senate gave the Bush administration leeway to distribute the money allocated for the fence to other projects, including roads, technology and other infrastructure items to support the Department of Homeland Security's preferred option of building a "virtual fence."

Currently, less than 100 miles of the border is fenced, primarily in populated areas. San Diego has become a symbol for the efficacy of fences, but a closer look at the experience of that seaside city also illustrates the potential pitfalls.

The fence in San Diego forced illegal traffic into the deserts to the east, leading thousands of migrants to their deaths. In response, the Border Patrol shifted thousands of agents to Arizona to deal with the flow. But many of those agents came from the San Diego and El Centro sectors. So once again, the numbers of crossers in San Diego and El Centro are increasing even though the two sectors are the most heavily fenced in the nation.

"Tucson now has 2,600 agents. San Diego has lost 1,000 agents. Guess where the traffic is going? Back to San Diego." said T.J. Bonner, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the main union for Border Patrol agents. "San Diego is the most heavily fortified border in the entire country and yet it's not stopping people from coming across."

The San Diego project illustrates another key consideration. Unless the fence were built along the entire border with Mexico, the 700 miles of fence will simply shift the points of entry...leaving other communities to deal with the increasing numbers of illegal crossings. Beyond that, it is a fully flawed assumption to conclude that any fence won't be breached. Have our politicians never heard of ladders or tunnels?

Maverick County Sheriff Tomas S. Herrera predicted ranchers would sue the federal government to fight the installation of a fence on their property. One reason is that the ranchers want access to the Rio Grande, which snakes 1,254 miles along the border, to water their herds and for sport fishermen who pay money to use the waterway.

Perhaps because of these objections, Congress, in a late-night concession, just before adjournment, pledged that Native American tribes, members of Congress, governors and local leaders would get a say in "the exact placement" of any structure, and that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has discretion to use alternatives "when fencing is ineffective or impractical."

"A few years ago they installed cameras and said the cameras would solve things," he said. "Those cameras can pick up a tick on a cow's back. But when half the monitors are all busted like they are now, they don't work."

His prediction for how illegal immigrants would deal with the wall: "They will get ladders made out of mesquite and climb it."

The bottom line remains that politicians see the approval of a 2 billion dollar fence to be a practical means to purchase the votes they feel they need to continue in their positions. Until voters refuse to reward bad decisions and take the time to study the issues rather than reacting to their emotions and anger, we will continue to spend billions of dollars on fences that would prove unsatisfactory to keep the family pet in the back yard. I think its time for a reality check.

Daniel DiRito | October 10, 2006 | 8:54 AM
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