Steve Chapman

In recent years, illegal immigrants have become a continuous river surging over our southern border. When water goes where it shouldn't, you build a dam to stop the flow. So recently Congress voted to block this torrent -- by putting up one-third of a dam. In practice, it will amount to far less than one-third of a solution.

The fence, as advertised, simultaneously manages to be both stupendously vast and pitifully undersized. Covering some 700 miles in five segments, it's the equivalent of a structure stretching from Chicago to Washington, D.C. It would consist of double steel walls supplemented with cameras, motion detectors and floodlights -- everything but an alligator-infested moat.

Supporters put the cost at $2.2 billion, but it's wise to take that as a floor, not a ceiling. This sizable sum, however, would not cover the perpetual expense to maintain the fence in a remote and harsh environment. Nor would it pay the cost of buying the needed land from private owners.

As it happens, though, when Congress voted for 700 miles of fencing, it provided money for only about half that much. Even at 700 miles, the barrier would leave 1,300 miles of the border as unobstructed as the South Pole.

It turns out the inadequate funding may not all be spent on the fence, since the president was granted leeway to use the money for roads, gadgets and "tactical infrastructure." The Department of Homeland Security declines to say if it will construct what Congress conceived. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., head of the subcommittee on homeland security appropriations, told The Washington Post that "there'll be fencing where the department feels that it makes sense" -- which will be, uh, let's see . . . "at least 300 to 400 miles."

Congress also instructed the DHS to consult local and state governments on "the exact placement" of the wall. But a lot of them reject the whole idea. Mike Allen, director of the McAllen Economic Development Corp. in South Texas, told the San Francisco Chronicle, "Every single mayor from Brownsville to El Paso is against it." My guess is that if DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff asks them where to put the fence, they'll say, "We'll tell you where to put it!"

Erecting this giant public-works project is easier to do on paper than on rugged desert ground. Lee Morgan, a former federal agent in Douglas, Ariz., near the planned route, told the Reuters news agency, "You can't build a wall across the mountains of southern Arizona, as much of the terrain is inaccessible even on foot."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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