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."
Some of the fence is supposed to traverse creek beds that occasionally play host to violent flash floods. "You are going to have to build hundreds of culverts big enough for debris the size of brush and small trees to float through the length of the border," said another former federal agent. "If it is wide enough for bushes to get through, then people can get through."
And what will this lengthy barrier accomplish if and when it is finished? It will certainly prevent transient Mexicans and Central Americans from crossing the border in the places where it stands. But it won't prevent them from crossing elsewhere, as they did when fences were erected in the San Diego and El Paso areas. Since the government began cracking down in those places, total illegal immigration has actually risen.
Instead of making their way through urban areas, undocumented foreigners have eluded capture by trekking across remote deserts and mountains, paying human smugglers to shepherd them into the United States. Instead of snaring more illegal entrants, we're now arresting fewer.
Research by Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey indicates that the chance of being nabbed has dropped from about 33 percent 25 years ago to about 5 percent today -- while the cost to the Border Patrol per apprehension has soared. At the same time, the fatality rate of those crossing has tripled. Not exactly a proud achievement: killing trespassers instead of catching them.
A longer, more formidable fence can once again divert illegal immigrants to more dangerous routes and increase the fees charged by smugglers to arrange passage. As long as higher-paying employment beckons to impoverished people on the other side of the border, though, the cost and risk will still look modest next to the potential payoff. The fence can make illegal entry harder, but it won't make it any less popular.