Border Patrol sector chief responds to story
Regarding “Border residents report being hit by tear gas” (Around Our Region, Dec. 15):
“The deliberate, unmitigated violence against my agents is going to stop.” As chief Border Patrol agent for the San Diego sector, it was with these few words that I directed my command staff to find a way to make this directive become reality and to establish a new way of doing business. Today, we stand resolute and committed to this objective.
Many of you may be aware of our operational deployments along the border with Mexico as the increase of violence against Border Patrol agents continues at unprecedented levels. Last year, one out of every four assaults against agents along the 2,000 miles of border with Mexico occurred in San Diego. Not only is this trend continuing, but also it is dramatically increasing; since October 2007 we have recorded over 100 assaults. Nearly twice a day, the men and women of the San Diego Sector Border Patrol are subjected to violent assaults from criminals operating in Mexico.
These assaults include smugglers throwing large rocks at the agents (at times after the rocks have been wrapped in cloth, doused in kerosene and lit on fire), launching glass bottles, large pieces of wood, steel ball bearings fired from sling shots, to name a few. To those who would argue that this violence is perpetrated by juveniles and that we should expect this as a “cost of doing business,” I offer the following: Criminal organizations (alien smugglers and drug smugglers) are hiring known criminals to cross into the United States illegally, create a diversion and lure our agents into an ambush. When our agents respond, the criminals use military style tactics and “triangulate” their offensive, pinning down the agents in a violent assault. While the agents seek cover, the smugglers move people and contraband over the fence into our neighborhoods.
In response to this criminal activity, I have deployed the Special Response Team to these dangerous border areas. Border Patrol agents are authorized to deploy less-lethal munitions as necessary to protect and defend themselves and other agents against life-threatening assaults being perpetrated by criminals in Mexico. We will continue to use reasonable force in self-defense as necessary to protect our front-line agents from imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm.
My primary responsibility as the chief patrol agent in San Diego is to the border security mission and to ensure, to the extent that I can within the law and consistent with agency policy, a safe and secure border for our men and women. To do less would be at the very least irresponsible and at worst, malfeasance. We will not relinquish ground under operational control nor will we retreat from our front-line deployments; the threat is real, our border security mission critical, and failure is clearly not an option.
MICHAEL J. FISHER San Diego
Border Patrol fires tear gas, pepper spray into Mexico in response to rock-hurling attackers
December 17, 2007 SAN DIEGO -- Border Patrol agents are firing tear gas and powerful pepper-spray weapons across the border into Mexico to repel what the agency says are an increasing number of attacks by assailants hurling rocks, bottles and bricks.
The counteroffensive has drawn complaints that innocent families are being caught in the crossfire.
"A neighbor shouted, 'Stop it! There are children living here," said Esther Arias Medina, 41, who on Wednesday fled her Tijuana, Mexico, shanty with her 3-week-old grandson after the infant began coughing from smoke that seeped through the walls.
A helmeted agent on the U.S. side said nothing as he stood with a rifle on top of a 10-foot border fence next to the three-room home that Arias shares with six others.
"We don't deserve this," Arias said. "The people who live here don't throw rocks. Those are people who come from the outside, but we're paying the price."
Witnesses in Arias' hardscrabble neighborhood described eight attacks since August that involved tear gas or pepper spray, some that forced residents to evacuate.
The Border Patrol says its agents have been attacked nearly 1,000 times during a one-year period.
The agency's top official in San Diego, Mike Fisher, said agents are taking action because Mexican authorities have been slow to respond. When an attack happens, he said, American authorities often wait hours for them to come, and help usually never arrives.
"We have been taking steps to ensure that our agents are safe," Fisher said.
Mexico's acting consul general in San Diego, Ricardo Pineda, has insisted that U.S. authorities stop firing onto Mexican soil. He met with Border Patrol officials last month after the agency fired tear gas into Mexico. The agency defended that counterattack, saying agents were being hit with a hail of ball bearings from slingshots in Mexico.
U.S. officials say the violence indicates that smugglers are growing more desperate as stepped-up security makes it harder to sneak across the border. The assailants try to distract agents long enough to let people dash in the United States.
The head of a union representing Border Patrol employees said the violence also results from the decision to put agents right up against the border, a departure from the early 1990s when they waited farther back to make arrests.
"When you get that close to the fence, your agents are sitting ducks," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council.
Border Patrol agents were attacked 987 times along the U.S.-Mexico border during the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, the agency said. That's up 31 percent from 752 attacks a year earlier, and it's the highest number since the agency began recording attacks in the late 1990s.
About two-thirds of the attacks were with rocks. Many of the rest involved physical assaults, such as illegal immigrants getting into fist fights with guards.
About one of every four attacks occurred in San Diego, and most of those happened along a heavily fortified, 10-mile stretch of the border starting at the Pacific Ocean.
Agent Joseph Ralph estimates he has been struck by rocks 20 times since joining the Border Patrol in 1987, once fracturing a shoulder blade. "You find yourself trying to take cover," he said.
About four months ago, a large rock struck the hood of agent Ellery Taylor's vehicle. "The only thing you can think is, 'I'm glad that that wasn't my head.' There's no way to see it coming," Taylor said.
In October, agents in California and Arizona received compressed-air guns that shoot pepper-spray canisters more than 200 feet. Agents already had less powerful pepper-launchers that lose their punch after about 30 feet -- even less if absorbed by thick clothing or cardboard.
The Border Patrol says the pepper weapons are a less lethal alternative to regular guns, but they have caused at least one fatality. In October 2004, a college student died after she was struck in the eye by a pepper-spray canister that officers fired to control a celebration of the Red Sox's pennant win.
Border Patrol SWAT teams along the 1,952-mile U.S.-Mexico border are also equipped with tear gas, "flash bombs" that emit blinding light and "sting ball" grenades that disperse hundreds of tiny rubber pellets.
U.S. officials say the new tactics may spare lives. An agent shot and killed a 20-year-old Mexican man whose arm was cocked back in March in Calexico, Calif., where rock attacks have soared in the last year. Two years ago, an agent fatally shot a rock thrower at the San Diego-Tijuana border.
No criminal charges were filed in either case.
Robis Guadalupe Argumedo, a seamstress in Tijuana, said she has been startled by tear gas on four nights since Aug. 7, when her 12-year-old son suffered a nose bleed. That attack also shattered a window of her neighbor's car.
Argumedo, 31, said she shouted in protest across the border at a helmeted agent on Dec. 8 after opening her front door to a cloud of tear gas. "He said: 'I'm the policeman of the world and I can do what I want."'
Benito Arias said his 19-year-old sister-in-law fainted during an apparent tear gas attack about two weeks ago. The woman, five months pregnant, was given oxygen at the hospital.
His father, Jose Arias, fled with his wife a few blocks away, where paramedics checked their blood pressure. He said he sympathizes with the Border Patrol because Mexican authorities do nothing to prevent people from hurling rocks over the fence at agents.
"This is a matter between government and government," said Arias, 75. "They have to work out an agreement. We are innocent. What can we do about it?"
Tijuana enclave feels sting of escalating border strife http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-pepper14dec14,1,4542675.story
I think it's the stupidest idea I've ever heard of
Texas ranchers scoff at border fence
EAGLE PASS, Texas — July 15, 2007 He's been living here off and on for more than half a century, so rancher Bill Moody figured he had experienced about all the excitement and madness the Texas-Mexico border could offer.
When there's not a drug bust going down or a lost immigrant begging for food, Moody sometimes finds himself in the company of Hollywood directors, such as the one who filmed "Lonesome Dove" here years ago and was back recently working on a prequel called "Comanche Moon."
But the federal plan for a massive security fence along the border strikes Moody, 84, as too far-fetched for a screenplay and downright nutty for his gigantic Rancho Rio Grande, which runs through three counties between Del Rio and Eagle Pass.
"If the wall would help, I wouldn't mind. But it won't help. It'll be a big expense, a big problem, ugly as hell and unfriendly to Mexico," said Moody, heir to one of the largest and oldest fortunes in Texas. "It's not going to happen."
Moody and other landowners along the Rio Grande generally have little in common with open-border proponents and environmental activists, who also oppose the 698-mile fencing project Congress approved late last year. Taken together, though, their voices have cranked up the heat against a border fence.
"I think it's the stupidest idea I've ever heard of," said Brian O'Brien, a wealthy Houston oilman who has an 18,000-acre ranch, seven miles of it along the Rio Grande, near Eagle Pass. "If the river doesn't keep them out, why do you think a wall will?"
The first casualty of the project actually could be a decades-long, multimillion-dollar effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore habitat for endangered plants and animals in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The brushy riverfront tracts are now the ripest of targets for a border fence because there's no need for messy landowner negotiations or condemnation proceedings. Uncle Sam owns the property.
But, critics ask, what happens to U.S. land on the south side of the wall? Does it become a de facto part of Mexico? The University of Texas, Brownsville, discovered recently that plans called for part of its campus to be on the south side of the fence. Would students need a passport to attend math class?
And would ranchers such as Moody and O'Brien be able to water their cattle in the Rio Grande?
"I think there's a bunch of knee-jerk politicians up in Washington who need to come down here and see what's really going on, instead of posturing in front of the TV cameras," said Roy Cooley, general manager of the Maverick County Water Control District in Eagle Pass. "But that's just my opinion."
Despite the red-hot anger a proposed wall is generating in Texas, border-fence bashing runs counter to the prevailing political winds in Congress and the American electorate.
With polls showing immigration a top concern for voters last year, U.S. lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the Secure Fence Act and President Bush signed it into law days before the November elections. Although spearheaded by the GOP, 64 Democrats in the House and 26 in the Senate — including Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois — voted for it.
Months later, critics say, only about a dozen miles of new fencing have gone up, none of it in Texas, home to roughly two-thirds of the 1,952-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Opponents to lenient treatment for illegal immigrants are using the slowpoke progress in funny but biting TV ads, titled "Where's the Fence?"
"Border enforcement is now a national-security issue," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who led efforts in the 1990s to build double-walled barriers near San Diego and has made the latest project a cornerstone of his 2008 presidential campaign. "It's time to build the border fence."
Officially, the project would cost at least $2.1 billion. But building in remote areas, not to mention legal fights with landowners who don't want to sell, could send the price soaring.
In the short term, the Department of Homeland Security has publicly committed to building 370 miles of fencing before the end of 2008, with 153 miles of it planned for Texas. Hunter said that schedule falls far short of the Secure Fence Act, which he co-authored. Only 12 miles of new fencing have gone up — near Yuma, Ariz. — according to Hunter's office. Customs and Border Protection would neither confirm nor deny that figure.
The Secure Fence Act actually calls for 854 miles of fencing, which, because of the winding terrain, is longer than the linear 698 miles it would cover — all of which Hunter promises to build within six months if elected president.
Critics call the plan unrealistic.
"I don't think they're going to do that," said. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee. "Somebody up here in Congress got a crayon and they said, 'OK, from Laredo draw all the way down to Brownsville.' "
Still, opponents were caught off guard this spring, when Homeland Security started contacting landowners about rights of way along their riverfront property. Fence-location maps and memos soon leaked out of Washington. Two wall-construction contracts worth up to $750 million were put out to bid.
The federal actions angered political leaders along the Texas-Mexico border. A "wall of shame," they called it. Another Berlin Wall. Cuellar, whose district would receive more than half of the first 153 miles of Texas fencing by 2008, said the negative reaction caused Homeland Security officials to "change their tune."
"They're now saying they're going to get input from the community before they do anything else," Cuellar said.
Over White House objections and veto threats, Cuellar amended a Homeland Security funding bill — still working its way through Congress — to allow authorities to use natural and technological barriers where fencing is impractical. The bill as amended also would require input from locals.
Meanwhile, Michael Friel, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman, said the agency is "well into" meeting its goal of completing 70 miles of fencing by October, when fiscal 2007 ends. He said barriers were going up first in New Mexico, Arizona and California, where much of the land already belongs to the federal government.
"We realize that in Texas there are folks that own property, that have land on the border," Friel said. "That dynamic is different."
What nobody can say with certainty is whether fences will help secure the border.
Only about 88 miles, or less than 5 percent, of the U.S.-Mexico border is fenced, figures show; an additional 80 miles of vehicle barriers are designed to stop smugglers.
If there's a gold standard for border fences, it's the one outside San Diego. Once the nation's premier smuggling corridor, the San Diego Sector received nine miles of double fencing, new high-tech surveillance and more agents after Operation Gatekeeper was unveiled in 1994. No one today disputes that it has had a major impact on smuggling.
The Border Patrol caught 524,231 illegal immigrants trying to cross its San Diego Sector in 1995. The sector caught 126,913 a decade later, figures show.
For fence proponents, Operation Gatekeeper is proof that fences work. For critics, it's proof they don't.
After the Southern California crackdown, apprehensions soared to the east, in the sometimes-deadly Arizona desert. Nationwide, apprehensions have remained relatively steady, at more than 1 million a year, even as the Border Patrol budget has more than tripled.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the net population of illegal immigrants has been growing by about 500,000 people a year since 1990. About 12 million are here now.
Some cross into the United States from the tiny Mexican village of Madero del Rio, just south of Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, and Del Rio, where Mexican farmer Samuel Gomez grows watermelons and raises cattle. Unlike his U.S. counterparts, Gomez, 76, would like nothing more than to see a fence. He ticked off a litany of problems associated with the smuggling industry — destroyed produce, dead bodies in the river, abandoned cars in the fields, strangers everywhere.
"People come through at night, and we have no idea where they're from. With this thing, this wall, that's protection for all of us," Gomez said. "I'm very much in agreement with this project."
Homeland Security secretary: Safer border will make immigration reform possible
February 16, 2007 MEXICO CITY -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday that immigration reform would let U.S. law enforcement focus on catching criminals instead of migrants seeking better economic prospects.
But he said Americans were unlikely to back any such reform until added security along the Mexican border convinces them they're safe.
In his first official visit to Mexico, Chertoff told foreign reporters that Mexico was not a "hotbed" of terrorism but "we are always vigilant for people who might be passing into Mexico who are potentially linked to terrorists."
The 6,000 National Guard troops providing logistical support to the Border Patrol since May have dramatically deterred people from crossing the 2,000-mile frontier, he said. Arrests along the border are down, and fewer people have been seen gathering to cross on the Mexican side.
But security alone won't permanently stop illegal border crossers, and Chertoff warned that flows increase as smugglers regroup.
Comprehensive immigration reform, he said, would allow U.S. law enforcement to "focus more on the people that we don't want in the country under any circumstances, namely the criminals and the dangerous folks."
"Every time a Border Patrol officer is transporting a load of future housekeepers and landscapers to someplace to be returned, he's not looking for drug dealers or drug loads," Chertoff said.
Mexico has been pushing for years for a U.S. immigration accord. President Bush has proposed a guest-worker program that would allow Mexicans living abroad to seek temporary work visas, but Congress has refused to back it.
U.S. lawmakers instead have supported building more border walls and beefing up security.
But Chertoff noted that border officials say it may not be necessary to build all 700 miles of border fences proposed in legislation Bush signed into law last year.
Instead, border enforcement authorities would like the flexibility to build walls where needed, while other areas may be better monitored by ground sensors and other technology.
Next week, Chertoff plans to visit the Arizona border to see the first 28 miles of ground sensors being installed as part of a border-wide strategy.
Chertoff said the Guard troops will be phased out when the Border Patrol reaches its goal of hiring 18,319 agents, which the agency is on target to do by the end of 2008.
Chertoff commended Calderon for extraditing to the U.S. four Mexican drug lords in January and leading a federal effort to retake smuggling strongholds from drug traffickers. Previous arrests of key drug leaders have led to bloody turf battles in which drug gangs behead their enemies and openly defy authorities.
Chertoff said he discussed with Mexico's top security officials how to better coordinate efforts to combat border violence and exchange information about traffickers of drugs and people. They also discussed ways to stem the tide of illegal migrants from Central and South America who travel north through Mexico.
Chertoff also said the U.S. and Mexico were working together to protect their energy infrastructure after an Internet threat by a Saudi Arabian terrorist faction affiliated with al-Qaida. The faction urged attacks against oil installations in countries that export petroleum to the U.S. -- namely Mexico, Canada and Venezuela.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula said in its monthly online magazine that "cutting oil supplies to the United States, or at least curtailing it, would contribute to the ending of the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan." The group said it was making the statements as part of Osama bin Laden's declared policy.
End the folly
Scrapping the border fence plan makes sense
December 11, 2006 Congressional elections can sometimes provide a valuable opportunity to change course or perhaps even correct a mistake made in haste.
Now that immigration restrictionists – and others who confuse bumper-sticker slogans with public policy – have flunked their midterms, Americans have the opportunity to pull back from the folly of building 700 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border.
That would suit us just fine. Along with millions of other Americans who live along the border, we have never been convinced that walls and fences are much more than feel-good exercises in political cosmetics that do little to curb illegal immigration. We prefer a mature, thoughtful and comprehensive approach to immigration reform that includes a tamper-proof identification card, more border patrol agents, stiffer and readily enforced penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants, a swifter means of deporting illegal immigrants, an end to “catch and release,” guest workers, a rigorous and conditional path to legalization for illegal immigrants and a host of other reforms.
Apparently, scrapping the fence would also be fine with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a possible Democratic contender for the White House in 2008. In a provocative speech at Georgetown University, Richardson made clear he thinks a border fence creates more problems than it solves. Insisting the idea of building new fences “gets in the way” of achieving the sort of cooperative relationship between the United States and Mexico that is essential to stemming illegal immigration, Richardson is asking Congress to abandon the effort and concentrate on other reforms that stand a better chance of working, such as increasing the number of Border Patrol agents.
Besides, as Richardson points out, Congress didn't make clear how it was going to pay for the fence in the first place. Estimates are that it could cost as much as $10 billion. Congress approved a $1.2 billion down payment. Now that Democrats have won control of both houses, it's hard to conceive of how lawmakers will ever make up the difference, given the wide array of competing spending priorities facing the new Congress.
And there are no shortcuts. Going high-tech means a higher price tag. A so-called virtual fence that relies on cameras and sensors instead of metal and concrete would be more expensive, and could run as high as $40 billion.
It's one thing to talk about Congress spending enormous amounts of the people's money on a worthwhile project that might actually stand a chance of working. It's quite another to talk about wasting enormous amounts of money on something that won't work, that has never worked, and that will never work as advertised – not until we cut off the magnet of jobs that lure illegal immigrants here in the first place.
Building the fence is not being tough. It's being foolish. And isn't it about time, in this immigration debate, that we learned to tell one from the other?
Congress should dedicate its best effort to the immigration issue. This isn't it.
Border fence faces obstacles
The fence has ignited protests from Mexico and has only tepid support at best among U.S. governors in the four border states. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has likened it to going back to the Stone Age. Several border cities, including El Paso, officially oppose it.
Texas is in line to get three sections of fencing totaling more than 200 miles. Gov. Rick Perry has given the measure a cool response, saying the fence will be ineffective without beefed-up law enforcement and other initiatives.
"As long as you build the wall and you do nothing else, it's a shortsighted solution," Steve McCraw, Perry's homeland security director, said Saturday. "Walls, fences are important in the right places, but you need boots on the ground."
Before one inch of the fence goes up, experts say, government planners are likely to face substantial resistance from landowners along the border and could become entangled in a web of environmental and right-of-way disputes. Then come the engineering complexities of erecting barriers across formidable terrain.
Funding could be another problem. Congress agreed to spend $1.2 billion, but the fence is expected to cost at least $2.2 billion. Some estimates have put the price in excess of $6 billion.
Border barriers have failed before
History offers little hope for a nation attempting to seal its southern border.
The government has slowed illegal crossings in targeted areas of El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, but illegal entrants shifted their routes to Arizona and New Mexico. Now officials say they're shifting back.
The U.S. House of Representatives wants 700 miles of border fencing. The Senate decided late last month to consider the same proposal, four months after passing a bill to build 370 miles of fence and nearly 500 miles of vehicle barriers. The president has pledged 6,000 new U.S. Border Patrol agents.
But just how viable is the idea of sealing the border?
The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson sent a six-member reporting team on a trek from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico to find out. Today, the report explores the history of border-sealing efforts and the natural obstacles that could prevent the building and effectiveness of a border fence.
Sealing the border will sever traditional routes for cross-border tribes and communities, threatening the ties that bind them together
September 25, 2006 Tucson, Arizona, For traditional worshippers in a remote Tohono O'odham village, the 25-mile trip to a sacred site across the border is about to turn into a trek of more than 70 miles.
The U.S. Border Patrol plans to seal Menager's Dam Gate, a cattle crossing Ali Jegk, Ariz. residents such as Ofelia Rivas have used all their lives to reach a ceremonial site in Quitovac, Mexico, and to visit tribal members who live south of the border.
The tribe asked the Border Patrol for a vehicle barrier to stop the cars and trucks that illegally barrel through the open gate at all hours. The decision, tribal officials say, was unfortunate but necessary to protect public safety.
Standing along the international line directly behind her home, Rivas, 50, points to wooden stakes painted pink and marked with green tape, demarcating roads the U.S. government uses to monitor the area. One stake is steps from the gravesite of a migrant woman and her young daughter that Rivas and her relatives have tended since the 1960s. On All Souls' Day, Rivas sets places for them at her dinner table. For the nearly 12 million people who live along the U.S.-Mexican border, the line is an unnatural divider, splitting cultures that are otherwise alike. Sealing the border would forever divide communities and tribes whose strong cross-border ties are integral to their identities, a Star investigation found.
In border towns such as San Luis and Nogales, Ariz.; Calexico, Calif.; and Sunland Park, N.M., Spanish is as common as English. Families and friends travel back and forth, especially American youths lured by the music and discothèques in the bigger cities on the Mexican side. When barriers go up, travel time can stretch from minutes to hours. But border fencing doesn't close legal immigration channels and therefore shouldn't be viewed as culturally divisive, says Joe Kasper, an aide to U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a longtime advocate of border fencing.
From his ranch house just east of Jacumba, Calif., 58-year-old Raúl Gallego can see his parents' house in Jacumé, Mexico, across the rolling green hills.
He and his wife, Monica, 50, used to walk 20 minutes or drive 10 minutes across the border two or three times a week. After his parents died, he and his wife continued to make weekly trips to check on their house.
But in the post-Sept. 11 world, border security trumps convenience and tradition. Border Patrol agents no longer allow crossings at Jacumba. The Gallegos and others who came and went there now must drive 40 miles west to the Tecate Port of Entry. It takes an hour and 15 minutes to get there and up to four hours to get back, they say.
"It's just made everything different," Raúl Gallego says. "It hasn't done anything good for the community."
Jacumé residents used to walk two miles to the Mountain Sage Market in Jacumba each morning for fresh food unavailable in Mexico, such as bread, milk and eggs, says Norma Jean Espinoza, the market's owner.
On Halloween, the Mexican children would trick-or-treat in Jacumba. Jacumbans would go to Mexico for the rodeo or barbecues. Many lived on one side and worked on the other. Even more than other sister cities on the border, Jacumba and Jacumé were joined at the hip. Their separation has been painful. Some families still have their picnics. Those who live in Mexico sit on one side of the shoulder-high fence. Those who live in the United States sit on the other.
At first, Border Patrol agents who knew the residents of the town of 500 would let the older women cross to buy food, locals say. But, eventually, they stopped that, too. They added corrugated-steel fencing and erected vehicle barriers.
"I don't think it was necessary to stop the Mexicans from coming over here, but I do believe in border security," says Jacumba resident and World War II veteran Norman Blackwood, 76. "It isn't so much the Mexicans I worry about — it's people from other countries."
The Barrier will effect the Environment
Slow pace of border fence raises questions about larger White House plan
SAN DIEGO -- July 14, 2007 Bulldozers are rolling again on the U.S.-Mexico border, moving hundreds of tons of dirt to make way for a 16-foot steel fence in an area that once was the most popular crossing for illegal immigrants.
But before the construction resumed recently, the 14-mile project in San Diego was stalled for years by legal challenges from environmentalists, budget problems and difficulties buying land. Those delays are now raising doubts about a government plan to extend fencing to 370 miles of the Mexican border.
The Bush administration, under pressure to tighten border security, wants all 370 miles done by the end of next year.
"If past experience is any guide, it will cost a lot more than anyone expected and take a lot longer than anyone is talking about right now," said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute, which studies border issues.
The Homeland Security Department has yet to say where it will build fences in California, Arizona and New Mexico. And the only proposal made public so far -- for Texas -- drew immediate criticism and is being reworked. Opponents worried it would limit access to the Rio Grande, damage the environment and infuriate Mexicans who cross the border to shop and visit.
The 1,952-mile border stretches over sensitive terrain, including two national wildlife refuges in Arizona. And negotiations for land owned by scores of ranchers and Indian tribes may be challenging.
Democratic Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas predicted the construction of so much fencing will be a "huge problem," noting opposition among many residents and even some Border Patrol field leaders who would prefer the money be spent on manpower and equipment.
The San Diego fence, tilted 45 degrees at the top to deter climbers, starts at the coastline and stretches 14 miles inland. Construction began in 1996, and there are still five miles to go.
Until the mid-1990s, illegal immigrants had crossed in droves. They would slip across the border and huddle on U.S. soil as the handful of Border Patrol agents assigned to the area watched from a distance. When night fell, they ran for it.
"It was a never-ending battle, and we were losing very badly," said Don McDermott, a Border Patrol supervisor who worked the area in the 1980s.
The nine miles of fencing completed so far have had a dramatic impact, along with more manpower and stadium lighting. Arrests are way down in San Diego, but traffic shifted to Arizona deserts.
Those people who do make it across are increasingly desperate. More immigrants are attempting to swim across the border or crawl through crude tunnels, said Raleigh Leonard, supervisor of the Border Patrol's Imperial Beach station.
The final five miles of fencing in San Diego will cover some of the most rugged terrain and most sensitive habitats on the border. For example, to fill an area called "Smuggler's Gulch," crews are expected to move nearly 3 million tons of dirt -- enough to fill about 100,000 giant dump trucks.
Border Patrol officials say they need a fence in the gulch because its urban surroundings give agents limited time to catch people before they melt into the local population.
But environmentalists worry that shifting dirt will spill north into a federally protected estuary, disrupting a key stopover for more than 370 species of migratory and native birds.
A 2005 law giving the federal government authority to waive all rules prohibiting fence construction prompted a judge to dismiss a legal challenge to the San Diego fence. The law should help smooth the way elsewhere along the border, too.
Homeland Security spokesman Brad Benson said the agency wants to be a good environmental steward and will favor a "virtual fence" of sensors, radar and cameras in remote, environmentally sensitive areas and on tribal lands.
The government believes it can finish the 370 miles of fence on time and hopes to avoid the kind of pitfalls that delayed work in San Diego, Benson said. He said Congress has appropriated enough money -- $1 billion for fencing and other infrastructure -- to complete the project and that, unlike San Diego, the terrain will not be such a hindrance.
"Most of what we'll build is out in flat desert, and it's not that hard to do," he said.
Within the next few weeks, Benson said, the agency will put final touches on plans to complete the 14-mile San Diego fence and then solicit construction bids. Homeland Security also began a series of public meetings this week along the border to discuss the agency's plans to extend the fence to 370 miles.
Shirk, of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute, remains skeptical: "It's a really, really big project that won't go so quickly."
THE PROJECT: Bulldozers are making way for a 16-foot steel fence on the U.S.-Mexico border in an area of San Diego that was once the most popular crossing for illegal immigrants.
THE GOAL: The Bush administration, under pressure to tighten border security, wants to build a longer fence spanning 370 miles by the end of 2008.
THE PROBLEM: The San Diego fence was stalled for years by legal challenges from environmentalists, budget problems and difficulties buying land. That has raised doubts about the government's plan to put up more fencing.
Border fence threatens wildlife
Environmentalists say migrations will be disrupted
May 21, 2007 ALAMO, Texas -- Nancy Brown drives the government truck slowly past mossy ponds, thick shrouds of beardlike Spanish moss and majestic ebony trees, gleefully identifying the song of the kiskadee and the gurgling call of the chachalaca.
As the truck rounds a bend near the greenish-brown Rio Grande, a bobcat scampers ahead, disappearing into the lush foliage. Lizards dart about. A tortoise lazes in the sun. Somewhere in the forest, well-camouflaged by evolution, are ocelots and jaguarundi, both of them endangered species of cats.
These are some of the natural wonders in the Rio Grande Valley that Brown and other wildlife enthusiasts fear could be spoiled by the fences and adjacent roads that the U.S. government plans to erect along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants and smugglers.
Environmentalists have spent decades acquiring and preserving 90,000 riverfront acres of Texas scrub and forest and protecting their wildlife. Now they fear that the hundreds of miles of border fences will undo their work and kill some land animals by cutting them off from the Rio Grande, the only source of fresh water. A fence could also prevent the ocelots and other animals from swimming across the water to mate.
"If you have a fence that runs several miles long, if you are a tortoise or any animal that can't fly over or go through it, then you have a pretty long distance that you have to go to get water," said Brown, an outreach manager at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, 225 miles south of San Antonio. Also, "any destruction of any brush is very damaging."
In addition, some worry that the barrier -- described in some plans as triple-layer metal fencing -- will damage the tourism industry along the Rio Grande.
The wild cats, reptiles and at least 500 species of birds attract visitors from around the world who bring the impoverished region $150 million a year. Depending on how far inland the fence is built, it could create a no man's land north of the river.
While the Department of Homeland Security said it has not made any final decisions on where the fence will go, meetings this week with the Border Patrol have wildlife officials convinced that some of the 70 miles planned for the Rio Grande Valley will be erected on wildlife refuges along the border.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said environmental concerns will be taken into account in the final decisions. But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has used his authority to waive environmental regulations for security reasons in other states.
Nature trumps border seal
PHYSICAL barriers: Rough terrain precludes a continuous wall and presents huge challenges for those trying to patrol the Mexican border
September 24, 2006 Tucson, Arizona A craggy border canyon in San Diego is difficult to monitor and too rough to handle much of a fence, so the federal government has come up with an idea — it will fill the 230-foot-deep chasm and get the dirt to do it by lopping off the tops of two nearby mesas.
By smoothing out Smuggler's Gulch with enough dirt to fill 70,000 dump trucks, the U.S. Border Patrol expects to be able to better patrol one of San Diego's weak spots.
Its 66 border miles already have 40 miles of fence reinforced with nine miles of double fencing, seismic sensors, stadium lights, helicopters, horseback patrols and cameras.
But the number of illegal entrants trying to cross there has jumped by 26 percent in the last five years, and authorities say they need more control.
Altering the landscape is one way to secure the international line, a boundary that crosses miles of rugged canyons and more than a dozen mountain ranges, with peaks reaching 7,800 feet.
The terrain also includes an estuary, 24 miles of the Colorado River paralleled by the Salinity Canal, 53 miles of the All-American Canal, 1,254 miles of the Rio Grande, rolling sand dunes, vast stretches of desert and canyons as deep as 1,500 feet.
Without major changes like the ones the Smuggler's Gulch plan calls for, much of the U.S.-Mexican border cannot be fenced, a Star investigation found.
Of the border's nearly 2,000 miles, 85 — 4 percent — are fenced. Another 61 miles have shorter barriers that keep cars from passing but let people and wildlife through.
The U.S. House of Representatives wants to add 700 miles of double-layered border fencing. The Senate voted in May to build 370 miles of fence and nearly 500 miles of vehicle barriers, but decided last week to consider supporting the House's larger fence plan. President Bush has pledged 6,000 more agents by 2008.
Though rough terrain hinders agents' ability to patrol, reinforcing security with walls in rugged areas actually could help smugglers by providing an infrastructure — walls require roads to patrol them. Border fencing also would cost $2 billion to $5 billion or more and worries environmentalists concerned with water, wilderness preservation and animals.
"Parts of the lower Rio Grande are pretty wild. There are mountains that are really wild. There's the cost of equipment to consider," says Douglas S. Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University who has studied international migration for nearly three decades.
"If you want to throw enough money at it, yes, you could do it," he says. "But you'd need to fill in 1,000-foot canyons, grade mountains. And a wall wouldn't be any good if you didn't have someone to patrol it."