What's the Border Fence Good for? Subsidizing Mexican Scrap Metal Entrepreneurs

Last week, the Government Accountability Office released a depressing audit of the US-Mexico border fence we’ve been trying to put up for the past three years. The report caused about 8 hours of pretend outrage and was promptly forgotten. It found that we’d already shoveled $2.4 billion to half-seal 600 miles of the border since 2005 (we still have about 100 to 200 miles to go) and we would need to spend an additional $6.5 billion over the next 20 years just plugging up holes punched in the fencing.

The Christian Science Monitor:

So far, it has been breached 3,363 times, requiring $1,300 for the average repair. . . . Despite the price tag of maintaining the border fence, authorities have not found a way to determine whether it is helping to halt illegal immigration, the GAO report says.

The only semi-relevant stats we got are the number of illegal border border-crossers being caught by the US Border Patrol, which has dropped by 25 percent in recent times. But that doesn’t tell us much. “No one knows whether the decrease in crossers is due to the recession keeping people home, the thousands of new border patrol agents or the more than 600 miles of new border fence that has been built,” says NPR.

There is one thing we can be sure of: the massive steel pylons have been a boon for Mexican scrap metal entrepreneurs, who are able to supplement their incomes by dragging off whole sections of the fence right under the nose of our beefed up Border Patrol.

Bush’s Secure Fence Act of 2006 mandated that the Department of Homeland Security had 1.5 years to create a physical border fence bolstered by surveillance technology. But it was obvious from the very beginning that Bush’s push for a border fence was nothing more than a political show—there was not enough time and not enough money—to boost Bush’s and Republicans' creds with their base. Besides, the real Republican base–Bush’s corporate sponsors, “the haves and the have mores”–were the ones who benefited most from all that cheap illegal-immigrant labor, so naturally it was bound to be a half-assed effort intended to quell the Tea Party suckers who believe the Republicans. The building contractors were the only ones who stood to gain from the massive, wasteful show of Republican fake-patriotism. A show that’s still costing us billions.

I was down on the Arizona-Mexico border about six months ago doing a story on a McGyver-style vigilante group called the American Border Patrol and saw the total clusterfuck that is our border fence up close and personal.

One day I was ATVing along a freshly built stretch of the fence on the Arizona border, when I ran into a bored, young US Border Patrol agent. He seemed skeptical about the wall doing much good. The wall wouldn’t make much of a difference, he told me. “They” always figure out a way to get through—or over, in this case. Burros carrying bales of drugs on their back simply throw a rope up over the two-storey barrier, snagging it with some sort of hook on one of the fence’s steel beams and scuttle up and over.

The amazing thing is that they’ve managed to get cars over it, too. According to the agent, Mexican smugglers rig trucks with collapsible ramps similar to those used at old-school airports for boarding planes. They would have two trucks drive up to the fence—one on each side of the border—line them up and have their hombres drive right over. Apparently, a whole caravan of cars and pickup trucks could cross that way in a matter of minutes. When they were done, the ramps would be folded up and concealed, and the operator would drive peacefully home.

People who live on the border will tell you that the fence has reduced foot traffic from Mexico. But in part that’s because smuggling routes have been pushed into more isolated, less fenced and usually more deadly terrain. So while border crossing apprehensions are down by a quarter, the number of deaths have remained the same. Which means that the border patrol is increasingly turning into a Search, Rescue and Detain operation involving helicopters, medical supplies and hospital bills. Guess who’s paying for those?

When I was down in Arizona, I got in touch with an old Vietnam vet who passed the time doing crazy Rambo shit: rigging a mountainous stretch of the Mexican border with motion-activated “game cameras.” Since they put up the border fence across the open desert, he saw foot traffic go off the charts in the nearby mountains, which are not fenced. His cameras captured group after group of people crossing in areas that were before rarely active, if at all. Border Patrol can’t get to them there, and it’s also not the safest place to be. In one of his videos, there’s a huge bear hobbling down a foot path that is frequently used by border-crossers. One of these days, those two parties are bound to meet.

But the border fence isn’t a total, ineffectual waste of money just in the physical realm.

In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security awarded Boeing with a contract to develop a “virtual fence” prototype along a 28-mile stretch of the border in Arizona. Dubbed SBInet — part of President Bush’s “Secure Border Initiative” — it was meant to replace an outdated CCTV-style surveillance system currently in use by the US Borer Patrol and create a unified surveillance system that linked tower-mounted cameras, ground sensors, UAVs and radar. The project started off with a budget of $20 million, but quickly ballooned to nearly $1 billion just two years later. They had to start from scratch at least once, and there is still no working prototype in sight. The Department of Homeland Security was going to scrap SBInet due to cost overruns, but recently decided to extend its contract with Boeing for another year.

So there you have it. The Secure Fence Act of 2006, thirty-six months later: Directive #1—”border surveillance through more effective use of personnel and technology”—is total fucking joke. And Directive #2—”physical infrastructure enhancements to prevent unlawful border entry”—is so ineffectual and expensive it would probably be cheaper to demolish the whole thing and hand the rubble over to Mexican scrap metal brokers.


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