April 14, 2008
Breaching the fence

How do you beat a million-dollar border fence? It's easy.

Illegal immigrants armed with torches, hacksaws, ladders and even bungee cords are making it around a section of the border fence hailed as the most efficient way to stop them.

In the 10 months since the section was put up, the only method federal agents haven't seen is a tunnel -- "Yet," said Victor Guzman, the supervisory Border Patrol agent responsible for the stretch of close-together 15-foot cement-filled steel poles planted three feet into the ground.

Agents responsible for guarding the stretch of border here "almost immediately" started seeing cuts in the fence. The towering gray and rust colored posts are marked with bright orange spray paint in areas believed to have been breached, Guzman said.

Guzman, who has worked in the area for nearly a decade, said agents have found holes cut with acetylene torches, hacksaws and even plasma torches -- a high-powered tool that uses inert gas or condensed air to quickly cut through steel and other dense metals.

"We see it once or twice a week," Guzman said of the holes along the 1.5-mile stretch of fencing about 80 miles west of El Paso.

We've heard this sort of thing before. The joke about a ten-foot fence enhancing sales of eleven-foot ladders may seem like a sound bite, except for all the truth it contains. And in some cases, even the ladder - or hacksaw or torch or whatever - isn't needed.

But it's not just illegal immigrants worrying the Border Patrol. The fence itself -- built by the National Guard and Border Patrol -- is starting to settle into the ground and gaps between the posts are widening. In one spot, an average sized woman could wedge herself through one of the gaps.

That's for a fence that was completed last June, so it's less than a year old. Really gives you a feeling of security, doesn't it?

One thing I'm curious about: Did the money that was allocated to build the 670-mile fence include allowances for future repairs, or is that something that will have to be dealt with every fiscal year by Congress? Because, it seems to me, this is exactly the sort of cost that never gets taken into account initially, and winds up the responsibility of the operating agency, which then has to make cuts elsewhere to handle it. It'd be quite the irony if Border Patrol had to initiate a hiring freeze to be able to pay for fence repairs, wouldn't it?

By the way, the Sunday op-ed pages had three good pieces relating to immigration and the border wall:

Border barrier sends the wrong message

Last February, I found myself in the difficult position of explaining American insecurity to a group of Mexican undergraduates at a college in Matamoros, Mexico, just south of the border at Brownsville, Texas. I was taking questions after delivering a lecture on the long-term prospects of Mexican immigrants being accepted into U.S. society. A neatly dressed young man in the back stood up to ask a pointed question. "How," he said politely in Spanish, "could such a rich and powerful country be so self-centered as to build a wall on its border to keep people out?"

Build Mexico instead of putting up a wall

If the official minimum wage were 10 times higher in Chicago than in St. Louis, it's easy to imagine what would happen: Thousands of men and women would leave their homes and families and travel north in search of better wages and a higher standard of living. And Regardless of what Chicago did to "protect and defend" its borders, the city would find it impossible to stem the relentless tide of determined job-seekers.

Substitute Veracruz for St. Louis, and the hypothetical example becomes very real -- and points to the true source of our immigration challenges along the U.S.-Mexico border. With wages for semiskilled in Mexico one-tenth the level of U.S. wages, even workers who hold jobs in Mexico see working in the United States as the only realistic hope for pulling their families out of severe poverty.

If the root cause of Mexican migration to the United States is found in Mexico, then why do we continue to believe that 2,000-mile walls will solve the immigration problems associated with undocumented workers?

Western Union and the wall

Confronted with fortress Jericho, Joshua's forces let wail on ramhorns and, as the spiritual has it, "the walls came a-tumblin' down." Millennia later, it's possible that another communication device -- the ubiquitous cell phone -- may blow away the border barrier currently being erected between the United States and Mexico.

This possibility emerged in the unlikely -- and funny -- convergence of two press releases on April Fool's Day. Within hours of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's announcement that he would invoke congressionally granted waivers to expedite 470 miles of security-wall construction across the American southwest, Western Union rolled out a new service targeted at U.S. Latino consumers that will enable them to transfer money to Mexico with but a few keystrokes from their mobile phones.

The latter was written by Char Miller, one of my history profs at Trinity University. Check 'em out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 14, 2008 to National news