Global Policy Studies & International Security

Being a Good Neighbor: Reassessing the Border Fence

As 2008 draws to a close, we may witness the completion of 670 miles of border fence between the United States and Mexico as authorized by the U.S. Congress. Advocates in the Department of Homeland Security and within Congress may consider this venture to be a success and merely a phase of a larger scale project, which would involve authorizing construction on the remainder of the roughly 2,000 mile border with our southern neighbor. While illegal immigration remains a highly polarizing issue, an examination of the effectiveness, costs, and consequences of the existing fence project indicates the folly in continuing construction, regardless of political beliefs.

After the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began building the wall along the border. DHS was granted the ability to waive normal border construction requirements, including a great number of environmental regulations, to speed up the process. However, DHS has encountered excessive costs and legal problems from landowners. According to the New York Times, Congress allocated $2.7 billion to DHS for the construction of the wall, but the rising costs of materials led to project requesting another $400 million. As of last month, only 205.3 miles of pedestrian fencing and 153.7 miles of vehicle fence have been completed.

Environmental groups and local residents are angry about environmental regulation waivers, which can have disastrous effects. The Associated Press reported flooding that occurred in Lukeville, Arizona, because debris and water backed up against the new fence. Additionally, the fence may cause even more environmental damage by interrupting the migration routes of animals such as butterflies and wildcats.

An article in The Economist offers evidence that the wall has only pushed would-be illegal immigrants deeper into the desert in attempts to cross the border in more hazardous areas where the wall is not present. Because of the increased difficulty in crossing, Mexicans are no longer crossing back and forth for seasonal employment, but staying in the United States permanently and bringing their families with them. This has increased the number of women and children attempting to cross through the dangerous desert areas.

American businesses along the border have taken a hit. Among twin cities on opposite sides of the border, the Mexican cities tend to be much larger than their American counterparts. American businesses rely heavily on Mexican shoppers, and the increased security along the border has hurt the American communities. One Arizona local businessman estimated a 20 to 30 percent decrease in trade in the past year.

The construction of the wall is also separating international families from each other. Until recently, the border between San Diego and Tijuana cut through Friendship Park as a flimsy fence. Families in Southern California and Northern Mexico could see and speak to each other through the fence, but construction will soon begin on a double layer of fencing with a “no man’s land” in between. The only potential benefit from the widened fence is a reduction in drug trade at the border.

Border agents estimate a lower occurrence of illegal immigration based on a lower rate of people caught attempting. However, this is a weak measure of illegal immigration, as it does not measure those who successfully sneak into the country, particularly via unfenced parts of the desert.

In light of this information, the United States has options on how to proceed with border security policy. We can continue building up the wall along the border, decrease some of the existing walls, or halt the project where it is.

If the government chooses to continue development of the wall, as many in Congress might support, current paths of migration through the desert to avoid the existing wall could be blocked off. If there are no more porous sections of the border, it will be much more difficult for potential immigrants to adapt to new methods of entry. Therefore, a longer wall along all potentially traversable sections of the border would provide the highest possible amount of security against illegal immigrants.

However, based on cost information of the project thus far, this project will probably be prohibitively expensive for the American public. We could also expect to see more environmental damage and economic suffering as well as less communication between families on either side of the border.

Others believe that the fence is purely harmful and should be dismantled. Dismantling the fence would reunite families, encourage trade, and undo some of the environmental harm. However, this alternative would be very unpopular with the American public, who would feel that their tax dollars were wasted in a project that was destroyed by spending even more tax dollars. Additionally, the removal of the fence would send an unwanted message to potential border crossers that the United States is welcoming illegal immigrants by making the border crossing easier.

A third option is to halt the construction of the wall at the end of the current project parameters. This option would limit the environmental damage to what the current fence has already caused. Illegal immigrants and drug traffickers would likely still find crossing paths through the desert, and trade and communication would still be limited in the urban areas where the wall already runs. The cost of construction would be limited, and the remainder of the border would remain either unprotected or monitored by border agents or through technology.

This is the course of action that we should pursue.

Although an incomplete wall will not prevent the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, the cost of a complete wall is simply too high financially, environmentally, economically and socially. Additionally, the symbolism of a 2,000-mile wall between the United States and Mexico would not be conducive to promoting healthy foreign relations.

The United States should cut its losses and stop work on this extremely costly and moderately productive project at the end of this year.

Katherine Zackel

Katherine Zackel is a global policy studies student at the LBJ School. Her research interests include defense policy and human security. She received her bachelor's degree from the University of Notre Dame. She has also worked at a law firm in Washington, DC and taught middle school English classes in Lille, France.


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