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Where's the Beef? 

Border-fence monitors pose the critical question

A soggy wind grumbles up from the south, playing hell with Glenn Spencer's carefully crafted display. It's Sept. 5. Hurricane Henriette is rampaging through Mexico, and the storm's seething fringes are brushing Tucson. But in a corner of downtown's El Presidio Park, Spencer is about to announce a few gripes of his own.

He commands the American Border Patrol, a nonprofit group banging the drum for immigration control and a stiffened southern boundary. On this muggy afternoon, he's spreading out maps and photos, all to prove that the government is failing on both counts.

Specifically, Spencer is unveiling Operation B.E.E.F., an ongoing program to monitor just how many miles of fence the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has failed to erect. That's despite the Secure Fence Act, signed by President Bush last October.

The law mandates a 700-mile fence and a "virtual" wall along the border. Of that, about 300 miles of fence are to be finished by next year. Congress has already allocated $1.2 billion for the project, and the Bush administration has asked for $1 billion more.

But all hoopla aside, Spencer says if this project were moving any slower, it wouldn't be moving at all. "In the last year, they've built 2 miles of two-layer fence. Two miles!"

Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is publicly pledging to have 150 miles of fence done by Sept. 30, says Spencer. "That's, like, three weeks from now."

Tamara Faulkner, a spokeswoman for the DHS, didn't return a phone call seeking comment. But indeed, Secretary Chertoff has been bouncing around the talk-show circuit to proclaim the fence well underway. Here's the secretary on July 1, when he was pressed by Chris Wallace of Fox News: "Well, what we've done is we are working on and will complete by September--we'll be up to about 140 miles to 150 miles of fencing."

In reality, about 17 miles of double fence are complete to date, says Spencer. And he should know, since hard numbers lie at the heart of Operation B.E.E.F., or "Border Enforcement Evaluation First."

Once a month, Spencer loads his Cessna TU206 with high-tech cameras and a pair of colleagues. Then they cruise the border in its entirety, gathering video and still images as they go.

Critics have accused Spencer's ABP--for all its electronic gadgetry and high-flying zeal--of being little more than a club for anti-immigrant racists. Spencer denies that. He says his group just wants the DHS to actually seal the Mexican line. "If the government says it's going to beef up the border, we're going to ask, 'Where's the beef?'

"We need to have an independent look at what is actually going on. So we go up once a month, and we fly the border at 500 feet, from El Paso to San Diego. We videotape everything, every inch of it, in high definition. Every inch."

Michael King is Spencer's technical whiz, and one of the two camera operators. A former Army sniper, he plucks a pen from the pocket of his armored vest and begins describing the process. While they're in flight, he says, various apparatuses "record the audio coming through our headsets. We can talk, and we can look down and say, 'Oh, there's a break in the fence.' ... And then Glenn takes this stuff back to his office, and he plays it back and goes through it. He narrates the entire border as we take the pictures."

A year after that monitoring began, the results are now compiled in the so-called "B.E.E.F. Report," slated for release at today's press conference. About a dozen or so people have shown up, and they mill about, checking their watches and watching the sky. Spencer himself is flanked by a shimmering gray Hummer and a drone surveillance plane nicknamed Border Hawk.

Although boasting only a 9-foot wingspan, Border Hawk made a big splash in 2003 when it began buzzing the border and providing live video feed of various immigrant incursions. A few months later, the U.S. Border Patrol began dispatching its own drones--an odd coincidence, Spencer maintains. Either way, the Border Hawk is now mothballed, says King, due to a flap with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Instead, the ABP's extra energy these days is directed toward monitoring the fence.

Homeland Security officials have blamed their slow fencing pace on everything from design problems and contract hassles to meddlesome environmental concerns.

But on that last point, the DHS should have the wind at its back. Despite concerns about how border fortification will impact wildlife habitat, Congress handed Chertoff a powerful tool with the Real ID Act of 2005.

The law grants the DHS director leeway to ignore the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and other regulations when building roads and barriers along the Mexican boundary. It also prohibits any judicial review of such decisions, making lawsuits against habitat-destructive projects pointless. The secretary has already wielded that power on the border along Arizona's Barry M. Goldwater Range.

Even as Real ID was being debated, however, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva questioned the wisdom of a one-size-fits-all border fence. The Arizona Democrat represents District 7, which includes a stretch of border from Nogales to the California line.

This summer, he took his concerns a step further, with the introduction of the Borderlands Conservation and Security Act. Among other things, the measure would mandate a more holistic approach to border security, including discussions with communities affected by border fencing and other measures. It would also provide for flexibility in determining what measures would be most effective.

In a press release, Grijalva argued that his measure would reverse ongoing environmental damage along the border. "Many of these lands have suffered extensive environmental degradation as a result of unauthorized activity and border-security efforts," he said. "This bill is the first step in preserving our unique natural heritage while we protect our borders."

But that viewpoint doesn't get much purchase here in El Presidio Park. Even with the DHS vowing to fast-track fence construction in Arizona, Spencer says his Operation B.E.E.F. will keep asking the critical question.

"We're not just going to let the government tell us they're going to enforce the border. Because if we remember history, they have told us that over and over again. In 1986 and in 1996, they passed immigration laws and said, 'We're going to beef up the border.'

"Well, they didn't. That's why we're going to go out and report this to the American people."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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