Reality Trumps Ideology

Why the state's plan to collect donations and build border fencing won't work

The state of Arizona is collecting private donations to build more pedestrian fencing along the border.

It won't work.

It sounds doable on paper, but that's where this misguided idea will largely stay, an effort driven more by ideology than the hard reality of the borderlands.

In April, Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1406, sponsored by Republican State Sen. Steve Smith, of Maricopa. The bill allows Arizona, either alone or in cooperation with other states, to raise funds to build a border fence on private land, as long as landowners give their consent, and on federal or state land as well.

It also established a website ( to collect money from around the country to finance the project. "The federal government isn't finishing the fence, and somebody has to, so Arizona will," says Smith.

Let's get a couple of things out of the way up top: Pedestrian fencing works. But it has to be designed right, and put in the right place, meaning in populated areas or close by. And here's the key everyone forgets: It has to be patrolled on a regular basis.

With those conditions met, a pedestrian fence slows traffic—no fence can stop all traffic—and gives the Border Patrol time to respond.

So why isn't more of it better? The answer lies in too many assumptions and numbers that don't add up.

Understand that 86 percent of Arizona's border with Mexico is either federal or tribal land. If the state wants to build on any of that, it will need to get permission.

In the case of the Tohono O'odham Nation, which has 75 miles of land on the border southwest of Tucson, we already know about the nation's strong opposition to fences, given the number of tribal members who live on traditional O'odham land in northern Sonora.

With Washington, D.C.'s land-management agencies, the chance of approval is even smaller. At present, there already are 123 miles of pedestrian fence on the Arizona border, according to the Border Patrol, and the vast majority is at preserves such as Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and the Coronado National Forest.

In the Obama administration especially, these agencies are heavily influenced by environmentalists, who dislike the fence. So does Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Obama himself, in a speech in El Paso, Texas, in May, said the border fence was basically complete.

Imagine the state saying to these agencies, to Napolitano, and to Obama: "Hey, you guys are falling down on your job out here, so we're going to pick up the slack and put up even more fencing than you've already built, in an effort to prove you're weak and wrong—as long as, you know, it's OK with you."

Smith says letters are being drafted right now to the Department of Homeland Security, the president and every relevant agency asking for the go-ahead to build on federal land. "If the government wants to send me a letter saying, 'You do not have permission to help protect this country,' that would be a PR disaster," says Smith.

But it's hard to imagine the government saying anything else, which means Arizona will likely be restricted to building only on the remaining 14 percent that is private and state land.

Here, too, the feds have a say, because of the so-called Roosevelt Reservation. In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt directed the government to take ownership of a 60-foot-wide strip of land along the country's entire border with Mexico. That puts Arizona back to asking permission—although the state could bypass the feds and build north of the easement, as Smith says they'll do.

The state has also created something called the Joint Border Security Advisory Committee, and the group has identified three areas of state and private land in the Tucson Sector on which they'd like to build. "For a number of reasons including security, we're not revealing where they are yet," says Smith, who is a member of the committee. "We're still talking with ranchers and some others involved."

Again, the numbers get shaky. On the entire Arizona-Mexico border, the state owns a grand total of 16.9 miles of land, according to Vanessa Hickman, deputy commissioner of the Arizona State Land Department.

Much of that is in Cochise County, and more than half already has pedestrian fencing, says Gary Thrasher, a veterinarian who lives in the county and travels its 82 miles of borderland daily.

What about private land? Of Arizona's four border counties, Cochise has the most private land on the line—about 34 miles, according to the county assessor's office—and Thrasher says about 80 percent of that already has pedestrian fencing. "I'd like to know where the state thinks it's going to put this fence," he says.

Thrasher adds that the committee might be in for a surprise when it comes to getting permission to build on private land. A few small ranchers along the line support pedestrian fencing, but most don't.

"I can't think of many who want it," he says. "It's a waste of money if there's nobody there to watch it. It slows them down 15 minutes, at most."

He says the money would be better spent building access roads, allowing Border Patrol to actually get down on the border.

Now, consider the money math: Since the website went up in July, Smith says the state has collected about $250,000, including mail-in money. "The outpouring of support is unbelievable, because people understand the problem," says Smith.

In fence terms, though, $250,000 is pocket change.

The feds spent an average of $4 million per mile to build the 18-foot bollard fence on the hills east of Nogales at Kino Springs. A less-expensive mesh fence stands on the flats between the San Pedro River and Naco. It cost $1.9 million per mile, but you get what you pay for: This fence is easily scaled from the roof of a van.

The average cost of pedestrian fencing on the border is $3.9 million per mile, says the Government Accountability Office.

But Smith says those calculations don't apply. His bill calls for the use of 50-cent-per-hour inmate labor to cut costs, and he's in talks with fence companies who've pledged to donate material or sell it at a bargain. "I think we'll get amazing discounts," Smith says.

Let's say he's correct, and the per-mile cost drops to an optimistic $500,000, and in this rotten economy, the project raises the optimistic sum of, say, $10 million.

That's 20 miles of fence. How much additional security will 20 miles buy on a 380-mile border? Not much. The smugglers will yawn and go around it.

Want more hard realities? Consider the landscape.

Smith's target area, the Tucson Sector, is the most heavily crossed area in the Southwest. There's a reason for that: The mountains are high; the canyons are deep; and there are many places to hide. Some areas are so rough that it's impossible to build fencing on it, which means gaps.

We'll put sensors and cameras in the gaps, say advocates. But who monitors them? When smugglers disable them a week after they go up, what then? Will the state's fund have enough money in a year, in two years, to keep repairing the fence as smugglers knock it down, to keep repairing the road underneath it, to keep replacing the sensors and the cameras?

Final point: Don't be swayed by the common argument that the success of fencing south of Yuma can be replicated in the Tucson Sector. Certainly, the double- and triple-layer fence near Yuma played a part in bringing about a big drop in arrests there—from 128,000 in 2005 to 7,000 in 2010, according to the Border Patrol.

But the Yuma Sector is ideal fence terrain, because it's mostly flat. As important as the fence, perhaps more so, is ground-based radar, which allows agents to "see" across vast areas of the Yuma desert. It's that sector's secret ingredient, and although the radar is also used in Tucson, the mountainous landscape limits its effectiveness.

The majority of Americans rightly want a secure border, and the idea of a state fence looks good from an office in Maricopa County. But the border is never so simple. When you get down on the line, look around and kick a few rocks, it's hard to see this legislation accomplishing much of anything.