Let's Climb the Wall

The feds want you to think they're finally controlling the border. Think again.

The border wall along John Ladd's San Jose Ranch.
One morning recently, rancher John Ladd was awakened by a phone call from a Department of Public Safety dispatcher. It seems that horses had wandered through some fencing that had been trampled by illegal aliens, and the animals were running loose on Highway 92, two miles north of Ladd's San Jose Ranch near Bisbee.

DPS thought the horses were Ladd's. But Ladd knew they belonged to his neighbor, an older man. Instead of waking the neighbor, Ladd went to gather the horses for him. While doing so, he encountered a friendly Border Patrol agent and learned it had been a busy night indeed.

The agent, using night-vision gear to scan Ladd's land from a hill just north of 92, had spotted 11 groups of illegals, each numbering about 10 people.

On it goes, every day and night on our open border.

But this is more than the same old business: It's a sure bet that every one of those 110-plus illegal aliens got into our country by climbing the government's spanking-new, holy-smokes, don't-even-think-about-it border wall.

The wall extends along about 13 miles of the international line between Naco and the San Pedro River. Some of the fence stands 10 feet high, most 13. The biggest share was completed last October, with workers finishing the final 1,200 feet in March.

Ladd owns 10 1/2 miles of land along the wall and regularly sees illegals climbing it, including kids, old men and even two pregnant women who were hoisted over by accomplices. In the two years prior to its construction, he says, Border Patrol was arresting 50 to 100 people on his land every day. Shortly after the wall's completion, the number had soared to 300 a day.

Arrests have fallen back to about 150 a day from the Ladd ranch west to the San Pedro, but it's still a 24/7 nightmare. If you talk to Ladd on the phone, chances are good that in a chat of, say, 20 minutes, you'll hear him say, "I'm looking out the window, and there's a group now. Let's see, there's one, two ... nine, 10," and so on.

That picture you see on the cover of this newspaper is Ladd himself, 53, scaling the wall from the hood of his truck.

"If you stand next to it, you say, 'Hey, this is going to work,'" he says. "But then you watch them climb it, and you're thinking, 'How could I have thought this would work? How can you climb a 10-foot wall in 10 seconds?' Well, they're doing it."

For years now, Ladd has had a hawk's view of the cross-border invasion. In that time, he's come to believe that our government has no intention of stopping the human tide, and that certain border corridors are kept open to allow a quota of illegals into the country to satisfy the demand for cheap labor.

Ladd believes his land sits on one of those corridors. The wall fits the theory.

The 13-foot section, which constitutes the majority of fencing along his ranch, costs about $2 million per mile. As Ladd sees it, that money isn't buying much security, because that wasn't its main purpose. Its main purpose was to buy your opinion.

"The government isn't controlling the border," Ladd says. "It's controlling what Americans think about the border."

Nothing on the border is what it seems, and the pedestrian fence is another illusion. It's a moving target on a misty horizon, the pea under a street hustler's shell.

If you ask most Americans about it, they'll say its intent is to stop people from crossing the border. It isn't. Even Border Patrol admits it only slows them down.

If you ask whether the government is building it, they'll say, of course, I saw it on TV. But the majority of what's going in isn't the double-layer pedestrian fence the Secure Fence Act required.

If you ask Americans whether border residents want the fence, they'll say heck yes. Southern Arizonans are getting clobbered. Most don't, though, and these are people who live with break-ins, need to get house-sitters when they go out to eat in town and have to bury the family dog after it's poisoned for barking.

The sentiment holds for border residents elsewhere as well. The Department of Homeland Security's efforts to build fencing at Brownsville, Texas, have filled public meetings with angry citizens. These are patriotic folks who normally don't protest anything. But when it comes to the fence, they're practically carrying pitchforks to stop it.

Nineteen border towns in Texas, part of the Texas/Mexico Border Coalition, have filed suit against the feds to get fence construction stopped.

There's a great disconnect between those living on the line and Americans in the heartland. The latter demand the fence because, rightly and overwhelmingly, they want something done to protect our sovereignty, our land and our citizens.

Even when they know an idea won't work, politicians respond, which explains the campaign quote, spoken to an audience in Milwaukee and repeated in the February 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, by Sen. John McCain, who, by the laws of opinion roulette, finally got something right on the border. The now- Republican presidential nominee said: "I think the fence is least-effective. But I'll build the goddamned fence if they want it."

A fence has an almost unassailable logic to it, an intuitive power. If you live in, say, rural Connecticut, and want to keep the deer out of your backyard, build a fence. It works. So why not a fence on the border?

But the international line is a separate reality entirely, and those pro-fence voices, from Connecticut to Oregon, are mostly people who've never seen the border--never ridden horseback over the hills of Arivaca, never walked the smuggling trails in the grasslands of the San Rafael Valley.

Here's a truism: The farther you live from the line, the more likely you are to believe the pedestrian fence will work.

Gary Thrasher, who knows the borderlands of southeast Arizona as well as anyone, calls the idea of a pedestrian fence "junk." It's a waste of money. It might even be a symbol of having too much money.

Thrasher is a veterinarian who spends a lot of time at properties on the border, and he says what's needed is pretty basic: an east-west road along the line for patrols and rapid access; rail-on-post vehicle barriers to prevent smugglers from driving into the country; and a livestock fence to keep Mexican and American cattle herds from mingling, which has potentially disastrous economic and national security consequences.

It's simple, cheap and doable, and it doesn't destroy the historic dynamic between American border residents and their Mexican neighbors the way a big wall does.

Understand: When an Arizonan living on the line meets his Mexican counterpart, he's not talking to a "foreigner," someone he views with suspicion. He's talking to a neighbor, sometimes a friend. They chat about the drought or the Diamondbacks. It's no different from that fence-lover in Connecticut who meets a neighbor at the property line and spends five minutes on a Saturday talking about A-Rod, Jeter and the Yankees.

As for that wall, Thrasher acknowledges that a few Arizona ranchers want it.

"But even these people worry that if the government builds some monstrous thing and doesn't do maintenance, they'll have nothing but a bunch of mangled steel after a while," Thrasher says. "Plus, somebody has to watch it. It's like putting a fence around a prison without having anybody patrolling. It doesn't do any good."

In addition to men, money and maintenance, which costs as much as original construction, the fence requires a government willing to keep providing those things year after year, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. In other words, our desire to stop illegals from busting the border has to be greater than the illegals' desire to get here.

For years, it's been no contest. The illegals win hands-down.

The Secure Fence Act was intended to change that. The bill called for the construction of 698 miles of double-layer fencing to "prevent unlawful entry by aliens into the United States." It passed the Senate by an 80-19 vote, and President Bush signed it into law in late October 2006, right before midterm elections.

At the time, the American people were screaming about the border, and desperate Republicans, sensing the debacle ahead, lined up behind it, saying, "See, we're doing something. Now vote for us." Many Democrats did the same thing, some because they knew it'd never be built as described.

Its chief naysayer was Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. From the beginning, he made clear his view that pedestrian fences were of limited use, mainly in urban areas, and that he preferred a virtual fence, consisting of vehicle barriers, radar and other technology.

Chertoff ultimately got his way. Fourteen months after the signing of the Secure Fence Act, Congress passed the Hutchison Amendment, named for Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The amendment basically dismantled Secure Fence, giving the secretary the power to decide what would be built and where.

Do many Americans still believe the government is building a double-layer, razor-topped people fence? Undoubtedly so. It's the illusion thing again.

Instead, the DHS goal is to have 370 miles of single-layer pedestrian fencing, along with another 300 miles of vehicle barriers, in place along the Southwestern border by the end of this December. But even that less ambitious goal will probably recede on the misty horizon.

The Government Accounting Office, a watchdog group, doubts the DHS will be able to build what it promises in the months remaining, and Glenn Spencer, of American Border Patrol, a private Arizona-based border-security group, charges that the DHS is playing games with numbers.

Example: Last month, Chertoff told The New York Times that the DHS had completed 309 miles of fencing. But Spencer, who regularly flies the line to inspect fence-building progress, claims that number includes fencing that's been in existence for years, and a good portion of it consists of vehicle barriers, not pedestrian fencing.

By Spencer's count, the Southwest border is now blocked by 183 miles of pedestrian fencing and 128 miles of vehicle barriers--on a 1,950-mile border. Most important: The DHS has only built 95 miles of new pedestrian fencing since passage of the Secure Fence Act in 2006, almost half of that in Yuma.

Spencer, a border resident who strongly supports a people fence, says Chertoff should be building 698 miles of double-layer pedestrian fencing, as the law said, and by not doing so, he's thwarting the will of Congress. "There's no doubt in my mind they're trying to confuse people," says Spencer. "They're trying to convince you they're hard at work on a pedestrian fence, and they're not. They're rewriting the definition of a fence to include vehicle barriers that won't stop anybody."

Arizona has a big share of the pedestrian fencing now standing--including 50 miles near Yuma, 30 near Douglas and Naco, 7 at Sasabe and 5 at Nogales.

Not surprisingly, the Border Patrol echoes the argument of their ultimate boss, Chertoff, that pedestrian fencing works in these select urban areas. They call it a "force multiplier," meaning it gives the law time to respond to crossers who otherwise are within minutes of a safe house or a waiting van.

Such fencing protects citizens of those towns from chaos and crime. Without a fence, agents play cat-and-mouse with crossers, a game in which the agent spots a group, but the group also spots the agent, and the illegals turn and run back into Mexico. A fence keeps them from getting away, which means it's as valuable at keeping illegals in the country, so they can be arrested, as it is at keeping them out in the first place.

Fence advocates have found new ammo in arrest numbers, down 16 percent this year on the Southwest border. The 262-mile-wide Tucson sector has seen a significant drop, and the numbers out of the 125-mile-wide Yuma sector are more impressive.

Yuma now has 50 miles of pedestrian fencing, including a triple-layer fence separating Mexico from the American town of San Luis. The first layer is Vietnam-era landing mat that stands 10 feet tall. After that comes 16 feet of metal mesh, and beyond this comes the third layer, a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. This formidable barrier stretches along 8.6 miles of border.

Yuma sector spokesman Laura Daniels says it has helped bring calm to San Luis, which once had illegals running through its streets at all hours. Between this fencing and other barriers, as well as stadium lighting, cameras and more agents, she says the sector's arrest numbers have dropped precipitously. In fiscal 2005, apprehensions in the Yuma sector totaled 138,000. In 2006, they were 118,000. In 2007, when much of the new fencing began taking effect, apprehensions dropped to 37,000.

"For 2008, we're on track to apprehend 10,000 to 15,000 aliens," says Daniels. "It's much harder for anyone to come through Yuma, so subsequently, they aren't trying."

Sounds like the fence works, doesn't it? But the most important question in the fence fight always is: Define "works." Remember: Border Patrol brass can play politics with the best of them, and it shows in how they spin statistics to convince everyone of the great job they're doing. When arrests go up, the Border Patrol proclaims good news: See all the illegals we're catching? When arrests go down, the Border Patrol proclaims good news again: See all the illegals we're stopping from coming across in the first place?

Critics wonder how much of the Yuma drop can be attributed to new fencing, and how much is due to the declining economy. Bear in mind, too, that much of the landscape around Yuma is flat, making it ideal fence terrain, and that apprehension numbers are a bad barometer. They tell us nothing about how many are getting through.

A possible answer to the Yuma "success" is that illegals are simply walking around the fence. It wouldn't be the first time.

Enforcement advocates point to the San Diego fence, saying it has been a rousing success in cutting crossings from Tijuana, and resulting crime in San Diego. But as The Washington Post reported, it took $39 million to build the first 9 miles. After invoking their authority to override environmental concerns, the DHS got an additional $35 million to finish the remaining 3.5 miles.

Total cost? $74 million--more than $5 million a mile. And what did the San Diego fence do? It moved the illegals over to Arizona. Is that the definition of "working"?

The same drama plays out wherever a pedestrian fence is built. Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada says the main effect of fencing west of Nogales is to reroute illegals to remote areas, resulting in more lost people, deaths and banditry.

"It pushes the crossers into areas where they become prey and makes it more profitable for coyotes," says Estrada, adding that the cost of autopsies and criminal investigations, which the county must conduct, is a drain on its budget.

"Border Patrol has a huge task, and they're grappling for solutions, and fencing might be a small part," says Estrada. "But unless they fence the whole 50 miles in Santa Cruz County, which they won't, fencing only creates more problems for us." If those 50 miles were people-fenced, would it deter anybody? No, Estrada says: "Obstacles like that are easily overcome."

Alice Knagge, who has operated the general store in the border outpost of Sasabe for 40 years, agrees, saying, "As long as the Mexican government continues to do nothing for its people, they'll keep coming across."

Just south of her store, the government has built 7 miles of people fence that runs east and west from the international crossing--at a whopping price of $4.9 million per mile, according to the GAO. As a result, Knagge no longer sees vans stuffed with 20 or 30 people crossing illegally. "But they've just moved farther west to cross around San Miguel on the Tohono O'odham Reservation," she says.

Should we people-fence the reservation, too? The Tohono O'odham have 75 miles of border. Using the San Diego standard of $5 million a mile, that comes to $375 million for a barrier that eventually would be full of holes along empty terrain.

Something similar already has happened to the eastern portion of the Sasabe wall.

In an e-mail, rancher Tom Kay writes, "The Border Patrol says they can't watch it enough to take care of all the cuts, etc., and therefore, they don't even want it at all." Neither does Kay, whose land begins east of where the wall ends. All the Sasabe wall has done, he writes, is redirect the crossings, "causing a large increase in foot traffic on our ranch."

Kay is expressing a profound truth that everyone along the line knows: The government has never stopped cross-border traffic; it has only moved it to another location, usually where there are fewer people to notice and complain.

When it comes to vehicle barriers--which average $2 million per mile to install--some of the news is good. Kay, who has 5 miles of borderland, says they've all but stopped trucks from driving across his Jarillas Ranch, and they've helped stop the fence cuts that allowed his cattle to drift into Mexico.

Vehicle barriers have also been installed at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and at Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, both in Arizona's western deserts, as well as at the Coronado National Memorial south of Sierra Vista. At all three places, they've done what they were intended to do.

At Organ Pipe, rail-on-post-barriers have blocked 30 miles of its border since July 2006, and Superintendent Lee Baiza says they've cut way down on drug drive-throughs. "They're probably the best investment the Department of Interior has made in a long time," says Baiza. But Organ Pipe is still a troubled place. Seventy percent of monument land is closed to the public, because Mexican smugglers make it unsafe. As recently as March, that figure was 94 percent.

In the San Rafael Valley in the mountains above Patagonia, 4 1/2 miles of border is now blocked by Normandy-style, rail "X" barriers. They run from Lochiel almost to Montezuma Pass.

Before they went in, residents say, smugglers routinely plowed down the barbed-wire fence in pickups loaded with drugs. But when Border Patrol agents chased these bad guys, who were always armed, back into Mexico, the valley turned into the Wild West. "Those escapes were really dangerous," says Carol Bercich, a ranger at San Rafael State Park. "They'd run you over, blow through fences and tear everything up to get back."

But these barriers, as at Organ Pipe, do little to stop drug-runners. Traffickers can still get their product into the country by heaving it over the barriers into trucks waiting on the American side. And vehicle barriers can be breached: Smugglers have built drive-across "bridges" over them, and smugglers have even backed up to them in flatbed trucks and lowered the back end, allowing drug-laden SUVs to ramp down onto the American side.

The drugs are also still coming across on horseback and on foot. In fact, San Rafael park manager Lee Eseman says the foot traffic has spiked since the vehicle barriers went in, most of it from drug "mules." From a telescope in a kitchen alcove of the main park residence, Eseman and her rangers can spy out a window at a stretch of border almost 5 miles wide. They regularly see cartel scouts watching for the Border Patrol as they guide "mule" trains.

In March, Eseman saw four scouts eyeing the border, including one looking south. Then nine "mules" appeared walking up the Santa Cruz River on the Mexican side. At the border, they waited until a truck filled with marijuana pulled up. The men hoisted the bales onto their backs and walked into our country. "I watched the whole thing through the telescope," says Eseman, a law-enforcement officer for Arizona State Parks.

At her home, a half-mile north of the line, Bercich still hears illegals walking along the creek about 300 yards from her door. "We hear their voices, and then the dogs start up," she says. "The foot traffic just keeps on coming."

At Lyle Robinson's Tres Bellotas Ranch southwest of Arivaca, the family lived for years with the constant squealing of the gate outside their kitchen. Their house, situated about 400 yards above the international line, is a no-man's land at the end of a 13-mile dirt road. The noise was from pickups jam-packed with illegals driving into the country in caravans of up to 15 trucks.

The feds ignored these constant drive-throughs until 2006, when they installed barriers along a portion of the Robinsons' borderland. But now the pickup trucks pull up to the Mexican side of the barriers and unload; then the illegals simply step over the barriers and walk in. So many are still coming that the Robinsons' grandkids, while playing in the backyard, make a game out of counting them pass by.

The Robinsons also have near their home one of the nine, 90-foot-tall towers that make up part of Chertoff's dream of a virtual fence. They loom over a 28-mile stretch of borderland along Arivaca and Sasabe, and are intended to work in unison with cameras, radars and unattended ground sensors to detect entries. When Chertoff ditched much of the people fence, he banked heavily on the ability of the Boeing Co., the main federal contractor, to make Project 28 work.

But his virtual fence, so far at least, delivers only virtual security.

In spite of its problems--including its radar mistaking raindrops for people--the DHS is pushing forward. After retooling the technology, the agency plans to replace the nine mobile towers with 17 permanent ones, and expand the virtual fence concept elsewhere.

In a stunning admission, project managers said one of their early mistakes was failing to talk to the Border Patrol, which is part of the DHS, about what would work and what wouldn't. But the DHS also failed to properly consult local residents. "They sit back in Washington pushing their pencils and deciding things," says Alice Knagge. "But you need to live here to understand how life really works. They don't listen to people."

Yuma farmer Jim Cuming got a lesson in government relations last summer when he looked out and saw heavy equipment rolling in. When he asked what was up, he learned the feds were building a fence on Bureau of Reclamation right of way abutting his land. It was news to him. "It's federal property, so technically, they don't have to tell me anything," says Cuming. "But they could've had the common courtesy to talk to me."

Now the dominant feature of his once wide-open land is a towering, diamond-mesh fence. Even as he acknowledges the fence has drastically reduced crossings along the area it blocks, Cuming says, "I despise it."

Part of his disdain stems from the attitude that has come with it. When he wants to access his 8-mile strip of land on the west side of a cement canal, he must unlock, open, close and relock a new bridge gate. And when he returns, he's greeted by Border Patrol agents asking who he is and what he's doing there. Cuming, 70, a third-generation farmer, grew up in Yuma.

"It's comical how I'm treated here and how my employees are treated," he says. "They're putting us in jail. There are so many agents now, you could line them up every quarter-mile. If you can do that, why do they need a fence?"

Asked if he talked to Homeland Security when he saw the fence going up, Cuming chuckled. "You might as well talk to God," he says. "They'll talk to you just as much as God will."

John Ladd learned about the wall going in at his place when the contractor called to ask about getting his equipment in. But the wall has done some good at the San Jose Ranch. Ladd's cows no longer drift into Mexico through fence cuts, risking serious disease outbreaks, and the drive-throughs and helter-skelter chases back to Mexico have all but stopped. There have been three since 2005. Prior to that, there were 20 a month.

But Ladd says the wall has failed to stop people, and Bill Odle, his neighbor to the west, concurs. "I think that's deliberate from the highest levels of government," says Odle, a Vietnam vet and former Marine who flies the American flag over his 50 acres a few hundred feet north of the line. "They built this wall as a showpiece, so Americans can see it and say, 'Oh, yeah, that'll stop 'em.' It might stop a large, TV-watching gringo. But somebody coming from Oaxaca who's hungry and wants a job, it isn't going to stop him. It's a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound. The whole thing is phony. It pisses me off."

Odle, an environmentalist, also believes the wall is doing real harm by altering normal animal migration patterns, and he reports seeing wildlife probing the wall at various places, trying to find a way through.

Humans have little trouble, however. So far, crossers have defeated the 10-foot section by hack-sawing the bottom of the metal mesh and pulling it up to make a door, and by pulling down an entire section with a rope, a chain and a pickup truck. One day, Ladd watched a Mexican rancher ride up to the wall on horseback, with knotted nylon ropes hanging from his saddle. He left the ropes out for illegals to scale the wall, then collected them again later to distribute to the next wave.

The most popular method is to drive a van to the wall on the Mexican side, climb the roof, then jump over the wall onto the conveniently wide, flat tops of waist-high posts on the American side. The 13-foot section requires a tool to scale, but this could be something as simple as a ladder. Some are found hidden in the brush on the American side, allowing illegals to scramble back into Mexico if chased. But the illegals also toss hooks and ropes over the wall and pull themselves up, or jam screwdrivers into the mesh as handholds, a kind of Spider-Man maneuver.

Sabotage of the wall is constant, and it began even when it was under construction. One night, after the contractor poured cement and went home, vandals descended under the darkness to scoop out the still-wet cement. The act had no practical purpose: It was merely a message to the gringos that their stinking wall won't work. The worst of it is that with the wall complete, Ladd says he rarely sees agents patrolling it.

"They built it, then Border Patrol backed off up toward the highway," he says. "If you drive from the river to Naco, which is almost 13 miles, it's hallelujah if you see Border Patrol. They need to be on the border."

As for those 110 illegals spotted recently on Ladd's land, at least some were arrested, and that's good news. But nothing on the border is as it seems.

"Most people think they get arrested, and that ends it," says Ladd. "But if you're from Mexico and don't have a criminal record in this country, Border Patrol buys you a sandwich from the Bisbee Deli, and a Gatorade, and pushes you back across the line into Naco, Sonora. And within a few hours, here they come again. I've had agents say they'll catch a group in the morning, then catch the same group that night. And the whole time, Border Patrol is tearing up my land for nothing,"

How is a pedestrian fence going to work when each individual gets 15 arrests and voluntary removals before the U.S. attorney decides that they've really broken the law and prosecutes for illegal entry? How is a pedestrian fence going to work, as retired Border Patrol agent and Tucsonan John Slagle asks, when the president and both parties essentially advocate open borders?

That won't change after the presidential election, which will land Barack Obama or John McCain in the Oval Office. Does anyone believe either will provide the money to keep the fence standing against constant sabotage?

Prediction: In a few years, portions of our pedestrian fence will look like it's been dynamited; the Border Patrol will still be demanding more agents and fancier technology; people in the country's interior will still be thinking if only we had a tall enough fence; and too many politicians will continue to feed both ideas.

Why not? It's easier than confronting their friends and contributors by actually enforcing the laws they wrote against hiring people here illegally, the only real solution.

"I know it sounds radical," says Ladd, "but I think politicians and corporate America are in cahoots to override our immigration laws. They don't want solutions, because they're making big money off this cheap labor. It's blatant. They're just letting them come in, and this wall is a way to make it look like they're doing something."

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