SAN DIEGO - The battered ribbon of carbon-steel and wire-mesh fencing has divided much of this city from Mexico for more than a decade. It helped inspire the Bush administration's plans for more than 700 miles of new fencing along the porous, 2,100-mile southwestern border.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., whose district includes part of the two-layered fence, touts the barricade as virtually impenetrable. "If you get over my fence," the presidential candidate said this month during a debate in New Hampshire, "we sign you up for the Olympics immediately."
Border Patrol agent Shawn Moran acknowledges the barrier has cut the flow of illegal traffic into the USA dramatically, but he also suggests Hunter hasn't seen his fence lately. In spots along the approximately 75 miles of fence from California to Texas, illegal immigrants and drug runners have gashed the barrier repeatedly, often with saws to make holes big enough to squeeze people through.
Keeping the fence repaired has become a constant battle for U.S. Border Patrol and National Guard engineering units, whose work has added an increasingly expensive layer to the cat-and-mouse game between U.S. law enforcement and illegal immigrants. The rising annual maintenance costs - projected to reach $8.3 million a mile by 2016 for more than 62 miles of steel fencing examined by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) - have become a focal point for critics who say the plan to build another 700 miles of fencing will cost too much and won't be effective as supporters claim.
"When people talk about fencing the border, it's amazing that they don't have a concept about what it takes to do it," says Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "There is no appreciation for a fence that is constantly under stress. … There is no taking into account the maintenance of it."
Congress has approved $1.2 billion to begin construction of the 700 new miles of fencing, but much more money will be needed, and the barrier's eventual cost remains murky. A December report by the CRS, which researches policy issues for Congress, cited U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the two-layered fence could cost $1.2 million to $1.3 million per mile to build, not including land acquisition and maintenance.
When maintenance was figured in, the cost estimate jumped to $16.4 million to $70 million per mile over the next 25 years, the report said.
"This (fence) proposal is ludicrous," says Reyes, who supports a combination of additional border security and some fencing, but not fencing on the scale Congress has approved. He says the planned fence is "expensive and a waste of taxpayers' money."
Hunter, who has made border security the centerpiece of his long-shot bid for the Republican nomination, couldn't disagree more.
"As president … I'm going to build the fence," Hunter said to applause from his New Hampshire audience. "It's the law."
Hunter and other officials credit the existing fence, along with increased security, with discouraging illegal immigrants from trying to enter the USA. As security has been increased along the southwestern border, apprehensions of illegal immigrants have declined during the past three years, from 1,171,396 in 2005 to 889,056 in 2007 with one month remaining in the government's budget year.
In the San Diego sector, however, the numbers increased during that time, from 126,000 to 141,047.
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Ramon Rivera says the overall numbers represent a slowing of illegal traffic partly because of the existing fencing.
"It's highly effective," he says.
A breach in the fence
In a rugged area dubbed "Smugglers Gulch" in sight of San Diego's skyline, a ragged piece of the original fencing juts from an eroded hillside, leaving a breach in the barrier between the USA and Mexico.
On a recent morning, eight men waited on the Mexican side of the prime crossing site, eyeing an open field on the U.S. side.
"This was the area (the government) held up as an example of how we can take control of the border," Moran says. "A lot of money went in to building that fence. Now, it's being allowed to crumble. You don't hear that from the administration."
Constant repairs required in the San Diego and El Centro areas of California have transformed portions of the fence into something resembling a giant country quilt of patches and fresh welding scars.
Welders plug holes in iron barriers repeatedly breached by illegal immigrants and drug traffickers. Guardsmen reinforce isolated areas with fresh wire mesh and heavy iron girders.
The work to maintain existing stretches of fencing separating the USA from Mexico never ends, even as the controversial project to erect more fencing - from California through parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas - is beginning.
The fence project, which President Bush authorized last year in a dramatic attempt to slow illegal immigration, calls for walling off areas identified as key crossing points for illegal immigrants with a double layer of barriers as high as 12 feet.
That height hasn't always worked well near San Diego, where National Guard crews are raising existing portions of the barrier to 16 feet after watching increasing numbers of illegal immigrants scramble up and over the fence.
'A bottomless pit'
In the unrelenting heat of the California desert, National Guard crews are fixtures on stretches of the existing border fence that are constantly under assault. Operating from a specially fitted truck resembling the battered rigs in Mad Max movies, units race to raise a 10-foot barrier to 16 feet to fend off an increasing number of breaches through the fence line.
Illegal immigrants use flexible ladders they can carry easily and throw over arched portions of the fence that need to be higher, says Master Sgt. Michael Drake, a spokesman for the California National Guard.
The "competitors," as Drake calls them, use the makeshift devices, routinely found discarded on the U.S. side, to scale the barrier quickly and drop from a relatively safe distance on the other side, he says.
"Jumping down from 16 feet is a lot harder for them than 10 feet," he adds.
It's also been hard for the crew raising the fence's height over a 4-mile stretch. A crew of 10 to 13 Guardsmen elevates the fence's height along an average of 80 feet a day in temperatures hovering near 100 degrees.
Bush ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to the vast Mexican border last year in an attempt to slow illegal-immigrant crossings and allow the Border Patrol time to train and deploy thousands of additional agents.
A major focus of the Guard deployment, which has been scaled back to about 3,000 troops this year and will end next summer, has been the engineering and repair work to keep the fence line viable.
Since last summer, the Guard has had an estimated $7.1 million in labor costs for maintenance and engineering projects across four border states, National Guard Bureau spokesman Emanuel Pacheco says. The figure does not include costs for materials or equipment rentals.
Drake describes the work required to secure the border as "a bottomless pit."
"When there is a pot of gold on the (U.S.) side, they are gonna try to find it," he says, referring to illegal immigrants pouring into the USA for jobs. "We're not gonna solve it, and it's easy to have a sense of frustration. But the mission will be a success when it is done."
Members of the 234th Engineering Company from Henderson, Nev., have spent a total of five weeks during the past two summers working on the fence line, patching holes and rebuilding roads used by patrols.
During the unit's deployments, Sgt. 1st Class Larry Perkins says troops have encountered damage from cutting torches and hacksaws. Illegal immigrants have knocked out light fixtures and crushed electrical outlets that operate fence gates.
Perkins says some of those who try to cross into the USA can be particularly brazen. Four or five times, he says, immigrants have tried to cross in the same area where his unit was working - sometimes to repair the damage inflicted by others who crossed just hours earlier.
The troops have no authority to arrest or detain illegal immigrants. Their only option is to report crossings to border agents.
Exposure to heat, verbal taunts and potential threats posed by illegal immigrants and drug traffickers along the border still doesn't compare with the adversity the unit endured during its earlier deployment in Iraq, Perkins says.
"It's always a pleasure to go back to San Diego," he says.
Illegals turn to tunnels
The extra border security also is supposed to help thwart illegal immigrants who use increasingly sophisticated means to breach the border, including digging tunnels.
From 1993 to 2001, authorities found only two underground passages. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, U.S. officials have been more aggressive in blocking illegal entries. Authorities have discovered 24 tunnels in the San Diego area alone since then.
The tunnels reflect increasing frustration among illegal immigrants and drug traffickers, says Enrique Lozano, a Border Patrol spokesman for the agency's El Centro sector about 120 miles east of San Diego in California's vast Imperial Valley.
Two such tunnels, including one installed with lighting and ventilation, were identified during the past two years in El Centro, Border Patrol spokesman Jorge Rose says. During the past six months, the agency has spent $500,000 in engineering and labor costs to seal the two passages with concrete.
In its December report, the CRS called the proliferation of tunnels one of several "unintended consequences of border fencing" projects.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government is moving forward with plans to build 370 miles of new fencing by the end of 2008, and repair work continues all along the border.
In the El Centro area, a National Guard unit rides the existing fence line every day to plug holes left during incursions the night before. Much of the damage is inflicted by illegal immigrants who apparently are content to spend hours picking at the fence with hacksaws.
"It's amazing," says Sgt. Major Scott Waterhouse, assigned to National Guard's El Centro task force. "It never stops."
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY