US immigration debate renews talk on border fence

LOS EBANOS, Texas (AP) — If the U.S. Congress agrees on an immigration reform bill, it probably will include a requirement to erect fencing along the nation’s nearly 2,000-mile (3,220-kilometer) Southwest border with Mexico.

But U.S. Customs and Border Protection isn’t even sure the strategy works. And the prospect of the government seizing more land offends many property owners in the southernmost tip of Texas, where hundreds of people lost property during the last push for fence construction.

“I’m still totally against it,” said Aleida Garcia, who was among the Los Ebanos residents whose land was taken in 2008. She would rather have more agents patrolling the area.

The region’s lawmakers appear to agree. Three congressmen from the Texas border who support immigration reform have said they would not support any bill conditioned on the construction of more border fence.

The Senate’s immigration bill calls for at least 700 miles (1,125 kilometers)of border fencing — half of which already exists.

But even as Congress debates the issue, Customs and Border Protection has failed to come up with any measurement of the fence’s effectiveness. The agency told Congress’ investigative arm last year that it needed three to five years to make a “credible assessment.”

Farmers and others who live near the fence report seeing immigrants scale the 18-foot (5.5-meter) steel columns in seconds. And since the fence stands in segments across miles of open farmland, there’s always the option of walking around the barrier.

David Aguilar, the Border Patrol’s chief until he retired in February, said fencing is not appropriate everywhere or sufficient by itself.

Fencing, which costs on average of $3.9 million per mile, was part of the solution that helped the Border Patrol gain control of a stretch of border near San Diego. Masses of people used to rush the border there, counting on agents’ inability to catch everyone. Now the flow has slowed to a trickle.

While the rest of the Southwest border has seen fewer immigrant arrests, authorities in the Rio Grande Valley are busy. More than half of the Border Patrol arrests in the sector are Central Americans, who have historically taken this more direct route into the U.S.

Arrests in the area are more than 50 percent higher through the first 10 months of the fiscal year than the same period last year.

Still, the 365,000 arrests at the border last year were far from the high of 1.2 million in 2005. Most observers attribute the drop to the U.S. recession.

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