US, Mexico: Election Fencing
(International Relations and Security Network 26/2/2008)
Voters in Texas could be in a position to determine who becomes the Democratic presidential candidate in a tight race between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on 4 March. The unlikely position of Texan voters has propelled their issues to the forefront of the national debate over immigration, and few are more important to Texan voters than the proposed construction of a wall between the US and Mexico.
Apart from the hundreds of families such a barrier would prejudice, there are some 2.5 million registered Latino voters in Texas. For them, the symbolism of a wall is just as important as the actual barrier between the US and Latin America.
Traditionally, the focus on stopping border crossings has been on the San Diego sector, as organized by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). In the early 1990s, the US government considered wall construction in this sector as part of Operation Gatekeeper. Today, some 44 of the sector's 66 miles (105.6 kilometers) are walled.
Mike Nicley, a retired border patrol chief who worked in San Diego when the fence was constructed, told ISN Security Watch that once they had built the fence, one section that remained open in the Low Tide Mesa area became a focal point for vehicle chasings, shootouts and other high levels of illegal cross-border activity.
And this is the core argument for those who oppose any form of border fence. The illegal immigrants will come, they say, independent of a walled segment. It's like placing a rock in the middle of a river. The flow will simply find another way around.
Some who argue in favor of a fence - or "increased border security" as careful politicians phrase the issue - insist that an actual physical barrier near urban areas makes sense, while a virtual fence in more rural areas is the best option.
"There are areas where it makes absolute operational, tactical and strategic sense to put a fence, and there are other areas where it makes no sense at all," Nicley said.
Adding more mileage of virtual fence and reconsidering the construction of pedestrian barriers seems to be the compromise point, one that all candidates can agree upon.
Senators Clinton and Obama do not greatly differ on this issue. They are both against the haphazard construction of physical barriers.
While they voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, one that authorized the construction of a 770-mile (1,232 kilometers) fence along the US-Mexico border, Clinton and Obama have repeatedly said along the campaign trail that they think the Bush administration has made a mess of the implementation, both suggesting that as president they would give the Secure Fence Act a close review.
The 770-mile fence is not one long concrete barrier as some have assumed. It is a combination of pedestrian and vehicle barriers and virtual fences, where pole-mounted cameras give border patrol agents eyes in some of the most remote border areas where conditions are too harsh for regular patrols.
The two Democratic senators have little if any differences between them when it comes to an actual wall. And while they do differ somewhat with their Republican opponents, they do seem to agree on one point: Technology is an important component.
"A virtual fence is a step forward," Lydia Caramillo, vice president with the Southwest Voter Registration Education project, told ISN Security Watch.
Although they are not under the spotlight focused on Obama and Clinton, Republican candidates John McCain and Mike Huckabee have had to weigh in on the border fence issue.
Front-runner McCain is not too far to the right of his Democratic opponents. He is the only Republican senator who voted in favor of progressive immigration reform.
As a Republican presidential candidate, McCain agrees a physical barrier may be necessary in some areas, but backs away from the idea of using one long fence - mixed pedestrian, vehicle and technical - to secure the entire US border as some of the more conservative elements of his party desire.
McCain thinks a wall is necessary in urban areas, but has said "in the trackless deserts of Texas and Arizona, I think vehicle barriers, barrier sensors, cameras and [unmanned drones] are more effective," according to a 19 February Houston Chronicle article.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is the most conservative of the four candidates. When Huckabee released his comprehensive immigration plan in December 2007, few were surprised to find that he supported a border fence.
He would like to see the whole 770-mile fence "with interlocking surveillance camera system" completed by 1 July 2010.
For the Republicans, however, the question has less to do with constructing a wall and more to do with how it can be accomplished as well as how much of the wall will actually be a physical barrier.
What it means for Texans
But the truth may be that members of Congress, including Clinton, Obama and McCain, were not aware exactly what this Fence Act meant for Texans. For many living on the border, there's a saying: "The border crossed us."
They've been on this land so long that for them there is no border and little reason to demark one with a physical barrier. Some have reluctantly allowed Washington's surveyors on their land, but others have decided to fight because a fence would cut off a significant portion of their land, rendering it unusable and worthless. No one wants to purchase a no man's land.
For other Texans, men and women who have spent a career watching and protecting the border, there is a feeling that Washington is calling the shots from miles away with little sense for what's actually happening at the local level.
"They never go to the horse's mouth," a former deputy chief border patrol agent told ISN Security Watch. The 27-year border patrol veteran asked that his name be withheld.
"Every time [Washington] decides what to do, they always go to people with no practical experience patrolling the border," he added.
During the 21 February CNN Univision debate in Austin, Texas, the Democratic candidates fielded a very specific question: "As president of the United States would you commit tonight that you will finish the fence [...] or do you think it's time for a president of the United States to [...] say [...] let's think about this again."
"I would say wait a minute, we need to review this," Clinton said during her response.
"I would listen to the people who live along the border, who understand what it is we need to do to protect our country."
She also added that there was technology than could be used rather than a physical barrier.
While ceding to the fact that a virtual fence is a step in the right direction, Caramillo pointed out, however obviously, that independent of the border wall issue, there were politics at play during the Austin debate.
"Clinton needs the Latino vote to stay in play because she needs to win Texas," Caramillo said, adding, "and [Obama] needs to chip away at [Clinton's] base so he can stay ahead of the game."
"I think the key is to consult with local communities," Obama began in his response to the same question. "I will reverse [the Bush administration] policy," he said, adding, "but for the most part having border patrol, surveillance and employing technology will be the better approach."
Again, technology comes to the forefront.
Already, a 28-mile virtual fence in Arizona is up and running, according to US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, but doubts remain concerning software conflicts and whether or not the immense investment will pay off in captured illegal immigrants, smugglers and other unwanted border runners.
This virtual fence could be deployed in other areas of Arizona and Texas within the next few months, according to the Brownsville Herald.
Just a tool
The difference between reality and perception will come to play when one of these four candidates enters office in January 2009.
The reality is that Congress, not the president, also has some control over which sections of the fence are built, which sections are not, where heels are dragged and where endless committee hearings and other pigeon hole tactics render otherwise well intended policy into dust.
Beyond the discussion of a fence, and Texan voters' preoccupation with their loss of land in some cases, the destruction of a university campus in another, or what is symbolic of blocking passage between the US and Latin America, the discussion of the border fence has been raised by Texan voters who could possibly crown the Democratic national nominee.
Once the presidential campaign switches to the national level, with two candidates facing off for the presidency, it is likely that the fence and Texan concerns will fall into the larger vat of worries that contains the immigration debate.
"The border fence is symbolic of a larger, more complex issue," the former deputy chief told ISN Security Watch.
"The issue of the fence is blown out of proportion," he said, adding, "The fence is just a tool, it will never stop the problem."