Immigration: Do Border Fences Work?

President Bush and his congressional allies are making a bid to revive proposed immigration reform. Even with a plan to build hundreds of miles of fences, questions remain whether the bill is tough enough on border security. A two-part discussion examines the effectiveness of barriers, borders and walls in other nations.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

President Bush and his congressional allies are expected to make a bid to revive immigration reform this week. A key to improving the bill's chances on border security.

And one key to that may be the effectiveness of proposals to seal off the U.S.-Mexico border. One element of that project - a new virtual fence of surveillance cameras - started operating in Arizona last weekend.

Advocates say a border fence will keep illegal immigrants out. But critics call it unrealistic, expensive and easily gotten around, under or through.

A fence or a wall isn't exactly a new idea. We want to know how well these border barriers work in the rest of the world. So soon, we will hear from Andrew Schoenholtz, a Georgetown University migration expert.

But first, we're joined by former undersecretary for Homeland Security, Asa Hutchinson. He's here in the studio. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. ASA HUTCHINSON (Former Undersecretary, Department of Homeland Security): Great to be with you. Thank you.

MARTIN: You were the first undersecretary of the new Homeland Security Department set up in 2003. Now there's already a bit of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border on the Pacific side, but where did the idea of fencing the entire border come from?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I think it probably started because of the massive problem that we see along the southern border, particularly. No one talks about the northern border, fencing it. It's the southern border because it's a mass migration problem with over one million apprehensions per year of illegal aliens. You look at it from the drug standpoint, over 65 percent of the illegal narcotics in the United States come through that southwestern border.

And so because of the problem, people say, what's the solution? And they had a little bit of a fence in the San Diego area - say it worked, let's expand it.

MARTIN: What do you think of the idea?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, I think there's two objectives. First of all, you wanted to provide security for the southern border for our migration problem that we have. And a fence is one tool that will help accomplish that. The other challenge you face is symbolism. And the world debates that you do not want to change the nature of America as a welcoming country.

And so there is a symbolism challenge that we face internationally. But the bottom line is any country has a sovereign right to protect its borders. And that's what this fence is one tool to accomplish that.

MARTIN: To say that the figure that we're hearing - and there would still be some unprotected areas, but the figure we're hearing is $49 billion to extend the fence along much of the border. Do you think that's a realistic number?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Actually, they're going to have to pilot some of it. It's going to be very, very expensive. And right now, I don't think we should talk in terms of building a fence along every square inch of the southern border. It is one tool - I believe, even the new immigration legislation provides 700 miles of it along a 1,900-mile border. So that's approximately one-third that you allocate in different places. So there's some place it doesn't make sense, many places it does. And that's where we should use it.

MARTIN: People say that on the one hand, the Border Patrol says that the number of captures in the areas that are fenced has gone down from something like 500,000 in 1993 to just a little over 100,000 in 2004. But other people say it's just pushing people into more dangerous areas.

From your time in Homeland Security, do you have an opinion that would be effectiveness was of the fence? Or did you think that the cost in danger and safety was worth the improvement in reducing the flow of migration across the borders that were already fenced?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yes. I think the fence has proven to be effective in the urban areas, particularly. I don't think it's something that would work in, for example, the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, where I've been. You've got natural areas that probably is not an effective tool. Then you use more of a virtual fence. You use surveillance. You use unmanned aerial vehicles and other technology tools that creates the virtual fence.

But yes, whenever you create a physical fence, it does force the illegal migrants into other areas that you have to respond in kind to. But it is a step-by-step process that, ultimately, you're going to have to protect the entire border and combine it with other immigration enforcement tools. And ultimately, I think you can stop the challenge that we face right now.

MARTIN: I wanted to talk about the immigration bill. And I'm just curious about what your take on why the compromise fell apart, and did you share some of reservations - I know you're out of office in the moment - but if you shared some of the reservations that other people in your party had about the bill?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: The challenge that the proponents of the bill face is that we've been here before and whenever you accomplish comprehensive reform, where's it going to put us 10 years from now? Are we going to be debating the same issue? We still have illegals in the country. We still have an influx and a challenge to control our border.

So they want to see proof that this is going to actually happen, and we're going to secure our border so we're not in the same boat again 10 years from now. And that's the skeptical side of it. So I think that the president addressed this by saying we're going to commit $4 billion in emergency spending for securing our border. That is a very strong, good faith step. And I think it will generate additional support among some skeptics of the legislation.

MARTIN: But is that enough to take the pressure off the borders? I read some place that you were skeptical about a technological solution, even an effective one, is enough. Is that accurate?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, we have to remember that it's what we do at the southern border is not enough in it of itself. It has to be combined with employer sanctions and employer tools not to hire illegal immigrants, illegal workers. And whenever you do that, you could have an effective system.

This legislation, on the security side, is very strong. It includes both border security, but also tools for the interior in every state. So I think it will help us to get where we need to be. The question is is whether the $4 billion is enough and whether it's going to convince enough folks that we are serious about protecting and securing our border.

MARTIN: Asa Hutchinson is a former congressman and former undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security. He currently runs the Hutchinson Group, a consulting firm based in Little Rock, Arkansas. But he was kind enough to come to the studio today. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Now, we're going to continue our conversation with Andrew Schoenholtz. He's the deputy director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration. He was also kind enough to join us in the studio. Welcome. Thanks for coming in.

Professor ANDREW SCHOENHOLTZ (Deputy Director, Georgetown University Institute for the Study of International Migration): Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So, I'm trying to think if there were any precedents for what the U.S. is trying to do on the southern border. You know, I'm thinking about the Great Wall of China. But that was defensive, militarily, not necessarily to stem the flow of migration. So are there any modern precedents for this?

controlling migration - but it was of a different sort - is the Berlin Wall. Think about that, though. That was the view of the state that was trying to control migration out. It wanted to keep its own people in. So it prevented people to do that.

So in effect, what you need is a government that's willing to use all its powers to use that fence and really control it, really make sure that people can't get in or out, for that matter. That's an authoritarian regime, is the only place I can think of where we've seen that example. It hasn't been used…

MARTIN: And Israel and Saudi Arabia both have border fences. I think the one at Israel is more discussed, but Saudi Arabia also has them. Are those - but those are perceived, again, for military purposes, for purpose of national defense as opposed to control migration, per se.

security issues, although I'm not quite sure about the Saudi example because we have so many Iraqi refugees who could be moving in that direction.

But in any case, the bottom line is you need a regime that's going to use its political will to enforce that fence. You can't just construct a fence. You still need manpower. You need all the tools that some are talking about to actually control the borders that seriously. And I've only seen the examples with authoritarian regimes. Liberal democracies have not done that.

MARTIN: So do you think it could work?

fact, I agree with Mr. Hutchinson that, essentially, in some urban areas in limited purposes, what it does is perhaps is to prevent entry in that limited area. But we have a very long border in the United States, and I think it's not the smart way to address the real issue. The real issue is not so much about the illegal crossings. People are coming across that border for a reason: They want to reach the labor market of the United States. Our labor market has invited them in in some ways, and so they're coming to get to that labor market. And if we don't control that, as Mr. Hutchinson suggested, then the idea of fences is mostly, I think, a political and symbolic issue.

MARTIN: And speaking of the similar, sort of, briefly - we didn't talk about this with Mr. Hutchinson, but are there diplomatic costs to installing this kind of fence? As you know, the fence on the Israeli border is very controversial, to the degree that Mexicans have been asked about this, many of them who live on the other side of the existing fence on the Pacific Coast feel it's racist. Do we care?

Prof. SCHOENHOLTZ: I think that in the long term, the United States definitely does care about this. If you look at what will happen, I believe, in the next 20 years, the relationship with Mexico is going to evolve considerably as the economy in Mexico strengthens, as their own labor markets, for instance, and they don't need to send people in the massive way that they're coming today. We will have a border that facilitates trade even more. And right now, that's one of the major trade partners we have - is Mexico.

And the movement of people says a great deal of facilitation of people coming through the Mexican border - U.S. citizens going out, Mexicans coming in. I think in the long term, we are going to have a partnership with Mexico. Though for some people, it might be hard to imagine right now.

MARTIN: But what would, just briefly in the minute that we have left, what would be an effective - what would effectively stem illegal immigration, if not this technological barriers?

Prof. SCHOENHOLTZ: Well, I think that there are two approaches that improve it that can work. One, you have to use worksite verification in the labor market to make sure that you're population is legal that's working. Second, you want to make sure the employers can have legal workers, and we haven't done that. And finally, one of the effective border patrol mechanisms has been prevention rather than apprehension. And actually, Congressman Reyes, when he was a border patrol chief in El Paso, created that. It was successful there. It was successful in California. And I think that is probably the more likely to try to control - to some degree - the border. It can't be perfectly controlled.

MARTIN: Andrew Schoenholtz, thank you so much.

Prof. SCHOENHOLTZ: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Andrew Schoenholtz is deputy director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration. He spoke to us here in our Washington studio.

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