STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's examine another proposal to deal with illegal immigration: extending the fence along the border with Mexico. More than a decade ago, the federal government built a fence along part of the border in California, and now some in Congress want to build more. The proposals range from beefed up fences in Arizona to new fences that span the border for 700 miles, which equals the distance between Atlanta and Chicago.

Today we have the first of a two-part series on the costs and the impact of border fences. NPR's Ted Robbins reports from Tijuana.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Step back to the early 1990s. You're standing on the border. To the south, is the bustling city of Tijuana, Mexico, to the north, brush-covered ravines and mesas in the U.S.

Mr. JIM HENRY (Border Patrol Agent, Mexican-American Border): There was one strand of cable that represented our barrier to Mexico--it represented the international border.

ROBBINS: An overwhelmed Border Patrol agent, Jim Henry, watched as people crossed that one strand of cable.

Mr. HENRY: It was an area that was out of control, with as many 300 drive-throughs per month. There were over a hundred thousand aliens crossing through this area. And as…

ROBBINS: A year.

Mr. HENRY: A year.

ROBBINS: Today, Henry is assistant chief Border Patrol, San Diego Sector. He says apprehensions here are down a staggering 95 percent, from 100,000 a year to 5,000. Largely because that strand of cable has been replaced by two, and sometimes three fences. The first fence, ten feet high is made of welded metal panels. The second fence is 15 feet high, steel mesh with the top angled inward to make climbing even tougher. Finally, in high traffic areas, there's also a smaller chain linked fence. In between the two main fences, a one hundred fifty foot no man's land, where the Border Patrol has lights, trucks, and soon, video cameras.

Mr. HENRY: Here in San Diego, we have proven that the border infrastructure system does, indeed, work. It is highly effective.

ROBBINS: The 14 mile double fence has certainly been good for business. Along the road to the Tijuana Airport, on the Mexican side, it's been plastered over with advertising. Along the border on the U.S. side, there's now a thriving warehouse district. And for ranchers, like Carol Kinsey(ph), who lives in a valley near the Pacific Ocean on the U.S. side, life is much better.

Ms. CAROL KINSEY (San Diego Border Rancher): It was pretty, seriously bad. They were tearing up everything. They just go right through fences. They didn't care.

ROBBINS: Hmm. So life is peaceful now?

Ms. KINSEY: Oh, yeah. Doesn't it sound like it out there?

ROBBINS: But Border Patrol helicopters circle nearby, because this is still an active smuggling route, especially for drugs. A stretch of border where there's now only one fence is even called Smuggler's Gulch. But now, after years of litigation over environmental concerns, the Border Patrol will build double fencing there and along the last three and a half miles to the ocean. That will cost at least $35 million.

But Claudia Smith measures the costs differently. She measures it in human lives.

Ms. CLAUDIA SMITH (Attorney and Border Activist): So all that this achieved was to shift the traffic to the mountains, and then to the desert.

ROBBINS: Claudia Smith is an attorney and border activist. She stands in front of a stretch of fence on the Mexican side, where people have nailed crosses and coffins in memory of the estimated 3600 people who've died since the fences went up.

Ms. SMITH: It didn't stop people from crossing. It just forces to cross in the deadliest stretches of the border.

ROBBINS: It's now harder to cross, and it's also more expensive. Border crossers say they pay human smugglers, or coyotes, much more than they did a decade ago. So, Claudia Smith says the fence has actually created a sort of perverse and unintended consequence. It's keeping people who use to go back to Mexico in the U.S.

Ms. SMITH: The men would come for a number of months out of every year and return there. And now, not only are the men staying, but they're bringing their families.

ROBBINS: Over the last decade, millions of people have continued to cross the border illegally, mostly in Arizona. And that's the next target for those who want to build double and triple fencing.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

STEVE INSKEEP, host: And Ted examines different existing border control strategies at npr.org.

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