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When Congress thinks about border security, it often sees a big fence. The federal government has spent over $2 billion to build hundreds of miles of steel fencing along sections of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Border Patrol says the fence works to help control the illegal movement of people and contraband. But as NPR's John Burnett reports, people on the lower Texas border say it's a boondoggle.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: If you ask Pamela Taylor about the big rust-colored fence that tops the river levy near her house outside of Brownsville, she won't mince words.
Has the border wall worked?
PAMELA TAYLOR: I can't speak for the Border Patrol. For me, it seems like a useless piece of crap. Take a look; they're walking over. They have boats lined up on the other side of the river to row these people across.
BURNETT: Mrs. Taylor has lived here beside the sluggish Rio Grande in her un-air-conditioned brick home surrounded by Mesquite trees and bougainvillea for 67 of her 86 years. Like so many residents down here in South Texas, which used to be part of Mexico, even if she opposes the border jumpers, she treats them like human beings. Every day she puts out water and cold drinks in ice chests by her mailbox.
TAYLOR: We fill that up every night for anybody - Border Patrol, illegals, people working in the fields - they all come and are welcome to it.
BURNETT: It's only been in recent years, Mrs. Taylor says, that immigrants began using her property as a favorite crossing spot. They paddle across the river, walk across the road, hide in the cotton plants and wait for the smuggler's car to show up. Then they pile in, drive through a yawning gap in the border fence and away they go.
TAYLOR: Now they're insisting we need to go in and build more fence. Don't they see that the fence is not working?
BURNETT: In spite of fence detractors like Mrs. Taylor - and there are a lot of them - the Border Patrol steadfastly defends Pedestrian Fence 225, the official name for the Rio Grande Valley Border Wall. It's not actually one long wall. It's 54 miles of fencing in 18 individual sections. The idea was to erect the wall mainly where cities and towns touch the border to force illegal crossers into more rural areas where border agents have a tactical advantage. Robert Duff is chief of operational programs in the Rio Grande Valley sector of the Border Patrol.
ROBERT DUFF: Our objective is to work the area on our terms. So ideally you want to push the traffic to where it's easier for us to work. And that's going to be away from the metro areas where, you know, the vanishing point is very short to where we've got more of a response time and more area to work the traffic.
BURNETT: Outside the federal agency, the perspective from county and civil officials could not be more different.
RAMON GARCIA: That has been the biggest waste of money.
BURNETT: Ramon Garcia is county judge of Hidalgo, the most populous county in the region. He refers to the reported cost of pedestrian border fencing - six-and-a-half million dollars per mile - and to the recent surge of migrant children from Central America.
R. GARCIA: It's a joke. When you got all these 58,000 unaccompanied minors getting through there, I mean, you tell me that's worth it and if it's working.
BURNETT: And it's not just people that the fence is not stopping. Sergeant Rolando Garcia is head of police special investigations in the city of San Juan, which is right on the river. Here's what he had to say when asked if the border wall has slowed down drug smuggling from Mexico.
SERGEANT ROLANDO GARCIA: In order to get their product across, they basically measured the gap between the fence and started building their marijuana bundles within that gap. So they could just slide through the fence - border wall isn't really going to help.
BURNETT: The Border Patrol and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ran into all sorts of problems when the fence was under construction from 2008 to 2010. Some residents bitterly opposed it. The vertical steel barrier slices through city parks, college campuses, nature preserves, farmers' fields and residential property. Most borderland in Texas is private property.
To build the fence, the Border Patrol had to enter into negotiations or begin condemnation proceedings with landowners, which costs time and money. Some lawsuits are still in court. What's more, the Rio Grande flows through a broad floodplain where both countries are not supposed to build fences that would obstruct a flooding river. So in places the border fence sits on top of the levee, that's a half-mile or more distance from the river. And as Pamela Taylor found out, it's a no-man's land on the south side of the fence. Again, the patrol's Robert Duff.
DUFF: Fencing is not the end-all, be-all. You know, I started my career in San Diego and saw them construct the initial fence and then two and three layers of fencing. You know, they'll go over it; they'll go under it; they'll go through it. The fence does not seal the border. It helps, but it's not the solution.
BURNETT: Just as important, he says, are agents on the ground, aircraft boats, lights, cameras and other tactical equipment. Perhaps expectations were too high. Perhaps people thought the wall was supposed to stop illegal traffic. If so, they were mistaken, says Chris Cabrera, spokesman for the Border Patrol Union in the Rio Grande Valley.
CHRIS CABRERA: They built an 18-foot wall, and then people came with a 19-foot ladder. And people just crossed right over the top. So I think the fences can only be so tall.
BURNETT: As for Pedestrian Fence 225, it's done. There were plans to build 16 more miles of wall in the Upper Valley in Starr County, but the agency ran out of money. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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