Thu, Feb 24, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The battle of the US-Mexico frontier

The US has built a fence to keep Mexican immigrants out. It has cost billions and split communities. But does it work?

By Chris McGreal  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Berchelmann says he is also upset at the rhetoric echoing across the US.

“I find it very disturbing. The language is offensive when they talk about anchor babies. It’s their country, but are Mexicans taking away jobs from Americans? No. Those jobs were always done by Mexican immigrant workers. If you take those immigrants out, you stop agriculture cold. Corn production, wheat production, apples, oranges, you name it. That’s the reality,” Berchelmann says.

However, residents of Eagle Pass are increasingly fearful of crossing the border as drug gang violence in its twin has risen sharply. The town’s police chief was murdered last April. He had been appointed just three weeks earlier to purge the force of corrupt links to the traffickers. In the following months, the deputy police chief and three other officers were abducted.

Foster and other border mayors came to the view that the fence wasn’t being built because of a serious threat to national security, but to provide middle America with an illusion.

“This fence is a placebo. It gives somebody in mid-America a fluffy warm feeling. It really provides no real deterrent. Look at the wonderfully engineered tunnels under the physical barriers that have been constructed in California, Arizona and New Mexico. They’re backing up vehicles and climbing over. It’s a very expensive joke,” Foster says.

Efrain Valdez, the mayor of Del Rio and chairman of the TBC until last July, has also lashed out at supporters of the fence.

“Beginning in the early 20th century, the US government has financed the construction of border fences in El Paso. In 1925, a ‘hog-tight, horse-high and bootlegger-proof’ barbed-wire fence was built in El Paso. Observation towers were added in 1937,” he wrote last year.”

As is true of the modern-day fence, the impact was minimal. The observation towers were removed under then-US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, in part because of their resemblance to towers in East Berlin. In 1978, the fence between El Paso and Juarez was replaced with new “impregnable” 3.7m high metal barriers topped with barbed concertina wire. The new fence’s manufacturer claimed that the wire strands of which they were made would be so sharp that anyone who tried to scale them might lose his fingers and toes. Within a week after the fences were finished, they were full of holes, some large enough to drive a truck through.

“In the past few years, the US Department of Homeland Security has spent hundreds of millions of dollars constructing new and ‘improved’ fencing between El Paso and Juarez, obviously with the same ineffective results that have been evident for 85 years,” Valdez says.

The ways around the fence have not changed much. In California, pickup trucks pull up, lean a ladder from the back to the top of the wire and the migrants are over in a minute. In the Arizona desert, smugglers have dug short tunnels under the fence. If the border patrol, farmers or Minutemen stumble on them, a new tunnel appears a few kilometers away. Other smugglers cut through the fence with hacksaws and blowtorches. Some have even built ramps to drive vehicles to the top of the wire and then lower immigrants down the other side.

However, the fence has not been without impact. The barrier may deter some immigrants, but for others it has added to the physical dangers of seeking a better life. Some now cross deeper into the desert, to remote areas away from assistance, and pay with their lives. They take to backtrails, attempt to head through mountains. Often they are ill-prepared, with insufficient water or protection from the relentless sun. Their corpses are increasingly found in Arizona, where the morgue in Tucson is now overflowing with unidentified bodies. Some areas are so isolated that by the time they are found, the bodies are little more than skin on bone. Some immigrants, lost and knowing what awaits them, have hanged themselves from trees.

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