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Secure Borders? Try Fenced In 

With $860 million spending sprees, high-tech surveillance towers that don't work and Operation Streamline show trials, it's still the same old catch-and-release game

Wednesday, Jun 11 2008

Sasabe, Arizona — Under a cloudless desert sky in the bright sunlight of midmorning, we spotted the young Mexican man crouched in the scrub. He flagged us down, right on the main highway barely a mile north of the border.

Emilio Flores

(Click to enlarge)

"It took us about two minutes and we were over": A migrant's comment on the effectiveness of the U.S. government's new steel fence near Sasabe.

Emilio Flores

(Click to enlarge)

In the dying fields: A cross for the migrants who didn't make it through the desert

Emilio Flores

(Click to enlarge)

A prayer for the road: At the Catholic church in Altar, Mexico

I was riding with a couple of other reporters and two members of the Samaritans, a church-based group from Tucson, whose volunteer mission is to aid migrants stranded in the no man’s land of the Arizona-Sonoran desert. We were in the deadliest section of the border. Of the estimated 500 people who died trying to walk into America last year, about half perished here in Arizona. And more than three dozen right in the 30-mile stretch the Samaritans were patrolling that morning.

The dark-haired man furtively motioning to us no doubt spotted the Samaritans emblem on the side of our car. And when we pulled over to his side of the road, he silently and quickly led us through the greasewood and shrubs about 50 yards from where we started. There, resting on the rocks under a scrawny tree, were nine more of his weathered, tired fellow trekkers, including two young women — one of them pregnant.

“We were abandoned by our coyote,” the young man told us, referring to the smuggler who had taken more than $1,000 from each of them with the promise of getting them across the border.

“On our second night walking,” the young man said in Spanish typical of impoverished southern Mexico, “[the coyote] said he was going ahead to get us food. He never came back.”

The Samaritans, as they always do, offered to help the migrants seek medical aid or turn themselves in to the Border Patrol. This group hungrily tore into the high-energy snacks and bottled water carried by the Samaritans but, as is most often the case, declined the help and decided to venture on.

“We have no idea how we’re going to do it, and we have no money left,” said one of the other migrants. “But we have contacts in Phoenix and L.A. and we’re going to get there, God permitting.”

There’s nothing earthshaking about bumping into a clump of undocumented Mexican border crossers down in this part of the world. More than a thousand a day, almost half a million a year, continue to elude the personnel and machinery of an ever-beefier U.S. Border Patrol as they enter this zone immediately south of Tucson.

What was remarkable is that we ran into this particular group barely a two-minute drive from the just-constructed, 15-foot-high multimillion-dollar fence that is a showcase of the Bush administration’s vaunted Secure Border Initiative. The same wall that both parties in Congress have recently embraced as the answer to stemming illegal immigration. Moreover, the group we found — right off the main road leading from the official U.S. port of entry at Sasabe — was but a few clicks away from one of the nine highly touted prototype electronic-surveillance towers that the U.S. government paid the Boeing Company $20 million to build along a 28-mile run of the border.

In other words, the small group of migrants we spoke to had not only just jumped the newest section of the government’s physical fence, they had also dodged the high-tech “virtual fence,” loaded with the latest gadgets and software.

“We got over the fence with a rope,” said the migrant who had flagged us down. “It took about two minutes and we were over.”

I have no doubt that this man was telling the truth. In fact, the very same notion occurred to me a half-hour earlier, when our group of reporters was given a close-up look at the new 7-mile stretch of fence running through Sasabe. Instead of the rusting plates of corrugated and Swiss-cheesed Vietnam War–era steel that constitutes the older patches of the 300 miles of southern border wall, the new fencing is built of individual steel posts, about 6 inches in diameter, mounted about 8 inches apart. You can’t climb it. You can’t cut through it. But someone, for some reason, decided that near the top of these parallel posts there should run a horizontal crossbar. Not only does the bar reinforce the entire structure, it also provides the perfect device over which to loop a rope and defeat the barrier.

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