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Key obstacles stand in way of state border fence

(Photo by Christian Palmer/Arizona Capitol Times)

A committee that is raising money to build a new fence on the Arizona-Mexico border will face a crippling reality check when it comes to the two things it needs most — money and land.

The state’s Joint Border Security Advisory Committee’s early fundraising successes are eyecatching, but the $121,000 in donations in the first weeks is such a small drop in the bucket that even some committee members say there’s no way they could reach their target of $50 million.

Even if the committee could raise that amount — let alone the hundreds of millions of dollars it could take to erect fencing along the 376-mile swath of Arizona — getting permission to build on federal land may be the even greater obstacle.

“I can’t imagine the stars aligning for that to take place and the funds being acquired to do all of that,” said Rep. Russ Jones, R-Yuma, who co-chairs the committee. “I’m not saying it’s impossible. I’m just saying it’s very unlikely.”

All but 61 miles of Arizona’s border with Mexico are fenced, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The border has 123 miles of pedestrian fencing and an additional 183 miles of barriers, which prevent vehicles from crossing but don’t stop people on foot.

But many committee members, lawmakers and others say the existing border fencing is completely ineffective. The committee hopes to fence open areas of the border, erect new fencing in other areas and install electronic surveillance devices elsewhere.

• • •

Cost estimates vary wildly. The Congressional Budget Office in 2007 estimated the cost of a double steel fence to be about $1.5 million per mile, while a 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office pegged the average cost at $2.8 million per mile.

Committee member Bas Aja, who heads the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, said the committee’s benchmark of $50 million may simply not be enough.

“Clearly there are people that want to donate to that cause. The question is: are there a hundred million people that want to donate to that cause?” Aja said.

The committee raked in $58,000 in its first day of fundraising and surpassed the $100,000 mark by the end of the first week.

In contrast, Gov. Jan Brewer’s defense fund for SB1070, a first-of-its-kind illegal immigration law that received months of saturation news coverage across the globe, raised about $3.7 million, but saw a major drop-off in donations after 2010.

Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said he believes that the committee may be able to raise as much as $2 million. But the committee will never be able to raise the $1 billion-plus that he estimated a full border fence would cost.

“They’re fooling themselves,” Gallardo said. “So why are we doing this? It is political posturing at its best.”

Sens. Al Melvin and Steve Smith, both members of the committee, say the real cost of a secure border fence will only be a fraction of federal government estimates because they’ll be able to use inmate labor and donated building materials.

• • •

Raising the money may be the easier part of the equation.

In April, the Legislature passed Smith’s SB1406, which authorized the committee to raise private donations for a border fence, and to enter into a compact with other border states to build and maintain the fence.

The initiative sprang from anger and frustration with the federal government’s perceived failure to secure the border, including in areas where illegal immigrants and violent drug traffickers pass through privately owned ranch land.

The ranchers’ plight was vaulted into the spotlight in March 2010 when Rob Krentz was murdered on his southern Arizona property by suspected drug traffickers. The ensuing outrage provided much of the impetus for SB1070.

But most of the land on the Arizona-Mexico border is managed by the federal government and Native American tribes, whose permission the state must get before it builds any fencing or installs any electronic surveillance devices.

The U.S. Department of Defense, Fish & Wildlife Service, Forest Service and National Park Service control wide swaths of border land, as does the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The state would need permission from those federal agencies to build on their land, and several agency spokespeople said they wouldn’t give their permission without approval from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and President Barack Obama.

A spokesman for the National Park Service forwarded all questions from the Arizona Capitol Times to DHS, which declined to comment on whether it would be amenable to green-lighting Arizona’s plans.

Smith emphasized that the committee doesn’t need to refence the entire border. He said the committee will turn first to the unfenced portions of the border, especially on privately owned ranch land in the eastern part of the state. After that, they’ll focus on inadequate fencing in areas that only have vehicle barriers.

But that’s when the feds become part of the equation.

Getting federal permission will likely be difficult considering the frosty relationship between Arizona and the feds during the past several years, especially when talk turns to illegal immigration and border security.

Brewer has repeatedly called for more National Guard troops to combat drug traffickers and human smugglers, and frequently chastises the feds for their failure to secure the border, while the Department of Justice is suing the state over SB1070.

And the Department of Homeland Security frequently bristles at the notion that it isn’t doing its job on the border, which Aja said won’t help Arizona’s odds of getting federal permission to build fencing.

“Given the statements they want to make — which have been completely not believed by anybody when they say the border is more secure than it ever has been — it pretty much signals that those folks I don’t think are going to be easy to work with to build the fence on their lands,” Aja said.

Ranchers and other private landowners whose land serves as a pass-through for smugglers are far likelier to give the state permission to build fencing, Aja said. But only 10 to 15 percent of Arizona’s border land, primarily in the eastern part of the state, is privately held, Aja said.

Smith said the committee will send a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, the White House and others at the end of the month asking for permission to build on federal land.

• • •

Melvin, R-Tucson, said the private ranches and state land on the eastern part of the border will be the committee’s starting point. He said the committee has already identified several tracts of land where it could build fencing, and expects a lot of cooperation from ranchers who are tired of illegal immigrants and drug traffickers passing through their property.

“One of their fellow ranchers was killed,” Melvin said. “Their land is being trashed. Animals are being killed. Why not? Why not bring safety to their area?”

Melvin remains optimistic, at least on the financial end. He said the cost of the fence may be far lower than some are projecting if the committee can get construction companies to donate building materials. Melvin said several companies have already made offers — and the inmate labor he plans to use would further reduce the cost.

Depending on the terrain and the type of real and virtual fencing the state builds, Melvin said the cost could range from $20,000 on the “extreme low end” to $100,000 per mile.

“The low end would just be the (pressure-sensing) cable buried in the ground. It will not cost that much,” he said.

The committee won’t have to figure out how to secure Arizona’s entire border with Mexico. Some parts of the border already have adequate fencing — Jones cited the Yuma region as an example that fencing and patrolling work if done properly — and in other areas, particularly mountainous regions, fencing simply isn’t feasible.

• • •

Melvin and Smith are eying a piecemeal approach that would use a pay-as-you-go plan for real and virtual fencing. Smith, R-Maricopa, said the committee must show its donors and the public that it is putting their money to good use. “If we can build 30 miles with $2 million, great. Put it up,” he said.

“It’s not my intention for that money to sit idle in that account,” Smith said. “I want it in, I want it out and I want it in the ground.”

Melvin said the Tohono O’odham Nation doesn’t want physical barriers bisecting its cross-border reservation, but may be open to pressure-sensing cables and other electronic surveillance devices that would alert the Border Patrol to illegal crossers. Some of the areas where Melvin wants to put electronic surveillance, such as the trafficking corridor of Pinal County, wouldn’t even need federal or tribal permission.

But even Melvin said he is pessimistic about how the feds will react when Arizona asks for approval to build on federal land.

“We’re going to have to work with the feds, and I’m not expecting a lot of help from them, to tell you the truth,” he said.

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