Only a few months ago, newly empowered Democrats in Congress were saying a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico had little chance of getting fully funded.
In the last few weeks, however, the U.S. Border Patrol has told Rio Grande Valley leaders that the fence would be up by the end of 2008—just a year and a half away—and a U.S. Department of Homeland Security map showing tentative locations for the fence was leaked to the media.
While Border Patrol has talked about the fence as an imminent reality, the agency has received only a fraction of the funding needed for the 370 miles of barriers it envisions.
David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, suspects authorities may be “measuring the drapes”—in essence, planning for something that may happen—while awaiting the go-ahead from Congress.
“My guess is the issue’s still in play,” Shirk said.
STILL LOTS OF QUESTIONS
In an interview Wednesday, Cuellar said there are still a lot of questions about the fence, and that Border Patrol officials are carrying out a security plan that could change.
In the [Rio Grande] Valley, plans call for 70 miles of fencing, mostly near the international ports of entry in urban areas.
Before fencing can go forward, the Department of Homeland Security—which oversees the Border Patrol—needs to secure more funding from Democrats skeptical of the benefits of a fence along the southern border.
For this year, Congress allocated $1.2 billion for infrastructure projects, which includes fencing but also other aspects of the security plan, including vehicle barriers, lighting, road construction and surveillance technology.
House and Senate committees are currently evaluating a DHS request for $1.2 billion for infrastructure for the next fiscal year.
Homeland Security officials haven’t disclosed the projected cost of a 370-mile fence, but a December report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service—quoting an Army Corps of Engineers estimate—said a mile of fence could cost between $16.4 million and $70 million over a 25-year-period.
That means a 370-mile fence could cost between $6 billion and $25.9 billion during that time.
And with a Democratic Congress and a possibly Democratic president in 2008, funds for the fence may be scarce.
“The Department of Homeland Security is mandated by law to construct a fence, so it’s likely that they will spend the money they already have and start building,” said Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, in a statement. “The funding, however, is well short of what DHS needs to build a complete fence and I will continue to work to make sure that they do not receive any more money from Congress for the project.”
SCALING BACK ALREADY
Indeed, the Bush administration appears to have already scaled back its fence plans in response to the Democrats’ victory in mid-term elections in November.
The Secure Fence Act the president signed last year called for up to 700 miles of fences.
Yet DHS is now requesting about half that because of “funding availability” and the “intent of Congress,” said Michael Friel, a department spokesman.
VALLEY LEADERS PESSIMISTIC
“This thing is so unusual,” Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said in an interview Thursday. “Normally, the federal government, the bureaucracy, is so slow in getting things accomplished. But given the urgency for homeland security, theoretically, it could be built.”