On the United States’s southwestern border with Mexico, politicians are no longer sitting on the fence about illegal immigration. Instead, with elections looming, they are busy spending huge sums building real ones to stem the flow of an estimated 500,000 undocumented workers from Mexico each year.
Federal funding of $30 million (£17 million) has just been allocated for completion of a third fence, running in parallel with two barriers set up around San Diego in California over the past decade. A congressional plan to spend a further $2.2 billion, extending double-fence fortification 800 miles eastwards, awaits approval.
But these are precisely the type of low-wage construction projects that America usually gets Mexicans to do. Indeed the Golden State Fence Co, which calls itself “the top fence contractor in California,” was recently caught, for the second time in as many years, employing illegal immigrants.
Federal investigators have found that 157 of its employees, roughly a third of its payroll, were undocumented workers. Some were the same people caught in a previous sweep 18 months earlier. In other words illegal workers are being employed to build barriers to keep out other illegal workers.
The immigration debate in America is not just about whether to double—or even triple—fence borders, but also about double standards. In the south-west, middle-aged vigilantes in combat gear—so-called “minutemen”—are driving around the desert to deter what they view as drug-crazed, terrorist-infiltrated Mexican hordes.
Evening news bulletins crackle with investigations into “America’s broken borders”, while in San Diego, where a 2,400ft (730m) smugglers’ tunnel has just been discovered beneath the fences, illegal immigration is dominating a congressional by-election in April.
That is somewhat surprising, as it has been caused by the fall of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a Republican awaiting sentencing after admitting taking millions in bribes. Such is the atmosphere in this corner of California that the contest is as much about immigration as corruption. Bill Horn, Republican chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, accused Mexican gangs this month of “terrorising our neighbourhoods and shooting down our children in cold blood”.
Even the leading Democrat wants to build yet another fence—equipped with radar.
The paradox is that the illegal workers keep this shopping mall and sunshine society going. Large parts of southern California would be unable to get out of bed in the morning without their help. The Mexicans do the jobs Americans spurn: cleaning, fruit picking and looking after rich white children.
Law enforcement agencies at every level connive in—or at least ignore—this uncomfortable fact. While US politicians earmark billions on high-profile measures to fortify the border, minimal effort is made to crack down on those illegal immigrants who get through.
In 2003, there were four criminal prosecutions of employers nationwide and the average fine was less than $10,000. The Golden State Fence Co came under scrutiny only, it is believed, because of Pentagon contracts.
Wayne Cornelius, of the University of California, San Diego, says that “far from being broken, the system is working very well for business”. It provides an almost infinite and risk-free supply of low-cost, flexible and non-unionised labour. He says that neither the “focus on fortification” nor a six-fold increase in border patrolmen has done anything to reduce the pool of 11 million undocumented workers. They still come in, usually avoiding the fences and guards by charting a hazardous course over mountains and deserts.
Last year 465 died on the way of cold, hunger or heat. Or they were shot.
But, Professor Cornelius says, once they are in the US, tighter security makes immigrants less willing to risk a return home. In 1992 some 20 per cent went back after six months, but in 2000 that figure had fallen to just 7 per cent.
President Bush wants to do something for those who are here, not only because he comes from Texas, which has had a long co-habitation with Mexico, but because he wants Republicans to court Latino voters. But his guest worker programme, giving immigrants a temporary right to work, has little chance of being passed before the mid-term congressional elections in November.
Among the millionaire mansions of Carlsbad, 40 miles north of the border, one Republican is trying to improve conditions for the Mexican fruit and flower pickers who sleep rough in fields or squeeze into rented rooms with half a dozen workmates, as did the “Okies” of the 1930s created by Steinbeck in his The Grapes of Wrath. Michael Wischkaemper has spent three years fighting for a $2.5 million scheme to provide accommodation for some of the men he feels “honoured” to have come to know. But once a year the city clears them out of the creeks where they sleep.
Who does this dirty job? “The city employs them to do it. They are paid to throw themselves off the land,” Mr Wischkaemper says.
“Nobody else will do it.”