Posted on October 11, 2006

Illegals In The Line Of Fire

Brian Bennett, Time, October 10, 2006

Viewed from a Black Hawk helicopter 1,000 feet up, there’s no sign of the Mexican border in this southwest corner of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. No line in the sand. No fence. Not even a road. Yet it’s clear we are flying over a major international thoroughfare. Hundreds of shiny footpaths and tire tracks weave through the desert below, where the temperature on the ground routinely reaches 115° F in the summer. You need to drink a gallon of water an hour to survive in heat like that, and the illegal aliens and smugglers who pounded these paths into the desert had another 80 miles to go before they reached the nearest paved road. But parched terrain wasn’t the only peril they faced: these tracks all head smack into a live-fire range where Marine and Air Force pilots practice hitting targets — with very real bombs.

About 95% of all American fighter pilots train here at the 2.7 million-acre Barry M. Goldwater Range, which stretches 37 miles along the U.S.-Mexican border. In recent years, as less dangerous routes into the U.S. have been closed off by fencing, cameras and beefed-up Border Patrol, more and more would-be immigrants risk crossing the live-fire zone. In 2005 alone, over 17,000 walked through the range. And that’s a problem for the military. Every time an unauthorized person or vehicle is spotted on the range, training sessions are halted. In 2003, 450 training hours were lost to this kind of interference; last year the figure tripled to 1,381 hours. That leaves pilots going into combat with fewer flying hours, and it costs millions in wasted fuel and man-hours. Powerful people are taking note of this little-known price of illegal immigration. “We’ve had to discontinue something like 15% of the training days,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld grumbled in May.

Paul Mayberry, deputy undersecretary of defense for readiness, wants to put a stop to the losses by making it more difficult to cross at this already forbidding place. “It’s like a water leak,” he says, “they take the path of least resistance.” But how to make that path more resistant is a matter of some debate. In many ways, the give-and-take over how to secure this essential piece of military real estate reflects two dominant theories on how to secure our border: More walls or more eyes?

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California, is a wall man; he wants to fence the southern boundary of the range. More cameras to watch the region might help, he says, but a physical barrier is essential. He hopes to replicate the success of the triple-layered fencing outside San Diego that led to a 70% drop in illegal immigration there. That’s why he wrote Rumsfeld personally about fencing the range and co-sponsored the Secure Fence Act, a law on President Bush’s desk that requires at least two layers of reinforced fencing to be built from Calexico, Calif. to Douglas, Ariz. — right across the bottom of the Goldwater Range.