More than two-dozen cities and counties in southern Texas joined by environmentalists and immigrant-rights organizations are calling on two lawmakers to end their push for additional fencing along the nation’s boundary with Mexico.

In a letter to Senate leaders May 6, the Texas Border Coalition and others argued that the approximately 650 miles of fencing already constructed in recent years has divided communities, negatively impacted the environment and cost taxpayers a fortune. They say that despite investing $2.6 billion so far, the barrier’s value in stopping the flow of illegal immigration and drug traffickers from Mexico hasn’t been studied.

The lack of such an analysis was confirmed this week by the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog arm of Congress, which concluded in a report that Customs and Border Protection “cannot account separately for the impact of tactical infrastructure,” i.e. border fencing.

tbcletter

Nonetheless, Republican senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and David Vitter of Louisiana on Wednesday proposed expanding the fence in a legislative amendment attached to an unrelated bill that addresses Wall Street reform.

DeMint said in a statement May 5 that little more than 30 miles of the fencing so far is double-layered and his amendment would make that the case for a full 700 miles. Last year, the press release said, a similar amendment was approved in the Senate by a 54-44 vote, but “Democrat leaders gutted the amendment behind closed doors.”

“We’ve had rhetoric and promises for four years without results,” DeMint said. “It’s time we completed the fence and secured our borders to protect American citizens.”

The letter from opponents, however, disputes that the barrier is successful in deterring intruders:

The amendment has nothing to do with the issue of financial reform and threatens to play politics with the important goals of the underlying legislation. … Existing border walls have separated communities and families, cut through significant cultural sites and historic lands, caused damaging floods and erosion, and fractured habitat and migration corridors vital to wildlife pushed to the brink of extinction. These impacts are even more pronounced in light of the inability of a fence to solve our broken immigration system. If Congress perceives that the purpose of border walls is to seal the border from illegal activity, then the program is, and will continue to be, a costly failure.

The Texas Border Coalition represents several cities and counties in the southern area of the Lone Star State and filed suit against the Bush Administration in 2008 to stop 70 miles of fencing planned for the Rio Grande Valley. They argued at the time that the Department of Homeland Security failed to consult with them about the fence’s environmental and commercial impacts and claimed that the fence arbitrarily ceased at the property lines of wealthier landowners. A judge tossed the coalition’s legal challenge last year.

Other lawmakers in recent weeks, meanwhile, have raised questions about whether an expensive and troubled border surveillance program known as SBInet should be abandoned due to delays and cost overruns. At one time, the government proposed lining the entire southwestern border with cameras, sensors and wired command centers that could detect illegal border crossers. But after spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 million, the defense contractor hired to build SBInet, Boeing Co., will complete only about 50 miles for certain.

The Obama Administration announced earlier this year that it was re-directing $50 million in Recovery Act funds set aside for SBInet to other technologies. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, during an April hearing called SBInet “a classic example of a program that was grossly oversold.” He’s argued in support of fencing and said the alternative to SBInet may be to double and even triple-layer the barrier in some areas of the border.


Sample surveillance video from SBInet prototype P-28

Flickr photo: 37 Degrees

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.