Study: Price for border fence up to $49 billion Study says fence cost could reach $49 billion
Lawmakers' estimate falls far short of total, research service says
- Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, January 8, 2007
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The cost of building and maintaining a double set of steel fences along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border could be five to 25 times greater than congressional leaders forecast last year, or as much as $49 billion over the expected 25-year life span of the fence, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
A little-noticed study the research service released in December notes that even the $49 billion does not include the expense of acquiring private land along hundreds of miles of border or the cost of labor if the job is done by private contractors -- both of which could drive the price billions of dollars higher.
The Congressional Research Service also questioned the effectiveness of a fence in preventing people from crossing the border illegally, especially if it does not span the entire 1,952-mile border. Secure fencing of some kind already exists along 106 miles of border, mostly in short stretches around cities.
The findings did not deter Congressional backers of the border fence, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, the fence's principal proponent.
"Mr. Hunter firmly supports expanding the San Diego border fence across the U.S.-Mexico border," said spokesman Joe Kasper. "This doesn't have to be and should not be as costly an endeavor as some are suggesting."
Congress has so far provided the Department of Homeland Security with $1.5 billion for upgrading infrastructure and technology at the border this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. No money has been allocated specifically for the 700 miles of fence.
A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was circumspect as to how the money should be spent, given the report's findings.
"Sen. Feinstein has been supportive of the idea of a fence and thinks it has been effective in California," said Feinstein spokesman Scott Gerber. "At the same time, we have to be realistic about the costs of both construction and maintenance. Priorities need to be made, estimates need to be made based on the real world, and as additional information comes forward, we'll take another look at it."
The fence would be built under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection. Boeing Co., under a September contract with Homeland Security, already has begun constructing a "virtual fence" along all 6,000 miles of the U.S. border, north and south, that is expected to run to $2.5 billion.
A state-of-the-art fence constructed on almost 10 miles of border in western San Diego County has reduced the number of Border Patrol arrests of illegal entrants there, the research service reported.
But "the flow of illegal immigration has adapted to this enforcement posture and has shifted to the more remote areas of the Arizona desert," the research service said. The number of arrests along the entire border in 2004 was 1.2 million, the same as in 1992, before the San Diego fence was built and other enforcement was increased.
"The main difference is that, while San Diego accounted for the majority of apprehensions in 1992, in 2004 (the) Tucson and Yuma sectors accounted for the majority of apprehensions," the study noted.
When the House of Representatives first approved a border security bill last winter, Hunter estimated it would cost $2.2 billion. The Congressional Budget Office echoed that figure in May with an estimate of $3 million per mile -- $2.1 billion for 700 miles.
But the Congressional Research Service noted that the 14-mile San Diego fence is expected to cost $9 million per mile once it is finished. The research service also used a larger figure -- 850 miles -- for the length of the fence.
Recent fences along the border have been constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Customs and Border Protection. The Corps has obtained the land, drafted the environmental protection plan, designed the project and overseen construction. Labor has been provided by National Guard and military units on loan from the Department of Defense.
The Dec. 12, 2006, nonpartisan congressional report said the corps predicted that the combined cost of building and maintaining the fence over a 25-year life cycle would range from $16.4 million to $70 million per mile, depending on how heavily and how often the fence is damaged by would-be border jumpers. At $70 million per mile, a 700-mile fence would cost $49 billion.
Though much land on the border in California and Arizona already belongs to the federal government, most of the Texas and New Mexico borderlands are privately held. And 70 miles of Arizona border lie along the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, whose leaders have vowed to fight the fence, a stance that could lead the government into a protracted legal battle.
Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology at Princeton University who studies the border and illegal immigration, said the government should spend its money differently.
"It's a waste of money," he said. "If you want to increase security, better to use some of that money for ports and transportation systems. If you want to lower the rate of Mexican immigration to the U.S., I would spend it on development assistance for Mexico."
A guest worker program would reduce the illegal traffic at the border, he also said, and free up the Border Patrol to focus on keeping out drug smugglers and potential terrorists.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who has spoken adamantly in favor of restricting both legal and illegal immigration, remains a supporter of the fence for security reasons as well.
"It's simple: What did 9/11 cost us versus what would it cost to maintain a fence to help prevent that?" said Carlos Espinosa, a Tancredo spokesman. "If we could prevent another terrorist attack, then absolutely it's worth it."
E-mail Tyche Hendricks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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