Border Fence

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Editor: Michael Shally-Jensen
Date: 2011
Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Social Issues
From: Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Social Issues(Vol. 2: Criminal Justice. )
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 11
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Border Fence

To prevent unauthorized entrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 to construct either partial or complete fencing. Since 9/11 this project has been referred to as a “border fence.” Does the United States have the sovereign right to block off a border with a neighboring country, or does it insult Mexico and violate the rights of people to freely move about the globe? Both Americans and Mexicans residing on the border view it as offensive, and no similar action has been proposed for Canada. Economic migrants from Mexico and from Central and South America have been forced to cross in ever more remote and hazardous regions, which has raised the death toll. The solution for preventing these deaths could be legalizing increased immigration rather than fencing the border. Although fencing could prevent some criminal activity along the border, such as drug trafficking, it might also promote more varied attempts at human smuggling by tunneling, thus overcoming the fence, or coming into the country by sea or air.

Concern has developed about Mexican drug-related violence involving shootouts between traffickers, law enforcement, and the military. The public supports a border fence primarily as a means of stopping unauthorized immigration, and the government advocates it to prevent the entry of terrorists. Increasingly, the prospect that spillover violence could spread from Mexico into the United States may become another motive for blocking the border, by a fence or otherwise.

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The U.S.-Mexico border is 1,951 miles long and crosses urban areas, desert, and mountainous regions. Historically, the highest rates of unauthorized entrance have been through the San Diego (California) and El Paso (Texas) urban areas, which suffered increased crime due to the unlawful measures taken to stop the migrants and attempts by bandits to assault and rob migrants during their passage. These are the sites at which the first border fences were built.

Fencing began with the installation of 14 miles of steel wall as a part of Operation Gatekeeper in the Tijuana-San Diego undocumented immigration corridor (Nevins 2002). It was made with steel plates that served as makeshift aircraft runways during the first Iraq War. They are covered with rust in parts and unsightly. In the San Diego region, the 40 miles of primary 10-foot-high fence with horizontal steel corrugation is easy to climb. After the first wall, there is a 10-foot secondary wall that is 15 feet high and more difficult to climb; it is a steel mesh wall sunk in concrete. This appears to be effective, but these walls have been tunneled under.

At Otay Mesa, San Diego, with the use of ground-penetrating radar, a half-mile, 75-foot-deep tunnel with electricity and ventilation was discovered. It led to a Tijuana industrial park and contained bales of marijuana. It is plausible that this tunnel was also used to smuggle people across the border. U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) officials indicate that the San Diego wall was never meant to stop unauthorized entrance but just to slow people down. A fence that caused injury would render the United States subject to liability lawsuits. Tunnels are a drug trafficking escalation in the effort to maintain smuggling routes.

In Arizona, between the U.S. city of Nogales and Ambos Nogales in Mexico, border walls were built in conjunction with Operation Safeguard. Many additional fences have been constructed in Arizona, but they are not as high or secure in remote rural areas, where the USBP considers it easier to apprehend people. In rocky and mountainous areas, there is a simple rail barrier designed to impede cars or trucks but not foot travelers.

Although Operation Gatekeeper and Operation Safeguard were intended to be temporary, they became permanent. The result was displacement of unauthorized entrants and human smugglers to more remote and risky crossing areas (Dunn 2009; Nunez-Nieto and Kim 2008) and an almost complete drop in apprehensions in the urban areas that were fenced. Nevertheless, fences did not stop unauthorized immigration over the long run. Instead, unauthorized crossers choose different and more difficult rural desert areas, which are extremely hazardous.

The Senate confirmed the U.S. House of Representatives Secure Border Fence Bill of 2006 to authorize and partially fund construction of 700 miles of additional double-walled fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. The sites include two spots in California, Page 380  |  Top of Articlemost of the Arizona border, and heavily populated areas of Texas and New Mexico. Fourteen known drug-smuggling corridors are included. Michael Chertoff, the first Department of Homeland Security secretary, did not favor a physical fence and wanted to deploy a virtual electronic fence instead. One result of this decision point is that the fence may never be fully extended. The fence does not seal off the entire border and leaves open the question of whether another displacement effect will affect unauthorized immigration, making it more dangerous.

Border fencing has involved up to two layers of secured fencing and physical barriers, parallel roads, and surveillance technology (Nunez-Nieto and Kim 2008). By 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP, part of the Department of Homeland Security) had extended coverage to 645 miles of fence. The degree of security offered by the fence varies. Often rural fencing is no more than a railing to deter vehicles. Other sections of the border fence located near cities and communities comprise a steel plate wall or two fences that are 15 feet high and run parallel to each other with a track for motor vehicles in between. Individuals or groups crossing the border without authorization trigger motion sensors and alert the U.S. Border Patrol, which polices the fence and crossing locations. On one side of each of the two parallel fences is eight feet of coiled barbed wire, and before the barbed wire are ditches to prevent SUVs and trucks used by human and drug smugglers from crossing. In more remote areas, rail fences have been installed to prevent vehicles from crossing.

Border communities and landowners affected by the border fence project have protested it. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 requires consultation with federal agencies, state and local officials, and local property owners. Nevertheless, former Secretary Chertoff was authorized to waive historic preservation and environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. On four occasions, DHS has used the waivers. Lawsuits over proposed border walls in south Texas occurred, but in 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a case against border fencing. DHS paid $50 million to compensate for ecological damage and issues with Native American burial sites. It is possible to develop fencing that will curb floods and restore habitats for endangered species. About $40 million has been spent on restoration. The affected species include ocelots, jaguars, wild pigs (javelinas), and deer.

Early in his term, President Barack Obama expressed a preference for border patrolling and adding surveillance technology in lieu of a fence. The evaluations of the U.S. Government Accountability Office have consistently documented problems with a “virtual fence” known as the Secure Border Initiative network, or SBInet. In spring 2010, current DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano responded by cutting $50 million from a scaled back budget of $574 million to pay for a system of cameras, radar, and sensors that was expected to be operational by 2011 (Archibold 2010). Cost overruns on the Boeing contract, equipment malfunctions such as mistaking blowing trees for migrants, lack of Page 381  |  Top of Articleconsultation with the USBP, and ineffective assessment of results are considered major issues. By 2010, $1.2 billion had been spent; with only two test sites in Arizona, there was little evidence of effectiveness. In response, Janet Napolitano has frozen funding for SBInet.

The violence of Mexican drug cartels and the possibility that it could spill over into U.S. border communities, a phenomenon labeled “spillover violence,” has created a motive for continuing to fence. Originally, Secretary Napolitano was opposed to border fencing; but she now advocates walls and fences as a means of operational control. Napolitano went ahead with the final 60 miles of fencing, estimated to cost $4 million per mile (Reese 2009). In 2010, fencing covered 646 miles of the 1,951-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

Border fencing has been costly to build. Since 2005, $2.4 billion has been spent (Billeaud 2010). Former congressman and 2010 Arizona Senate primary candidate J. D. Hayworth (2009, 3) points out that the original bill calls for double-layer fencing, but only 200 miles are of this more expensive type. Smugglers have overcome single-layer fencing and vehicle barriers with hacksaws, blowtorches, and portable ramps (Billeaud 2010). Migrants may simply use ladders.

Supporters of Border Fencing

Proponents of an extended border fence argue that it is needed for three reasons: (1) to reduce unauthorized immigration, (2) to block drug smugglers and others, and (3) to prevent terrorists from entering through the so-called back door. A border fence is seen as a tool that, with accompanying technology, will allow the USBP to improve enforcement. A 2010 Rasmussen phone survey indicated that 59 percent of a random sample of 1,500 Americans supported a border fence to control immigration (Rasmussen Reports 2010). Only a minority of voters were in opposition: 26 percent. After the March 2010 shooting deaths of American Consulate employees in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, 49 percent believed that preventing drug trafficking was more important than stopping unauthorized entry.

The data from Operation Gatekeeper in the almost completely fenced San Diego sector, where border fencing originated, has been used to argue that it is effective because apprehension of unauthorized border crossers is greatly reduced (Haddal et al. 2009). The USBP views fencing as a “force multiplier” because it allows them to concentrate on targeted enforcement, USBP considers the displacement of migrant crossing attempts to remote rural areas, as opposed to congested urban regions, as presenting a tactical advantage.

Public figures such as Patrick Buchanan, former Congressman Duncan Hunter, and FOX television journalist Glenn Beck have advocated building a fence along the entire 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Buchanan (2006), for instance, believes that it would show the exact border location, separate the two nations, and permanently enhance Page 382  |  Top of Articlesecurity. Although the limited border fences already in place have been likened to the Berlin Wall, he does not agree. After World War II, the Berlin Wall was constructed between the zone occupied by the North American Treaty Alliance and that occupied by the Soviet Union in Berlin, Germany, to prevent Eastern Europeans and Soviet citizens from crossing into a non-Communist zone and permanently immigrating. Supporters of a U.S.-Mexico border wall feel that the Berlin Wall locked a population in and made them captive. In contrast, the proposed wall would keep unauthorized entrants out. Is the glass half empty or half full?

Complete fencing of the border would leave 200 openings or ports of entry for vehicles, trucks, and railroads, allowing trade, travel, and border tourism. The mere sight of the border fence is considered a major deterrent to individuals and small groups trying to cross. It has been suggested that a $2 crossing fee would help finance construction of the fence, paying back the cost over time.

One positive impact of the Tijuana-San Diego fence was that land values rose on the U.S. side of the border within 14 miles of the fence. Supporters offence construction indicate that it would make national parks like the Organ Pipe Monument, Indian reservations such as that of the Tohono-O'odham in southern Arizona, and ranches safer places.

Patrick Buchanan (2006) suggests that the fence might be perceived positively by Mexican border residents because of the increased risk of crime in border-crossing zones such as the Tijuana-San Diego corridor. Prior to the construction of a 14-mile fence in this area, there were border bandits and gangs that committed rape, robbery, and even homicide. This gang activity was separate from drug smuggling, an additional concern. Border homicides occurred at a rate of 10 per year and decreased to zero after the fence was installed. Drug busts of SUVs and trucks dropped from 300 a month to zero along the fence.

The deterrence of crossing reduces opportunity to further exploit unauthorized border crossers. Mexico experiences a high level of corruption because of the low salaries of government employees (Velasco 2005). The Mexican police and military stationed on the U.S.-Mexico border and at ports of entry have been accused of rape, robbery, and physical assault on unauthorized individuals crossing through Mexico from Central and South America. Both the Mexican police and military seek them out throughout Mexico, particularly at Mexico's southern border, to take their money and/or deport them. Women have been sexually assaulted, and unauthorized migrants are alleged to have been beaten to death. Recent corruption concerns involve bribery and intimidation of Mexican and even U.S. law enforcement and government officials by drug trafficking organizations (Cook 2007).

An unrecognized human rights issue is that fencing in remote desert or mountainous border regions would prevent the deaths—due to dehydration, heat exhaustion, cold exposure, starvation, and/or injury—of hundreds of unauthorized crossers. It would also Page 383  |  Top of Articlestop the accumulation of areas of trash left by unauthorized crossers in fragile desert and mountain ecological zones. Ranchers and other property owners would no longer be subject to trespassing on their lands. The more the border is fenced, the more unauthorized entrants are funneled into specific areas, making land enforcement more efficient. However, this approach will work only if the land border is almost completely fenced.

The U.S. public has been chiefly concerned about unauthorized immigration and terrorism. The U.S.-Mexico border is a major drug and human smuggling platform, and transnational organized criminal groups employ high technology to counter each step in the escalation of border control. There is concern that the profit motive would cause such groups to accept payment from terrorists attempting to cross and/or to assist them in transporting weapons of mass destruction, such as dirty bombs or hazardous, active biological organisms such as anthrax. Repeatedly, the issues of the war on terror have been linked to U.S.-Mexico border security, although the 9/11 incident did not involve U.S.-Mexico border crossers.

The chief motivation, however, may not originate from the war on terror. Border security has been a part of the war on drugs since the tight control of the Florida coastal drug smuggling corridor resulted in displacement of drug trafficking to the U.S.-Mexico border. Ultimately, the government may view fence placement as a national security issue primarily connected to drugs, although it is represented as an effort to control immigration and terrorism. There are areas along the US.-Mexico border in which even the USBP is threatened by heavily armed drug smugglers.

Opponents of Border Fencing

Felipe Calderón, the president of Mexico (2007-present), ministers of several Latin American countries, and Mexican intellectuals consider the construction of a border wall to be unnecessary and even counterproductive. The Mexican press has condemned the wall project as a xenophobic and racist act. Many Mexican papers have run political cartoons showing Uncle Sam putting up a fence covered with insults to Mexicans. The construction of a border fence is viewed as a major slap in the face by the nation of Mexico. It implies that the United States is superior to Mexico and that social problems originate on the Mexican side, not the American side. The United States is protected from Mexico, not vice versa.

Fence opponents in Mexico, Central America, and Latin America argue that an approach that respects labor rights and human dignity is needed. Mexicans regard the fence as a negative response to individuals who work hard and contribute to the North American economy; they are concerned that it will affect ties between Mexicans and family members living in the United States. Mexicans liken fence extension to the Berlin Wall and view it as a hostile act.

Tony Payan (2006) contends that the border-wall mindset has weakened the ties between the United States and Mexico. There is a sense of separation that undermines Page 384  |  Top of Articlecross-border social ties and makes it difficult to negotiate binational solutions to problems like unauthorized immigration. Today, border residents are less likely to visit one another, and twin cities on the U.S. and Mexico sides are more socially if not geographically distant. Texas governor Rick Perry (2000-present) opposes the fence because it undermines trade; he suggests that technology should be used to promote safe and legal migration and cross-border contact.

Liberal opponents view a fence as a way of keeping Mexican citizens out and believe that preventing freedom of human movement is a human rights issue. The fencing of San Diego, California; El Paso, Texas; and Nogales, Arizona, was undertaken as an effort to deter individuals from crossing. Wayne Cornelius (2006) found that, from 1994 to 2004, a total of 2,978 border migrants died while attempting to enter the United States from Mexico. Cornelius (2006, 784) points out that “To put this death toll in perspective, the fortified U.S. border with Mexico has been more than ten times deadlier to migrants from Mexico during the last nine years than the Berlin Wall was to East Germans throughout its twenty-eight year existence.”

Controversy has ensued because border crossers have been diverted to the Sonora Desert and Baboquivari Mountains in Arizona. The fencing of limited areas of the border channeled migrants to different areas that pose a threat to life for those who cross. Primary causes of death are exposure/heat, drowning, and motor vehicle accidents (Guerrette 2007). When the movement of people across the border is squeezed, they will try other areas or methods. In the southwestern desert, migrants are not able to carry much water; they become exposed to intense heat and cold and sometimes get lost. Drowning deaths occur along Texas's Rio Grande River and the Colorado River in California when irrigation water is released and sudden flooding occurs. Tension between the United States and Mexico has increased because of these deaths, which could have been prevented by more open borders.

Academicians have conducted research showing that, although fencing funnels migrants from attempted entry in certain zones, it does not stop unauthorized immigration (Garcia-Goldsmith et al. 2007; Massey 2009). A major unintended consequence of border fencing and other types of escalation of control has been that human smuggling networks have become more organized and profitable (Massey 2009). Unauthorized entrants pay large sums in advance to be smuggled in, or they may pay off huge debts afterwards. Unwittingly, escalation in law enforcement on the border has increased the profitability of human smuggling and created a new transnational organizational structure that people must rely on. In the past, individuals tried to cross on their own or employed small-scale smugglers. Each time border control is escalated, criminal organizations realize greater opportunity. If a debt is owed after crossing, migrants may be coerced or enslaved to pay it off. Ultimately, U.S. border security must to consider the reasons that migrants are so desperate and to deal with the demand for drug consumption in the United States more effectively.

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Environmentalists are also opposed to border fencing, which disrupts the ecology of desert regions and riverine systems. The San Diego border fence constructed as a part of Operation Gatekeeper is in a 3.5-mile area of marsh. In 2005, a federal judge ruled against a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to protect the sensitive ecological balance of the Tijuana River marshes. It is one of the few intact estuaries and coastal lagoon systems in southern California. A more general objection to fencing at most rural points of the border is that it hampers the migration of wild animals.

In south Texas, many lawsuits were brought against the border fence. The fence disrupts the use of private property, placing a barrier between animals and water or ranchers and their own land. It has had social consequences such as dividing the campus of the University of Texas at Brownsville into U.S. and Mexican areas. A coalition of Texas mayors and other public officials sought to stop the fence, but their effort to bring the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court was unsuccessful. To facilitate fencing, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security issued 30 waivers of laws protecting endangered species, migratory birds, deserts or forests, antiquities, Native American graves, and rancher's property rights.

Opponents of extended border fencing argue that the tactic is insufficient and that better intelligence and innovative solutions are needed. They point out that the cost estimate is $70 billion. Some conservative opponents of fencing, including the Border Fence Project, are against federal attempts to fence the border and found the present legislation, the Secure Border Fence Act of 2006, very flawed. Their reasoning is that only 700 miles will be fenced and a great deal of coverage will be electronic; they also worry that personnel to respond will be underfunded. They argue that a delay in fence building will result in surges of crossers in unfenced areas. Finally, they point out that, in their opinion, the federal government does not do a good job of repairing, maintaining, or guarding current fencing. Existing areas of 15-foot-high steel-and-concrete fencing have been successfully overcome for temporary periods with hacksaws and acetylene or plasma torches, huge ladders, and even bungee jumping cords.

Methods used by smugglers to circumvent the border fence include tunnels and cavelike passages used to smuggle people, drugs, and contraband. A total of 101 tunnels have been discovered between 1990 and 2008 (Haddal et al. 2009). Circumventing the fence is a response to increased CBP enforcement. In 2006, Congress passed the Border Tunnel Prevention Act to increase criminal penalties. A tunnel builder can get up to 20 years. Improvements in intelligence gathering and tunnel detection are occurring but attempts continue to be made.

Fencing the border to stop unauthorized entry was immediately linked to 9/11 and preventing terrorist incursion despite the fact that none of the 9/11 terrorists entered through the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, they came by air and overstayed visas that were, in some cases, fraudulent. Opponents think it is an error to connect 9/11 with Page 386  |  Top of Articlesouthern border security. The real issues at the U.S.-Mexico border are much more varied. Drug smuggling of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine is a multibillion-dollar business connected to illegal money laundering.

The construction of a border fence completely overlooks the relationship of the United States, a high-income country, to Mexico and other Central and South American middle- or low-income countries. Issues in economic development are associated with unauthorized immigration for economic motives. Border fencing is a unilateral, not a bilateral or multilateral, effort that addresses the economic development of the sending countries (Payan 2006). Recently, the need to address socioeconomic issues in Mexico was recognized in the context of combating drug trafficking and related violence by increasing economic opportunity (Thompson and Lacey 2010).

Peter Skerry (2006) maintains that the primary reason for building a border fence was never about undocumented immigration. He contends that politicians want to stop drug traffickers. It is easy for public figures to merge and blur the issues of unauthorized immigration, counterterrorism, and—with renewed emphasis—drug trafficking. The secretary of Homeland Security has the authority to waive all laws that prevent national security measures, which makes the process of opposing the wall and developing binational and global solutions to major issues problematic. Globalization has made us one world, and the use of national sovereignty to build a wall can easily be perceived as national arrogance and disregard for the concerns of other nations.


Prior border fences did not stop unauthorized immigration. The Secure Border Fence Act of 2006 does not seal off the entire border. As a result, it has the potential to channel unauthorized entrants to rural regions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas or to direct human smugglers to turn toward air and coastal routes. Many observers think that only a guest-worker program in combination with a fence would deal with the issue of unauthorized immigration from Mexico. This solution, however, does not take into account people from Central and South America who travel north to make unauthorized crossings or people who are legally admitted and overstay their visas. There are unauthorized immigrants from many areas of the world in the United States who did not cross a land border to enter. Meanwhile, the government's central concerns for building a wall include transnational drug smuggling and counterterrorism. Controversy will continue as the government and the public consider whether it is possible for a nation to seal itself off in a rapidly globalizing world.


Further Reading

Archibold, Randal C., “Budget Cut for Fence on U.S.-Mexico Border.” New York Times (March 16, 2010).

Billeaud, Jacques, “Fence Alone Cannot Plug Border.” . May 28, 2010.

Buchanan, Patrick, State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America. New York: Thomas Dunn Books/St. Martin's Press, 2006.

Cook, Coleen W., Congressional Research Service Report: Mexico's Drug Cartels. 2007.

Cornelius, Wayne A., “Controlling ‘Unwanted Immigration’: Lessons From the United States. 1993-2004.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 31, no. 4 (2006): 775-794.

Downes, Lawrence, “The Not-So-Great-Wall of Mexico.” New York Times (April 20, 2008).

Dunn, Timothy, Blockading the Border and Human Rights: The El Paso Operation That Remade Immigration Enforcement. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.

Garcia-Goldsmith, Raquel M., Melissa McCormick, Daniel Martinez, and Inez Magdelena Duarte, The “Funnel Effect” and Recovered Bodies of Unauthorized Immigrants Processed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990-2005. Report Submitted to the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Tucson, AZ: Binational Immigration Institute. Mexican American Research and Studies Center, University of Arizona, 2006.

Guerette, Rob T., “Immigration Policy, Border Security, and Migrant Deaths: An Impact Evaluation of Life-Saving Efforts under the Border Safety Initiative.” Criminology and Public Policy 6, no. 2 (2007): 245-266.

Haddal, Chad C., Yule Kim, and Michael John Garcia, “Congressional Research Service: Border Security: Barriers Along the U.S. International Border.” March 16, 2009.

Hayworth, J. D., Testimony before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship, Hearing on Securing the Borders and America's Ports of Entry, What Remains to be Done. May 20, 2009.

Liptak, Adam, “Power to Build U.S. Border Fence Is Above U.S. Law.” New York Times (April 8, 2008).

Massey, Douglas, Testimony before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship, Hearing on Securing the Borders and America's Ports of Entry, What Remains to be Done. May 20, 2009.

Nevins, Joseph, Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.- Mexico Boundary. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Nunez-Nieto, Blas, and Yule Kim, CRS Report for Congress: Border Security: Barriers Along the U.S.-Mexico Border. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2008.

Payan, Tony, The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration and Homeland Security. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International/Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006.

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Rasmussen Reports, “59% Say U.S. Should Continue to Build Fence on the U.S.-Mexico Border.” March 18, 2010.

Reese, April, “U.S.-Mexico Fence Building Continues Despite Obama's Promise to Review Effects.” New York Times (April 16, 2009).

Romero, Fernando, Hyperborder: The Contemporary U.S.-Mexico Border and Its Future. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.

Skerry, Peter, “How Not to Build a Fence.” Foreign Policy (September/October 2006): 64-67.

Thompson, Ginger, and Marc Lacey, “U.S. and Mexico Revise Joint Anti-Drug Strategy.” New York Times (March 24, 2010).

Velasco, Jose Luis, Insurgency, Authoritarianism and Drug Trafficking in Mexico's “Democratization.” New York: Routledge, 2005.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1762600052