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As border fence goes up, illegal traffic slows down

A Border Patrol agent looks along a new section of pedestrian barrier fencing near Sunland Park, N.M.
A Border Patrol agent looks along a new section of pedestrian barrier fencing near Sunland Park, N.M. Tom Pennington / Fort Worth Star-Telegram / MCT

RANCHO ANAPRA, Mexico — When mechanic Adrian Hernandez finishes building his new shanty — part home, part auto repair shop — nobody in tiny Rancho Anapra will live closer to the United States. Nor, in his mind, any farther away.

The giant border fence going up 30 yards to the north of him has made it harder than ever to use this once-busy smuggling corridor to reach the United States, residents and law enforcement officials say.

"If it were easy I would already be on the other side working, but it's not easy,'' said Hernandez, a Mexico City native who moved here three years ago hoping to plot his escape to the United States. "The fence is holding me back a lot. What can you do? I just have to wait until the right moment.''

Hernandez, 52, is an example of the impact of one of the largest and most expensive projects undertaken in the short history of the Department of Homeland Security, which took over border security responsibilities when it was created in 2002.

Last week, as Hernandez was piecing together his shack with recycled wood crates and discarded wire, forklifts manned by hard-hat wearing contractors were lifting giant sections of steel mesh into place along a stretch of border in Sunland Park, N.M.

Tetra Tech Inc., a California-based company that helped build the border wall near San Diego, is close to completing this $12 million, 3.4-mile section near the international Santa Teresa Point of Entry, federal officials said. It's part of a $460 million contract awarded to Tetra Tech and others last year to erect a border fence for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The project includes a total of 53 miles of fencing designed to impede foot and vehicle traffic in the Border Patrol's El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico and the two westernmost counties of Texas.

Homeland Security is furiously working to complete construction of a planned 670 miles of fence along the southern border before the Bush administration ends in eight months. Critics, particularly in Texas, are working just as hard to derail the project, citing environmental concerns, private property seizure and a hefty price tag.

A group of Texas border-area mayors filed a lawsuit in Washington on Friday aimed at stopping construction. The suit by the Texas Border Coalition alleges that Homeland Security violated landowners' rights and didn't adhere to provisions requiring consultation with local communities and governmental entities.

According to a 2007 study by the Congressional Research Service, the fence could cost as much as $70 million a mile to build and maintain over the next 25 years. At 670 miles, that would run as high as $47 billion, which doesn't include the cost to acquire land.

The fence near Rancho Anapra replaces an old fence that Border Patrol agents readily acknowledge did little to deter migrants and dope smugglers. The new one rises 15 feet to 18 feet out of the Chihuahuan desert, reinforced by steel bollards and six feet of reinforced concrete beneath.

As recent as a year ago, residents here say their dusty Mexican village — a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez — was a popular staging ground for migrants and dope smugglers. But the fence project and a corresponding spike in the law enforcement presence across the border have slowed the illegal traffic considerably.

It hasn't stopped crossings altogether, though.

A convenient hole in the border barrier lies about 50 yards, across a muddy, trash-strewn road, from the home of Maria de los Angeles Mendoza. Even with the increased vigilance, some slip through it, she said.

"They hide down in the grass, and they go under here, smugglers included,'' she said, pointing to the rectangular opening of a concrete storm drain that empties out onto the U.S. side. Those who don't get caught hop a freight train out or catch a ride to nearby El Paso, she said.

Joe Romero, a Border Patrol agent in El Paso, said no system is foolproof. But he said the fence will help agents gain a valuable advantage as they pursue immigrants trying to gain illegal entry into the United States — or suspected criminals fleeing back into Mexico.

"Five seconds can mean the difference between apprehending somebody or having them get away,'' Romero said. "This area used to be notorious for a lot of human as well as narcotic smuggling, and we've seen quite a dramatic decline.''

Federal authorities report the largest sustained drop in apprehensions along the southern border in years_ down 18 percent in the first quarter of 2008, following declines in the two previous fiscal years.

Though it's impossible to tell from the apprehension data how many people are actually getting through, officials say increased enforcement at job sites, an economic downturn and a huge increase in agents stationed along the border are driving down the illegal traffic.

Critics of the border wall, however, use the same figures to dispute the notion that barriers are needed. Only 370 of the 670 miles have been built. If apprehensions are dropping without a complete fence, why build they rest, they ask.

"It sounds good, but I think a fence just gives a false sense of security,'' said Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, a lead critic of the project as head of the Texas Border Coalition, the group that sued the government Friday. "All we're doing is securing against maids and groundskeepers."

(Root reports for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Dave Montgomery contributed.)

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