For Mexican national Arturo Carvagal, changes in U.S. immigration policy are easy to see. He works as a valet, parking cars at a pool hall 30 feet from the U.S. border.
He frequently peers through a hole in the corrugated steel wall that splits the border towns of San Luis Rio Colorado on the south and the Arizona town of San Luis on the north.
For weeks, he’s watched National Guard troops working under the armed protection of U.S. Border Patrol agents as they fortify the line on the U.S. side.
The troops have been building a 6.9-mile section of tiered defense system designed to reduce the number of illegal immigrants scrambling into the United States.
The scene previews the types of fortifications that would run hundreds of miles along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, according to proposals pushed by President Bush, the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.
Beyond the corrugated steel wall is a newly improved allweather road for Border Patrol vehicles, a fence lined with barbed wire, a row of stadium lights that remain lit all night, and high-tech cameras and surveillance equipment.
Carvagal watched as Bush toured the area in a Border Patrol dune buggy on May 18. The presidential photo-op was intended to highlight the Border Patrol’s desire for more funding as members of the Senate debated proposed immigration legislation.
From Carvagal’s viewpoint, the strongest deterrent to illegal immigration is the presence of National Guard troops just behind the wall.
“I’ve heard they might actually shoot. Imagine if they actually start shooting Mexicans,” Carvagal said in Spanish.
Separate plans offered by the president, the Senate and House envision the National Guard in a support role that stops well short of ordering troops to shoot illegal immigrants.
The proposals, included in larger immigration reform measures, are intended to dissuade foreigners from crossing the border illegally and to give Border Patrol agents a better chance of catching those who try.
The Senate plan calls for 370 miles of triple-layered fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers. It also would add 14,000 Border Patrol agents to the current force of 11,300 by 2011. The House plan would build 700 miles of doublelayered fencing.
The plans take different approaches for people already in the United States illegally.
The Senate and House must compromise on a single plan before presenting a bill for Bush to sign.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Is it just a matter of putting up a fence all along the entire Southwestern border?’ ” said Richard Hays, a Border Patrol supervisory agent in the Yuma Sector.
“There’s not just one answer. It’s the right combination of a couple of things.”
MORE THAN A WALL
Bush requested $1.9 billion to bolster the border, but estimates for the entire job range from $2.2 billion to $3.7 billion to potentially more, depending on which plan, if any, is approved.
In the meantime, more than 1 million people a year are slipping over the border. The Border Patrol apprehended 1.17 million border crossers in 2005. The largest number was in the Tucson Sector in eastern Arizona with 438,997 arrests, followed by the Yuma Sector in western Arizona with 138,447.
The Border Patrol uses several tiers of low-tech and high-tech deterrents along the fortified section through San Luis, including a wall, a fence, a road, cameras and agents on the ground and in the air.
Immigration reform activist Elias Bermudez said the government has a responsibility to close the border to drug smugglers, human traffickers, gun runners and terrorists, but a wall is unnecessary.
“Our country has the technology not to have to build walls that divide people,” said Bermudez, a former illegal immigrant who later gained U.S. citizenship and was elected mayor of San Luis.
“Walls are not what’s going to stop illegal immigration. What’s going to stop illegal immigration is a mechanism where people can come here legally to work,” said Bermudez, president of the Phoenix-based immigration reform group Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras (Immigrants Without Borders).
Former Immigration and Naturalization Service special agent Neville Cramer said a fence and surveillance equipment has limited value.
“I was in the Border Patrol. It’s a totally ineffective agency. They’re playing this cat-and-mouse game down there of apprehending people, putting them back, apprehending them, putting them back. Eventually, these people get through,” he said.
A better approach would be detaining illegal immigrants for as long as four months the first time they’re caught, said Cramer, a Scottsdale resident and author of the book “Fixing the INSanity: America’s Immigration Crisis.”
If foreign nationals knew they risked significant jail time, that would prevent them from working and sending money back home, their economic incentive for jumping the fence would be eliminated, he said.
The physical challenge of jumping the fence, at least in San Luis, is significant.
The corrugated steel wall in the urban areas is made of U.S. Army surplus materials originally intended to help construct airplane runways in remote areas, Hays said.
The wall varies in height, but it stands about 20 feet tall in San Luis. On the south side, locals sometimes use it as a backdrop for hand-painted billboards.
On the north side, the land is scraped barren and dotted with Sky Watch towers, hydraulicpowered platforms that look like portable lifeguard stations.
The towers can reach 25 feet, which gives agents panoramic views of the line. The towers are outfitted with bulletproof windows, air-conditioning and heating systems, daytime and nighttime cameras and communication equipment.
The towers have proved to be effective, Hays said. “In an area where in the past we might have had to deploy six or seven agents, now through this technology we may now have to deploy two or three agents,” he said.
The National Guard also is working to build an all-weather road parallel to the border.
Previously, Border Patrol agents drove their four-wheel-drive trucks along dirt roads. Or, at least, they drove along the dirt road when they could. Rain frequently washed out sections.
The improved road is made with a plastic mesh topped with compacted gravel. The surface withstands rain and allows agents to drive quickly and more safely, Hays said.
The Border Patrol and National Guard also have lined the border with underground seismic sensors and camouflaged infrared sensors. The devices detect movement and heat that could indicate vehicles or people passing.
Plus, they have mounted remote-controlled video surveillance cameras on towers to spy from overhead.
Border Patrol personnel monitor the devices for intrusions and suspicious activity from the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector headquarters building 30 miles north.
The use of high-tech equipment is perfectly appropriate for the border, said Rep. J.D. Hayworth, RAriz., an outspoken advocate for sealing the border.
“It acts like a force multiplier. That’s what you need. You need to be able to multiply the force you have down there,” he said.
Behind all that is a secondary fence, 10 feet of chain link topped with barbed wire.
Just east of San Luis, where the corrugated steel fence ends, the border is marked for three miles with a series of concrete-filled steel columns that serve as vehicle barriers.
The columns are 10 inches in diameter, 4 or 6 feet high and 4 feet apart. They’re rooted 7 feet into the ground and can withstand a vehicle impact of 40 mph.
“They’ve been very effective in cutting those drive-throughs we’ve been experiencing here in the Yuma Sector,” Hays said.
The poles have interfered with high-speed, off-road routes that had been used by drug smugglers and people smugglers alike, Hays said.
“We wanted to take them away from these more heavily populated areas,” Hays said. “Take them out to an area that would increase our probability of interdicting them and reduce the likelihood of them injuring a member of the public.”
About 2,700 vehicles illegally drove across the border last year, he said. About half as many vehicles have made the journey through the desert this year.
Funding is in place for three additional miles of vehicle barriers east of San Luis. The only other spot along the border where they’re currently being used in near Deming, N.M.
Beyond the vehicle barriers though, the border is far less cumbersome. There are no poles, no walls, no fences, no roads, no markings of any kind for miles and miles.
Carvagal’s brother walked through the open desert near Nogales and found work in the construction industry in Phoenix 12 years ago, he said. Little has changed since then. The border is still open.
At least for now.