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Phoenix • Arizona is taking on immigration once again, with state lawmakers collecting donations from the public to put fencing along every inch of the state's porous Mexican border in a first-of-its-kind effort.
The idea came from state Sen. Steve Smith, a Republican who says that people from across the nation have donated about $255,000 to the project since July, when the state launched a fundraising website that urges visitors to "show the world the resolve and the can-do spirit of the American people."
Smith acknowledges he has a long way to go to make the fence a reality. The $255,000 collected will barely cover a half mile of fencing. Smith estimates that the total supplies alone will cost $34 million, or about $426,000 a mile. Much of the work is expected to be done by prisoners at 50 cents an hour.
The fence is Arizona's latest attempt to force a debate on whether the federal government is doing enough to stop illegal immigration. Key provisions of the state's contentious immigration bill were suspended by a judge, and Gov. Jan Brewer is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court to get them reinstated. Brewer also signed the fencing bill.
Critics of the private fence plan say the idea is a misguided, piecemeal approach to border issues that will prove to be ineffective and hugely expensive. They point to the billions of dollars spent by the federal government to build fencing that hasn't stopped illegal immigration.
"You're going to get 50 yards of fencing, if that," says Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Democratic state senator and immigrant-rights advocate who ran for governor in 2002.
But Smith and other supporters don't care.
They say the federal government has done little to secure the border and that additional fencing will close gaps exploited by smugglers and illegal immigrants. Even if the fence isn't completed, Smith and others believe the project will send a message to Washington.
They have found support for the idea from Border Patrol agents.
"I take my hat off to them," says George McCubbin, a Border Patrol agent in Casa Grande and president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agency's union. "I don't believe it's the state's responsibility, but by them attempting this, they will continue to have this problem brought out, and hopefully someone will take notice of it."
Although he praises the effort, McCubbin thinks building more border fencing is "a waste of time."
"A fence slows down traffic. It doesn't stop it," he says. "You need to put your money in effective resources that you know will work."
He believes the federal government needs to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, increase penalties against those caught in the country illegally, cut off social services for others and put more agents at the border.
The fence project is being overseen by the 15-member Joint Border Security Advisory Committee, comprised of lawmakers, state law enforcement officials and four sheriffs, including Maricopa County's Joe Arpaio. The committee meets once a month and will decide when and where to put up the new fencing and what construction firms win bids.
Wherever they put it private, state, or federal land they will need to get approval.
Smith is confident the state will comply, so he's focusing his efforts on private landowners. It isn't clear if the federal government will allow the fence on land it manages.
"In light of their doing nothing, I would hope they wouldn't want to deter a state from protecting its own border," he says.
The project's first priority is to build fences at busy border-crossing points. Other plans include constructing fences along the 80 miles of border where none currently exist.
The law also allows Arizona to enter an agreement with California, New Mexico and Texas to build fencing in those states, although there's no immediate plan to do that.
Fencing currently covers about 650 miles, or one-third, of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Nearly half sits in Arizona the busiest gateway for both illegal immigrants and marijuana with the rest equally divided among California, New Mexico and Texas.
Existing border fencing varies in quality from simple barbed wire or vehicle barriers to carefully engineered, 18- to 30-foot-high fences.
On top of $2.5 billion spent by the federal government to build the fence, a government report projects it will cost another $6.5 billion over the next 20 years to maintain.
Smugglers often circumvent the barriers by cutting or driving through them, climbing over them, launching drugs with catapults over them, or digging tunnels under them. In the last week alone, two drug tunnels were found in Nogales in southeastern Arizona.
Despite the relatively low amount of money raised so far, Smith says work will begin sometime next year. One company has pledged to donate materials for a mile or two, another has promised to sell supplies at a discontinued rate, and some construction firms say they'll contribute free labor.
"Something will be in the ground by 2012," he says.