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The most expensive fence in the U.S.

As my husband is training for the Border Patrol right now (the reason: steady job and good government benefits in a bad economy) and we'll be moving to West Texas at the end of the year, I took particular interest in this just-released report from the Government Accounting Office about the cost of border security. Its findings aren't just relevant to Border Patrol staff and their spouses, it should interest every taxpayer.

In a nutshell, it will cost $6.5 billion over the next 20 years to maintain the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. However, despite the fact that $2.4 billion has already been spent to build 633 miles of fence along the southwest border, there's no way to evaluate cost-wise whether the fence has helped to control the flow of illegal immigrants.

The GAO noted two big problems with the fence. One is that people are still getting over, under and through it. As of May 14, there have been 3,363 breaches in the fence, and each one costs around $1,300 to repair. That's $4.3 million in repairs. Another is that the new technology being installed to work on the border (sensors, radars and cameras) has either been delayed or doesn't work. (Aircraft maker Boeing has the contract for that and will be paid $1.1 billion for it). That means border agents still uses old equipment that breaks down. Until all that new technology is up and running, there's no way to know whether it works or whether it's cost effective.

However, the GAO stated that apprehensions along the southwest border, except around San Diego, were on the decline in 2006 and 2007, before the fencing was started. In Tuscon, the rate of illegal aliens getting across the border declined by 16%. In Yuma, it dropped by 72%. That could be chalked up to people not trying to cross because there were fewer jobs to find in a slumping economy, but the Border Patrol stated that more help from the National Guard and less "catch and release" arrests also helped out.

So the underlying message here: Is a pricey fence really the best method for keeping illegal immigration under control?

Regardless of your opinions about illegal aliens and immigration policy, you should give a thought to whether $6.5 billion to patch up fencing that will probably be ripped open again is the best way to go. With U.S. schools, transportation systems and job markets going down the tubes, couldn't that money be better spent on people living on this side of the border?

Growing up in California's Central Valley in the 1980s, I remember when there was no fence -- farmworkers came up for the growing seasons, did their work in the fields, got paid, then went back home to resume their lives with their families. When Border Patrol efforts were boosted and a "invisible fence" was established, they either had to stay or go. Because the jobs were here, they decided to stay -- and many had their families come up too, as there was no more easy going back and forth. That's been a suck on many states' social welfare programs. But when it comes to earning a living and feeding your kids, a wire fence is just a minor obstacle to get past -- literally.

President Obama has said he has to handle healthcare reform before he tackles immigration, but his Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, said this week that groundwork is already being laid out for an immigration reform bill. So this GAO report is being scrutinized carefully by the Obama Administration, and it will be interesting what Obama will say about the fence when he finally addresses immigration. Probably not "Tear down this wall," as he said earlier this year he will continue to fund its construction, 700 miles in total. But when it costs us $3.9 million per mile to build, and that money goes straight to Boeing and its subcontractors, it just makes you wonder whether that's a good investment, especially in a slumping economy -- which seems to be doing a better job in keeping illegal immigration down than any kind of fence.

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