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From a distance, as it hugs the hilly terrain, the fence looks almost decorative — a rambling, rust-colored abstraction. A thin ribbon of road runs alongside, its sandy surface kept impressively smooth by the U.S. Border Patrol, who drag it with old car tires twice a day, the better to spot telltale footprints. The road winds in and out of sight, deserted except for an occasional figure on horseback, usually a sunburned tourist from the adjacent dude ranch, relishing the Western-style emptiness.

Closer up, the fence is less abstract, more forbidding. The steel posts are eighteen feet high, separated by a few inches — too narrow a gap for people to squeeze through, but more than adequate for a segmented view of Mexico on the other side. Retreating from the barrier and crossing the road, you encounter the survivalist plant life of the Sonoran Desert: low scrub, the nervous scribblings of ocotillo, the squat barrel cacti leaning south. And as you head back up into the hills, you find other, more disquieting signs of life. There are dusty scraps of clothing and the occasional food wrapper. When I visited the area earlier this year, I saw several empty water bottles, some of them caked in black paint, presumably to avoid reflecting the strong sunlight. Worst of all: a child’s backpack, whose former owner had either made it up to Arizona State Route 86 and safe harbor in Tucson or been arrested along the way.

If I had followed the fence east for a mile or so, I would have reached Sasabe, a flyspeck town that once straddled the border. When the fence bisected the community, in 2007, eliminating easy and informal traffic, the American portion swiftly shriveled to little more than a general store with a single gas pump and a forlorn cow wandering near the ice machine. Just down the road is the Sasabe Port of Entry, which only completes the impression of sleepiness — it is the least-trafficked crossing on the entire U.S.-Mexico border, where Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers used to barbecue on the front deck just to break up the boredom.

And yet Sasabe is in the middle of Arizona’s Tucson Sector, a 262-mile stretch of the border that has long been the front line in the country’s illegal-immigration battle. Last year, the CBP arrested 120,939 people attempting to sneak into the United States through the Tucson Sector (considerably reduced from a high of 613,346 in 2000). The area has also functioned as a kind of border-security laboratory, in which both federal and state authorities have tested a variety of approaches to stanch the flow of people, drugs, weapons, and crime. As the detritus in the desert indicates, none of these approaches have been completely successful. And some, in their farcical level of failure, are oddly edifying. They show how incoherent our immigration policies have become — as piecemeal, in fact, as the fence itself, which comes to an abrupt end just a few hundred yards west of my desert vantage. You can walk right around it, and plenty of people do.

It was the piecemeal nature of the fence — its gap-toothed failure to enclose about two thirds of the 1,969-mile border with Mexico — that prompted a high-tech fiasco called the Secure Border Initiative Network (SBInet) back in 2005. The project came out of the Department of Homeland Security, which at the time was something of a surprise. After all, DHS had not been created to chase undocumented immigrants through the Sonoran brush or round them up in the San Diego suburbs. Tom Ridge, who first ran the department, under George W. Bush, seldom discussed immigration. In fact, the department focused most of its initial efforts on the Canadian border, where Al Qaeda had actually tried to enter the country.

But Michael Chertoff, who took over DHS in 2005, was quick to pour resources into the southern border (though he would later admit that he was unaware of a single case in which a terrorist had crept into the United States from Mexico). Chertoff soon unveiled SBInet, which he envisioned as a “virtual fence” — a network of movement sensors, radar arrays, and cameras that would detect intruders and instantly tip off Border Patrol squads. “It’s going to be a smart fence, not a stupid fence,” he promised. “A twenty-first-century fence, not a nineteenth-century fence.”

DHS soon awarded Boeing a contract to develop the technology. Like many firms dependent on highly trained immigrant employees, Boeing had earlier protested the government’s new restrictions on visas for foreign workers. But as Edward Alden notes in The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11, the aviation giant “discovered that closing borders was almost as lucrative as opening them.” At a cost of more than $1 billion, the company built a fifty-three-mile prototype along the Arizona border — choosing the Tucson Sector for the first leg of this pricey test run.

The project was bedeviled from the start. There were delays and cost overruns. When DHS deployed one of its ninety-eight-foot-tall mobile radar towers around Arivaca, a hippie-and-cowboy outpost about thirteen miles northeast of Sasabe, many locals assumed that the futuristic structure was being used to spy on them, and they sent up a communal howl. The biggest problem, though, was that the technology didn’t work. Boeing initially promised that its sensors would be able to identify 90 percent of suspicious movements along the border, a number they soon adjusted to a less-than-inspiring 49 percent. What the company didn’t anticipate was that the sensors would mistake rain or a strong gust of wind for the stealthy gait of a wage-depressing immigrant. Nor had they foreseen that CBP agents in rough terrain, who were often on horseback, would be unable to track suspects (or wind, or rain) on their laptops.

In June 2010, Mark Borkowski, executive director of the project for DHS, questioned the entire undertaking rather pointedly. “Even if it works,” he asked, “is it worth it?” By then Chertoff had passed the baton to Janet Napolitano, who seemed the ideal steward for this technocratic fantasia. During her tenure as governor of Arizona, Napolitano had expressed her disdain for the panacea of physical barriers. “You show me a fifty-foot wall,” she declared, “and I’ll show you a fifty-one-foot ladder.” Still, it was Napolitano who wearily called an end to the experiment in early 2011 and sent the bordercontrol visionaries back to the drawing board.

The very year SBInet failed, an Arizona state legislator named Steve Smith came up with a different solution. Smith, a Tea Party stalwart who had also crusaded against the federal government’s power to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions and for the right of Arizona citizens to shoot raccoons after dark, sponsored Senate Bill 1406, which provided for the construction of what was essentially a crowd-funded fence along the state’s portion of the border. The bill itself was a little vague, specifying only that Arizona would develop its “own funding mechanism to construct and maintain the border fence through private or public donations from whatever source.” But Smith made clear that Internet populism, supposedly the secret weapon of smug, hoodie-wearing Democrats, would now be unleashed on behalf of border security.

There was a clear precedent for his grassroots maneuver. Just a year before, Arizona governor Jan Brewer had signed the state’s draconian new immigration statute — you know, the one that allows police to check your papers should you be foolish enough to hum “Volver Volver” at the laundromat. The law was challenged in court, and to help pay for its defense, Brewer launched Keep Arizona Safe, which raised more than $1.6 million from online donors across the country. Surely these social-media types would dig into their pockets again.

They would have to dig deep, because border fences are expensive. A 2009 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office pegged the typical cost of one mile of pedestrian fence at $2.8 million. Ever the fiscal conservative, Smith had written a penny-pinching measure right into S.B. 1406: the fence would be built by convict labor. Even if such an arrangement cut costs in half, it would still take almost $90 million to cover the sixty-one miles of the Arizona border that are currently unfenced, and quite a bit more than that to reinforce the 183 miles of “vehicular fencing,” which usually offers little barrier to pedestrians.

The latter obstruction was just the kind a motley crew of immigrants seemed to be scrambling over in a photo on Smith’s Build the Border Fence website. “Does this look like a secure border?” visitors were asked, before being guided directly to the tip jar. Early on, Smith was confident about raising the necessary funds. Appearing on Fox Business in November 2011, he first thanked “our Lord Jesus Christ for another day of freedom and safety in the United States,” then went on to note the high “volume of drugs and illegal activity and terrorist activity” on the border. Smith, who runs a modeling and talent agency on the side, put a kind of showbiz spin on the entire enterprise:

We’ve raised several hundred thousand dollars, but here’s the great thing about this project. You know, I call this Extreme Home Makeover: Border Edition. What the GAO says we need is about three to four million dollars a mile. What the private sector says we can do it at is less than five hundred thousand dollars a mile. . . . I would love to raise an initial ten to twenty million dollars to start with. I think that could go a very, very, very long way in what we need to do, but we’re going to take it literally one mile at a time.

His confidence, however, was misplaced. Donations, which Smith claimed had flooded in from all fifty states on the very day the website launched, dried up within six months. He began to dial down expectations: instead of an imposing fifteen-foot barrier of steel bollards, the border could be secured with some more modest welded-wire fencing, especially if that fencing was donated. And a mile would do for starters, wouldn’t it?

Last December, after raising $193,617 on the Web (another $70,411.35 showed up in the mail), Smith finally gave up. The site is no longer accepting donations, and at least one fellow legislator has begun prodding him to release the cash, currently parked in a state trust fund, for some worthier purpose. That’s probably not going to happen — nor should the donors, all of whom received certificates thanking them for making the United States “safer and more secure for generations to come,” expect a refund.

Why was the crowd-funded fence such a bust? Smith, who didn’t respond to my request for an interview, has offered little in the way of explanation. One heartening possibility is that donors in Arizona and elsewhere grew sick of the saber-rattling emphasis on fence construction. According to a Gallup poll published in February, 51 percent of Americans now consider addressing the status of undocumented immigrants already in the country a more urgent priority than border security, while 46 percent of respondents took the contrary position. It’s still a narrow margin, of course — but those numbers have flipped since 2011, and could be an early indicator of a real sea change in immigration politics.

There are genuine uses for high-tech surveillance along the border — we need cameras just as we need diligent Border Patrol agents and, yes, physical barriers. But despite the alarmist blather from the likes of Tom Tancredo and Steve Smith, we are not fighting terrorism in the Tucson Sector. And the stray bits of evidence that are always marshaled on behalf of such an argument are mostly laughable — my favorite being what can only be described as an Al Qaeda varsity jacket, found on the Texas side of the border in 2004, adorned with three “terrorist” patches, one of which subsequently proved to be the logo of a fishing-gear company.

What we also need is an intelligent and humane immigration bill, a way to deal with the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants already in our midst. President Obama has repeatedly uttered the right words and blamed his xenophobic opponents in the House for gumming up meaningful reform — even as he has deported people in record numbers. And we are unlikely to hear any sane, substantive conversation from other quarters. As we approach the 2014 midterm elections, the very mention of immigration policy reduces most of our representatives to a state of shifty-eyed incoherence.

And behind it all looms the fence. Chertoff himself once ascribed a “certain kind of symbolic significance” to that endlessly interrupted structure, and despite its undoubted power to stop some interlopers some of the time, symbolism may be its ultimate value. It is no less a token of might than was Hadrian’s Wall, erected by the Romans in the second century a.d. to keep the savage Scots out of Britannia. Now a handsome wreck, it was once plastered and painted a bright white, so that its luminous progress over hill and dale might be visible for miles. Is some similarly Ozymandian ruin in store for our own fence, its steel-and-concrete bollards toppled? It’s too early to say. But terror, or more accurately the fear of it, may be our undoing. “Fearful people build walls; confident people tear them down.” That was George W. Bush, speaking just a few days before the planes hit the twin towers. Of course, a man has the right to change his mind.

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