EL PASO, Texas -- Edmund Lozano knows the fence that winds along the Mexico-U.S. border. He built it. “We would show up in the morning and find spots where people on the other side tried to pry open the fence or cut holes in it,” said Lozano, who was paid $25 an hour in 2007 to operate a forklift and move the massive steel beams and tight wire mesh. “That tells you how determined they are to get across.”
Lozano, a 26-year-old college student and hotel bartender, considers the fence a formidable policy statement but mostly that — a symbol. “We do have to have some security, to say enough is enough. But it’s not worth spending more money on. Let’s move on to other immigration issues.”
A precipitous buildup along the border has made it tougher than ever to get into the United States. Yet as lawmakers in Washington begin to tackle immigration reform, the debate hinges on a familiar, charged question:
Is the border secure enough?
Republicans insist comprehensive reform cannot start until the border is fully secure and call for the personnel, infrastructure and technology to “prevent, detect and apprehend every unauthorized entrant.”
President Barack Obama says the border has never been safer. The number of patrol agents has doubled since 2004, and they are armed with sophisticated equipment like body heat-sensing cameras. Helicopters and drones watch from above. Arrests have fallen to the lowest levels in decades. Tens of billions have been spent.
Along the border, as in Washington, there is little agreement over what security looks like, how effective it has been, if more is needed and if so, at what cost to the federal budget or to generations-old bonds between communities now on opposite sides of a war over people and drugs.
“The fence breaks my heart. It reminds me of East and West Berlin,” said Susan Phillips, 64, eating at L & J Cafe, a cozy El Paso dive whose cheap, tasty tacos and chili rellenos draw bikers and families alike. “If somebody wants to get here, they’re going to get here. It doesn’t matter if there are fences or drones. How much more can we do?”
Head west into New Mexico and Arizona, through rural outposts where people sleep with rifles next to their beds for fear of drug smugglers, and the question of border security becomes intensely personal. Tensions rise and opinions differ.
The white SUV climbed a dirt road through a landfill and rested on a plateau. To the left lay the city of El Paso, to the right, Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez. Splitting the middle: an 18-foot steel fence, its rusty patina adding a measure of heft. Concrete shoots 10 feet into the ground so people can’t dig under.
“It’s not made to stop people,” U.S. Border Patrol agent Lorena Apodaca said. “This is just to slow people down.”
They throw up ladders, use ropes or simply climb over. On a bridge connecting the cities, border crossers rappel down ropes, garden hoses, whatever works. Two years ago authorities were shocked to find a tunnel under the Rio Grande that an exceptionally skinny teenager crawled through, dragging sacks of drugs.
“One thing we’ve learned as agents is not to underestimate the ingenuity of the Mexican smuggler,” said Apodaca’s partner, Vennesa Martinez.