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Marco Werman: Many European nations are overwhelmed by the thousands of people who are trying to cross their borders, but only Hungary has responded by building a long border fence with razor wire to try and block the migrants. Sounds familiar, because yeah, we’ve got our border barriers too, notably along the border with Mexico. And there’s the push, mostly from Republican candidates, to expand those barriers. We’ll hear a lot more about this ahead of the 2016 presidential election. For a reality check now, The World’s Monica Campbell joins me from Mexico City. She’s been speaking with people who’ve long studied the border about just what a bigger, longer wall would do.
Monica Campbell: The border runs about 2,000 miles, and right now about one-third of it is walled or fenced off, so about 650 miles, and what we’ve seen is that buildup has been post-9/11. What we’ve also seen is a huge buildup of border patrol agents. From 2004, we had about 10,000 border patrol agents. Right now, we have about 21,000. So, the border is the most secure it’s ever been.
Werman: The people you’ve spoken with, Monica, they say expansion of this fence, this wall, just is not practical.
Campbell: When you talk to people who really know the border and who’ve been studying it for years, the consensus is air-tight on this, that it’s just an incredibly costly and practically impossible mission. And I talked to Michael Dear about this, he’s a professor at UC-Berkeley and he’s just come out with a book about the border. And here’s what he said about the actual land along the border.
Michael Dear: The terrain, in large numbers of places, is simply impassable. You cannot climb it unless you are some skilled mountaineer.
Werman: And so his point is that you actually don’t need a wall in a lot of places?
Campbell: It’s actually that it would be almost impossible to build a wall in a lot of places. For example, he was referring specifically to the rugged desert terrain that you see in a lot of Arizona/ And if you’ve been to Arizona, you know, you see it’s like craggy peaks, some of the steepest parts of the United States. And there have been attempts, and specifically under George W. Bush, to build sort of virtual walls along this incredibly craggy part of the desert. President Barack Obama scrapped that when this idea of building a virtual fence along these really rugged areas was just reaching into the billions of dollars.
Werman: As you just pointed out with the Bush and Obama plan for the wall, those border wall proposals are coming out of Washington, or as we see now, from Republican candidates like Donald Trump. When you’re along the border though, how do people there feel?
Campbell: When you’re along the border and you actually talk to people who live there, you see how close to home this hits. So, what you’ll often hear is, for example, politicians in Texas will say, you know, “This is a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.” And a lot of people feel that way on the border because they see the human toll, they see the split families. And I had talked about this with one writer in Brownsville, Texas--Cecilia Balli, she’s a journalist and writer. And she talked about how people on the border, they really speak about the fence differently and how it cuts across communities there.
Cecilia Balli: What we saw in south Texas and the people in the rest of the country didn’t see, is that the opposition to the fence was across parties: it was Democrats and Republicans, it was Anglo residents and Mexican-American residents, poor and wealthy.
Werman: Yeah, I get what she’s saying, Monica. But what about the people who say, “Look at the news coming out of Mexico--the violence, the murders, the mass graves. We need to protect the US border as much as possible.” How much do you hear that?
Campbell: People who live along the border are just as concerned about what’s happening in Mexico. But I also think that they know that the violence that’s happening in Mexico is very much happening within Mexico. You don’t have spillover violence from cartels; the cartels are fighting for smuggling routes within Mexico, they don’t really have any incentive to take their violence across the border.
Werman: So, it kind of sounds like it’s unlikely that we’re going to see a 2,000-mile-long non-porous fence or wall along the US-Mexico border. But Monica, what is next?
Campbell: Some people who actually really looked at this closely say that eventually walls do come down, and what we’ll actually move more toward is the monitoring of the border in a more high-tech, electronic, and perhaps biometric sense, more along the lines of what we see at airports, which comes with it its whole other set of problems. I think that that’s what we’ll be moving toward. But in the immediate future, I think we’ll be hearing this conversation again and again. We’ll see when eventually we’ll start to talk about things in a way that reflects more reality on the ground.
Werman: The World’s Monica Campbell speaking with me from Mexico City. Monica, always a pleasure. Thank you.
Campbell: Thanks, Marco.
Werman: One of the people Monica spoke with shared her photos from the border and the many ways to spot the fence. You can see writer Cecilia Balli’s pictures at PRI.org.