As President Obama convenes his first major White House meeting Thursday to talk about immigration, it’s worth turning your eyes to Texas. That’s where the final 40 miles of the U.S.-Mexico Border Fence, the object of much controversy three years ago, are being constructed. I went to Texas not long ago to see how the fence was working and what clues it offered for what figures to be one of the fiercest political debates in the Obama presidency.
The fence certainly looked impenetrable—that is, until I took a couple steps to the east, where it ended abruptly.
Two things stand out about the border fence. First, after two years of construction, no one has any idea whether it’s a success. And, in an ironic twist, it’s the Democrats, rather than pro-fence Republicans, who now have an incentive to call it one.
Obama’s White House immigration meeting is a mysterious affair. “I don’t know what to expect, exactly,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California who was planning to attend.
There is no public guest list; the veil of secrecy reflects just how delicately Obama is approaching comprehensive immigration reform. To this point, his position, like that of many Democrats, has been “security first”—keep out new undocumented immigrants and then try to create a path to citizenship for the 12 million already in the country.
As I saw in Texas, “security” is harder to pull off than it sounds. The border fence is not a contiguous fence that spans the 1,952-mile U.S.-Mexican border but a 670-mile partial barrier of varying heights, shapes, and materials. As you drive through the South Texas floodplain, you can see the fence rising up to cordon off small towns like Hidalgo and Granjeno, and then disappearing for miles before rising again.
I drove out to a section of the fence south of Donna, Texas, with an anti-fence activist named Scott Nicol. By Texas standards, it wasn’t an unreasonably hot day. We turned south off a farm-to-market road, drove down a dirt path past a sorghum field, and there was the fence, dramatically rising out of the earth. It was picket-style, made of rusted iron bars a few inches apart. It was 18 feet high. Placed next to the crops and tractors, it looked like the Department of Homeland Security had erected an audacious modern art installation.
“It’s like Christo working with an Eastern Bloc budget,” Mark Clark, a Brownsville art gallery owner, had told me.
The fence certainly looked impenetrable—that is, until I took a couple steps to the east, where it ended abruptly. There was nothing there for several hundred feet except a dirt road and irrigation ditch, plenty of room for an immigrant to sneak through. Or the enterprising immigrant could turn west and walk nine-tenths of a mile, where the fence stopped again. Past the western edge of the fence, there was a gap measuring 15 or 20 miles.
These gaps are by design. The Border Patrol hopes that partial fencing will direct immigrants into the gaps, where they can be apprehended more easily. Nicol and I had parked our SUVs at the fence’s eastern gap. We stood around for 45 minutes, taking pictures and looking like the world’s most hapless coyotes. We didn’t see a single Border Patrol agent.
Feeling emboldened, we got into our SUVs and drove right past the fence, going south, as if we were sneaking into Mexico. We were behind the fence for 20 more minutes. No one bothered us there, either.
As it turns out, this was one of the more uncreative ways to penetrate the border fence. Rick Cardoza, who operates a general store in nearby Granjeno, Texas, describes a scheme in which immigrants appropriated the forklift of the contractor building the fence and used it like an elevator. Mike Perez, the city manager of McAllen, Texas, was crossing the Hidalgo International Bridge not long ago when he saw several immigrants form a human ladder, like circus acrobats. Those lacking in fence-scaling athleticism, Perez notes, “just go around it.”
These, of course, are anecdotal examples, but anecdotes are all Congress has to go on for now. The big problem with the border fence is that there’s no mathematical way to tell if it’s working. In the last year, the number of undocumented Mexicans entering the United States has fallen between 35 percent and 45 percent. But analysts say this has mostly to do with the putrid state of the American economy—there’s no work here, so fewer people are inclined to come at all. (Immigration also plummeted during the 2001 recession.) The fence’s real test comes when the economy recovers and immigrants once again approach the border.
Even fence proponents like Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, say it’s much too early to judge how many people the fence is keeping out. “We certainly don’t know now,” he told me, “and it’s going to be a long time before we can venture estimates.”
Back in Washington, D.C., you might think this kind of data would lead to caution. It hasn’t. Democrats desperately want another shot at comprehensive immigration reform. To get it, they feel compelled to demonstrate that the “security first” policy has been validated—that border defenses are working. Sen. Charles Schumer recently declared, “By several measures, the border is far more secure than it has ever been.”
Lofgren, who voted against the Secure Fence Act in 2006, echoes that idea. “The number of unlawful entries is dropping tremendously,” she told me. “People say it’s the economy, but professionals believe it is strongly related to how difficult it now is to make an unlawful entry.”
This topsy-turvy portfolio has been plopped onto the desk of President Obama, whose political capital is already being siphoned away by the stimulus, health care, and other legislative priorities. Obama declared last Friday that he supports comprehensive immigration reform. By that afternoon, his press secretary had admitted he didn’t have the votes.
Thursday’s much-anticipated White House meeting was slated to be a feeling-out period for attendees like Lofgren, who were curious about where Obama would come down. “The most helpful thing for me to hear from the president directly is the scope of his planning and what timetable he has in mind,” she said.
Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast.