NOGALES, Ariz. —The fence rises from the rock and hardscrabble of the desert floor, a formidable 15-foot-high curtain of corrugated metal that stretches into the mirage of heat and distance. Newer sections feature 20-foot-high steel columns, deeply planted, narrowly spaced, so no human slips between.
The start-and-stop span — 646 miles long — has become a fierce dispute, a bumper sticker, a popular backdrop for campaign commercials during an election year with another sulfurous immigration debate.
The best known TV spot features Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain kicking along a dusty road in this hilly border city, fuming to his companion, the Pinal County sheriff, about drugs and immigrant smugglers and kidnappings. Wearing his Navy baseball cap and squinting into the sun, McCain could be rounding the corner to the gunfight at the OK Corral.
"Complete the danged fence," he spits, his jaw drawing into a knot.
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The government has spent $2.4 billion since 2005 to build the fence as it presently stands. And the prevailing political sentiment would appear to be, build it faster and higher.
But what McCain and other politicians often fail to point out is there's no shortage of ways to get past the fence. Immigrants scale it with ladders. Smugglers use blowtorches and hacksaws to penetrate it. They use trucks with retractable vehicle ramps to roll pickups full of marijuana over the fence. They knock down vehicle barriers and erect lookalikes that are made out of cardboard and easy to move.
When backed up by border agents and surveillance technology, the fence can help reduce immigrant traffic or redirect it to other locales. But even some advocates for tougher enforcement say it's unclear whether the fence cuts the overall number of illegal crossings.
"The whole point of the fence is to work in concert with other things, but, by itself, you can't expect it to be the end-all and be-all," said Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for strict immigration laws.
Fence isn't enough
An estimated 45 percent of America's 12 million illegal immigrants came here legally on various visas or border crossing cards and remained after their legal stays expired. The fence couldn't have stopped that. And the fence doesn't directly confront employers who fuel illicit crossings by hiring illegal immigrants.
Even so, at least one candidate in nearly all of Arizona's top political races, including McCain's, touts the fence as essential, or uses images of the barrier in campaign materials.
The fence covers about 30 percent of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, about one-third the length of the Great Wall of China. Nearly half of the fence sits in Arizona, the busiest gateway for illegal immigrants and marijuana, with the rest equally divided in California, New Mexico and Texas. The government plans to build 6 more miles of fence by year's end.
The Border Patrol declined to say how many times it has recorded fence breaches, but a government audit released last year reported thousands. Each breach costs an average of $1,300 to repair. On top of the price tag for building the fence, it will cost another $6.5 billion over the next 20 years to maintain it and related equipment.
President Obama on Tuesday promised to send 1,200 Guard troops to the border to support efforts to block drug trafficking and temporarily supplement Border Patrol agents until more agents can be trained. McCain says more are needed — he tried unsuccessfully Thursday to get 6,000 more troops — arguing that the security situation along the border has deteriorated so badly that 3,000 guard troops are needed just to help protect his state.