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A Costly US-Mexico Border Wall, in Both Dollars and Deaths

by Robin Emmott

Securing the United States's border from illegal immigrants, terrorists and weapons of mass destruction "continues to be a major challenge," says the United States Government Accountability Office in a new report. It is also proving to be expensive in both lives and money.

Immigrants hide from a border patrol vehicle while waiting a chance to cross into the United States at the border fence on the outskirts of the Tijuana September 19, 2009. Mexico's violent drug gangs are increasingly kidnapping illegal migrants for ransom and forcing them to carry narcotics into the United States as they muscle into the lucrative trade of smuggling people across the border. Picture taken September 19, 2009. (REUTERS/Jorge Duenes) In dollar terms, the outlay is substantial. Every time someone breaks a hole in the U.S.-Mexico border wall, it costs about $1,300 to repair. The estimated cost of maintaining the 661-mile (1,058 km) double-layered fence along part of its 2,000-mile (3,000 km) border with Mexico over the next 20 years is $6.5 billion, the GAO report says. 

That is on top of the $3.7 billion allocated to the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Border Initiative since 2005 to build a system of fencing, lighting, sensors, cameras and radars to keep out job-hungry immigrants, terrorists and smugglers.

While border agents say the wall is a tool that helps them protect the United States, the GAO report found that U.S. Customs and Border Protection cannot accurately determine the fence's impact on improving border security, suggesting the money might not be well spent.

"What a waste in resources and creativity ," said Jorge Mario Cabrera Valladares of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). "Our tax dollars are being wasted on an ineffective, old strategy instead of urgently working on serious, long term, workable immigration reform," he said.

Since the attacks on New York and Washington of Sept. 11, 2001, political pressure for tighter border controls has grown sharply and supporters of the border wall argue it is effective in keeping unwanted foreigners out.

But some border experts say the wall does not stop those trying to get into the United States and only makes it more dangerous, greatly raising the fees charged by people smugglers who charge up to $2 billion every year in Arizona alone. 

Some 5,600 people have died trying to cross into the United States since the U.S. government under President Bill Clinton dramatically increased border security in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper and the first stretch of fence between San Diego and Tijuana.

That is according to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH), based on Mexico's foreign ministry and media reports, who say the death of migrants is an international humanitarian crisis.

Before the stepped-up enforcement operations, experts say most deaths were due to traffic accidents as migrants dashed across freeways in border areas. Today, most die from hypothermia in the desert or by drowning in the Rio Grande and irrigation canals.

The U.S. Border Patrol's body count for border crossers this year points to the continued dangers. While the U.S. recession has caused a sharp drop in arrests on the borderline,  Customs and Border Protection has reported 416 deaths so far in 2009. That compares with 390 last year and 398 in 2007.

U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to push comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but the issue has little lawmaker support as Americans lose jobs in the recession.

(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor)

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