Ironic but truthfully when we talking about to secure our borders and ports. Why isn't somebody fencing in Miami, Florida, San Diego Beaches, where is the fence at Malibu beach, Long Beach, Ca. Port, Oakland,Ca port? The real terrorist they caught was coming out of Canada with his trunk full of bombs.
The Border Patrol agent was a 30-year veteran. He walked me across a patch of desolation to the Mexican border. There was no border fence there yet. Just Arizona desert, a dusty dry creekbed, and Mexican desert beyond, indistinguishable from the United States.
If you want to hear philosophical reflections from an agent, you have to talk to old-timers. The hundreds of new Homeland Security-era officers who have flooded the border are extremely well trained - the Border Patrol academy is a monster among law enforcement training programs - and they are certainly gung-ho. But the old guys will tell you the new ones don't know the territory very well. There are fine points it might take 30 years to learn.
"My dad was a rancher," the veteran agent said. "I'm a rancher. I come out here and you know who I chase? Ranch hands and farmers." He wiped his brow, toed some possibly Mexican dirt. "Buddy, I am chasing my own people."
This hotly contested stretch of sand and cinders stands to become a beneficiary of the $1.2 billion border fence that will seal off the southern American border. Well, it will seal off part of it. OK - it will seal off small areas of the border. Just east of where we stood, for example, the fence will stop. There are big scary mountains in place that will be included in the plan as natural immigration barriers. These are the same mountains over which many of the undocumented are already walking to avoid the good men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol.
But, the thinking goes, we have to start somewhere. On the Mexican side, among much gnashing of teeth, there is a joke that has been circulating the whole time. The gist of it is: Let them put up a fence! They'll hire us to build it! Then, when it's done, we'll run the tourist concessions and the taco stands. Then, when they get tired of it, they'll hire us to tear it down!
What are you getting for your 1 billion tax dollars? Well, you're getting a little less than 700 miles of fence. Much of it double-fencing, but substantial segments to be single-fence. That's the kind of security that has so successfully kept kids out of closed softball fields and skinny-dippers from midnight visits to neighborhood swimming pools.
Al Qaeda will weep with frustration when they encounter it and just go home.
Critics like to point out that the plan had originally called for triple-fencing, but somehow the folks who brought us Katrina relief can't manage that on a budget.
Critics also seem to enjoy reminding us that the border is 2,000 miles long. Of course, that would be as the crow flies. If you ironed out the Southwest, spread its many mountains (Homeland Security Immigration Barriers) flat, then pulled the squiggles and turns of the Rio Grande straight, how long would it really be? Buddy, that's a lot of fence for them ranchers to ride.
What is a border? According to Webster's, it is a margin. If one were to look at the margins of the United States, 700 miles of rockin' chain-link might not seem like enough. Although it's macho - it lends the desert a sense of WWF Steel Cage Death Match - a glance at the Canadian border suggests that it's even less secure than we hope. That same Border Patrol veteran pointed out to me that the one real terrorist they caught was coming out of Canada with his trunk full of bombs. And, of course, those 9/11 bastards were "legal aliens."
However, if we keep staring at the map with Zen clarity, a new revelation offers itself. I'll warn you, it takes work. But we suddenly see there is another border of the United States. It's called a coastline. Talk about unprotected. Why isn't somebody fencing in Miami? They hate us for our thongs, people. Where is the fence at Malibu?
Of course, terrorism is only part of the paradigm - it's illegal immigration, stupid.
California has long struggled with remaining a good neighbor while bringing the hammer down. It might have rankled to read the insensitive Mexican jokes about the border fence, but the Golden State Fence Company actually did hire "illegals" to build border fences in San Diego. Not only that, of course, but they seem to have used the undocumented to build fences at military bases, immigration jails and Border Patrol stations. They were fined $5 million in 2006; if you think about it, when you combine the cost-cutting involved in the illegal workforce and the hefty fine, the actual cost of the border fence might have shrunk by several percentage points. Voters and columnists might express outrage, but federal border agents are realists and ironists - they shake their heads and laugh. They know a snafu when they see it.
It's one thing to fence off a few miles of California or Arizona. It is quite another to try to fence off the meandering bed of the mighty Rio Grande in Texas. Somehow, much of the border has remained, for all its media and political notoriety, invisible. Nothing reveals this more than the Rio Grande. (Or, as those darned Mexicans call it, El Rio Bravo - the untamed or brave river.) One of the most interesting border books to appear in recent days is Keith Bowden's "The Tecate Journals." He somewhat maniacally canoes the entire length of the river. The book shows a major American riverine ecosystem that remains ignored and reviled - perhaps because it is also the border barrier of record. Beavers and deer - who knew?
Strangely, a coalition of Texas mayors came up with a proposal to strengthen the border while avoiding the fence. They suggested that the river itself be dredged and deepened and widened. The natural demarcation line between our nations, in other words, could be revived and cleaned up to do its ancient work. Fences? We don't need no stinkin' fences! A plan due to fail.
The problem in Texas is simple - 180 miles of proposed fence must follow the river, but not get too close to the river, because the river itself is the classic illegal alien and will change course, wiggle under fences, even erode banks and topple fences and open big gaps. Obviously, Mexico will stop at nothing - if an old truck won't bust the fence, they'll send a river. So the fence must, at certain points, be built up to a mile from the banks of the river.
Unfortunately, landowners (ranchers and farmers again) have lived on this land for hundreds of years. Some farm plots along the river have been in the same families since 1767. Mexicans were living there eating frijoles before American revolutionaries ate baked beans at the signing of the Constitution? That's awkward.
Although it is true that everyone ought to be willing to suffer for the security of the nation, in Brownsville, the fence line has cut off a section of the college's soccer field and given it back to Mexico. Gen. Santa Anna is rising from his grave, rubbing his hands in glee: He's actually getting back some of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The Chicago Tribune quoted the mayor of Brownsville on Jan. 16: "To appease people in middle America, they are going to kill our communities along the border. The rest of America has no idea how we live our lives here. We are linked by the Rio Grande, not divided by it." Linked? By a border? Not divided? What a concept.
If Americans want security, then they should get real security. If you really want a border fence, build a real border fence. I have some nephews in Tijuana who need work. But please, Mr. Chertoff - fence off Cannery Row while you still can.
Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of "The Devil's Highway" and "The Hummingbird's Daughter." He teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His blog is http://lavistaluisurrea. blogspot.com