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The Phantom Triple Fence: Fact Check

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer hailed the success of triple fencing at the San Diego-Mexico border.

 

Image: FALSEStatement: “The two border sections with triple fencing outside San Diego reduced infiltration by 92 percent,” Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in an April 4 column.

Determination: False

Analysis: Washington is trying out immigration reform again and border security looms large in that conversation.

Conservative commentators, including Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, have called on the Obama administration to build additional fencing along the United States border with Mexico. Krauthammer singled out San Diego in three recent columns. (You can check them out here, here and here.)

In each case, Krauthammer referred to San Diego’s “triple fence” as an enforcement measure that, if expanded, could reduce illegal crossings into all southern states.

“The objective is to reduce a river to a trickle. It’s doable,” Krauthammer wrote in an April 4 column. “The two border sections with triple fencing outside San Diego reduced infiltration by 92 percent.”

But the average person crossing the border will only notice two fences, so we decided to vet Krauthammer’s statements.

Rodney Scott, the deputy chief patrol agent in the San Diego sector, took us for a ride-along to see the border infrastructure up close and provided a history lesson.

We learned the triple fence isn’t a reality along the majority of San Diego’s border with Mexico. And in the few spots with more than two fences, the extra fencing was erected largely to denote land ownership or to accommodate a curve in the river bend — not as amplified security.

For years, the border fence consisted of nothing more than steel cables and wooden pillars. In those years, Scott said, migrants often rushed the border in large groups and many escaped.

“There was effectively no border fence whatsoever,” Scott said. “It was basically a drive-through border.”

That changed in the early 1990s when the Army Corps of Engineers built a 10-foot primary fence out of surplus steel landing mats.

Here’s what that fence looks like:

Photo by Sam Hodgson

 

This fencing didn’t dissuade crossers willing to climb over it but it did complicate matters for those who had simply driven across the border in the past, Scott said.

After that fence went up, Border Patrol beefed up staffing for Operation Gatekeeper, a controversial enforcement program that focused on deterring crossers rather than simply catching them.

Around the same time, the federal government asked New Mexico-based Sandia National Laboratories to assess the nation’s border infrastructure and recommend improvements.

Here’s the model the security firm suggested in its 1993 report:

Image courtesy of U.S. General Accounting Office

 

The company said the triple-fencing model would be beneficial in urban areas along San Diego’s border with Tijuana, where migrants can quickly cross and blend in with residents.

In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton signed the blockbuster Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

The hefty legislation included some requirements for San Diego. It called for a triple-layered barrier in a roughly 13-mile stretch from the Pacific Ocean to Otay Mountain, the steepest peak in the San Ysidro Mountains.

Construction began on what is known as the secondary fencing that same year.

Workers built 15-foot steel mesh fencing that’s since been topped with razor wire. They left space in between the two fences for a road for Border Patrol vehicles, lighting and cameras that monitor activity near the fences.

Here’s how that looks in an area close to the Otay Mesa border crossing:

Photo by Sam Hodgson

 

About a decade later, former Rep. Duncan Hunter of Alpine championed the expansion of increased border fencing along about 700 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico. Not all of that fencing has gone up, thus stirring some more recent debate.

But the secondary fencing isn’t entirely foolproof.

Scott said smugglers cut through the fence with axes or battery-operated saws, and then return with would-be crossers.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

 

The fences don’t stop determined crossers but they do slow them down and give Border Patrol agents a better chance of catching them, he said.

In a few spots near San Ysidro, one of the world’s busiest land-border crossings, Border Patrol has added another layer to the secondary fence to stave off vandals.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

 

But on a recent ride-along, Border Patrol agents could only show us one spot with more than two fences: a roughly one-mile stretch along Tijuana River Valley.

Image courtesy of Google Maps

 

Look closely and you’ll actually see four fences. One ends abruptly.

You can’t see it in the photo but a simple yellow line delineates the U.S.-Mexico border in the middle of the river valley. A Border Patrol agent keeps constant watch over the area. (For a more detailed view, check out this satellite image.)

Here’s what that area looks like up close.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

 

This configuration is the exception rather than the rule.

Border Patrol officials say that area wound up with four fences because a curve in the Tijuana River Valley places the U.S.-Mexico border at an awkward angle — it’s not there to quadruple security. They opted to put up extra fencing to deal with the odd configuration.

The layout of the river valley made it unreasonable to lay a primary fence, said Pete Vasquez, the San Diego sector’s assistant chief patrol agent.

There are a few other spots with multiple fences, including an area near the infamous Smuggler’s Gulch, where chain link fences mark the intersection of federal, state and local land.

But that fencing too is the exception and not the norm, contradicting Krauthammer’s claim about triple fencing in San Diego.

“The model isn’t triple fencing,” Scott said. “The model is what’s the right combination in the right place.”

A Border Patrol spokesman said agency officials worked closely with other federal authorities to outline requirements for fencing projects.

In the end, the agency opted out of the triple-fencing Krauthammer mentioned.

Even one of the San Diego fence’s chief proponents disputes Krauthammer’s claim of triple fencing.

Retired Rep. Hunter, who made national headlines for his crusade for increased border infrastructure, also admitted that triple fencing never really came to fruition in a 2008 “Frontline” interview:

“It’s a double fence. When we first wrote the bill that mandated the border fence, it was a triple fence. But the two layers were so successful — that’s two fences with a road in between — that we never had to build the third layer.”

For that reason, we’re labeling that portion of Krauthammer’s claim false. Past legislation called for triple fencing along the San Diego-Tijuana border but the majority of the border is only blocked by two fences.

So what about the 92 percent drop in “infiltration” in two border sections that Krauthammer said came as a result of triple fencing?

Krauthammer’s research assistant said the columnist relied on data from two reports by the Congressional Research Service, including a 2006 paper that included apprehension figures for San Diego.

Apprehension statistics are the most frequently used to measure the Border Patrol’s success though, as the report notes, those numbers don’t incorporate the number of migrants who managed to avoid capture.

The 2006 report details a 92 percent drop in apprehensions in the Border Patrol’s Imperial Beach section from fiscal year 1992 to 1998. Indeed, officers working out of the station recorded more than 200,000 captures in 1992 and just under 16,000 in 1998.

The decrease in captures was less dramatic at the other station highlighted in the report, and in Krauthammer’s column. The Chula Vista station saw only a 54 percent drop from 1992 to 1998 despite Krauthammer’s contention that triple fencing reduced infiltration by 92 percent in two sections of the border. He also earns a false rating on that point.

It’s worth noting the same report cited a 95 percent drop in apprehensions in the Imperial Beach section from 1992 to 2004, and a 94 percent drop in the Chula Vista section during the same period.

Those are certainly significant reductions but Border Patrol officials are skeptical that the San Diego’s increased fencing was the only reason for them.

The decrease in apprehensions coincided with a significant hike in Border Patrol staffing and increased enforcement due to Operation Gatekeeper. Border Patrol officials suspect the economic downturn has also discouraged migrants in more recent years.

Krauthammer didn’t mention those factors.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.

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