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Joe Guzzardi Why Gov. Rick Perry is wrong about a border fence

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Joe Guzzardi

Posted: Saturday, October 1, 2011 12:00 am

Rick Perry can't get out of his own way. During the presidential debates, he has reviled three immigration issues that Republicans hold dear: passing mandatory E-Verify legislation, rejecting federal and state versions of the DREAM Act, and building a border fence.

About E-Verify, Perry foolishly claims that it would not make "a hill of beans" worth of difference. Regarding the DREAM Act, Perry said that those who disagree with his decision to enact it in 2001 "don't have a heart." As for the border fence, Perry insists that it is "idiocy" to build it.

The debates represented Perry's chance to moderate his immigration rhetoric, more in line with liberal Democrats than restrictionist Republicans, and reach out to skeptical conservatives. Instead, by performing his difficult-to-achieve hat trick, Perry has turned off most of the GOP and has dropped from the top of the candidates' list to also-ran status.

Even John McCain, who during his 25-year Congressional career advocated for every Hispanic cause presented to him, realized during his 2008 campaign a fence's importance — symbolically, if nothing else. McCain, exasperated, finally said: "I'll build the G.D. fence." If candidate McCain can support a fence, then Perry can also. But it's too late for Perry now.

For decades, the thought that the federal government would construct a fence along the United States' shared border with Mexico has been dismissed as impractical or offensive to our southern neighbor. Before an intelligent discussion about how useful a fence might be in slowing down illegal immigration, doubters spout off a barrage of silly statements. Try one this one from Perry on for size: "If you build a 30-foot wall from El Paso to Brownsville, the 35-foot ladder business gets real good."

The most often repeated argument against a fence is that building it would be too expensive. But no critic has ever analyzed what a fence would cost versus the billions saved by not having to provide social services to millions of illegal immigrants. And no one ever did the math related to building a fence or weighed the construction's total expense against other federal budget line items.

Edwin S. Rubenstein, president of ESR Research who has earned economics and public finance degrees from Johns Hopkins and Columbia University, took a pencil to paper to crunch the fence numbers. Rubenstein performed his original research, still valid today, in 2006. I've adjusted his calculations for inflation.

The first question Rubenstein asked is, how is it possible that the government can build 40,000 miles of Interstate highway but not 2,000 miles of border fence? The obvious answer is that the government could easily build the fence — if it had the political will to do it.

Several years ago, 14 miles of fence was built near San Diego that cost $1.4 million per mile. The Israeli fence along the West Bank border cost about the same. Rubenstein multiplied $1.4 million by the southern border's length (1,951 miles) to arrive at $3.3 billion. Adjusted for inflation, the total becomes $3.9 billion. To emphasize what a comparatively modest project a border fence would be, Rubenstein noted that $3.9 billion is approximately 0.7 percent of the U.S. Defense Department budget.

Fencing is affordable and, as seen in San Diego, effective. Detractors insist a fence is too expensive and will never work. But the evidence contradicts them.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Contact him at

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