Illegals in the Line of Fire

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Viewed from a Black Hawk helicopter 1,000 feet up, there's no sign of the Mexican border in this southwest corner of Arizona's Sonoran Desert. No line in the sand. No fence. Not even a road. Yet it's clear we are flying over a major international thoroughfare. Hundreds of shiny footpaths and tire tracks weave through the desert below, where the temperature on the ground routinely reaches 115 F in the summer. You need to drink a gallon of water an hour to survive in heat like that, and the illegal aliens and smugglers who pounded these paths into the desert had another 80 miles to go before they reached the nearest paved road. But parched terrain wasn't the only peril they faced: these tracks all head smack into a live-fire range where Marine and Air Force pilots practice hitting targets — with very real bombs.

About 95% of all American fighter pilots train here at the 2.7 million-acre Barry M. Goldwater Range, which stretches 37 miles along the U.S.-Mexican border. In recent years, as less dangerous routes into the U.S. have been closed off by fencing, cameras and beefed-up Border Patrol, more and more would-be immigrants risk crossing the live-fire zone. In 2005 alone, over 17,000 walked through the range. And that's a problem for the military. Every time an unauthorized person or vehicle is spotted on the range, training sessions are halted. In 2003, 450 training hours were lost to this kind of interference; last year the figure tripled to 1,381 hours. That leaves pilots going into combat with fewer flying hours, and it costs millions in wasted fuel and man-hours. Powerful people are taking note of this little-known price of illegal immigration. "We've had to discontinue something like 15% of the training days," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld grumbled in May.

Paul Mayberry, deputy undersecretary of defense for readiness, wants to put a stop to the losses by making it more difficult to cross at this already forbidding place. "It's like a water leak," he says, "they take the path of least resistance." But how to make that path more resistant is a matter of some debate. In many ways, the give-and-take over how to secure this essential piece of military real estate reflects two dominant theories on how to secure our border: More walls or more eyes?

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California, is a wall man; he wants to fence the southern boundary of the range. More cameras to watch the region might help, he says, but a physical barrier is essential. He hopes to replicate the success of the triple-layered fencing outside San Diego that led to a 70% drop in illegal immigration there. That's why he wrote Rumsfeld personally about fencing the range and co-sponsored the Secure Fence Act, a law on President Bush's desk that requires at least two layers of reinforced fencing to be built from Calexico, Calif. to Douglas, Ariz. — right across the bottom of the Goldwater Range.

But the Border Patrol agents who monitor this vast, remote area from a lone outpost called Camp Desert Grip are skeptical that a fence could be a practical solution here. Speaking before the Secure Fence Act was passed, Stephen Johnson, who runs the place, points out that Hunter's fence will cost at least $37 million to build and will be difficult to maintain. When the fence is cut — and it definitely will be cut, says Johnson — it would be costly to repair, given the absence of roads in the region. Walls are better suited to urban areas, where you have only seconds to stop someone coming over, say Johnson and other agents. In remote areas like the Goldwater Range, where agents have days to track down interlopers, maintaining fences seems wasteful. "People want to take what works in San Diego and apply it out here," Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar said in June. "It won't work."

Agents at Camp Desert Grip favor more eyes: cameras, sensors, ground radar, helicopters and dune buggies, so that word gets out that anyone who comes this way will be arrested. With current sensing equipment, fewer than half of the 11,000 entries detected so far this year were apprehended. More eyes would mean more arrests and at a reasonable cost, says Johnson. A camera tower costs about $600,000 and can see three miles in every direction.

Up in the Black Hawk over the summer, Aguilar had brought his boss, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham, to see this area for himself. Faced with the vast terrain, Basham seemed convinced a fence was not the answer. But another thought dawned as he looked down on shimmering black lava fields below. "If they're willing to go through 80 miles of desert in this heat, you can't do much to stop them."