If idiocy were a capital crime, at least 73 percent of Congress would be facing the hangman.
That’s the percentage of legislators who supported the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which created one of the most stunning boondoggles in U.S. history, at least according to “The Fence (La Barda),” which airs on HBO tomorrow at 8 p.m. New York time.
Emmy-winning filmmaker Rory Kennedy (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”) starts out with the project’s major problem: There’s lots more holes than fence. The U.S.-Mexican border stretches over 2,000 miles; the fence only runs along 700 of them.
In one of several this-can’t-really-be-true segments, a member of the Minutemen, a vigilante patrol group, tells Kennedy that if undocumented migrants don’t want to scale the fence where he’s being interviewed, all they need do is travel a mile to where the fence abruptly ends. Which it does, creating one of many huge gaps in the “protective” barrier.
Bill Odle, who owns a ranch in the area, says the fence is “not performing its function,” though that depends on how you define function. To the 7,000 construction workers, 350 engineers and 19 construction companies that built the barricade, at a cost of about $3 billion, the fence represents manna from Washington.
But it has spectacularly failed to serve its stated purposes, Kennedy says, which are to to prevent terrorism and slow the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs into the U.S.
Kennedy, who narrates the film, interviews fence-jumpers, smugglers (called coyotes) of human beings, Border Patrol agents and members of various Minuteman groups, one of whom insists a “full-blown invasion from the south” is under way that threatens to turn the U.S. into a “Third World cesspool.”
“My gosh!” sputters Glenn Beck in archived footage. “We better wake up soon!”
The need to sober up seems more like it.
Kennedy, who retains a sense of humor throughout the film, says the construction of the fence did not represent the nation’s greatest engineering feat. Part of the stretch through New Mexico, for instance, was built 6 feet into Mexican territory and had to be torn down and rebuilt at a cost of millions.
While the fence has deterred wildlife from using traditional migration routes, it is little more than a speed bump for many of the estimated 500,000 undocumented aliens who cross the border each year. Footage from cameras posted along the fence show people scaling it with little trouble; in a truly hilarious scene, a pickup truck roars up a ramp and flies over the barricade as if hellbent for Los Angeles in time for the cocktail hour.
Kennedy points out that the drug trade has not been slowed, nor has the fence deterred any terrorist activity. Then again, she says, of the 29 acts of terrorism that have taken place on U.S. soil in the past 25 years, none of the perpetrators entered the U.S. from Mexico. It seems terrorists prefer jetting into New York to trekking across the blazing desert.
If the fence has had any effect, it’s been to force Mexicans to cross the border in more remote desert areas. Kennedy says that has driven up the death rate, which now averages two people a day.
Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security froze funding of the project. Maintenance costs over the next 25 years are estimated at $49 billion, according to the film.
“We don’t care about fences,” says one coyote. “We’ll just find another way to cross.” Maybe it’s time for a fresh trek to the drawing board.
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(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions are his own.)