Moving Away from Walls: the Future of Border Manifestation in the American Southwest

by Josie Kohnert

Due to the rising concerns regarding national security and environmental viability along the US-Mexico border, governmental agencies have reconsidered their approach to managing the international border through the Southwest.  As of March 2010, cooperation between the Departments of the Interior and Homeland Security generated a more intricate solution than the 700 miles of fence proposed back in 2006.[1] Protection in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument alone will consist of the combination of pedestrian fencing, vehicle barriers, the virtual fence project, and added support from border patrol agents and park rangers.[2]  Although unforeseen failures in the previous approach stimulated the reconsideration of the border solution, officials hope that the variety and depth of this new solution will be more effective at managing the border.

Fencing’s physical impact on the sensitive Sonoran ecosystem was felt almost immediately; nevertheless, the increasing level of fragmentation due to illicit vehicle traffic also required some form of physical barrier along the border.  The park service points to

Vehicles Cut Roads Through the Desert, Destroying Vegetation Along the Way

the creation of roughly 150 miles of illegal roads in addition to frequent threats, robberies, and accidents related to cross-border traffic within the park[3] as justification for physical demarcation of the international boundary.  Since the previous solution—the pedestrian fence—failed when subjected to flooding and other environmental conditions of the Sonoran Desert, the park shifted to a more permeable form of fence: the vehicle barrier.  The barrier will cover thirty miles along the border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and will perform the dual purposes of: “(1) protect[ing] the fragile desert environments from adverse effects caused by illegal smuggling by vehicle across the international border, and (2) protect[ing] the health and safety of visitors and federal employees.”[4]

Compared to the imposing barrier of the pedestrian fences, vehicle barriers are physically minimal while still effectively preventing vehicular cross-traffic.  It consists of railroad tie cross pieces laying parallel to the ground at a uniform height of three feet, supported by upright beams placed at five foot intervals that alternate between five and six feet high.  In addition, the barrier is equipped with an electric component that alerts rangers of any breaches when they occur. [5] Also new is the variation of style based on the risk of breach.  The three different forms are as follows (in order by increasing risk of breach):

  1. Normandy Style: constructed entirely of rail with no foundation and subsequently kept in place by weight.  Used primarily in mountainous regions where geologic conditions make post construction difficult.
  2. Rail-on-Rail: comprised of discrete individual footings for each post rather than a continuous concrete foundation, and therefore less secure than the third form of barrier.
  3. Rail-on-Concrete-Filled Post: consists of steel tubing bollards filled with concrete and anchored in cement footings.  Tests indicate that it will take roughly an hour to cut through the posts, and the barrier is capable of resisting impacts from a 7,000 pounds vehicle travelling at 40 miles an hour.[6]

1 mile of Normandy Barrier, 23 miles of rail-on-rail, and 7 miles of rail-on-post compose the completed thirty-mile portion of this style of border defense within the park.

In addition to physical barriers, officials plan to implement the virtual fence system in the park as a supplement to physical obstruction.  A seemingly ideal solution to the problems

Typical Segment of a Vehicle Barrier

raised by the failure of the pedestrian fences, its construction received both support and criticism for a variety of reasons.  Advocates of the program argue it is a less ecologically invasive way to manage and protect the border.  The virtual fence system is comprised of high-tech surveillance towers—ranging from 40-120 feet tall based on terrain[7]—equipped with radar, cameras (capable of a six mile range), and communications equipment; and while the initial Environmental Impact Statement reports a finding of no significant impact on the landscape, Interior officials have yet to accept the assessment (as of 2008).[8]  Installation of the eleven towers in Organ Pipe would be accompanied by unattended ground sensors and twenty miles of new/improved roads.  Ideally, these towers allow Border Patrol agents to monitor the International border remotely, thereby increasing the effectiveness of the limited manpower available.  Furthermore, the towers reduce the need for a physical barrier which, in turn, limits the interruption of environmental and wildlife cycles necessary for ecological health

However, many problems have plagued the virtual fence project since its conception, primarily related to economic feasibility and flaws in its performance to date.  The pilot project—completed in 2008 and comprised of only nine moveable towers—not only cost $20 million to implement, but produced unsatisfactory results as well.[9]  Estimates for the total cost of constructing a virtual fence along the breadth of the US-Mexico border is estimated at $6.7 billion by its completion in 2014.[10]  Furthermore, lags in the relay between the towers and rangers managing the feed decreases effectiveness in pinpointing and apprehending illegal immigrants, and the mountainous terrain of the park limits the effectiveness of radar equipment crucial to the towers success.

The failures of a homogenous solution to the entirety of the southern border spurred the investment of time and money into applying a more effective, and permeable, form of defense.  The combination of vehicle barriers and high-tech equipment—such as the virtual fence system—allows the Departments of the Interior and Homeland Security to envision a future solution less contingent on walls, and more responsive to the environmental requirements of the landscape.

[1] Michael A Fletcher and Jonathan Weisman. “Bush Signs Bill Authorizing 700-Mile Fence for Border.” The Washington Post. (accessed April 10, 2012)

[2] Lee Baiza, Julie Rodriguez, and Frank Quimby. “Interior and Homeland Security Collaborate on Border Protection, Resource Conservation along US/Mexico Border.” Press Release. March 13, 2010.

[3]National Park Service. “Finding Of No Significant Impact: Vehicle Barrier Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Coronado National Memorial ” National Park Service. (accessed April 10, 2012)


[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Arthur H. Rotstien. “Feds Ready to Build Virtual Fence along Borders” CNS News. (accessed April 10, 2012).

[8] Arthur H. Rotstien. “Virtual Fence Construction in Arizona Put on Hold” Border Wall in the News. (accessed April 10, 2012).

[9] Ibid

[10] Arthur H. Rotstien. “Feds Ready to Build Virtual Fence along Borders”

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