Arizonans who don't believe the federal government has done all that it can to secure the border now have a chance to put their money where their mouth is.
A new website authorized by the Legislature is being set up today where individuals can donate to a special fund to have this state and the other three along the border finance their own fence where there is none now, or where the fence may be inadequate. Individuals and corporations can find out where to send their checks or even give online with a credit card.
Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, acknowledged he's not likely to get the kind of cash necessary to build the kind of metal walls he believes are necessary along the approximately 1,300 miles of southwest border where there is not already fencing. After all, he figures, costs could run anywhere from $400,000 to $3 million a mile; his immediate goal is to raise $15 million.
But Smith said even raising that could allow for construction of a fence for the high-traffic areas. He figures that once some areas are clearly no longer paths into this country, that would funnel would-be crossers into a fewer number of areas, into the waiting arms of the Border Patrol.
If nothing else, Smith said he believes that once Arizona and other states start building their own fencing, that might embarrass the federal government into doing more on its own.
Money aside, other problems remain.
The biggest of these is that the state cannot just put up fencing where it wants. That means consent of either the federal government, which has a 60-foot easement along the border, or the adjacent landowners.
There was no comment from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The law is the latest effort by Arizona lawmakers to have the state take a role in dealing with the problem of illegal immigration.
Most of the efforts to this point have been focused on going after those who have made it into the country. That includes making life more difficult by denying certain benefits and allowing judges to close down companies found guilty of knowingly hiring undocumented workers.
What Smith hopes to do is keep people from crossing the border illegally in the first place.
He said that Congress in 2006 required Homeland Security to get "operational control" of the border. Smith said that essentially means preventing all unlawful entries into this country, whether by those looking for work, drug couriers or terrorists.
Smith noted that President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have both declared that the border is "as secure as it ever has been." More recently, the president, in a speech in El Paso, said the fencing mandated by Congress is virtually complete.
"It's lies," Smith said. "That's the easiest and most blunt way I can put it."
By the numbers, Homeland Security has completed 649 miles of fencing. That's just two miles short of what was planned, with that last stretch in litigation.
That includes 299 miles of vehicle fences and 350 miles of pedestrian fencing.
Of that total, 306 miles is in Arizona, with nearly 183 miles of vehicle fences and the balance being pedestrian fencing.
But the Arizona border is 388 miles long; it is nearly 2,000 miles from San Diego to Brownsville.
And Smith said even those numbers are misleading.
"They think anything erected in the sand is a fence," he said. Smith said he does not consider vehicle barriers - essentially large pylons or poles in the ground - much of a barrier at all, since individuals can walk between them.
He also is no more impressed with wire mesh pedestrian fences which can be cut.
"There's about 13 miles of what I consider a fence in Arizona," Smith said: solid corrugated steel barriers, at least 18 feet high.
He acknowledged that such a barrier along the entire border, even if it could be funded, is impractical, what with rivers and other environmental issues. But Smith said that's where the state could use technology, putting in sensors that would alert Border Patrol to crossers.
That still leaves the issue of where it could be built.
Smith said if the federal easement is off limits, he believes many private landowners would give permission.
Smith said he hopes to model his fundraising after the account that Gov. Jan Brewer set up last year to accept donations to pay the legal bills of the state's defense of SB 1070.
That law, designed to give police more power to detain and arrest suspected illegal immigrants, was challenged by the Obama administration and others. The case is making its way through the legal system after a federal judge enjoined the state from enforcing key provisions.
After a big start, donations to Brewer's fund have tapered off.
Smith believes he can do better, especially at soliciting funds from out-of-state residents.
"If you're in Wisconsin and you're asked to donate to a legal defense fund for 1070, is that tangible?" he said. "If you're in Wisconsin and asked to build a fence for this country, that's tangible. One is paying a lawyer and one is actually erecting a steel fence."
But Brewer told Capitol Media Services that Smith should not count on large amounts of cash just suddenly appearing.
"It's not as easy as they think it is," she said. Brewer said the big influx at the front end came because she made a personal effort, using her high-profile position as governor, to drum up support.
"I'm not in a position right now to be able to do much with the border fence," Brewer said. "I think that's more of a legislative agenda."
Less clear is whether the names of donors will be made public, as the governor has done. While the account is authorized by statute, it is silent on the question of public access to the books.
Smith said he has no problem with disclosing the list of contributors.
As an incentive to give, Smith said that donors on the website, after they're done checking out, will have the opportunity to print out, or have e-mailed to them, a certificate saying they helped build the fence.