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Fed up, Arizona officials seek donations for border fence

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PHOENIX » Americans upset about illegal immigration have a new outlet for their rage: a fund set up by the state of Arizona that will use private donations to build a border wall.

Critics call the state’s effort to build its own border barriers a foolhardy, feel-good campaign that will have little practical effect on the problem of illegal border crossing. But organizers in the State Legislature, which created the fund, say it will allow everyday people fed up with the inability of Congress to address the problem of illegal immigration to personally contribute to a solution.

Beginning during the second Bush administration and continuing in President Barack Obama’s tenure, the federal government has built more than 600 miles of barriers, some designed to keep out cars and others to block migrants themselves from crossing. The congressionally approved construction effort is winding up, but about 82 miles of Arizona’s 388 miles of border remain without a barrier, federal officials say.

The construction has been costly. The Government Accountability Office said in a 2009 report that the federal government spent $1 million to $3 million for every mile of border fencing. Arizona, though, intends to use low-cost inmate labor to reduce those costs.

The most likely locations for the state’s planned barriers are on state or private land, organizers say. A committee will determine the details of the wall’s construction after money comes in, according to the legislation creating the border fund, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed in April.

Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, expressed doubts about the effectiveness of physical barriers at the border when she was Arizona’s governor and Congress first endorsed the idea in 2005.

"You show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border," Napolitano said at the time. "That’s the way the border works."

She has subsequently argued that the border fencing is only a part of the solution and must be supplemented by Border Patrol agents and technology. The Obama administration has significantly increased staffing at the Border Patrol and has employed unmanned drones to patrol from above. But the administration last year halted work on a "virtual fence" along the border after a series of technical problems and cost overruns.

Even before Wednesday’s formal start of Arizona’s fundraising website, organizers said they detected considerable interest.

"We are getting emails, calls and letters from all over the country," said State Sen. Steve Smith, a Republican who came up with the idea. "We had a business owner from California and individuals from Indiana. People want to do their part to help this country."

Donors will get a certificate acknowledging their contribution, and Smith said he expected them to become popular items.

But not for everybody.

"This state-sponsored border wall idea is ludicrous," said Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club. "It is just another distraction from the real issues facing Arizona, issues this Legislature has repeatedly failed to address."

Arizona has had some success with private fundraising on the contentious issue of immigration. Brewer opened a fund to finance the state’s defense in federal court of the immigration crackdown known as Senate Bill 1070, which was approved in 2010 but never fully went into effect. Private donors have already contributed about $3.8 million to that effort, state officials say.

But the goal of the border wall fund, $50 million, will require considerably more largess.

"People were willing to give millions to pay for lawyers," Smith said of the legal defense fund. "This is a tangible, legitimate structure people can see, taste and feel."


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