SAN DIEGO — Nearly a year after Congress passed legislation calling for the construction of 700 miles of new fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, about 15 miles have been built, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Some Republicans and anti-illegal immigration groups have recently criticized the lack of progress, but Homeland Security, which had committed to putting up 70 miles of fencing by Sept. 30, said the project was back on track after being slowed by environmental, hiring and design issues.
Workers are scheduled to break ground next week on a seven-mile stretch southwest of Tucson. Work on the remainder of a 37-mile barrier near Yuma, Ariz., will also continue.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), a longtime fence supporter, said in a letter to President Bush last week: "This lack of progress is unacceptable, especially when adequate funding is available to earnestly proceed with fence construction."
Bush signed the Secure Fence Act last fall in hopes that bolstered enforcement would lead the then-Republican-led Congress to pass broader immigration overhaul.
Opponents said that the legislation came during an election year when many lawmakers expressed skepticism about the idea but didn't want to be vulnerable to attacks for being soft on border enforcement.
"It was an election-year political gimmick. People knew that it was more about symbolism than about reality," said Tamar Jacoby, a Manhattan Institute policy analyst who supports immigration reform.
The act calls for fencing in five areas along the 1,952-mile border. The longest stretch -- from east of Calexico, Calif., to Douglas, Ariz. -- would be about 300 miles long. Other large segments would be built along the Rio Grande in Texas. There are about 90 miles of fence, most of it in California.
The White House has said the border cannot be controlled by fencing alone, insisting that vehicle barriers, improved sensors, camera towers and more agents must be added.
Homeland Security set a timetable that calls for 300 miles of fencing and 150 miles of vehicle barriers to be built by the end of 2008. Congress allocated $1.2 billion for border improvements this year. The administration requested $1 billion for 2008.
But construction couldn't begin, officials said, until more effective fencing could be designed, contractors hired and environmental issues addressed. Outside Yuma, for instance, the fence is being built with small holes to allow movement by the horned lizard. The government also has met with opponents of the plan.
"The administration has made the decision to address local land concerns and environmental concerns to the extent that they can. . . . It slows the process down, but we're still committed to getting it done. Ultimately, the goal is to secure the border," said Brad Benson, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, the agency responsible for the fence.
The plan calls for much of the fencing to be built by the National Guard. But with the administration reducing guard troops on the border by half, to 3,000, by October, labor may be in short supply. And the recent reassignment of about 100 Border Patrol agents to fence building may not be enough, anti- illegal immigration groups say.
To immigration reform advocates, the lack of progress is a hopeful sign that the fencing may never be completed.
"It's just absolutely wrong. The fence is not going to stop anything," said Enrique Morones, president of the Border Angels, a immigrant-rights group. "I think people really do realize that it is not the solution. . . . It's extremely expensive, and it's not effective."