PHOENIX — Arizona lawmakers want more fence along the border with Mexico — whether the federal government thinks it's necessary or not.
They've got a plan that could get a project started using online donations and prison labor. If they get enough money, all they would have to do is get cooperation from landowners and construction could begin as soon as this year.
Gov. Jan Brewer recently signed a bill that sets the state on a course that begins with launching a website to raise money for the work, said state Sen. Steve Smith, the bill's sponsor.
"We're going to build this site as fast as we can, and promote it, and market the heck out of it," said Smith, a first-term Republican senator from Maricopa.
Arizona — strapped for cash and mired in a budget crisis — is already using public donations to pay for its legal defense of the SB1070 illegal immigration law.
Part of the marketing pitch for donations could include providing certificates declaring that individual contributors "helped build the Arizona wall," Smith said. "I think it's going to be a really, really neat thing."
Construction would start "after we've raised a significant amount of money first" but possibly as soon as later this year, Smith said.
"If the website is up and there is an overwhelming response to what we've done and millions of dollars in this fund, I would see no reason why engineering or initial construction or finalized plans can't be accomplished," he said.
The nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border already has about 650 miles of fence of one type or another, nearly half of it in Arizona. The state's 376-mile border is the busiest gateway for both illegal immigrants and marijuana smuggling.
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said federal officials declined to comment on the Arizona legislation.
State Corrections Director Charles Ryan said getting inmate labor to help construct border fencing wouldn't be a problem.
Minimum-security prisoners already have been used to clear brush in immigrants' hiding spots near the border and clean up trash and other material dumped by border-crossers, he said.
Work crews of Arizona inmates also have been used to refurbish public buildings, build sidewalks and construct park facilities.
At 50 cents an hour, "we are a relatively inexpensive labor force," Ryan said. "If we have the funding to do it, we're capable of doing it."
Arizona's existing border security fund is being used to pay for legal costs of defending SB1070 in court, though Brewer's 2010 executive order creating the fund allows its money to be used for any "border security purpose." A federal judge has blocked implementation of key parts of SB1070, but Brewer has said she'll take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
The fund through Wednesday has received nearly 44,000 donations totaling more than $3.7 million, collected online and through mailed donations since May 2010. Roughly half of the money has been spent, and Brewer spokesman Matthew Benson said the balance is also needed for SB1070-related legal expenses.
Smith and other supporters of the border-fence legislation haven't produced any cost estimates for the state project, saying only that the state should be able to do it far more inexpensively than the federal government.
That still could be put the state's costs in the tens of millions of dollars — or more.
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