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.
A 2009 report by Congress' Government Accountability Office said costs of federal fencing work to keep out people on foot ranged from $400,000 to $15.1 million per mile, while costs for vehicle barriers ranged from $200,000 to $1.8 million. Costs varied by such things as types of fencing geography, land costs and labor expenses, the report said.
Brewer signed the Arizona fence bill on April 28, and it will take effect with most other new state laws on July 20.
It took the bill about 2½ months to land on her desk, easily winning approval on party-line votes during a legislative session dominated by budget-balancing work
During committee hearings and floor debates, Republicans said the state has a legal and moral obligation to take action because the federal government hasn't done enough to secure the border.
"My constituents want this thing fixed and fixed once and for all, and we're going to do it," Republican Sen. Al Melvin of Tucson said during a February committee hearing. "People should not be dying in the desert."
Democrats questioned the project's feasibility and called it a feel-good distraction from pressing for more comprehensive action on border and immigration issues.
"If we are here to pass symbolic legislation and not really address border security, SB1406 does the job. But people don't benefit from symbolic legislation," Democratic Rep. Catherine Miranda of Phoenix said April 18 House vote.
Under the bill, the border fencing work could be done either in conjunction with other border states or by Arizona alone.
Smith said the committee will consider where to build the fence and what kind of fence is needed.
But the eventual choice could be like double- and triple-fence barriers already installed along the border in Yuma County in southwestern Arizona because they appear to block crossings, he said.
Any type of fence would require approval of landowners, but Smith said he expects that to be forthcoming from the state and private land owners, including ranchers who have complained of break-ins and other trouble associated with smugglers and illegal crossings.
Individual ranchers likely will cooperate with the state fencing project, just as they have done with federal officials on placing helipads, watering stations and communications equipment to help officers patrolling the border, an Arizona Cattle Growers Association official said.
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However, the 1,100-member association didn't take a position on the fence bill, said Executive Director Patrick Bray.
"We certainly appreciate the efforts put into this legislation, however the funding is a huge question. It's an empty solution because we don't know where the money is going to come from."
Bray added: "We want to stay focused on the overall border security issue. At this point we are looking for a more comprehensive security approach rather than this pieces that might come to fruition."