In Oct. 2006, the U.S. government decided to build a 700-mile fence along its troubled 2000-mile-plus border with Mexico. Three years, 19 construction companies, 350 engineers, thousands of construction workers, tens of thousands of tons of metal and $3 billion later, was it all worth it?
The Fence (La Barda), Rory Kennedy's latest HBO documentary, investigates the impact of the project, revealing how its stated goals — containing illegal immigration, cracking down on drug trafficking and protecting America from terrorists — have given way to unforeseen, even absurd consequences.
When Arizona recently enacted one of the most extreme immigration laws in the country, the Obama administration responded by filing a lawsuit against the state. This dispute was merely the latest symptom of a greater national problem: the lack of a comprehensive, workable U.S. immigration policy. In its place, lawmakers have resorted to a series of half-measures, the most expensive of which — the U.S.-Mexico border fence — extends through the desert 150 miles south of the Arizona state capital.
In The Fence (La Barda), Rory Kennedy (HBO's Emmy-winning Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) follows her subjects through private ranches, protected wilderness, bustling border towns and scrub deserts for a revealing, often surprising look at the controversial southern U.S. border barrier. Featuring candid interviews with Border Patrol guards, ranchers, environmentalists and voices from both sides of the immigration controversy, the film also uses humor to highlight the contradictions and misinformation that have dogged the fence from its inception, underscoring the sometimes stark contrast between fact and political opinion.
As many as 500,000 undocumented immigrants are estimated to cross into the U.S. every year. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration responded to the enormous political pressure to close what was seen as a dangerous open door with a seemingly simple, some say simplistic, solution: a fence dividing the United States from its neighbor to the south.
Approved by Congress under the Secure Fence Act of 2006 and passed by 73 percent of Congress, with support from both Republicans and Democrats, the fence was constructed at a cost of more than $3 billion, a figure that continues to grow with maintenance and repairs.
"The decision to erect the border fence initially sparked enormous controversy, but since its construction, the issue has largely dropped from public view," says Kennedy. "Few people outside the area immediately affected by the fence understand the extent of the financial, political, social and environmental impact on people on both sides of the border."
One of the most confounding and little-known realities of the fence is that it covers only about one-third of the 2,000-mile border. A patchwork of materials ranging from corrugated steel and concrete to chain-link fence and railroad ties, it stops abruptly in places, leaving long stretches of open space that the government has no plans to seal off. As one of Kennedy's subjects notes, sometimes the easiest way to get past the fence is to "go a mile down this road [where] there is no fence" and simply walk around it.
Kennedy assembles a host of witnesses, including eminent historian Douglas Brinkley, to create an unprecedented oral history of the fence, from its well-intentioned origins to its current bewildering form. Her camera captures the frustrations of Border Patrol guards who risk their lives thwarting each new incursion against the fence, only to face another, bolder attempt the next day. She also interviews the "coyotes" (human smugglers) who make their living illegally ferrying people from one country to the other, as well as people who have survived the potentially deadly crossing.
Whether documenting the grief of the residents of Nogales, Mexico, who lost lives and property in a devastating flood caused by the fence, pointing out the absurdity of a U.S. golf course caught in a "no man's land" between the fence and the actual border, or accompanying the San Diego Minutemen as they patrol remote territory used for illicit crossings, Kennedy puts a human face on the enormous impact the fence has made across the Southwest.
Kennedy also brings her own analysis to bear in challenging the assumptions and misconceptions surrounding the project, in one fast-paced, humorous montage exploring other ways $3 billion in taxpayer dollars could have been spent in pursuit of the same goals.
In March 2010, the Department of Homeland Security froze all funding for the project. Despite the freeze, U.S. taxpayers will pay $49 billion in fence maintenance costs over the next 25 years. Given the costs, monetary and otherwise, that taxpayers and individuals have borne, was it all worth it?
HBO Documentary Films presents The Fence (La Barda); a Moxie Firecracker production; directed and narrated by Rory Kennedy; producers, Rory Kennedy, Liz Garbus and Keven McAlester; writer, Mark Bailey; associate producer, Lauren Barker; editor, Sari Gilman; cinematographer, Nick Doob. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.