Arizona lawmakers are hoping to raise around $50 million for border fencing with a new online public fundraising plan that launches Wednesday – despite skepticism from key stakeholders.
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Under legislation signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer in April, the state would use inmate labor and money pulled in through the website to fence in some of the 82 miles of border between Arizona and Mexico that remain open.
Despite support from top state officials, the initiative is already facing problems. Private land owners and county sheriffs are skeptical that fencing even works and don’t plan on contributing, while the federal government may not even allow construction on its land.
Republican state Sen. Steve Smith, who sponsored the bill, is confident $50 million is an attainable goal. He said he has received an outpouring of positive responses to the plan.
“We get messages from all over of people saying they are right there with us,” said Smith in an msnbc.com interview. “From state after state after state people are responding, this is not just an Arizona problem. People are seeing the effect of illegal aliens in their own state too.”
Smith’s legislation also established a Joint Border Security committee, including state Senate and House members, as well as sheriffs and governor-appointed members. As money begins to roll in, Smith said members will decide what type of fencing will be constructed and where. The committee won’t be able to begin making decisions until they have an idea of how much money will be raised, Smith said.
Arizona has been successful in the past in similar initiatives. The state raised millions of dollars in web donations to help fight legal battles over the polarizing Arizona immigration legislation passed last year. This legislation gives police new powers to detain suspected illegal immigrants and requires residents to carry immigration documents.
Crowd funding tactics
The fencing initiative could be successful, if Arizona lawmakers use crowd funding tactics to raise money, said Slava Rubin, founder and CEO of IndieGoGo, an online crowd funding platform.
“They need to tap into social networking, and make it a community effort, as opposed to just a transaction,” Rubin said. “They need to make it very clear what they are raising money for, and make it personal and engaging.”
Rubin suggested Arizona lawmakers make a video pitch, and give contributors perks in return for donations. Smith said he plans on giving certificates to those who donate.
According to a January 2009 report from the federal Government Accountability Office, a mile of fencing can cost between $1 million and $3 million, depending on the type of fencing and terrain. Smith said it can be done for a lot less.
“We don’t know what kind of hometown discount we may get. We’re thinking we could get some of the fence donated,” he said. “With the inmate labor provision we also save a lot on construction costs.”
The website fundraising goal could still fall short. According to a Department of Homeland Security official, 82 miles remain unfenced between Arizona and Mexico. At the cheap end of the federal government’s estimates, the cost of fencing would be around $82 million.
Skeptics of the fence
Some of the biggest stakeholders in border security, including sheriffs and private land owners near the border, appreciate Smith’s efforts but said they aren’t sure they will donate.
Sheriff Larry Dever of Cochise County said border fencing simply doesn’t work. Dever is co-chair of bordersheriffs.com. Bordersherrifs.com is helping to fight the legal battles against Arizona immigration legislation.
“I think it’s well intentioned, but you can build all the fence you want to build and unless it’s the right kind of fence and unless you have the manpower to watch it, it’s of very little or no value,” Dever told msnbc.com. “The federal government has built a lot of fence and most of it has been inadequate in terms of actually stopping people from crossing.”
Some of the area that remains unfenced is on private land. Patrick Bray, executive vice president for the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association said members of his organization own land along the border.
“The border situation is so complex and so diverse that you truly need a more comprehensive plan to secure that border,” Bray said in an interview. “You can’t just have a fence built and walk away and say it’s done.”
Bray said his organization has not discussed donating to the fundraising initiative.
Harmful to the environment?
While Bray and Sheriff Dever find fencing ineffective, other organizations think border fencing is harmful. Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group, has opposed the construction of border walls from the very start.
“We are in support of effective border security, but this isn’t even effective,” said Matt Clark, the southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s damaging to a wide range of species.”
In the past Defenders of Wildlife filed for a temporary restraining order to stop the construction of fences in conservation areas where they can fragment habitats. The court granted the restraining order, but the Department of Homeland Security later waived the order. Defenders then tried to appeal the waiver to the Supreme Court, but the Court decided against taking the case.
Even if Arizona raises enough money to construct fencing, the federal government could stand in the way of Smith’s plan. Smith said he hopes to build the fencing on an 18-foot-wide strip of federal land that runs along the entire border.
“I have a feeling we won’t have the permission to build the fence there,” he said.
A Department of Homeland Security spokesman declined to comment on Arizona’s plan in an email to msnbc.com. But under the Secure Fence Act of 2005, the federal government has already completed nearly all of 651 miles of planned fencing along the border – only two miles targeted under the legislation still stand open, with the construction tied up in pending litigation. This fencing doesn’t include the 82 miles of open border in Arizona.
Smith said the federal government hasn’t done enough to act on border security, and that has forced him to action.
“It’s like the John F. Kennedy mantra, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country,’” he said. “This is not just an Arizona problem, this is a national problem.”
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