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Border plan seen as U.S. power play


MEXICO CITY -- "The wall" does not yet exist, and it might never be built, but already its 700 miles of fencing and electric sensors loom like a new Berlin Wall in the Latin American imagination.

The proposed barrier along the Mexican border was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in December and is scheduled to be debated by the Senate next month. In Spanish, they call it el muro.

El muro has been a focus of news for weeks not only in countries such as Mexico and El Salvador that are increasingly dependent on the dollars migrants send home, but also in faraway Argentina and Chile. Across the region, el muro is seen as an ominous new symbol of the United States' unchecked power.

"The U.S. government has fostered an atmosphere of collective paranoia, given a green light to its spies ... and institutionalized torture," Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya said. "The only thing missing was a wall."

The brainchild of Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, the bill envisions two "layers of reinforced fencing," new lighting, cameras and underground sensors similar to those in place near San Diego's San Ysidro port of entry. One new stretch would seal off nearly the entire 350-mile length of the Arizona-Mexico border.

The beefed-up barrier aims to bring order to the chaos caused by an estimated 1 million people crossing illegally each year.

"Our nation has lost control of its borders," Sensenbrenner said on the House floor when introducing the bill in December. The bill also elevates illegal crossing from a misdemeanor to a felony and includes new provisions to limit hiring of undocumented workers.

"Large majorities of Americans support efforts to restore the security of our nation's borders," Sensenbrenner said. The House later approved the bill 239-182.

South of the proposed barrier, news of the vote has been greeted with confusion, sadness and concern. On Monday, the foreign ministers of 11 Latin American countries meeting in Colombia agreed to formulate a plan to lobby the U.S. Senate to kill the plan.

Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein, whose center-right government is close to the Bush administration, made an unusually strident statement against the bill last month.

"It seems to us a real affront that a government that calls itself a friend and regional partner only wants our money and our products, but treats our people as if they were a plague," Stein said.

Only a minority of commentators have suggested that Latin American governments share at least some of the blame for the disorder on the U.S. frontier.

"The diatribes [against the wall] are a poor substitute for adequate policies," Sergio Aguayo Quezada wrote in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma. "The long era of open borders is over, and the escape value is slowly closing."

Others point out that the walls already in place for more than a decade in Tijuana, El Paso, Texas, and other border communities have driven illegal immigrants into the Sonora Desert, where hundreds have died of exhaustion.

Fearing that more fences will result in more deaths, Archbishop Renato Asencio Leon offered a Mass in Ciudad Juarez against the proposal. "We pray to the Lord that this wall not be raised," the archbishop said.

The president of Mexico's National Commission for Human Rights, Jose Luis Soberanes, called the proposal an act of "idiocy."

The Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre took a sounding of the country's artists and athletes, who unanimously condemned the fence.

"It's one more slap in the face," actress Patricia Orantes told the newspaper. "The walls are falling now. Berlin's fell, and [the Americans] still haven't learned yet."

Bristling over repeated comparisons across Latin America between the Sensenbrenner fence and the wall built by East German Communist leaders, U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza responded with an angry letter last month.

"Comparisons of proposals to alter our border policies to the Berlin Wall are not only disingenuous and intellectually dishonest, they are personally offensive to me," Garza wrote in a release issued by the U.S. Embassy here. "The Berlin Wall was built to keep its own people trapped inside, and was created by an oppressive authoritarian government."

The United States, Garza wrote, has an inherent right to defend its security.

Hector Tobar writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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