Saying the state can't depend on the federal government, a Senate panel on Thursday voted to let the governor start taking donations to build a border fence.
The proposal by Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, allows for construction of a new barrier on private property, with the consent of the landowners. Estimates are that would cover about a third of the approximately 370 mile long border, with the balance either on the Tohono O'odham reservation or federal land.
Jaime Ferrant of the Border Action Network called the plan in SB 1406 "fiscally irresponsible.'' He said it is costing the federal government about $4 million a mile to construct the kind of fence designed to keep people and vehicles out.
Smith said he has no firm idea of what it might cost to build a suitable fence. But he said that the costs to the state could be minimal if the state is able to get private donations.
Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, said labor costs could be next to nothing if the state uses inmate labor. And Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, said if the money comes from outside sources, the price tag is irrelevant.
What's behind the plan is the argument that whatever the federal government has build is insufficient, leaving large portions of the state vulnerable.
"We have a crisis in our state and it is caused because our borders are not secure,'' said Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake.
But Allen said the failure of the federal government to build an adequate fence all along the border is more than just incompetence.
"I feel, unfortunately, if the little secret were known, for some reason, somebody's protecting the cartel,'' Allen said. "They don't want to shut the border and the flow of drugs that are coming in here because of how powerful and how wealthy these cartels are.''
Smith's plan, if enacted, would cover only a part of the border.
Antenori said about a third of the area is within the Tohono O'odham Reservation. When national forests and other federal lands are eliminated, he said that leaves private lands along only about a third of the border.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said an effort to build a new fence is misplaced. He said the key is fixing the immigration system, a system he said makes it virtually impossible for people to come to this system legally.
Gallardo said securing the border does need to be a part of any solution.
"If you truly want to stop illegal immigration, you have to look at reforming our immigration process, allowing people a legal method to come to this country,'' he said. Once that happens, Gallardo said, "no one's going to want to risk their lives coming through the Arizona desert in 120-degree heat.''
Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, said there is evidence that fencing works. She said there are large areas of the border around Yuma, El Paso and San Diego that have been secured by federally built fences -- fences that don't exist along other large stretches of the border in Southern Arizona.