I know that President Bush authorized the construction of a border fence. Then I heard critics say it wasn’t going to be built. What’s the story? In October of last year, just before the midterm elections, the president signed the Secure Fence Act. It authorized the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration and drug smuggling and prevent terrorists from sneaking into the country. The act also authorized additional checkpoints, lighting, and high-tech devices to monitor the border. But the problem is the word “authorized.” “No money was attached to the bill,” says Democratic congressman Silvestre Reyes, of El Paso, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who now definitely knows the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. “It was more of a political piece of legislation designed to appeal to conservatives before the election.” And with the Democrats now in control of Congress, it seems unlikely that money will be set aside for construction.

So is the project dead? Not quite. While the Secure Fence Act did not provide any funding, Bush had already signed a spending bill that allocated $34.8 billion to homeland security. Of that, $1.2 billion was earmarked for a “security barrier,” though that language is intentionally vague.

Is that enough to cover the cost of the fence? Not by a border mile. Initial estimates ranged from $2.2 billion to $9 billion. That difference seemed ridiculous enough until a government study came out in January that suggested the price could swell to more than $60 billion after figuring in costs such as purchasing the private property that lies in the path of the fence and solving environmental issues related to construction. And that’s not even for the whole border.

What do you mean? The act authorizes construction along only seven hundred miles, about one third the length of the border. Texas would receive three hundred miles of fence in three main areas: from the New Mexico state line to El Paso, from Del Rio to Eagle Pass, and from Laredo to Brownsville.

So the fence won’t cover the entire border and the costs could spiral out of control? Does it have much support in Texas? Consider what two key Republicans think. Before the president signed the bill, Senator John Cornyn told reporters, “It’s one thing to authorize. It’s another thing to actually appropriate the money and do it.” And at a meeting of the Texas Border Coalition in December, Governor Rick Perry said, “Building a wall across the entire border is preposterous,” then he joked that a wall would only benefit “the ladder business.” (That’s a pale version of what Arizona governor Janet Napolitano said in December 2005: “Show me a fifty-foot wall, and I’ll show you a fifty-one-foot ladder at the border.”) Of course, Perry didn’t think it was so preposterous to have cameras at the border hooked up to a public Web site so that average residents could report suspicious activity, but that’s another story.

Have any fences been built along the border? Yes, but primarily in urban areas, such as El Paso. In 1996 Congress allowed fourteen miles of fencing near San Diego, one end of which runs into the Pacific Ocean. That has been successful in slowing illegal immigration, but it’s possible that people simply enter the country in different locations. The project also had vocal critics and crippling overruns. Its total cost was estimated to be $14 million, but the first nine miles alone topped $39 million.

Say a fence does eventually get built in Texas. What will it look like? With all the rhetoric about walls, you might have envisioned a seamless, massive concrete barrier with Keep Out signs posted on the southern side (probably in Spanish). In fact, the law calls for a double-layered fence, two parallel barriers with a road running between them so that Border Patrol agents can move quickly to trouble spots. In places like San Diego, these barriers are made from welded steel panels and steel mesh and topped with an angled layer of fencing.

But if it’s unlikely that a fence will be built, what is the government’s plan for border security? In September Boeing won a contract, estimated to be worth $2 billion, from the Department of Homeland Security to construct a “virtual fence.” The project, known as the Secure Border Initiative, or SBInet, doesn’t focus on permanent walls; it features a series of 1,800 towers similar to the ones you find in shopping-mall parking lots during the holidays. In addition to cameras, these towers will be equipped with high-tech heat sensors and motion detectors. Boeing will install the first group of towers along a 28-mile stretch of the border near Tucson, Arizona, and the company says it can have the entire program up and running in three years. As for the cost of this plan, the Department of Homeland Security estimates that it could reach $8 billion, but its inspector general says that that figure could balloon as well, to $30 billion. At least the federal government is consistent in one area.