Jesse Bogan and Mariano Castillo
San Antonio Express-News Staff Writers
Web Posted: 10/07/2006 11:13 PM CDT
HIDALGO — If there was a place along the winding Rio Grande to justify the controversial fence Congress and President Bush have authorized, it seems Sonny Miller's ranch would be it.
Nine people, most of them Salvadorans, drowned when their smuggler drove a 1987 Crown Victoria into a nearby irrigation canal two years ago. And Miller has a photo of 60 immigrants detained on his property this summer.
Like many South Texas ranchers, he built stairs over a pasture fence so it wouldn't get trampled.
Clearly, there's a lot of foot traffic, yet Miller, 72, is among residents and leaders from both sides of the border — not to mention the rest of the Americas — who are riled up over the "Berlin Wall," as many call the proposed structure.
"It's a waste of money," said Miller, who used to farm vegetables and cotton but now just raises a few cattle. "They'll either go through it, over it or under it."
Rancher Sonny Miller of Hidalgo says he doesn't support the planned border fence because immigrants will find a way to get in.
The Senate recently joined the House in passing the Secure Fence Act, which calls for 700 miles of fencing along the southern border, including large stretches in Texas — from Laredo to Brownsville, Del Rio to Eagle Pass, and El Paso into New Mexico.
In an election year, the bill was designed to please voters anxious about homeland security, primarily conservatives who long have sought a border clampdown. But the fence's construction is far from a sure thing, and with the exception of those who would build it, support for it appears almost non-existent along the border.
Although 700 miles were authorized, no money was included in the bill. A separate bill signed Wednesday by President Bush appropriated $1.2 billion for border security, which can — but doesn't have to — be used for a fence.
Many questions remain. How close to the river would the fence be built? Will the government condemn private property? What about the long stretches of rough terrain that experts say isn't appropriate for such a barrier? What about environmental concerns?
Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, both Texas Republicans, got assurances the Homeland Security Department will have broad discretion on whether to build the fence and will consult with state and local officials on its location.
"It's all a complex thing, but I think at this point the focus ought to be on appreciation that Congress has finally done something," said Pennsylvania-based Colin Hanna, president of the Web site WeNeedAFence.com, acknowledging that "a year ago, we were just about the only organization advocating a fence, and the idea was very much on the fringe of the debate."
Now he is confident the money needed to build it — an estimated $2 billion to $7 billion — will be approved.
Many foes in Texas and Mexico, however, said the fence ignores the root causes of immigration, is not neighborly, and ultimately would jack up the going rate for smugglers who guide immigrants here or foster more attempts to corrupt officials on international bridges.
Among people interviewed along the border after Senate passage of the Secure Fence Act, those who saw no downside to the fence generally were able to cross the border legally, didn't care to cross the border, or were enthused about financial or employment opportunities stemming from the project.
Brownsville Mayor Eddie Treviño Jr. said fences could be helpful in certain areas, but he described the wall as an "attempt to institutionalize discrimination and racism."
"We spent 40 years trying to tear down the Berlin Wall, and here we are building one (against) our second-largest trading partner," he said, blaming Congress for failing to address comprehensive immigration reform, including a bolstered guest worker program and better pathways to citizenship.
Across the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Matias Miss, a manager of a shelter for undocumented immigrants, said border-area residents shouldn't have a problem with the wall because most have laser visas that allow them to shop, eat and visit with families in the 25-mile border zone of South Texas.
"If I have a house and put up a fence, I am going to feel more secure, and that doesn't mean I can't be a good neighbor," said Miss, 38.
The burden, he said, will fall heaviest on the residents of his shelter, Casa San Juan Diego, some of whom have endured rape, robbery and hunger during their long trips north fueled by dreams of construction, agricultural and service jobs.
They include people like Patricio Vázquez, 23. A farm laborer with a sick mother, he sold a few cows and his stereo and borrowed money from relatives to fund a trip from rural Veracruz state, only to be robbed of his $2,000 on the Rio Grande's banks.
Vázquez said the wall wouldn't be fair, because "we all have a right to eat and have a normal life without so much poverty."
Eduardo Hinojosa Cepeda, mayor of Camargo, a Mexican border town of 20,000, asked, "What would the United States do without our manual labor?"
Hinojosa, a dual citizen born in McAllen, said the wall is bad for the "brother countries" because it makes it look like the United States "doesn't want anything to do with Mexico."
Reynaldo Clemente Cavazos, director of the country club in Reynosa, Mexico, a large border city and manufacturing center, said he already feels like a delinquent when he crosses because of close questioning by U.S. officials at the bridge. It would worsen with a fence, he said.
He compared the tide of undocumented immigrants to the bustling narcotics trade, saying they couldn't be held back by force because they are pulled by U.S. demand.
"Mexico is the diving board, and the United States is the swimming pool," he said.
Across the river, Steve Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, called the wall a "19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem" and said it could erode the local $2 billion retail economy, to which Mexicans contribute a third.
"How it hurts us economically is, the image that we send to Mexico is that, 'We are going to build a wall and we don't want you here,'" he said, adding that the perceived cold shoulder could cause shoppers who make several trips a year to cut back.
Ahlenius finds it hard to believe anyone locally could support the wall, and he said lawmakers who voted for it are "scared about what they think America is becoming."
"People are afraid that America is being more brown. ... This is a country where there has always been opportunity, there has always been freedom, and (when) we start to wall up things and to block things off — we are losing what we really stand for."
In Laredo, Ray Segura, owner of Segura Fence Co., said he's eager to compete for government contracts to help build the fence. He already has teamed up with a San Antonio company to submit a bid.
"There's going to be a lot of contracts, there's going to be a lot of bidding, there's going to be a lot of action," Segura said.
He said that based on his experience, the fence probably would be built on an easement along the river that the government owns and runs along the entire border, usually 30 to 50 feet wide.
He estimated it would take about two to three months per mile of construction for a thick wire fence with holes too small to fit a boot in; twice as long if it is a double fence, as Congress wants.
Also standing to gain was a shirtless man with a tattoo of a bat on his chest.
He was drinking beer last week with two colleagues along the river where smugglers commonly bring immigrants in rafts from the Mexican town of Miguel Alemán to the Texas town of Roma.
The self-described "patero," or smuggler, sat among trash, just beyond the reach of flies buzzing around a dead animal.
"We aren't politicians, we are ruffians. It's going to be more difficult (to cross), but it's going to cost more money," said the man, who appeared to be about 40 and declined to give his name.
"If they want to spend the money on the wall," he said with the flick of a hand, "then spend it."