Sunday, July 01, 2007

A wall of discontent

Great coverage in today's American Statesman of the fence/wall border debate. -Angela

A wall of discontent
Along the Rio Grande in South Texas, locals say a border fence will wreak havoc on lives

By Juan Castillo
Sunday, July 01, 2007

In the Texas and Mexican consciousness, the Rio Grande is a particularly fluid character in the epic sweep of history.

The lifeblood of arid flatlands in dozens of South Texas border communities such as Mission, the river yields bountiful harvests of sugar cane, corn, citrus, cotton and other crops. For centuries, the Rio Grande has also nourished a unique way of life.

In sister cities on both sides, residents embrace a transcultural identity in which the river does not divide so much as it unites. Many speak two languages, a reality captured cheekily in an area auto dealer's TV ads proclaiming "Aquí también se habla inglés!" ("English is also spoken here!") They have compadres and familia on either side of the river. People, commerce and goods flow freely in two directions, and always have.

But by the end of 2008, Washington plans to erect 70 miles of fencing in the Rio Grande Valley to deter illegal immigration. It will cut residents off from the river and from their Mexican neighbors, and it could separate farmers from their fields.

That prospect is creating an uproar in communities up and down the border, where much of the land is in private hands.

"It's an American Berlin Wall," said Mike Allen, an economic development booster in neighboring McAllen and a leader in the Texas Border Coalition, elected and economic development leaders from El Paso to Brownsville who oppose the fence.

Federal officials say they haven't decided on the design of the barrier, which they describe as a component of the Secure Border Initiative.

Like the Berlin Wall, its symbolic presence looms even larger than the physical reality, especially in Texas, which claims the longest stretch — 1,240 miles — of the roughly 2,000-mile long border with Mexico.

Less than 20 percent of the border — 370 miles — would be fenced, at a reported initial cost of $1.2 billion, or $3.3 million per mile. It will not be a continuous barricade but an intermittent one, totaling about 150 miles along the Texas side of the Rio Grande, mostly on more populous segments of the river.

Although the fence may have only modest impact on illegal immigration, it makes a powerful statement against the notion that borders are nothing more than inconveniences to be overcome, said Steven Camarota with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research group that advocates stronger enforcement of immigration laws. The vast majority of Americans don't see the border that way, he said.

"That fence reminds us of American national sovereignty," Camarota said.

But in the Valley, on the front lines of one of illegal immigration's busiest corridors, it's also a reminder of something else: the wasteful folly of outsiders who don't comprehend the region's economic, historical and cultural realities.

"If you want to stop (illegal immigration), fix it so that they can't get a job," said Charles Loop, a retired 72-year-old farmer in Brownsville, whose family has worked the land since the 1920s. "Haven't they always found a way to get in?"

Stemming the flow

The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 1.1 million illegal immigrants in 2006, 8 percent fewer than the year before, a decrease Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff attributed to tougher border enforcement deterring crossers.

But the benchmark does not measure the number of people who evade arrest. Since 2000 — despite more agents, more resources, money and technology poured into border enforcement — the unauthorized population in the U.S. has grown an average of more than 500,000 per year, to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. (Only half are thought to have entered the country illegally, however; the rest overstayed visas.)

About 75 miles of fencing and barriers already exist on the southwestern border with Mexico. Whether the most famous stretch, 14 miles of mostly solid wall separating San Diego from Tijuana, has been successful is a matter of dispute.

Built more than a decade ago, supporters hailed dramatic reductions in apprehensions and crime. But analysts said the fencing simply funneled immigrants to remote, dangerous crossings in the mountains and deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, where thousands have died.

South Texas landowners, farmers, and business and elected leaders prefer more border agents, cameras and sensors, as well as "more opportunities for immigrants to enter the country legally, so that the Border Patrol isn't spending all its time running after maids and dishwashers and gardeners," Allen said.

Angry that they have had little influence on the plans for the fence, they assert that it will harm the economy and business relationships with their Mexican neighbors, Texas' biggest trading partner, and that it will quash property rights and cut off farmers and ranchers from the precious Rio Grande.

Another serious concern is that a fence will destroy the area's treasured habitat and wildlife, which feeds a lucrative eco-tourism industry.

"This wall is stupid," said the Rev. Roy Snipes, a Catholic priest and pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mission. "It's going to be a tomb for the free, friendly, hospitable spirit."

But Joe Metz and his wife, Sharon, who farm on 1,100 riverfront acres about 10 miles west of Mission, think differently. They say more people would speak out in favor of the fence if they didn't fear being labeled racists.

The Metzes say immigrants regularly cut through their land, usually in large groups and with a smuggler. And drug runners unload marijuana and other drugs at landings just steps from the rows of grain sorghum Joe farms. A highway a quarter-mile away is their get-away route.

The Metzes don't feel safe anymore. They think a fence will help.

"You feel a certain amount of violation with people crossing your property all the time," 68-year-old Metz says with a flash of anger after pointing out a barbed-wire fence that someone — he presumes illegal immigrants — tampered with to gain access to his land.

Just downriver, joined by his two black Labradors and his friend Allen, Snipes pilots his flat-bottomed fishing boat, carving a smooth path in the Rio Grande's green waters.

On both sides of the river, the earliest settlers, indigenous Coahuiltecans, lived off the land for more than a thousand years. About half a century after their demise, the town of Mission took root on the same riverbanks in 1908.

Despite the Border Patrol's pervasive presence — in the air, in the water and on the riverbanks the Coahuiltecans once settled — the sun-kissed setting is lazy and serene.

Herons glide overhead. Turtles sunbathe, and horses cool off in the river, about a football field wide. Tall reeds sway in the gusty breezes. On the Mexican side, workers clearing brush for a park wave to Snipes.

"It's no war zone out here," Snipes says. "This is beautiful."

Virtual fencing

In 2006, Congress approved fencing along 700 miles of the border with Mexico, and President Bush signed the bill into law. The Homeland Security Department has since said that only 370 miles will be actual fence; the rest will be vehicle barriers and a "virtual" fence of agents, sensors, cameras and other technology.

The government says it hasn't decided exactly where the fence will go in the Rio Grande Valley or what it will look like but promises to consider the concerns of landowners.

It has disavowed a map of the fence, attached to a confidential U.S. Customs and Border Protection memo, which sparked local outrage when it was made public in May. Federal officials said the map was premature.

According to The (McAllen) Monitor, the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley spokesman said recently that about 70 miles of fence would be built in sections between Brownsville and Roma, and that they would be mostly in urban areas.

Texas' U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, both Republicans, voted for the fence. Both say they are working to ensure that locals are heard.

Metz said a border agent met with him to ask his opinion about erecting a fence just north of the flood-control levee and the river. That would place Metz's home north of the barrier and much of his farmland south of it.

According to Metz, the agent said he would have access to his crops and the river through 30-foot-wide gates allowing his farm equipment to pass through.

"It's not going to affect our irrigation a bit," Metz said, scoffing at the idea that a fence will ruin farmers.

On that point and others, Metz gets plenty of argument.

One of opponents' biggest fears is that anything south of the border fence will become a virtual no-man's land, endangering properties up and down the Valley: ranchlands, farmlands, businesses, homes and vast acres of federally protected wildlife refuges.

John McClung, president of the Mission-based Texas Produce Association, said most of his members oppose a fence because they worry that it will cut them off from the irrigation pumps that suck water from the Rio Grandeto feed their crops. If forced to give up their farmland, they wonder whether the government will give them "genuine fair market value."

The co-owner of the iconic palapa-covered outdoor dining and dancing spot near Mission, Pepe's on the River, said a fence will put him out of business.

"What's it going to be called?" Maggie Trujillo asked rhetorically. "Pepe's on the Fence? Pepe's on the Levee?"

Waste of money?

Like the river, immigrants from Mexico — both legal and illegal — have flowed through the Valley for generations.

Snipes, whose church hosts youth camps on the riverbanks, described a back-in-the-day ritual that was equal parts humanitarian and neighborly: landowners leaving out food for immigrant Mexican families who occasionally crossed their property on their way north.

But some say that all began to change dramatically about 20 years ago. The small groups of four or five grew larger and larger. Mexicans were joined by foreigners from all over the world. Drug smugglers joined the processions.

Allen and other border leaders contend that the fence will undo years of work to build business relationships with Mexico and to lift the Valley out of economic morass.

The 69-year-old border coalition leader was a Catholic priest in one of the oldest and poorest churches in McAllen, the Valley's largest city and one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, before changing careers to champion economic development. He founded the McAllen Economic Development Corp. in 1988 and is now on medical leave there.

Twenty years ago, about one in four workers in Hidalgo County was out of a job. Today, unemployment is less than 6 percent, and the Valley is riding the coattails of a surging maquiladora industry that Allen said has recruited more than 200 companies, creating more than 125,000 jobs in industrial parks south of the river in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, and another 25,000 in the McAllen region.

McAllen Mayor Ricardo Cortez said Mexican shoppers account for about 40 percent of the city's gross domestic product. Mexican entrepreneurs want to invest in Valley businesses and are buying second homes here, said Steve Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

But "the message we're sending to Mexico is 'Don't come, Don't bring your money. We don't want you.' It's crazy," Ahlenius said.

It's not unusual for business leaders on both sides of the river to think as one, said Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Houston sociologist who has done extensive research in sister cities on the river.

"If you're in Washington, you're not going to appreciate this, but the cities on the border, over centuries, built a community that transcends the border, and they feel this is one community," Rodriguez said.

Federal officials have given no indication that they will change their minds, asserting that they have a mandate from the American people and Congress to put up a fence.

"I think folks do need to understand that there are areas on the border where fencing would work and that in those areas, it will be constructed," said Brian Walsh, Cornyn's spokesman.

The border coalition isn't giving up.

"We're hoping we can convince the majority of people and Congress that this is a waste of money for America, not just the border," Allen said.; 445-3635

1,952 miles

Length of U.S. border

with Mexico

1,240 miles

Length of Texas border

with Mexico

150 miles

Estimated length of Texas border to be fenced

70 miles

Estimated length of fencing in Rio Grande Valley

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