Saturday, January 10, 2015

Hidalgo County judge launches investigation into conflict of interest

The Monitor
January 10, 2015
by Jacob Fischler

EDINBURG — After a year of battling with the county’s drainage director on various fronts, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia launched an investigation this week into drainage district subcontracts that went to a company owned by the wife of district Manager Godfrey Garza.

After learning late last year that drainage district contractors in 2007 hired Valley Data Collection Specialists, Inc., a company owned by Garza’s wife, Garcia sent a letter Monday to Garza’s company, Integ Corp., requesting an accounting of all contracts and subcontracts that went to the company since then.

“You, as the Drainage District Manager, are responsible to negotiate with the contractors we hire,” Garcia wrote. “On December 16, 2014, we learned that your wife is the owner of a company (Valley Data Collection Specialists, Inc.) that does subcontracting work for contractors you negotiate with… Therefore I believe there exists a serious conflict of interest in your part.”

In an interview, Garza said he would provide the judge with a response that answered his questions, but added that his wife did not own the company at the time it was subcontracted for county projects.

“We're going to respond back to him on the letter that he submitted to Integ,” Garza said. “And in response to the letter, we should be able to answer the questions that he has. Specifically, the question on Valley Data going back to 2007 — my wife was not the owner then.”

Garza declined to say when his wife did become the owner, saying he preferred to withhold that information until he wrote it in the letter.

But he added: “I never contracted with myself or my interests.”

The issue became public in a commissioners court meeting Dec. 16 when Garcia questioned Garza’s stewardship of public money — as has become routine at the drainage district portions of commissioners court.

“See, my concern is here you are representing us, entering into contracts with the contractors and then the contractors entering into contracts with your company — well, your family’s company,” Garcia said to Garza. “Don’t you really seriously believe that constitutes a conflict of interest?”

Garza said he needed to research the issue and could not answer at the time.

The two have butted heads continually since at least last January, when Garcia learned that an earlier contract with the county had paid Integ — Garcia believed erroneously — a 1.5 percent commission for work on the hybrid border wall-levee system.

Garcia and other commissioners soon thereafter sought to begin a transition to a new drainage district manager who could be ready to take over by the time Garza’s contract expires in February 2015. But commissioners have yet to settle on a job description for the new manager or an assistant manager who could one day replace Garza.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Downed border fence caused city damage

Associated Press
September 23, 2014
by Astrid Galvan

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) -- A southern Arizona city that spent days cleaning storm-related debris - including parts of trees - from Mexico that knocked down an international border fence is asking the federal government to cover costs.

Nogales Mayor Arturo Garino said the city council has directed its attorneys to work with the federal government in an attempt to regain what it spent cleaning up large tree trunks and branches that made their way from a canyon in Sonora, Mexico, through the border fence and into two trailer home parks and businesses in the Arizona city in late July.

Garino says it was the government's responsibility to open flood gates attached to the tall, steel fence that would have prevented so much debris from making it into the city.

"As a city, you know, we want to make sure that this doesn't happen again. The cause of this was the fence. We have to have some system there that's operational and it's functional," Garino said.

Garino said he couldn't provide an estimate for the cost of the cleanup effort. However, the Nogales International reports that city officials have estimated $23,000 in costs.

Meanwhile, the fence, just west of the Mariposa Port of Entry, remains down because of continuing rainfall, Border Patrol spokeswoman Nicole Ballistrea said. The soil needs to be completely dry before the fence can go back up, she said. The fence stood between 18 and 26 feet high, extended at least 7 feet underground and was reinforced with rebar. The debris knocked down about 60 feet worth of fencing.

"The late hour and sudden onslaught of the storm did not leave adequate lead time for agents to safely release the gates," Ballistrea said. "We'll continue with the repairs once the saturation level has (dropped)."

The storm in Nogales, Sonora, began the weekend of July 25 but largely avoided the American side of the border. Still, debris from a canyon about a mile south of Nogales, Arizona, traveled up to the border and became trapped at the fence. Enough debris piled up that it knocked the fence over. In came tree stumps, pieces of wood, and about three feet of water that flooded businesses on Western Avenue in Nogales and two trailer home parks.

"I remember helping one group pull out a tree that was 12-feet-long, 16 inches in diameter, underneath the trailer," Garino said.

It took the city, county and volunteers three days to clean up the mess.

"That's why we're trying to address the federal government, because if you look at it you would see that if the gates would have opened it would have been a casual flow. The amount of water that fell wasn't enough for it to cause a flood," Garino said.

Friday, September 5, 2014

One month later: gap still in U.S. Mexico border fence from monsoon

Tucson News Now
August 27, 2014
by Maria Hechanova

NOGALES, AZ (Tucson News Now) - There is still a big gap in the U.S.-Mexico border fence in Nogales, Arizona just west of the Mariposa Port of Entry.

It has been one month since the monsoon dumped a lot of rain in a small area in a short amount of time. The large amount of rushing water crossed the border and drained from Mexico into the U.S. in this area taking the fence down with it.

Tucson Sector U.S. Border Patrol agents say the reason for the delay is because contractors are waiting to fix the fence when the ground is less saturated.

The estimated repair date is still to be determined, though contractors have already assessed the damage and determined how the repairs need to be made.

Weather-related border fence damage does not happen often. According to officials, the last time something like this took place was back in 2011 in Lukeville, in western Pima County.

Right now, agents are continuing to monitor the section of missing fence in Nogales on the ground and with cameras to make sure there is not a security threat or breach. Though according to one BP agent on the scene there have been people trying to cross over into the U.S. via the hole, on foot.

According to agents, it is an already highly visible spot and no extra resources are necessary to keep it safe. Agents already assigned to the area are just keeping a closer eye on it.

The fence, which agents say can range from 18 to 26 feet tall in the area is made of steel, rebar, and concrete and is set deep in the ground. They say it would not make any sense to put the fence up now, because the foundation would not set correctly or hold up well in the next storm.

It is unclear if any modifications will be made to the original design to make the fence stronger or prevent an event like this from happening again.  There is also no word yet on how much the repairs will cost.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

For some Texans on the border, more walls and patrols won't solve the immigration crisis

Public Radio International
August 13, 2014
by Jason Margolis

Scott Nicol, a college art teacher and sculptor, likes to bring people to walk the border wall in Hidalgo, Texas. On a windy day, we stroll along a path in the shadow of 18-foot-high iron bars. One of Nicol’s favorite pastimes is hunting for homemade wooden ladders.

“That’s how you get over the wall," says Nicol pointing at some ladders lying on the ground. "I mean that’s what they’re for. It takes $2 or $3 worth of hardware and nails to defeat a wall that cost $12 million a mile,” says Nicol.

That’s $12 million a mile for this section of wall — the average cost per mile across the border is closer to $4.5 million.

President Obama is asking for $3.7 billion to deal with the latest border crisis tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children coming to the US border seeking asylum. House Republicans have countered with an offer of $694 million, with contingencies. The big one is that they want more border security.

That makes Nicol apoplectic. During our 30-minute stroll, we counted the Border Patrol jeeps. We found eight, as well as one ATV and a helicopter overhead. Texas Game Wardens also patrol the Rio Grande in speedboats mounted with machine guns.
“That makes me very nervous,” says Nicol. “There’s absolutely no reason or instance where you would be using that kind of artillery unless there’s a military invasion.”

Yet, more reinforcements are on the way. Texas Governor Rick Perry says he’s sending up to 1,000 National Guard troops to the border soon. Perry says they’re needed to stop drugs and criminals.

Nicol, who also does work with the Sierra Club, says the border wall became his issue for a simple reason: it just makes him angry. To him, it's too costly and divides habitat areas like a wildlife bird sanctuary on the river. He understands the need for border security, but thinks much of the wall's design simply doesn’t make sense. For example, as we’re walking along for nearly a mile, the wall stops.

“Obviously anybody that has traveled up from Central America is not going to be stopped by something that’s only 9/10th of a mile wide. They’ll just go around it,” says Nicol.

It works this way up and down the Rio Grande — there's the wall, then a gap for a few miles, then more wall.

But the chief patrol agent for the Rio Grande Valley, Kevin Oaks, says the wall isn’t as haphazard as Nicol makes it out to be.

“What it does is it slows the traffic down temporarily, so it gives the agents and whatever technology we employ a little more time to get activated,” says Oaks. The Border Patrol also has unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — that patrol more isolated stretches of the border.

Oaks admits that people can use a ladder to climb over the wall, or even tunnel under. But he says it’s all about striking a balance between what can be funded and what can be achieved.

“If you look at history, there’s no physical way that you can ever possibly, 100 percent secure the border. So you have to come up with a compromise, and that compromise is a low-risk border,” says Oaks. For him, that means safe border communities and a low flow of drugs and criminals coming across.

By many metrics, the investment is paying off — the border is the most secure it’s been in 40 years. The annual tab for immigration and border enforcement nationwide: $18 billion. The budget for just the US Border Patrol alone is closer to $3.5 billion annually.

Community activist Michael Seifert, who lives less than a mile from the border in Brownsville, says there are other costs for border residents, on both sides. Border Patrol agents have killed 19 people, some US citizens, but mostly Mexicans, in a recent two-and-a-half year period.

“And not a single one of those cases has been brought to a fitting conclusion — this is what happened, the agent was justified or not. They’re simply not pursued,” says Seifert.

Kevin Oaks says his agents aren’t acting with impunity. “Every allegation of misconduct is thoroughly investigated and adjudicated appropriately.” 
Oaks says the FBI and the Office of Inspector General oversee corruption and criminal charges lodged against Border Patrol. They also conduct internal investigations.

Scott Nicol says he's never had a problem with any agents directly and understands the vast majority are trained professionals just doing their jobs. Still, he doesn’t want more agents to deal with this latest border crisis. After all, he says, Central American children are turning themselves in, not sneaking into the US.

“The response from certain politicians is, ‘Send in the National Guard, build more walls,’” says Nicol. “They can’t get their heads around immigration, they can only think about it in terms of security.”

Nicol, as well other border residents, agree more resources are needed to deal with this latest border crisis. But they want money to ease the backlog in immigration courts and provide better services for the children, not to build more security.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In South Texas, Few On The Fence Over Divisive Border Wall Issue

National Public Radio
August 18, 2014
by John Burnett

When Congress thinks about border security, it often sees a big, imposing fence.

The federal government has spent $2.3 billion to build the fence — 649 miles of steel fencing, in sections, between the U.S. and Mexico, designed to help control the illegal movement of people and contraband.

It's called tactical infrastructure, and the Border Patrol says it works. But people on the lower Texas border have another name for it: a boondoggle.

If you ask Pamela Taylor about the tall, rust-colored fence that tops the river levee near her house outside of Brownsville, she won't mince words.

"I can't speak for the Border Patrol. For me, it seems like a useless piece of crap. Take a look. They [undocumented immigrants] are walking over. They have boats lined up on the other side of the river to row these people across," Taylor says.

Taylor has lived here beside the sluggish Rio Grande in her unair-conditioned brick home, surrounded by mesquite trees and bougainvillea, for 67 of her 86 years. Like so many residents down here in South Texas — which used to be part of Mexico — she treats the border jumpers like human beings, even if she opposes them. Every day, she puts out water bottles and sodas in ice chests by her mailbox.

"We fill that up every night. For anybody: Border Patrol, illegals, people working in the fields," she says, standing by the two Igloo chests. "They all come, and they're welcome to it."

It's only been in recent years, Taylor says, that immigrants began using her property as a favorite crossing spot. They paddle across the river, walk across the road, hide in the cotton plants and wait for the smuggler's car to show up. Then they pile in, drive through a yawning gap in the border fence, and away they go.

"Now they're insisting we need to go in and build more fence," she says. "Don't they see that the fence is not working?"

A Divisive Line

In spite of fence detractors like Taylor — and there are a lot of them — the Border Patrol steadfastly defends PF (Pedestrian Fence) 225, the official name for the Rio Grande Valley border wall.
It's not actually one continuous wall. It's 54 miles of fencing in 18 individual sections. The idea was to erect the wall mainly where cities and towns touch the border, to force illegal crossers into more rural areas where border agents have a tactical advantage.

"Our objective is to work the area on our terms. Ideally, you want to push the traffic where it's easier for us to work," says Robert Duff, chief of operational programs in the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the Border Patrol. "And that's going to be away from the metro areas, where the vanishing point is very short, to where we've got more of a response time."

Outside the federal agency, the perspective from county and city officials couldn't be more different.
"That has been the biggest waste of money," says Ramon Garcia, county judge of Hidalgo, the most populous county in the region. He refers to the reported cost of pedestrian border fencing: $6.5 million per mile, and to the recent surge of migrant children from Central America.

"It's a joke," Garcia continues. "When you got all these 58,000 unaccompanied minors getting through there, I mean, you tell me that it's worth it, and if it's working."

And it's not just people that the fence is not stopping. Sgt. Rolando Garcia is head of police special investigations in the city of San Juan, which is right on the river.

Here's what he had to say when asked if the border wall has slowed down drug smuggling from Mexico:

"In order to get their product across, they basically measured the gap between the fence and started building their marijuana bundles within that gap so they could just slide through the fence," Garcia says. "[A] border wall isn't really gonna help."

'A Fence Does Not Seal The Border'

The Border Patrol and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ran into all sorts of problems when the fence was under construction from 2008 to 2010. Some residents bitterly opposed it. The vertical steel barrier slices through city parks, college campuses, nature preserves, farmers' fields and residential property.

Most border land in Texas is private property. To build the fence, the Border Patrol had to enter into negotiations or begin condemnation proceedings with landowners, which cost time and money. Some lawsuits are still in court.

What's more, the Rio Grande flows through a broad floodplain where both countries are not supposed to build fences that would obstruct a flooding river. So, in places, the border fence sits on top of a levee that's a half-mile or more distant from the river.

And as Pamela Taylor found out, it's a no man's land on the south side of the fence.

"Fencing is not the end all, be all," says the Border Patrol's Robert Duff. "I started my career in San Diego and saw them construct the initial fence, and then two and three layers of fencing. They'll go over it, they'll go under it, they'll go through it. A fence does not seal the border. It helps, but it's not the solution."

Just as important, Duff says, are agents on the ground, aircraft, boats, lights, cameras and other tactical equipment.

Perhaps expectations were too high. Perhaps people thought the wall was supposed to stop illegal traffic.

"They built an 18-foot wall, and people came with a 19-foot ladder and people just crossed right over the top. So I think a fence can only be so tall," says Chris Cabrera, local spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union.

As for PF225, it's done. There were plans to build 16 more miles of wall in the Upper Valley in Starr County, but the agency ran out of money.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Vehicle-sized gap cut in border fence

Nogales International
July 28, 2014
by Curt Prendergast

While Mother Nature was tearing a hole in the border fence west of Nogales, human hands were at work on the other side of town cutting a gap in the barrier the size of a garage door.

Someone cut through eight poles in the border fence approximately 1-1/4 miles east of downtown Nogales, apparently using a precision tool to slice through the six-inch steel tubes filled with concrete and a strand of rebar.

The cuts were made at the bases of the poles and about 10 feet above the ground, creating a gap that appeared large enough to drive a medium-sized vehicle through.

The cuts were discovered on Saturday, according to Border Patrol spokeswoman Nicole Ballistrea, the same day monsoon runoff and debris toppled a section of the border fence west of the Mariposa Port of Entry.

By Monday morning, contractors were using blowtorches and metal clamps to repair the fence. This reporter saw agents in vehicles making their usual patrols along the access road next to the border fence, but there appeared to be no special contingent designated to protect the breach.

No tools were found at the site and the Border Patrol does not yet know who cut the fence, Ballistrea said.

Smugglers often attempt to cut border fences, as well as dig under them and climb over them, she wrote in an emailed statement.

“As the Tucson Sector continues to improve deterrence efforts along the border, smuggling organizations are finding it more difficult to move their illicit goods into the interior of the United States,” she wrote.

“Fencing infrastructure gives Border Patrol agents the time they need to stop illegal cross-border activity,” she wrote.

A contractor with Granite Construction, the company that built the fence in 2011, estimated at the time that someone would need about 15 minutes to cut through the steel tubes. By that math, if the person who cut the fence on Saturday were acting alone, the 16 total cuts would have taken about four hours to complete.

One of the selling points of the fence, which covers 2.8 miles of border and cost a reported $11.8 million to build, was that it would be more difficult to cut through than the landing-mat barrier it replaced.

GOP: Border patrol agents handcuffed by wildlife rules

The Hill
July 28, 2014
By Tinothy Cama

Federal land protections are hampering efforts to stop the flow of illegal immigrants across the border, Republicans say.

The Interior Department controls about 800 miles along the dividing line with Mexico, or about 40 percent of the total, with other land in the region owned by the Forest Service.

GOP lawmakers argue federal regulations intended to protect land and wildlife have become an obstacle for Customs and Borders Protection officers because they restrict their ability to drive near the border, build infrastructure or install surveillance technology.

“There is no doubt that the restrictions on accessing land along the border have made it more difficult for the Border Patrol to do their job,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who traveled to McAllen County, Texas, earlier this month to meet with officials about the surge of child migrants into the United States.

Smugglers know where agents cannot patrol or monitor, Cruz said, so they target those areas when moving people across the border.

“It seems a commonsense reform to say that the border patrol should be able to fully access and patrol the border,” he said.

A House Republican working group led by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) this week recommended prohibiting the Interior and Forest Service from in any way hampering border patrol.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who accompanied Cruz, wants border security to play a larger role in how federal officials manage land. At a hearing this week in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she said officers sometimes cannot build roads or even trails on federal land.

“We’re not asking for a major highway around there, but … we need to think about national security issues and how we enforce our own laws, when you juxtapose that with other priorities within the federal agencies,” she said.

Murkowski is the top Republican on the energy panel, which oversees Interior.

Democrats aren’t buying the GOP’s argument.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said conservation issues are just one of the policies that are falling victim to the current crisis.

“These kids have become both the excuse and the reason that they can revisit some of these policies,” Grijalva said.

“You see everything from getting rid of [deferred action] because of the kids, we have to have troops on the border because of the kids, now we don’t need environmental regulations on public lands because of the kids.”

Grijalva said the Homeland Security Department has repeatedly told Congress that land protections don’t hamper border operations.

“If they’re talking about the most recent influx, it’s happening in areas that have nothing to do with protected federal lands,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “So I think it’s a specious argument to continue their anti-conservation agenda.”

This is not the first time that land restrictions have been drawn into the debate over border patrol.
Many Republicans criticized President Obama in May for creating the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, abutting the border in New Mexico.

The designation, said Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), will “place additional burdens on Border Patrol personnel and limit access to high crime areas along the border, making it easier for drug smugglers and human traffickers to move in and out of the country.”

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee’s subpanel with responsibility over national parks, has made border security a top issue, and introduced the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act in an attempt to ensure that the issue is prioritized over environmental conservation.

The Obama administration and congressional Democrats don’t see the problem.

Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said Interior, the Forest Service and Customs and Border Protection entered an agreement in 2006 to cooperate on the border.

“This [plan] has served to strengthen border security measures while at the same time protecting important natural and cultural resources located in national parks and national wildlife refuges and other public lands,” Kershaw said.

Kirk Emerson, an environmental law professor at the University of Arizona, said conservation and security issues often clashed in the last decade, when large expanses of border fence were being built rapidly.

“What I’m generally finding is that there are very few of those kinds of challenges on the ground now,” she said. “There’s more radio interoperability, some of the protocols that weren’t in place before are now in place for cooperation, and the cooperation works both ways.”

Emerson said federal land managers know how to accommodate border patrol officers, and noted that patrol officers are often the first ones to see environmental problems such as fires and report them.

Dinah Bear, an environmental attorney and consultant who works with border advocacy group Humane Borders, said officers don’t complain about land protections.

“We have a very close working relationship with the border patrol, and I have never heard the border patrol ever complain,” she said. “They are clearly puzzled as to why Congress keeps trying to give them more waivers of things that they don’t need.”

She said conservation has nothing to do with the current crisis, because the children and families aren’t trying to evade officers.

“In fact, the kids and the families are usually running toward the border patrol,” she said. “It’s not a question of border security.”