Thursday, August 14, 2008

Border Fence Fight Comes to Los Ebanos, Texas

Texas Public Radio
August 13, 2008

David Martin Davies - Texas Public Radio News

August 13, 2008 · The Rio Grande forms the Texas 1,255-mile border with Mexico from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. But it is only at Los Ebanos where people can cross the river not with a bridge but with a hand-pulled ferry.

The Los Ebanos ferry is a part of the border that time forgot. Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Hidalgo County this crossing has existed as a popular place to ford the Rio Grande since the days of Spanish colonization. Then like now the summer sound of the cicadas pulsate in the breeze.

The hand pulled ferry went into operation in the 1850’s and has seen few improvements since then. The ferry is still tethered by a thick rope tied around the base of a large Texas Ebony tree.

And it’s still muscle power that propels the flat bottom barge from Texas to Mexico and back again.

But one difference evident today is the ferry now hauls large pick-up trucks over the border – a maximum 3 at a time and no more than 12 passengers.

“We are doing it old school here,” said Mark Alvarez is the captain of the ferry and operations manager. In order to function as a recognized international port of entry the Los Ebanos ferry needs a fully licensed captain. Alvarez went to school and passed the tests even though his ship travels less than a quarter of a mile per journey.Alvarez says the ferry averages about 40 cars a day. If it weren’t for this crossing the motorists would have to drive an additional 40 miles to get to Diaz Ordaz, the town on the other side of the river.

“It saves them time and money,” he said.

During Prohibition Los Ebanos was known as “Smugglers Crossing.” In this post 9-11 era with the construction of hundreds of miles of border fencing it would seem doubtful that the Department of Homeland Security will allow a smugglers crossing to continue to exist on its southern border. But Captain Alvarez says the hand-pulled ferry will continue to its voyages.

“They have been here measuring for the wall, but it’s not going to effect the port of entry. It's just going to be built surrounding it. It’s not going to close me off. Our doors are still going to be open to Mexico and the United States is still going to have traffic coming and going,” he said.

Critical to the Department of Homeland Security’s plan for securing this stretch of the border is fencing off the undeveloped land on either side of the Los Ebanos ferry.

Both properties are owned by Pamela Rivas. The 16 acres have been in her family for generations. She is refusing to allow the Army Corp of Engineers to survey her land for the anti-illegal immigration border fence. She said she doesn’t want to sell her land to the Department of Homeland Security at any price because she’s opposed to the concept of the border barrier.

“I don’t think it’s going to serve a purpose. It’s a waste of money. You know taxpayers money just for a wall that I don’t think is going to detain anybody. They can go through it, over it, under it,” Rivas said.

Rivas and other opposition landowners were sued by the Department of Homeland security to get access to the land. They lost that round in court. Then last month the family drove to New Orleans for the appeal.

This is the first border fence landowner dispute that reached the appeallate court level. But Rivas isn’t happy with the result. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it won’t over turn the lower court decision.

The federal appeals court said it did not have the jurisdiction to rule on the case because the government had not finished the condemnation of the land in Los Ebanos.

The Department of Homeland Security has already filed final condemnation lawsuits against Rivas using imminent domain, but there’s a hold up. U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen has not scheduled a hearing. All these legal wranglings are causing critical delays for Homeland Security which is working to meet a congressional deadline to complete 670 miles of barriers on the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of the year.

“Their plan wasn’t as good as it looked on paper,” said Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid attorney Tino Gallegos who represents Rivas against DHS, Gallegos said officials at Homeland Security are realizing the border region is more complicated than they first thought.

“You’re not just building a fence in the middle of nowhere that won’t affect anybody – except for the wildlife that has to try and pass through it. It affects people and their way of life and their communities – they’re not so easily pushed aside,” he said.

Homeland Security has made some compromised on the Texas Border to achieve some of its fencing objectives. But there are some places like in Los Ebanos where landowners like Rivas say compromise isn’t an option.

And it looks like it will be up to the courts to decide if the border fence will come to the part of the border that time forgot.

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