August 5, 2008
EL PASO, Texas (AFP) — Just west of El Paso, near where Spanish conquistador Juan de Onate crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico in 1598, construction crews have completed a steel fence authorities say is a new model for border security.
The five-meter (18-foot) tall fence has a mesh woven so tightly that feet and fingers cannot grab hold, but it still allows people to see through. Steel pylons are set close enough to stop a truck from bursting through, and two meters of reinforced concrete underground deters any tunneling.
The structure is designed to push would-be illegal immigrants and drug smugglers out into the desert where they are more easily caught, said Border Patrol Agent Martin Hernandez.
"Will it completely stop them from coming across? Of course not," Hernandez said. "Rest assured, there will eventually be holes in parts of the wall made by people trying to get in. But it buys us valuable time."
The US Department of Homeland Security is racing to meet a December 31 deadline to raise 670 miles of steel fences and vehicle barriers along the 3,200 kilometer (2,000 mile) long southern border. About half has been completed, including this six kilometer (four mile) segment at New Mexico's Santa Teresa Port of Entry.
But DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff faces a flurry of lawsuits by environmentalists and border communities that could stop construction cold.
To meet his deadline, Chertoff is using sweeping authority Congress granted in 2005 to waive 36 federal laws protecting water, air quality, endangered animals, and native American sites.
"The Great Wall of China did not stop the Mongols, and the Berlin Wall didn't stop people escaping to freedom -- why do they think this will be any different?" asked El Paso County Attorney Jose Rodriguez, the point man in one of the lawsuits.
The fence "is a political initiative meant to satisfy conservatives in Congress who have played to fears about all immigrants being terrorists, criminals, and living off the dole," he fumed.
The overwhelming majority of the half-million people believed to cross the border ilegally each year are peaceful, mostly Mexicans seeking low-wage jobs. About 12 percent of those caught in the El Paso sector in 2007, Hernandez said, have a criminal background or were previously deported from the United States.
The El Paso lawsuit argues that Chertoff's authority to waive federal law is unconstitutional. Dozens of groups have joined the suit, including the Tigua Indian tribe, which for centuries has held religious ceremonies on the banks of the Rio Grande, which marks the border between Texas and Mexico.
In El Paso, Chertoff's waiver overrides local rules on managing land use, air quality, and river water. "We have no idea to what extent we can enforce our own laws," said Rodriguez.
A separate lawsuit by Texas border mayors argues that Chertoff negotiated land prices in bad faith, failed to properly consult locals, and that landowners with connections to the US president -- a former Texas governor -- are getting special treatment.
Mexico is the second largest US trading partner after Canada, and border chambers of commerce involved in the lawsuit fear the immigration clampdown will hamper business.
Chertoff denies the charges, saying he is simply trying to complete what Congress ordered him to do. "The consequences of an open border are smuggling of drugs and human beings into this country," he said in mid-May.
-- Is the security clampdown stopping illegal border crossers? --
Many El Pasoans, including Fernando Garcia, head of the Border Network for Human Rights, note that the terrorists responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States did not cross the border with Mexico.
Yet the terrorist attacks "intensified and mixed anti-immigrant racist views with a law-enforcement-only approach towards immigration," he said.
The result was an increase in border security, including a flood of new resources that saw the Border Patrol double in size from 2001 to a planned 18,000 by the end of 2008.
In some areas illegal crossers are prosecuted as criminals, jailed briefly then deported. "That has a very significant deterrent impact," Chertoff said.
As a result, the Border Patrol reports a significant drop in the number of illegal border crossings this year compared to 2007, proof they say that increased enforcement works.
However those numbers represent only the number of people caught, immigration activists say.
"The main immigration flow has not stopped coming, it just shifted," said Josiah Heyman, a University of Texas at El Paso border expert.
Surveys in central Mexico, the source of most illegal immigration, show that show that most people are aware of the border crackdown yet are still willing to venture north, Heyman said.
According to Garcia, ten years ago some 100 people died annually illegally crossing the border, most by dehydration in the desert or drowning as they tried to cross the Rio Grande.
The figure has been around 500 since the border crackdown intensified in 2005. "In other words, the same number or more people are crossing the border," he claims.
He proposes handing between 60,000 and 100,000 temporary work visas a year to fill the US demand for cheap labor, then give the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country a way to legalize their status.
"The wall is symptomatic of the fact that the US is not responsive to a rational immigration policy," Heyman said. "It is symbolic politics of paranoia."
Outsiders fail to realize that residents have close family, business and historic ties to Mexico, border residents say.
El Paso Mayor John Cook is fond of saying the border unites, not divides, his city with neighboring Ciudad Juarez, forming a border metropolis of some 2.5 million people.
Agent Hernandez exemplifies the border's complexities. He grew up in a heavily immigrant area of El Paso, is fluent in Spanish, and in his youth frequently visited Ciudad Juarez, where he has relatives.
Now he, and thousands of other Hispanic agents like him from the border region, keep illegal aliens and drug smugglers out of the country.