Monday, September 29, 2008

Border wall sparks big debate in small town

San Antonio Express-News

September 29, 2008

By Hernan Rozemberg

PRESIDIO — This tiny border city in the Chihuahuan Desert has steered clear of international political controversy since the Mexican Revolution nearly a century ago, when Pancho Villa set up his headquarters in Ojinaga, across the Rio Grande, after capturing the town in a bloody assault.

But although people here are now mostly worried about a major flood threat after massive water releases from Mexican reservoirs, their attention might soon return to the issue that for months has placed them amid the uproar known as the border fence.

The Department of Homeland Security is following a congressional mandate to erect nearly 700 miles of barriers along the 1,952-mile border with Mexico by the end of this year. Some 346 miles are in place.

The move has drawn opposition up and down the border, with national attention focused on the fierce legal showdown taking place in South Texas, where many border landowners are fighting government efforts to condemn land for the project.

Hundreds of miles away in the middle of the desert, Presidio hasn't made national headlines, though a similar outcry is taking place over plans to build 6 miles of fencing to straddle the international bridge here.

With about 5,000 people and the only legal crossing point between El Paso and Del Rio, it's not known as a hub for illegal activity. It's in the Border Patrol's Marfa Sector, the agency's largest — with 510 miles of border — but by far its least active.

In the fiscal year that ends Tuesday, the sector has seen 4,741 illegal crossers detained and nearly 54,665 pounds of marijuana and cocaine seized. That pales in comparison with areas such as the Rio Grande Valley Sector, where agents have netted 94,225 crossers and 387,241 pounds of drugs.

In Presidio, the Border Patrol wanted to replace river levees — federal property, no private land affected — with guardrail-topped concrete walls. But the agency put the project on hold when bids estimated the cost at $20 million per mile, or about $120 million in total.

Going back to the drawing board, the government intends to ask engineers to retool the wall design to bring costs down. But construction has now been pushed back to July 1 thanks to that and flood delays, said Angela De Rocha, a Border Patrol spokeswoman in Washington.

Neither De Rocha nor Bill Brooks, spokesman for the Marfa Sector, would comment on why the agency deemed Presidio, a small town in no man's land, an “urban area” akin to other border cities targeted for fencing, such as Laredo and Brownsville.

But Brooks and his bosses spoke at length for months to the local media and in public meetings on why they sought fencing in Presidio.

Actually, they had asked for fencing for years, even before Congress approved the move two years ago. They said the concrete wall would both protect low-lying areas in Presidio from flooding and push illegal crossers and drug traffickers away from downtown, making them easier targets for border agents.

“It only takes a couple of minutes, and once (crossers) get into the community then they're lost to us,” Brooks told the Marfa-based Big Bend Sentinel in May. “So the point of the fence is to make them go around.”

Many community leaders and local residents said they'd reluctantly buy the anti-flooding argument. But try the national security claim and they scoff.

“I'm completely against the concept of fencing the border,” said Presidio County Judge Jerry Agan, who ended a 29-year career with the Border Patrol in 1999 as deputy chief of the Marfa Sector. “They've done quite a few things that have gotten away from the agency's mission, such as the fence.”

Other officials, from the Presidio city manager to chamber of commerce board members, concurred with Agan's assessment, arguing that a fence would go against the area's historic rapprochement — Presidio is composed mostly of Mexicans who migrated north of the river from Ojinaga.

The Mexican government has consistently labeled the move a slap in the face to cross-border partnership.

Raul Acosta, who has served for two years as the Mexican consul in Presidio, said strained relations would be devastating, since in such a desolate region, the border towns lead an “existence in complete mutual dependence.”

Presidio's reliance on Mexican shoppers became evident in recent weeks, as major floods in Ojinaga closed the international bridge, leaving stores along Presidio's main drag nearly empty.
The bridge is still closed, and folks in Presidio now are without ready access to health services — most typically seek treatment in Ojinaga, since the closest clinic on the U.S. side is 250 miles away in Odessa.

Terry Bishop, who moved to Presidio when he was a teenager and now runs his family's 2,000-acre farm, as well as a golf course, is against the fence politically, but can accept it as a flood-control measure.

“They're going to build it no matter what, so let's at least try to do something right with it,” said Bishop, 54, who leases portions of his property, which is next to the levee, to the government.
A mile or so up the road, preparing to throw just-sliced pork chops on the grill, Polo Pérez was not so willing to give the Border Patrol the benefit of the doubt.

As he saw it, resources are scarce in these parts, and it would make sense that the government invest its millions not in a border fence but in common-sense, needed projects, said Pérez, 50, who is married with three children.

Most roads, such as his, are dirt or gravel and could use paving, he said as two pickups drove by, kicking up plumes of dust. And it would be great to have a local hospital, he added.

That's just for starters — if the government wants it, he could quickly make a longer list, Pérez said.

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