Friday, October 31, 2008

Amigos, Divided: Along the Texas-Mexico border, security fencing impacts more than illegal immigration

The Yale Globalist
October 30, 2008

In Eagle Pass, Texas, familiar faces greet each other with “Hey y’all” and “Hola amigos” from beneath the brims of Stetson hats and sombre- ros. This border city boasts the closest relationship with its neighbors across the Rio Grande of any municipality in the Lone Star State.

Eagle Pass is just across a bridge from Piedras Negras, Mexico. While the towns lie in two countries, they have operated as one community for generations.

But as the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) constructs a fence along the southern U.S. border in an attempt to combat illegal immigration, these vecinos y amigos—neighbors and friends—will face more than a physical divide.

Eagle Pass and the Peso
Zapopan Rodriguez Moran crossed the international bridge connecting Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, her young niece tagging along in the humid Texas heat.

“We cross into Eagle Pass one or two times a week,” she said, fidgeting for her papers before arriving at Border Patrol. “It helps us buy things for a little bit cheaper.”

The businesses of Commercial Street in the heart of Eagle Pass receive 90 percent of their market from Mexican shoppers, who cross the bridge to buy products ranging from Western wear to tortillas.

Eagle Grocery, located on Commercial Street, is one of many Eagle Pass businesses dependent on the peso. Owners Benny and Angie Rodriguez said that even though fencing between the cities will not directly impede legal foot traffic, they are worried about the “ill feelings” the barrier could generate.

“The wall is more of an emotional barrier than it is a physical barrier,” said Angie Rodriguez. “Just seeing it will in fact send a message to the Mexicans that they are not welcome.”

Rodriguez is one of many Texas residents opposed to the fence because of the threat it could pose to maintaining amicable relations with Mexico and its citizens.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Wall
Moran returned to Piedras Negras hours lat- er with grocery bags in hand. As she passed over the riverbank of the Rio Grande, hidden Border Patrol officials eyed the tall grasses for any traces of illegal crossings.

Standing on the bridge with a clear view of the two towns, Moran wondered out loud how a fence might change their longstanding friendship. “We are not sure how it will af- fect us,” she admitted apprehensively. “Our Leaders of many Texas border towns have fought fervently against the fence. They argue that the Rio Grande, which has served as a natural boundary between Texas and Mexico since 1848, should be reinforced with technology and security before the government resorts to physical barriers. neighbors in Texas used to embrace us with friendship, but now I think everything will change.”

Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass, has been fighting this change from the start. He explained how the Department of Homeland Security came to Eagle Pass in January 2006 to give a presentation to the city council, pro- posing a number of new border patrol measures.

These measures were part of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized the con- struction of double-reinforced steel fencing and the installation of lighting, cameras, ve- hicle barriers, and other security measures along the U.S.-Mexico border. At a cost of $49 billion, the Secure Fence Act mandates the construction of 700 miles of fencing through- out the 1,200 miles of border dividing the U.S. and Mexico.

The city council agreed to all proposals except for one: they firmly rejected the idea that a fence might divide Eagle Pass from Piedras Negras.

Foster said DHS officials returned to Eagle Pass in 2007 with a compromise plan that did not include the fence provision. The proposal passed on a three-two vote.

When the mayor asked the two dissenting council members why they voted against the plan, they said they did not trust DHS. Twelve days later, government representatives insisted their hands were tied by the Secure Fence Act, which allows for the construction of physical barriers regardless of objections by local communities. Fence construction would proceed as originally proposed.

Foster worked with the Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials from El Paso to Brownsville, on two separate letters of objection. Neither received a response.

“The first time Eagle Pass got a letter, we were sued for 233 acres of land to begin the project,” Foster said of the ex parte lawsuit filed by DHS in January 2008. “We were sucker-punched.”

The Texas Border Coalition punched back, suing the Department of Homeland Security, but ultimately Foster lost the fight.

City Attorney Eddie Morales said Eagle Pass officials ultimately gave DHS right of entry to the property because they deter- mined it would be “impossible” to win their case against the government.

The United States Army Corps of Engi- neers and DHS have now begun construction on 1.5 miles of fencing in Eagle Pass, a project they aim to complete to “a point of no return” by December 2008.

Salt Cedar Security
The Department of Homeland Security claims that the fence, in combination with doubling the size of border patrol and up- grading to the newest technologies, will help prevent undocumented immigrants, terrorist threats, and illegal substances from crossing the border.

“The bottom line that people need to rec- ognize is that the operational need for the fence is driving our priorities here,” DHS spokesperson laura Keehner told the Glo- balist. “Community activists and landowners need to understand that this is something that is operationally necessary for national security.”

According to DHS, the fence will force illegal traffic to pass through the miles of border left unfenced, which will improve the monitoring capabilities of Border Patrol.

Project construction stages vary across the border, but Keehner explained that fencing progress in California, Arizona, and New Mexico is much further along than in Texas.

Leaders of many Texas border towns have fought fervently against the fence. They argue that the Rio Grande, which has served as a natural boundary between Texas and Mexico since 1848, should be reinforced with technology and security before the govern- ment resorts to physical barriers.

“Our position is that security is a priority, but we feel we can secure Texas if we eradicate the cane and salt cedar and update our technology,” Foster said in reference to the nonnative brush lining the Rio Grande that provides a hiding spot for undocumented immigrants.

Foster offered an explanation for the disconnect with decision-makers in Washington. “San Diego, California is the only border sector with a Congressional liaison office in Washington, and the only border area that Congress officials can take a direct flight to,” Foster said. “Congress officials return from their visits to San Diego thinking they’ve seen a representative sector of the border, when that is far from the truth.” He accused the government of applying blanket policies like the fence that overlook the inherent differences between the Texas-Mexico border and other border regions.

From Fighting to Adjusting
Despite objections by local officials, construction is under way and already impact- ing every citizen in Eagle Pass.

Since flood planes prevent construction along the river, DHS must build through pri- vate property and public grounds to meet its construction goal in Eagle Pass. Conse- quently, the new border fence will separate the city from its public park and divide Eagle Pass from the intake system for its water supply.

Robert Gonzales, general manager of the Eagle Pass Water Works System, originally fought against the fence, but now that con- struction is underway, he is working with DHS to assure the water intake system is preserved.

“There is no question that most every- body would not want to have the wall, but how we feel and think about it versus how we can address it in the best, most sensible way are obviously two different things,” Gonzales said. “If we’re going to get it one way or another, we might as well look into the seriousness of it and how we’re going to try to adjust.”

Rick Chisum, an Eagle Pass resident who leases the land that holds the biweekly flea market near the bridge to Piedras Niegras, is considering how he will adapt to the changes the fence will bring.

“My business will be affected in the sense that the Mexicans will not feel as welcome,” Chisum said. “I was thinking about putting a pole in the market with the Mexican flag to encourage the people on the other side of the border that we are with them.

Division versus Diplomacy
While Gonzales and Chisum work to ad- just to a new reality in Eagle Pass, the debate over the fence continues among politicians and diplomats who fear the effect it will have on the relationship between Mexico and the United States.

“A fence alone won’t protect us from those who want to harm us,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Commit- tee on Homeland Security of the U.S. House of Representatives. “Even DHS has come to realize that we need an integrated approach that combines personnel, equipment, tech- nology and infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, Juan Manuel Nungaray, minister of North American Relations for the Office of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City, emphasized the importance of diplomacy, rather than division, in Mexican-American relations.

“The fence is only a political move,” he said. “The U.S. government knows they need immigration, but this is a concession to con- servatives before the 2008 election to show them that they are doing something about immigration.”

Nungaray continued, “The wall will not curb immigration. People will pass through difficult pathways, which will lead to more deaths, but they will continue to go because many can make a better life for themselves there.”

Nungaray, whose three brothers immi- grated to the U.S., said the upcoming administration must consider its relationship with Mexico to be a cooperative partnership of supply and demand.

“Somos vecinos y amigos,” he said, ex- tending his hand. “We are neighbors and friends.”

Handshakes and Heartaches
In northern Mexico, Mayor Foster shared a handshake and a hug with Jesus Mario Flores Garza, then-mayor of Piedras Negras, as they sat down to discuss the fence.

“The relationship between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras will definitely change,” Garza said. “Our customs come from many years of being united, and our ways of life will not be the same.”

“This is una verguenza,” Foster said. “A disgrace.” “I respect the rights of the U.S. to protect itself, but there are many ways besides walls to protect a country,” Garza, a close colleague and friend of Foster, continued.“Walls have long been a part of history, and they always fall, they always fail.”

Catherine Cheney is a junior Political Science and International Studies double major in Trumbull College and a senior editor for the Globalist.

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