Thursday, November 13, 2008

Border leaders want state to oppose fence

Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
November 13, 2008

AUSTIN — Leaders from Texas-Mexico border communities asked state legislators Thursday to help them take a stand against a federal border fence that they say harms business, culture and wildlife habitat.

Although the state doesn't have jurisdiction over the border fence, Texas lawmakers should create a committee that would work to improve talks among local officials, landowners and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada testified at the Capitol. He joined other members of the Texas Border Coalition in urging that the Texas Legislature pass a state resolution opposing the fence.

"It does affect the state of Texas," Ahumada told a hearing organized by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. "My message to Uncle Sam ... is tear down this wall."

He said meetings between local and federal officials have been one-sided, with national politicians wanting "to appease a certain group at our expense."

Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Laura Keehner said the government has worked with many border property owners and local communities. She said the department relies on Border Patrol agents to provide advice on where fencing would be most useful.

In Hidalgo County, local officials won an agreement with the federal government to combine a fence with much-needed levee improvements along the river.

"Congress has mandated that we build a fence along the southern border," Keehner said, when contacted in Washington after the hearing. "We are on our way to fulfilling that mandate."

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, a Brownsville Democrat, said the Mexican American caucus would use the information it gathers when the state Legislature convenes in January and would share it with members of Congress.

"I grew up embracing the border culture," Lucio said. He said he finds it "very disheartening" that authorities from other parts of the country are telling border residents how to live. "I have never in my lifetime felt like questioning the government more than at this particular time."

Some legislators and witnesses said they are hopeful the change in presidential administrations will improve relations between border residents and the federal government. President-elect Barack Obama voted for the fence as a U.S. senator from Illinois.

State Rep. Tracy King, an Eagle Pass Democrat, sent a letter to Thursday's meeting stating that most residents of his area oppose the fence.

"We like to say that we are two communities connected by a river, not divided by one," he wrote of Eagle Pass and its sister city, Piedras Negras, Mexico.

Texas Border Coalition members said they prefer increased border enforcement efforts and measures such as removal of carrizo cane and salt cedar along the Rio Grande to eliminate hiding places for illegal crossers.

"The border wall has been built on a false premise that one size fits all," Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas said.

People crossing the border illegally will find ways to get over, under and through a fence, the border leaders said, adding that the fence is a waste of money. They again called for immigration solutions that allow documented immigrants to come into the country to help satisfy labor needs.

Of the 670 miles of fencing the Department of Homeland Security plans to build along the U.S.-Mexico border, the staunchest opposition has arisen in Texas. In the Rio Grande Valley, rich agricultural land runs to the banks of the Rio Grande.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry has said he opposes a fence along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, although he said some "strategic fencing" in urban areas makes sense.

John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, said the fence isn't cost effective and that his members are worried about fence building well north of the actual border, making U.S. land south of the fence a "no man's land."

"Land values will plummet there, and that's the issue for my guys," he said.

Other witnesses told of environmental harm they said the fence creates; historic sites they said will be affected; and costly legal fights that local, often poor, landowners are being forced to wage.

Fence construction is under way in the Big Bend region and threatens the area for those who enjoy living there and for visitors, said Adrienne Evans of Terlingua, co-founder of No Wall-Big Bend Coalition.

The fence essentially moves the U.S.-Mexico border farther north and won't stop people from crossing into the United States unless the fence is militarized, she said.

"This is a turning point in our state's history," Evans said. "Where does this insanity end, exactly? Who will stop it?"

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