December 28, 2008
EL PASO — The fence that the U.S. government is erecting along the border with Mexico had been a vague notion to Victor Serrano — until he drove by a new section near his house last month.
An 18-foot-high, steel-mesh structure planted in Jersey barriers stood behind a four-lane boulevard. The view of sprawling Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, was gone.
"I was like, oh, man, I can't believe this is happening," Serrano, 20, says, standing in his yard three blocks from the border. "We're actually going to have a Berlin Wall here."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has installed hundreds of miles of steel fence along the U.S.-Mexico border that stretches 1,934 miles from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. The $2-billion fence — or "wall," to opponents — is the most visible symbol of stepped-up U.S. efforts to stop illegal border crossings, and the most controversial.
As construction crews have moved into El Paso, a working-class, largely Hispanic city of 600,000 in Texas' western corner, emotions have intensified. Some residents quietly support the fence, saying it will make their city safer and improve conditions for legal El Paso residents. Many others say it will destroy the sense of community the two cities had.
The crews have been greeted with protests and lawsuits seeking to halt building. Local officials are pleading with President-elect Barack Obama to stop the project he voted for in late 2006, or to begin tearing it down.
"It does violence to our sense of community," says El Paso County Attorney José Rodriguez, whose county has sued the federal government over the fence. "For 400 years, people have been going back and forth across the river. All of a sudden for the first time, you see this major structure separating the communities."
Crossing the border
Fencing already blocks 70% of the 693-mile border in California, Arizona and New Mexico, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Border Patrol and Census Bureau figures.
Much of the border in those states is vacant desert. About half of the fencing is a thigh-high barrier aimed only at stopping vehicles.
A total of 670 miles of fence will be in place by the end of 2008, including sections at the east and west end of Texas' 1,241-mile border with Mexico. In the rest of the state, the Rio Grande will serve as the blockade.
The fence does not stop people from crossing the border legally. Thousands of cars from Juarez line up each day at the three bridges leading to El Paso, where visitors shop boulevards packed with discount stores offering $6 sweaters and $10 jeans.
Nor is fencing new to El Paso. A chain-link fence about 6 feet high has stood for years in the crusty embankment on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, which itself is virtually dry. The fence was useless, Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Ramiro Cordero says.
Cordero plays a surveillance-camera video showing people hauling bales of marijuana into El Paso through a slit in the fence.
Another video shows a pickup suspected of carrying marijuana escaping Border Patrol pursuit by driving through the fence into Juarez.
Five miles outside El Paso, in Sunland Park, N.M., where suburbs fade to desert, a five-strand barbed-wire fence stands in the sand. "This is what protected our country," Cordero says.
A few feet away, the new fence rises out of the desert and extends endlessly into the horizon. The quarter-inch-thick mesh still allows a view of Mexico but is weaved tightly enough to prevent easy climbing.
Cordero says the new fence will not stop people from digging underneath it, driving around it or cutting through it with a blowtorch. Nearly 2,000 people a day are caught trying to sneak into the USA from Mexico, Border Patrol figures show.
But in urban areas, where most of the border is under video surveillance, agents can spot someone trying to climb or cut the fence and have a few extra seconds to catch him before he enters the USA and disappears into a city, Cordero says.
"It makes the job a lot easier when you have that fence," he says.
In an El Paso neighborhood of small houses and neat lawns next to the border, Oscar Davila walks his two dogs and says the new fence makes him feel safer from the drug-related violence raging in Juarez. "We can stop people from coming here," says Davila, 42, a maintenance worker.
Ruben Alvarado, 55, a custodian whose mother and sister live in Juarez, is skeptical. "To me, Juarez and El Paso are the same city. I don't care how many fences you put up, the people will still try to come over illegally."
Serrano, the El Paso Community College student who recently saw the new fence for the first time, says it takes away some of his pride at being a frontera, a border resident. "What made us proud is that we can easily see Juarez," he says. "With the wall, it's like, are we allowed over there?"