January 21, 2009
Federal bureaucrats call it the "border fence." The residents along the Texas-Mexico border say it's a wall echoing the Cold War. And south of the Rio Grande, Governor Humberto Moreira of the Mexican state of Coahuila has dubbed it a "wall of hate." But no matter what the controversial barrier being constructed between Mexico and the U.S. is called, the $1.6 billion, 670-mile-long first phase is close to completion as President Barack Obama enters office.
And for Obama, who voted for the border-fence bill back in 2006, the barrier may be best described as a big potential headache. Opponents are already appealing to him to halt construction and re-evaluate the project. But so far, the new Administration has given no indication that it is seriously considering doing so. While it has said it will make comprehensive immigration reform a priority, a spokesperson told TIME that Obama supports the fence "as long as it is one part of a larger strategy on border security that includes more boots on the ground and increased use of technology."
This, despite repeated pleas from border Democratic officeholders, residents with family and business ties on both sides of the river, and conservationists who fear their 30-year effort to string parcels of land into a necklace of treasured preserves for native fauna and flora will be destroyed as the acreage ends up in a riverside no-man's-land. On Wednesday, Obama's first day in office, advocates of immigration reform are holding a rally in Washington in which a multisectarian group of religious leaders will give the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Building a ritualistic cleansing to highlight the call to end workplace immigration raids and the construction of the border fence. (See pictures of the fence between the U.S. and Mexico.)
A map on the home page of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website shows the daily progress of the border-fence construction — green for completed, yellow for under construction and red for planned. There is a line of green and yellow for the 693-mile border between Mexico and the states of California, Arizona and New Mexico. The colors turn to red on the far western and eastern edges of the 1,241-mile Mexico-Texas border. In between, there are just small patches of red, since only 110 miles of Texas border fence are planned in the initial stage.
But those 110 miles have proved the most problematic for the Department of Homeland Security, the agency charged with overseeing the project. While much of the U.S. land on the border west of Texas is held by the Federal Government or large landowners, the projects planned for Texas involve negotiating with a hodgepodge of cities, private landowners, tribal lands, farmers and conservationists.
"It's a sorry piece of work," says Mayor Chad Foster of Eagle Pass, Texas. Foster chairs the Texas Border Coalition, a group of cities, landowners, nonprofit conservation groups and Native American tribal communities that has sued the Federal Government to block construction in some areas. Plans in Eagle Pass, some 500 miles east of El Paso, call for the wall — now about 30% complete — to cross a municipal golf course. Initially, the city welcomed the idea of stadium lights on the bluff overlooking the city and the construction of a decorative fence, but when the plans were revealed, the wall-like barrier prompted community opposition. "One size doesn't fit all," insists Foster, whose community of some 50,000 people has close business ties to neighboring Piedras Negras, a city three times the size of its U.S. neighbor. He has pressed for a variety of alternative approaches, including the use of sensors to detect illegal movement and the eradication of "Carrizo cane" — an invasive, nonnative, tall river weed that provides easy hiding places along the riverbanks.
Meanwhile, south of the river, Moreira is planning a "green wall" of 400,000 tress along a 217-mile stretch of the border as a symbol of Mexico's protest. The green wall will provide sanctuary for the deer and other animals that normally cross to and fro between the two countries, Foster says. A confirmed supporter of President Bush, Foster believes that Bush, as governor, shared a widely held view in the region that Texas has a symbiotic relationship with Mexico. "I feel let down. I see the President as a fixer," Foster says. He believes "weighty issues" like Iraq distracted Bush, while national media voices like Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and CNN's Lou Dobbs have fanned national sentiment on the border fence. "I am optimistic that with border governors like Governor [Janet] Napolitano, Obama is getting people in the Cabinet who understand the border," Foster says. (See who's who in Barack Obama's White House.)
But for Texas conservationists, any shift may come too late, according to Laura Huffman, state director of the Texas Nature Conservancy. In the last week of 2008, the Department of Homeland Security sued the conservancy in a condemnation proceeding involving the Lennox Southmost Preserve, a 1,000-acre parcel that is just that — southmost — where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, Texas. The preserve, bought in 1999 by the conservancy for $2.5 million, is home to a rare grove of native sabal palms through which endangered ocelots and rare jaguarundi roam.
The Federal Government has condemned a narrow strip of land about 60 ft. wide and 6,000 ft. long running across the preserve and has offered to compensate the nonprofit with a $114,000 payment. The fence will effectively place 800 acres of the peninsula south of the wall, including equipment sheds, management offices and the preserve's on-site warden's home. Several small, organic farm plots leased to locals will also be in the no-man's-land. A similar fate is facing an adjoining sabal plam preserve owned by the Audubon Society. Huffman fears that the endangered palms, prized as garden totems, will be susceptible to poachers.
The preserve is just one of several linked along the river that attract visitors from all around the world, particularly bird watchers — last April, the sighting of a rare South American fork-tailed flycatcher, not seen in the area since 1879, attracted more than 2,000 visitors. "What's sad is, this threatens the effort, the partnership — public, private and nonprofits — that has worked together in this area," Huffman says. The wall may shatter a three-year, $100 million effort to restore habitats and preserve vital native species, she says.
The conservancy plans to pursue all legal remedies, including joining this month's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court by the border coalition group to strike down Homeland Security's waiver of 32 federal, state, local and tribal environmental rules in order to construct the fence — a power granted by Congress when the agency was established in the aftermath of 9/11. The department does not comment on the 300-plus lawsuits making their way through the courts. In visits to the region, Homeland Security Chairman Michael Chertoff has said the numerous lawsuits have slowed progress, but 90% to 95% of the initial 670 miles will either be completed or have had ground broken as Bush leaves office.
As for opponents in Brownsville, on the eastern end of the Texas-Mexico border, they plan a symbolic retirement party for Chertoff this week complete with piñatas and mariachi music.
Even an 11th-hour announcement by the Bush Administration promising $50 million in mitigation projects to address environmental and cultural issues in sensitive areas, including tribal lands, has not impressed opponents and is likely to be reviewed by the incoming Administration.
"The wall will surely hurt American interests all across the Americas for a whole generation," wrote State Representative Elliott Shapleigh, a Democrat and a fifth-generation El Pasoan, in a recent Op-Ed. "Is it too much too soon to ask that this wall come down or is it the right thing to do at the right time in history? If not now, when? If not under President-elect Barack Obama, then who?"
Watch a video of Texans fighting the border fence.