San Antonio Express-News
December 29, 2008
BROWNSVILLE — U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a color map showing the progress on a border fence that isn't quite done — with the Rio Grande Valley the point of lasting stubbornness.
Agency officials are hailing the accomplishments on a barrier that looks vastly different from what many in middle America might envision, saying they will complete 90 percent of their 670-mile, end-of-year goal before President George W. Bush leaves office.
But what was to be one of Bush's bragging points met unforeseen opposition from landowners and city governments clinging to their traditional relationship with the Rio Grande and shared heritage with Mexico.
Many in the Valley sport “No Border Wall” bumper stickers on their cars, and hundreds have showed up to protest what's seen as an insult to Mexicans who fill their stores and restaurants. Environmentalists fear the yet-unknown impact on at least two nature preserves that will be cut off by the fence and say it will disrupt one of the nation's last habitats for rare wildcats.
In two cases, the government reached compromises — one to reinforce 22 miles of levee to double as a border wall, the other to repair and heighten an existing fence at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
Another 14.4 miles of fencing in sections in Rio Grande City, Roma and Los Ebanos has been delayed, with the government citing engineering difficulties due to Rio Grande flood plains.
As planned, the three segments would affect historic and picturesque areas, including Los Ebanos' famed hand-pulled ferry. But CBP spokeswoman Angela de Rocha said the areas had been identified as high-traffic smuggling zones and that fencing would still go up.
Of the 670-mile goal, CBP maps call for 300 miles of fencing to deter vehicles and 370 miles to discourage pedestrians.
As of Dec. 12, the agency had completed 278 miles of pedestrian fencing and 248 miles of vehicle fencing, leaving it 144 miles short. But all construction contracts have been let, and about 50 miles is going up per week, de Rocha said.
That rate could mean completion by the time Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff steps down.
Except maybe for the Valley.
Red patches on the map indicate construction that hasn't begun. Aside from two small dabs in New Mexico and south of El Paso, the red is in the Valley, interrupted by the compromise levee portion in Hidalgo County.
De Rocha said contracts had been let but that she didn't know when construction on the Valley's remaining miles would begin.
While border fencing was conceived with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and became a national goal with an address by Bush in 2006 on immigration, de Rocha said the groundwork was laid during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt set aside a federal easement along the border to be used for security, which has allowed fencing to go up in California, Arizona and New Mexico at a fast pace.
“Old Teddy was thinking ahead there,” she said.
From El Paso to the Valley, the government was able to build on levees it already owned via the U.S. arm of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which oversees the Rio Grande.
But in the Valley, levees can be a mile or more from the river, with private property in between. Planners have also been stumped by hydrology and engineering challenges with the flood plain, de Rocha said.
The government filed 293 condemnation actions to take land, of which about 180 were settled with landowners agreeing on a price. Another 113 have been “adversarial,” but some of them have also since been settled, Justice Department spokesman Andrew Ames said.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, who has heard the cases, has ruled that the government has a right to the land in about 170 cases, but the possession has been piecemeal and has impeded access to build. He has agreed to allow some cases to go to trial so a jury can hear evidence on fair compensation, though in some cases the government already has possession.
There are hopes that Janet Napolitano, President-elect Barack Obama's pick for Homeland Security secretary, might back down on unconstructed segments or use a late provision allowing the department to change plans, but Napolitano has not indicated that.
Border Patrol Assistant Chief Lloyd Easterling said Congress mandated the 670 miles and that it was too soon to tell whether his agency would ask for more.
“We're funded for the 670 miles, and we're going to get that part completed and then from there we're going to try to assess what we've done and evaluate,” he said.
But Easterling said the fence was fulfilling the goal of slowing unauthorized border crossings, part of a three-pronged approach of fencing, technology and personnel.
“In some cases, even a few seconds (of slowing down border crossers) is what we're after, where we didn't have that long before,” he said. “They either have to burrow under it, which we've seen, or they have to go over it or cut through it, and those things are easily seen.”
Arrest numbers are down 17 percent since the fence was built, and while the economy may be deterring job seekers, the numbers don't correspondent with dips from previous economic slowdowns, Easterling said.
“I'm not going to tell you we've won any battles or any war, but we're definitely headed in the right direction,” he said.
Fighting for a higher price, meanwhile, was a battle considered worthwhile for Valley landowners, some of whose properties have been in their families since Spanish land grants in the 1700s.
UT-Brownsville Professor Eloisa Tamez, who has become the poster child for anti-fence landowners, said the glitch now was getting land appraisals with all area appraisers already contracted to work for the government. Her case is scheduled for trial in the spring.
Overall, she's lost faith in a government she said is violating the Constitution and trampling on mostly poor, mostly Hispanic landowners.
“One wonders, is there any justice at all in the implementation of this mandate?” she said.
“We're still in America, we're not an appendage of America.”
“It's been a tough year,” she said. “But for now, it ends on a good note. There's no wall in my backyard.”