Saturday, February 28, 2009

Border fence topic of CAB meeting

February 27, 2009
Nogales International
By Jim Price

Construction of the new border fence from Smuggler’s Gulch to Kino Springs was the key topic of the January 2009 meeting at the Citizens Advisory Board to the U.S. Border Patrol (Nogales Station). CAB members were taken to the start point for a view of the steel and concrete barrier that was completed the following week.

Access roads created as part of the barrier project permit rapid response to sensor activation and phone tips. Faster access is yielding a significant reduction in area traffic by forcing the bad guys to move away from more populated areas.

Horses rounded up during drug interventions are treated for injuries and malnourishment according to Border Patrol agents responding to queries from local ranchers. The agents also reported the discovery of 14 new tunnels during the past government fiscal year.

At the February meet, CAB members learned that another 10 tunnels were located between Oct. 1, 2008, and Jan. 19, 2009. The National Tunnel Remediation Task Team filled these tunnels with about 300 yards of cement in recent weeks.

Another critical topic was the release of information regarding Mexico’s equivalent to our 911 system, the 066 Emergency Service Dispatch. Created by a 1999 Presidential Decree, 066 is a highly sophisticated 7-24-365 hook-up that can contact emergency services and law enforcement in Mexico and the United States with incredible clarity and speed. The northern Sonora grid known as C4 ranges from San Luis to Agua Prieta and from Nogales to Cd. Obregon.

As an adjunct, Mexico has erected two camera towers to provide surveillance along the border in Ambos Nogales. They have played a role in cutting crime on the U.S. side as well as in Mexico.

Behind the Troop Surge at the U.S.-Mexico Border

February 28, 2009
Ioan Grillo

The ebbing stretch of Rio Grande that divides the Texas city of El Paso from the Mexican city of Juarez may soon become one of the world's most militarized borders. This week, as Texas Governor Rick Perry went to El Paso to announce that has asked Washington for 1,000 more "boots on the ground" to enforce the border, Mexico's government ordered 5,000 extra soldiers to Juarez. The armies massing on both sides of the border are marching against a common foe — drug cartels — and the coming months will be a crucial test as to whether they can effectively work together to fight it.

The Rio Grande "surge" comes amid a growing wave of drug-related bloodshed across Mexico that has visited some of its worst violence on Juarez. The sprawling industrial border city of 1.6 million became Mexico's murder capital in 2008, with more than 1,600 drug related killings, and this year's toll looks set to be even higher, with 250 killings in February alone. Mexican authorities were particularly shaken by a Sunday ambush against local state governor Jose Reyes Baeza's three-car convoy that killed one of his bodyguards. On Wednesday, President Felipe Calderon flew to Juarez for an emergency security meeting, which was plagued by three bomb scares. The following day, the army announced it would send 5,000 troops to back up the 2,000 soldiers already patrolling the streets of Juarez to fight the gangsters. A Baghdad-style surge, the Mexican government hopes, will quell the slaughter. (See images of the U.S.-Mexico border fence)

North of the river, Perry gave a news conference about his troop request on Tuesday while flanked by gun-wielding officers at El Paso's Chamizal National Memorial — a park that celebrates the buoyant border culture and flies U.S. and Mexican flags side by side. "I don't care if they are military, National Guard or customs agents," he said. "We're very concerned that the Federal government is not funding border security adequately. We must be ready for any contingency." Perry was not clear, however, as to exactly what the troops would do to fight the drug gangs. The violence on the Mexican side is not confined to Juarez, but has also exploded down the river in Reynosa, where earlier this month a series of simultaneous firefights locked the city down for four hours. Last week, Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw named Mexican gangs as "the most significant threat Texas faces," while asking the state legislature for $135 million to boost his department. But Texas border towns have proven remarkably immune to the bloodshed across the river — El Paso had one of the lowest murder rates among U.S. cities, although many have lost loved ones across the river. Violence exported from Mexico has risen sharply, instead, in key trafficking points in the U.S. interior, such as Phoenix, Arizona, and Atlanta, Georgia.

Mexico's immediate reaction to Perry's call for reinforcements was largely ignored by Calderon and his top security officials this week. However, they did applaud the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for its "Operation Xcellerator," a sting that has netted 755 suspected Mexican cartel members and seized 23 tons of drugs over several months. Rep. Roberto Badillo, secretary of the National Defense Committee in the Mexican Congress, said he had no opposition to the U.S. bolstering its southern border. "They have every right to move troops around and do whatever they feel necessary to defend their nation and its sovereignty," he told TIME. But he made a point of warning that the U.S. forces should stay firmly on their side of the river. "I would never, ever, support the intervention of foreign troops in our territory, and that is the way that 99.9% of Mexicans think," he said.

The specter of U.S. troops fighting the cartel armies on Mexican soil is not simply a product of paranoia, however. The possibility was raised in a Pentagon policy document last December. The report by U.S. Joint Forces Command, entitled "Joint Operating Environment 2008", focuses on the challenges potentially facing the U.S. military over the next 25 years. It speculates that the Mexican state could face "a rapid and sudden collapse" from the onslaught of cartel paramilitary armies, and says the U.S. forces would have to respond to such a threat. "Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone," it says.

The Pentagon report set off alarm bells in Mexico City, with Calderon characterizing the notion that Mexico could collapse as "false," "clearly mistaken," and "totally disproportionate." But some of Mexico's intellectuals and opposition politicians say the idea may not be that far-fetched. Rep. Jose Alfonso Suarez de Real of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party said that the level of insecurity in Juarez shows that the state is, in fact, failing there. Alongside the killings, there has been a wave of extortion, kidnapping and robbery, leading to thousands of residents packing their bags and leaving. "Even many Juarez politicians are keeping their families on the U.S. side for safety. How can you say the state is functioning normally under these conditions?" Suarez de Real asked. "When you have this level of killing, and it is Mexicans against Mexicans, it can only be understood as a civil war.",8599,1882363,00.html

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Texas town survives despite new border barrier: Residents say security fence has done little to stop immigrants from coming

February 25, 2009
Associated Press / MSNBC

GRANJENO, Texas - When the government announced plans to build a new fence along portions of the Mexican border, residents of this sleepy town along the Rio Grande feared the barrier would cut them off from their backyards and even destroy some homes.

Nearly two years later, the project is almost finished, and the village of Granjeno has managed to hang on — as have the illegal immigrants who still pour through town by climbing over or walking around the nearly two-mile barricade designed to keep them out.

Instead of building a steel fence, the government agreed to turn an existing earthen levee into a stronger concrete one, which was supposed to both keep out illegal traffic and offer the village improved flood protection. The levee is now taller, with a sheer 18-foot drop on the side that faces Mexico.

"The wall is going to help us in the future for a big flood. We're not against that," said Daniel Garza, 76, a lifelong resident. "But border security it ain't going to help. It's getting worse."

This village of 330 people was founded on Spanish land grants in 1767, and most residents are descended from three families who survived the Spanish, the Mexicans and the short-lived Republic of Texas to become Americans. They live in modest frame houses and often take walks down toward the Rio Grande in the evenings.

In 2007, the Department of Homeland Security planned to build a double- or triple-layer fence as much as two miles from the river on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. Residents feared their community would wither if it were divided by the fence.

The original plan would have restricted access to the river and to valuable farm land. Parts of the fence would have run straight through existing houses or back yards.

By using the levee as a barrier, the government eliminated the need to take any private property. Now the $20 million concrete barrier is nearly done. The houses have been saved, and families still have river access.

Increased foot traffic
But most residents say the barrier has done little to stop immigrant traffic. Some people have reported large groups of illegal immigrants simply running around the ends of the levee or climbing over the top.

Garza, who lives at the eastern end of the barrier, said he's seeing more traffic than ever.

Before construction began, Garza would see a couple of people run by his house at a time. Now they move in groups of as many as 50, he said.

"Up here you don't just see a few. You see bunches."

The fence does not cover the entire border. It leaves large open spaces between. When planning where to build the segments, the government targeted places such as Granjeno, where an illegal immigrant emerging from the Rio Grande could blend into the population.

The goal was to force immigrants into open areas where Border Patrol agents could more easily intercept them.

"It has diverted smugglers to the east and the west," said Dan Doty, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. "We have seen a shift in where alien traffic goes."

Doty said immigrants used to take a path that that led them right through the middle of Granjeno.

"They're no longer able to do that," he said.

But, he said, the number of people apprehended has not increased.

'It's not helping any'
Gloria Garza, Daniel Garza's niece, said she's seeing more immigrants at her home, which is not especially close to either end of the wall.

About a month ago, she said, a young woman stopped at her home to ask for help. She told Garza she had sprained her ankle coming over the wall.

Garza told her she could have just walked around it. "So I guess it's not helping any," she said.

Other residents near the center of the barrier report a decline in foot traffic.

"During the day people would just run through here and at night it was constant barking," Idolina Guzman said, glancing at her dog. "I don't see it as much anymore."

Granjeno's only business, Cabrera's Bar, has seen a booming business from the wall, serving beer to construction workers.

Mary Garza, who used to work in a Border Patrol office, said a more effective solution would be to hire more Border Patrol agents.

Of the wall, she said: "It's not helping at all. It's only costing."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Border Patrol discovers underground tunnel in Otay Mesa

February 23, 2009
San Diego Union Tribune
By Debbi Baker

SAN DIEGO – Border Patrol agents discovered an underground tunnel in Otay Mesa on Saturday that authorities suspect was built to connect a storm drain in the United States to a pipeline in Mexico for smuggling purposes.

The passageway, which was about 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall and reinforced with wooden beams, was discovered about 110 feet north of the border near Via de la Amistad, just east of the Otay Mesa border crossing, said Border Patrol Agent Richard Smith.

Agents suspected that the tunnel is linked from the storm drain to a parallel natural gas pipeline that is not in use.

It appears that the tunnel had been used recently, Smith said.

It was found after members of the San Diego Tunnel Task Force, which is made up of the U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Drug Enforcement Administration agents, came across the information while investigating recent smuggling activity in the area and conducted a search, Smith said. No arrests have been made and no contraband was found.

In December officials discovered a cross-border tunnel just west of the San Ysidro border crossing after a bus tire sank into a road along the border fence.

That tunnel, which was about 15 feet underground and 3 feet in diameter, extended about 10 feet into the United States but had no exit, customs spokeswoman Lauren Mack said.

The tunnels, which are used to smuggle people as well as drugs into the United States, range from crude to elaborate.

One that ran underground from a house in Tijuana to a San Ysidro parking lot had electricity and ventilation and a pulley system designed to transport bales of marijuana. They have also been found with lights, water pumps and hydraulic systems as well as rails for electric cars and concrete floors and walls.

At least 75 of the clandestine passageways have been found along the U.S.-Mexico border since the 1990s, according to U.S. immigration and customs officials.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Meeting place sealed off: Border patrol agents prohibit access to Friendship Park

February 22, 2009
San Diego Union Tribune
By Penni Crabtree

— In the end, immigration activists never made it to the site of yesterday's planned demonstration, a plaza dubbed Friendship Park that sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean at Border Field State Park.

For the first time, Border Patrol agents formally sealed off access on the U.S. side to the plaza, for years a popular meeting place on the U.S.-Mexico border for families to visit through the fence.

The Department of Homeland Security announced late last year that it will prohibit all public access to the park where a secondary wall is under construction. Since then, the plaza has become a symbolic touchstone for those who debate border enforcement policies.

Until recently, federal officials had planned to have a gate in the secondary fence that would have allowed people on either side to visit.

“This is a treasured piece of the San Diego landscape where people meet for peaceful reasons,” said John Fanestil, executive director of the Foundation for Change, a nonprofit social-justice group involved in immigration issues. “The fencing will change that landscape.”

In recent weeks, Fanestil and others formed the Friends of Friendship Park Coalition to save the park and have received support from elected officials, including Reps. Bob Filner and Susan Davis, both San Diego Democrats. Filner, Davis and other federal lawmakers from border states sent a Feb. 8 letter to President Barack Obama asking him to revisit the construction plans.

Yesterday, about 125 park supporters marched the mile or so on muddy roads and along the beach to Friendship Park. A handful of people opposed to illegal immigration also were there.

A phalanx of Border Patrol agents in off-road vehicles blocked access to the plaza entrance, causing demonstrators on both sides of the issue to gather below the bluff.

The spot was not without poignant symbolism, a strip of beach pierced with metal pilings that form the existing border fence, which runs into the ocean for a few feet before giving way. A child could easily swim between the two countries.

On the south side of the pilings, Mexican families strolled on the beach, bought roasted ears of corn from a vendor and leaned against the fence to watch happenings on the other side.

On the north side of the pilings, Friendship Park supporters held an ecumenical religious service, complete with a choir. Opponents of illegal immigration tried to disrupt it with a siren-blasting bullhorn and shouted slogans such as, “Go home, illegals!”

One wore a cap with the logo of the Minutemen, an anti-illegal-immigration group.

Since the ban on public access to Friendship Park was declared, a few dozen immigration activists have continued to gather there weekly to hold religious services and other activities.

Yesterday, two activists were detained and later released without charge after they tried to approach the fence against orders from Border Patrol agents.

“This is the first day they've chosen to enforce the ban on public access,” Fanestil said. “Before, they tolerated our presence. Clearly they will tolerate us no more.”

Fanestil said he and other members of the park coalition plan to meet and discuss plans for future park actions.

Mark Endicott, public-affairs officer for the U.S. Border Patrol, said no public access will be authorized between the primary and secondary border fences.

The decision to impose the ban is “based on our border security mission and to assure the safety of border agents and the public,” he said.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Beloved parts of border changed almost overnight

February 19, 2009
Associated Press / MSNBC
by Elliot Spagat

IMPERIAL SAND DUNES, Calif. - Every weekend he can, Gene Elwell heads to the desert and races his buggy over the largest sand dunes in the U.S. Nearly 200 miles west, on California's Pacific shores, the Rev. John Fanestil spends every Sunday at Friendship Park, where people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border touch hands and talk through holes in a chain-link fence.

For decades, the dunes and Friendship Park were virtually unchanged. But in its final months, as the Bush administration raced to fulfill a pledge to erect 670 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers on the border, they were transformed almost overnight.

A fence now slices through the Imperial Sand Dunes, preventing recreational riders from veering into Mexican sands. Before, drug smugglers easily blended in with riders to reach Interstate 8, less than a half-mile from the border at one point.

Friendship Park, opened in 1971 to promote ties between the U.S. and Mexico, is closing. Crews have torn up a parking lot and removed trees and picnic benches to make way for two tall fences, ending years of cross-border food sales and family reunions.

It's similar elsewhere on the 1,954-mile border. In Eagle Pass, Texas, a golf course is sandwiched between the Rio Grande and a new fence. In Columbus, N.M., visitors see the fence from the high ground at Pancho Villa State Park, named for the Mexican general who led an attack there in 1916.

The Bush administration built 224 miles of barriers during its last 2 1/2 months, bringing the total to 602 miles. The Border Patrol plans to hit 670 miles this year, spokesman Lloyd Easterling said, but what happens after that is anyone's guess.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at her Senate confirmation hearing that fences can help in border cities but that it makes little sense to fence the entire border.

Whatever happens, the border landscape already has indelibly changed.


The southern tip of the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area, a film location for "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi," resembles the Sahara. Its slopes draw families because they are lower and more gradual than the desert playground's northern reaches, which attract rowdier crowds.

Elwell, 54, a San Diego-area native who sells office equipment, belongs to a close-knit but fast-growing group of families from Southern California and Arizona.

They ride the dunes day and night, sleeping in trailers parked around a campfire. They liken the thrill to a never-ending roller coaster.

"There's no particular trail, like you would up in the mountains or some places even out here in the desert," Elwell said. "Out here you find your own way, you find your own world."


Border Field State Park separates San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, which together make up the largest metropolitan area along the border. It has a beautiful beach and abundant trails, but one of its biggest draws is Friendship Park, a half-acre cement plaza on a bluff overlooking the Pacific.

When then-first lady Pat Nixon opened the plaza 38 years ago, she declared, "I hate to see a fence anywhere."

On the beach, the countries are separated by steel poles spaced far enough apart at one point for an adult to squeeze through. Vendors in Mexico hawk corn-on-the-cob and tamales to customers on the U.S. side as Border Patrol agents keep watch.

Fanestil, 47, visited Friendship Park every Christmas to sing with revelers. The United Methodist minister was incensed in June when a Border Patrol agent said he no longer could pass food across the border. Fanestil responded by holding cross-border services every Sunday.

"People have been passing things through the fence here for generations — tamales, candies, bracelets," the San Diego native said.


In California's southeast corner, the dunes are about 40 miles long and an average of five miles wide. Trailers crowd campgrounds on holiday weekends. The sand buggies range from lightweight speedsters with V-8 engines to lumbering vehicles that could pass for golf carts.

The sands extend about five miles into Mexico. Until last year, the border was almost invisible, marked by 15-foot concrete obelisks spaced far apart.

In the 1980s Elwell drove his buggy straight into the town of Algodones for tacos, and even in recent years he regularly drifted into Mexico. Agents chased wayward riders and ordered them back to the U.S.

Smugglers decorated their marijuana-laden vehicles with decals and flags to mix in. Last year, a suspected smuggler killed a Border Patrol agent by running over him in a Hummer, then fled to Mexico.

Border Patrol officials say private contractors were initially stumped when asked to design a 13-mile fence for the shifting sands. The answer was what the agency calls a "floating fence."

The $6 million-a-mile barrier completed in December consists of 16-foot-tall steel tubes filled with concrete and spaced tightly together. Triangular mounts aren't bolted to the ground, allowing them to rock back and forth with the wind. Small panels are chained together, twisting in different directions.

The Border Patrol says arrests of suspected smugglers plummeted after construction began last summer.

Elwell and his friends marveled as they stood on a ridge one recent Saturday and stared at the fence, stretching like a dark ribbon over the sand.

As the number of riders grows — the dunes records about 1.2 million visits from October to March — their playground is shrinking. In 2000, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management made about half the park off-limits to vehicles to protect the endangered Peirson's milk-vetch, a tiny perennial with purple blooms.

Some visitors feel the dunes are dangerously crowded, with up to 200,000 people some weekends. Steve Razo, a BLM spokesman, said seven to 10 people die each year in traffic accidents.

Elwell and his friends bemoan the tighter quarters but generally agree the fence will make the dunes safer.

"It makes you feel a little crammed in, like 'This is your playground, and you can't go over there,'" said Tom Holdenried, 59, a woodworker from Ramona.


At Friendship Park, the Border Patrol is building 3 1/2 miles of fence to the ocean, a project delayed for 12 years by lawsuits and environmental reviews. In 2005, the Bush administration exercised new authority to override those challenges; it later used the same powers on vast swaths of the border.

Work began in August and is expected to finish by May at a cost of about $16 million a mile.

The area is much quieter than it was in the 1990s, when the Border Patrol was badly overmatched by illegal immigrants who swarmed across the porous border. But Mike Fisher, the San Diego sector chief, said people still make holes in the fence and slip children between poles on the beach.

"I want people to be able to go to the park with their kids and not worry about smugglers operating in that area," he said.

Hilda Olivares drove from Los Angeles on one recent Sunday to talk through the fence with her mother, sister and brother-in-law. She could have seen them in Tijuana but wanted to avoid the long lines at the border. Her husband, Paul, passed them a wad of cash wrapped in a $20 bill.

Carlos Perez, who lives in Tijuana, cried when he saw his 5-year-old daughter, Caszandra, for the first time in three years. She slipped through the fence and embraced him, also in tears.

"A fence makes things more difficult," Perez said. "It divides us even further."

Added Sandra Castillo Vasquez, the girl's mother and a U.S. citizen who lives in San Diego: "At least we had this connection. We could touch each other."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Captured jaguar 1st in US to get collar for tracking

February 20, 2009
Arizona Daily Star
by Tony Davis and Brady McCombs

Arizona officials have captured and placed a tracking collar on a wild jaguar for the first time ever in the United States, the state wildlife agency said Thursday.

The male cat was captured Wednesday southwest of Tucson during a research study concerning mountain lions and black bears. The location of the capture was not released.

While individual jaguars have been photographed sporadically along the Mexican border the past few years, the capture occurred outside the area where the last known photograph of a jaguar was taken in January, state Game and Fish officials said in a press release.

The jaguar was fitted with a satellite tracking collar and then released. The collar will provide biologists with location points every three hours, the press release said. Early tracking indicates the cat is doing well and has already traveled more than three miles from the capture site, the release said.

The jaguar weighs 118 pounds with a thick and solid build, the department said. Field biologists said the cat appeared healthy and hardy.

Game and Fish officials could not be reached Thursday night to answer questions about the capture.

The data produced by the collar will shed light on a little-studied population segment of this species that uses Southern Arizona and New Mexico as the northern extent of its range.

The jaguar has been listed as an endangered species by the federal government since 1997, the year after a Douglas-area rancher spotted the first one seen in the United States for many years.

"While we didn't set out to collar a jaguar as part of the mountain lion and bear research project, we took advantage of an important opportunity," Terry Johnson, endangered species coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said in the news release. "More than 10 years ago, Game and Fish attempted to collar a jaguar with no success. Since then, we've established handling protocols in case we inadvertently captured a jaguar in the course of one of our other wildlife management activities."

The capture didn't surprise Jack L. Childs, project coordinator for the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, based in Amado. Using remote-sensing cameras, the group has taken 26 photographs of jaguars in the wilds of Southern Arizona.

"We've known we've had jaguars for 100 years in Arizona and we've been documenting it for the past 10 years. This just kind of further verifies that we do have jaguars down here," Childs said.

The study on habitat connectivity for mountain lions and black bears that produced the accidental capture of the jaguar was intended, in part, to analyze the effects of new border fencing on the two large animals, he said.

With this jaguar collared, officials now have a great opportunity to analyze the effects of the fencing. As long as the jaguar remains alive and the collar continues to work, they'll be able to follow the movements of the cat for about two years, he said.

The capture was announced at Thursday's meeting of the Jaguar Conservation Team, a group of scientists, agency officials, private individuals and conservationists seeking to map out an effort to improve the future of the animal in the borderlands area.

Michael Robinson, an environmentalist on the team, said he was happy the jaguar sustained no injuries.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Napolitano Outlines Immigration Priorities

February 16, 2009
NPR Day to Day
Medeleine Brand

As governor of the border state of Arizona, Janet Napolitano was on the front line of the immigration debate. As the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, she inherits a department that was recently blasted by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. The New York Times called the institute's scathing report a "portrait of dysfunction."

Napolitano joins Madeleine Brand to discuss what's in store for federal immigration policy. A transcript of the conversation follows.

Madeleine Brand: As governor of Arizona … you signed the toughest law in the nation against employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. How will you change federal immigration policy?

Janet Napolitano: We're going to do a few things. First of all, the rule of law applies on the border, and we want to make sure that that happens, No. 1. That means manpower. That means technology — things like ground sensors. It means interior enforcement against those who intentionally are going into the illegal labor market and creating a demand for illegal laborers, so that's all going to continue. How we do that may change with me as a new secretary, but we want to make sure the rule of law is applied, and it's applied fairly and forcefully across the border. And then we'll look for ways to, through our administrative process, facilitate the applications of citizenship for those who are entitled to become citizens. Are there things we can streamline, some red tape we can cut? Those are the kinds of things we want to look at as well.

This report criticizes the 700-mile border fence — very controversial, this fence between the U.S. and Mexico, a fence the GAO says costs $4 million per mile. Will you continue building that fence?

The section of the fence for which Congress actually appropriated the funds has been complete, but I've been one of the people out there saying, "Look, you cannot build a fence from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, and call that an immigration policy." You've got to have boots on the ground. You've got to have technology. You've got to have interior enforcement of our workplace laws. Some fencing in some places may make sense, but only if it's part of an overall system.
We have an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country. What do you do about them?
Ultimately, that's for the Congress to decide, and at some point in time, I think the president and the Congress will work out when it is appropriate to take that topic up again. But right now we're focusing on human traffickers — those who are really exploiting this illegal market to great financial gain. We're going after those in our country illegally who have also committed other crimes. We're going after those who are in our jails and prisons who are also in our country illegally to make sure that once they complete their sentence, they're immediately subject to deportation.

I'm hearing a lot of enforcement from you right now. What about the other side of it? What about the immigration part of it, and changing immigration policy to allow more or fewer immigrants in?

Again, that's for the Congress to decide.

For the past several years, there have been controversial raids on places where illegal immigrants have been rounded up and deported, and often quite wrenching scenes of mothers and children being separated and sent across the border, and I'm just wondering if you are going to change the policy of these workplace raids.

What we are going to do is really focus on the employers and make sure that they are subject to criminal penalties for violating the law. I met with the attorney general for the United States, Eric Holder, to talk about how we unite the forces of the U.S. Attorney's offices across the country with our offices to make sure that those who are actually benefiting financially in large scale from this pay a criminal sanction.

It sounds a lot like the state law that you signed — this very strict law that basically would revoke the business license of a company that has knowingly hired an illegal immigrant caught the second time to have done that. Would you like that to be a federal policy?

Again, that's for the Congress and the president. You've got to deal with the demand side for illegal immigration and, you know, it's interesting, that state law. I don't think there had been any cases brought under it in its first year or so of enactment, but it may have some deterrent effect because we did see the numbers begin to go down in Arizona. Now, that may also be attributable to the fact that the national economy has taken a nose dive and the demand for labor has also gone down. Look, here's where we're coming from: We want enforcement of our nation's immigration laws; we want at the right time to take up the whole issue of immigration; and we want to do what we can administratively to help those who are entitled now to become citizens under our law to get through that process.

Nature preserve: DHS failed to follow regulations

February 16, 2009
Brownsville Herald
by Kevin Seiff

A Brownsville nature preserve has responded to the government's attempt to condemn its land to build the border fence.

The Nature Conservancy - which owns and operates the Lennox Southmost Preserve - claims the U.S. Department of Homeland Security failed to follow federal regulations in attempting to acquire the organization's land.

In a motion filed on Feb. 6 to dismiss the government's land condemnation case, Nature Conservancy attorney Kimberli Deagen Loessin wrote, "the government has failed to meaningfully negotiate with landowners for the property interest sought." DHS offered $114,000 for just over eight acres of the organization's land.

Laura Huffman, the Conservancy's Texas state director, said in a December press release that the offer "doesn't begin to make up for our inability to manage the more than 700 acres of our preserve that lie between the proposed fence and the Mexican border. This land is, quite literally, irreplaceable."

The Nature Conservancy also claims that the government has never provided an accurate property description of the land to be condemned.

"Likewise," the lawsuit continues, "the government has not provided information regarding how access will work through the border fence gates." Such information, organization officials say, is particularly critical in the case, as a large portion of the preserve's 1,034-acre preserve could be left behind the barrier.

DHS Spokesman Michael Friel said he could not comment on the pending litigation.

The Nature Conservancy bought the land for Southmost Preserve in 1999 for $2.6 million. It now provides a habitat for thousands of native plants for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The preserve is one of two major environmental refuges in Brownsville - along with the Sabal Palm Audubon Preserve - that is expected to be divided by the barrier.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Advisory Group Urges Freeze on Construction of Border Fence

February 11, 2009
Washington Post
by Spencer Hsu

Members of an influential Washington think tank today recommended major changes in the nation's immigration policy, including freezing construction of a security fence along the U.S.- Mexican border and suspending "zero-tolerance" prosecution programs against all people caught crossing segments of the border.

The Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan group whose presenters included former U.S. immigration chiefs under both parties, recommended 36 steps the Obama administration can take without congressional approval to alter policies developed during the Bush administration. The policy experts also urged withdrawing a plan to pressure employers to fire workers with suspect Social Security numbers.

One of the group members, Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, informally consulted with Obama aides during the transition. Janet Napolitano, President Obama's Homeland Security Secretary, has already announced a broad internal assessment of DHS policies.

"Regardless of how or whether Congress and the White House ultimately come to agreement on new immigration legislation, the DHS immigration agencies require policy and operational changes to improve their effectiveness and ability to implement existing laws," said Meissner, a co-author of the MPI report, titled "DHS and Immigration: Taking Stock and Correcting Course."

Donald Kerwin, MPI vice president for programs and co-author of the recommendations, said the report was intended to provide "a middle course" for the administration, between enforcement-only advocates who seek to restrict immigration and business and immigrant community advocates who seek less fettered flows of people. The report limited itself to immediate steps DHS can take without further reorganization.

Overall, the authors suggested that DHS target enforcement against criminal networks that sustain large-scale illegal migration and that could aid terrorists; against employers who rely on illegal workers to gain unfair competitive advantage or whom terrorists may attempt to infiltrate; and routinely bring criminal charges against individuals only when they are repeat-offenders or have committed unrelated crimes.

By contrast, the Bush administration quadrupled criminal prosecutions of immigration violators between 2003 and 2008, to 79,400, in part through programs such as Operation Streamline, which filed minor charges against virtually all people caught crossing parts of the Texas and Arizona borders. Advocates say such programs are an effective deterrent that reduce illegal crossing.

Critics say that the government lacks the resources to sustain the strategy and that it diverts resources from more serious crimes such as drug and human smuggling, accounting for about half of total U.S. criminal cases, more than referrals by the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency combined.

The MPI report recommended halting such programs until Department of Justice and Homeland Security officials determine if they reduce illegal immigration across the entire border or prevent prosecution of more serious crimes.

So far, Napolitano has signaled a greater focus of enforcement resources against employers and immigrants who have committed other crimes, and defended DHS efforts to complete the last 10 percent of 670 miles of fencing planned for the southern border.

The MPI report said the border project is expensive, controversial, poorly coordinated and behind schedule and should be reassessed.

It also urged the withdrawal of a proposal to pressure employers to fire workers who are the subject of Social Security "no-match" letters, indicating their work papers may be involved in fraud, saying the program may duplicate other enforcement efforts and discourage workers from correcting honest mistakes. The Obama administration has delayed its response, until April 10, to a lawsuit filed by business and labor groups in federal court in San Francisco to stop the proposed regulation.

Instead, the MPI report recommended extending voluntary compliance with E-Verify, an electronic government system that lets employers check new hires' work and immigration documents, and that relies in part on the same Social Security data.

The House stimulus bill proposes to make E-Verify mandatory for all employers receiving funding under the package, while the Obama administration has delayed a pending regulation to make it mandatory for federal contractors for review.

Bush officials often said that tough immigration tactics were necessary to restore the public's faith in government and Washington's credibility. Kerwin and Meissner said their recommendations also will build confidence in DHS's ability to enforce laws already on the books and to undertake the challenge of any broad congressional overhaul.

"The immigration agencies in DHS have strengthened the security of the immigration system substantially ... but that is not enough," Meissner said. An effective legal immigration system is also in the national interest, central to the country's values, economic strength and social integration, she said.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Border Patrol building tunnel barrier in Nogales, Ariz.

February 14, 2009

NOGALES, Ariz. – The U.S. Border Patrol says it is building an underground barrier along the U.S.- Mexico border in Nogales in an effort to thwart smugglers from digging tunnels.

A 12-foot-deep concrete and steel headwall along a 100-yard stretch of the border near the DeConcini Port of Entry is expected to be finished this weekend. The project aims to stop smugglers who have dug a series of tunnels in recent years in the area.

Concrete slurry will also be pumped into existing tunnels to permanently block them.

Nogales is separated from its larger neighbor of Nogales, Mexico by fencing, and a large system of flood control channels and drainage tunnels connect the two cities, allowing easy access for tunnelers on the Mexican side.

Border Patrol station chief Alan White says the wall is the largest anti-tunneling project in Nogales history.

The tunnel remediation project began on Tuesday and ended today.

Border Patrol agents say in this fiscal year, which began in October, they have found 9 tunnels. They found 13 in the last fiscal year.

Border fence is a dividing line in immigration debate

February 13, 2009
By John King

SAN LUIS, Arizona (CNN) -- The Yuma desert is below: San Luis, Arizona, to one side and San Luis, Mexico, to the other. On this clear day, the Colorado River is glistening, birds playfully circling over what any map defines as the U.S.-Mexico border in this area.

But from a helicopter above, the border is a steel barrier that stands out along the riverbank and against the desert sands, and is the dividing line that gets the most attention from those crying to cross illegally and those who believe recent efforts to bolster U.S. border security have been riddled with wrong choices.

Just this past week, eight Democrats in Congress wrote President Obama urging him to halt any further construction of the fence, one of the many border- and immigration-related political debates that have carried over from the Bush administration.

To the Border Patrol agents stationed in Yuma Sector, there is no debate. To them, the fence is a success story. From a Vietnam War-vintage Huey helicopter, pilot Chad Smith points across the border to Mexico's Highway 2 and then to the barriers that help stop illegal immigrants from making a sprint into southern Arizona.

"You can see the triple-layer fencing," Smith tells us as he lowers the helicopter and hovers over what was once a major crossing point for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. "Steel fence right on the border, the pedestrian fence about 90 feet north of that, and then the chain-link fence with the barbed wire."

The fence has three layers in areas where there is an urban neighborhood on the Mexican side. Smith is among those who say their flights are less hectic now because while you can still clearly see the trails in the sand and in some hilly areas below, there is considerably less traffic.

"I've flown before and come back and had 70-plus [illegal immigrants logged in a tracking book]," Smith said. " I know guys who have gone on a flight and come back with 100-plus illegals in their logbook. Now it is in single digits, typically."

It is a fascinating view from above: Old trails in some places, and the remnants of newly placed white sandbags in others.

"It forms a pretty good bridge for them to drive across." Smith says of the sandbags. When they are spotted from above, Border Patrol agents on the ground are called in to destroy the makeshift crossings.

Congress in 2006 -- with then-Sen. Barack Obama's support -- authorized nearly $3 billion for 670 miles of fencing stretching from California to Texas. There are more lights, sensors and cameras, and there are also more agents like Mike Lowrie driving patrols and chasing tips called in from colleagues monitoring the camera feeds at the Yuma Sector headquarters.

Standing alongside the steel barrier at a point in which there is just one layer of fencing, Lowrie shakes his head when told that some in Washington want to stop additional construction in other areas.

"This used to be a very high-trafficked area, and now it is not," Lowrie told us.

Asked to define "high traffic," Lowrie says, "In the Yuma Sector, we would get about 800 a day. Now, 25 maybe, or 10."

Nodding toward the barrier, he continued: "Numbers don't lie. We didn't have it three years ago, and we were getting massive numbers of illegal entries. We have it now, and we don't."

But there are voices on both extremes of the immigration debate that say the role of the fence is exaggerated, or that say the barrier's benefit in slowing illegal traffic is offset by other costs.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose tough stance against illegal immigrants has earned him global media coverage, says the fence is fine, but: "We just arrested 150 in the past 14 days. They're still coming."

And Father John Herman, a Roman Catholic priest whose Spanish language Masses are packed with illegal immigrants, blames the fence for more risky crossings in less-populated desert areas.

"We know that the way enforcement has gone has driven many people into the desert and caused more deaths. Needless deaths. If we could only get together and work for comprehensive immigration reform."

Border fence re-examine urged

February 13, 2009
Yuma Sun
Staff and AP Reports

Raul Grijalva, Yuma County's U.S. representative, is among eight Democratic congressmen asking for a halt to new border fence construction.

In a letter to President Barack Obama this week, the eight U.S. representatives asked for a suspension of fence construction until an evaluation of border security operations being conducted by the new administration is finished.

Grijalva, a Tucson Democrat whose district includes Yuma County, was unavailable for comment to The Sun this week.

But his press secretary, Natalie Luna, told The Sun the letter is "in no way to stop the fence from being built or impede national security issues."

Luna said the letter asks the president to review the issues in border counties and hear concerns from local residents, Native American tribes and local law enforcement. It asks the administration to look over the situation to make sure the right choices are being made.

The letter, signed by all eight lawmakers, said there are places where fencing is feasible. But the members wrote that the previous administration's policy of using fencing along much of the border was ill-conceived because local communities and local Border Patrol chiefs didn't have "meaningful input."

Also signing the letter were Texas Reps. Solomon Ortiz, Silvestre Reyes, Ruben Hinojosa, Ciro D. Rodriguez and Henry Cuellar, and California Reps. Bob Filner and Susan Davis.

Family: Gov't Not Fulfilling Gate Promise

February 13, 2009
By Alex Trevino

LA PALOMA - Albert Garza is farming the land his family has owned for 50 years, but his children are worried about what's happening to their future. They're watching steel beams being built behind their home.

Norma Longoria says that federal agents guaranteed they would build a fence for the family before construction began, but that idea just went away. That means the family will have to drive a mile to get around the wall.

Albert Garza is not against the wall. He believes it will help protect the family from terror. Garza says that danger lurks in the darkness and day. A bend in the river is close by. That's why he's always looking over his shoulder when operating the water pump.

The river sits about 200 feet from the pump is, where land owners shut off the water, but Garza says having to drive one mile around the border wall in the middle of the night puts him in a danger. A part of his backyard is a well-known landing spot for illegals to sneak into the country and for armed drug smugglers to cross their loads.

The family feels a gate will help keep them safe, but not entirely convinced the segmented wall is the solution.

"It's my understanding this wall is not going to be straight through there's gaps so if our wall, fence ends here they are just going to go around there, what is the purpose to do the wall here and have an opening over here and different spots," said Norma Longoria.

Longoria feels that illegals will somehow find a way to still get in.

The Garza family says they are not quitting. They hope the new head of Homeland Security will help them save their land.

UTB discusses the ‘campus fence'

February 13, 2009
Brownsville Herald
By Kevin Sieff

After a drawn out legal battle and months of negotiations behind closed doors, UTB-TSC President Juliet V. Garcia spoke openly on Friday about the border fence that once threatened to divide the university's campus.

For nearly a year, the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College was embroiled in a lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. At the end of July, the university reached a compromise with the federal government, agreeing to enhance an existing fence instead of erecting a new one through campus.

Garcia addressed students and faculty members at the Science, Engineering and Technology Building Lecture Hall, explaining that her decision to oppose the government's entry onto university property was motivated by a commitment to civic responsibility, as well as the school's practical concerns.

"It was an issue not only for us, but for people around the world," Garcia said, alluding to the international attention the university's case received.

In addition to speaking about the barrier - "a huge mistake on the part of the United States" - Garcia rehashed the specifics of the university's negotiations with DHS. She made it clear that there was never any certainty that UTB-TSC would receive a favorable deal from the government.

"The Friday before we went to federal court," she said, "I thought we were going to lose."

Even the process of establishing the university's opposition to the fence plan was complex, requiring the approval of the TSC Board of Trustees and the University of Texas Board of Regents.

Throughout the whole process, Garcia said, she worked hard to plead the university's case. But she wasn't alone. When Garcia entered the federal courthouse for the first of the lawsuit's hearings, she was flanked by some of Brownsville's most well regarded attorneys.

"It's never just one person who gets something like this done," she said.

Saturday at 9 a.m., Garcia, university faculty members and students will plant seeds at the foot of the university's "campus fence"- the product of the DHS compromise.

Family Says They're Cut Off By Border Wall

February 13, 2009
By Alex Trevino

LA PALOMA - A Cameron County family says the government isn't holding up its end of a deal involving the border fence.

The Garza family in La Paloma farms land off Highway 281, near Brownsville. Crews are working around the clock to build a border wall on the family's land.

The border fence will separate the family from most their land.

Norma Longoria says the federal government promised a gate to let her father access the land. But instead, her father will be forced to drive one mile around the border wall to check on his cattle and operate the water pump.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bulldozing nature

February 14, 2009
San Diego Union Tribune
by Char Miller

President George W. Bush
is history. But the past has a funny way of maintaining a tight grip on the present. Just ask anyone who cares deeply about the pristine remnants of Southern California's ancient landscape, such as the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area. Bulldozers are now rumbling through the sanctuary in eastern San Diego County, prepping the ground so that the infamous border wall can slice across its stunning array of desert scrublands, steep canyons and rugged high ground.

The small reserve – it encompasses only 18,500 acres – was established in 1999, but despite its limited size it is of crucial significance. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, San Diego contains the greatest number of threatened or endangered species in the continental United States and its high desert in particular is home to many of them. These include the Quino checkerspot butterfly, the arroyo toad and the Otay Mesa spreading mint. This often bone-dry terrain is also vital for migratory mammals such as the javelina, whose search for food, water and shelter knows nothing of national boundaries.

Sadly, this viable habitat and the rich biodiversity it has sustained for millennia are under attack. In December, Michael Chertoff, then the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, waived the Wilderness Act and a host of other protective legislation so that a contractor could scrape clean this untrammeled area. Site preparation for the border wall's construction, which includes constructing a hardened roadway, has continued ever since.

Already, the impact is pronounced. Even in the unlikely event that the Obama administration quickly issues a stop-work order, and local environmentalists hope he will, the initial cuts for the road and fence are of such a magnitude, observed Nathan Trotter, a local activist who toured the area in late January, "that the resources needed to restore the area would be immense."

None of this destruction needs to occur. The Border Patrol itself did not think the wall was necessary in the Otay wilderness. Richard Kite, a spokesman for the agency's San Diego office, told reporters in 2006 after Congress passed the Safe Fence Act: "It's such harsh terrain it's difficult to walk, let alone drive. There's no reason to disrupt the land when the land itself is a physical barrier."

The EPA also cast doubt on the project. In a February 2008 letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it indicated that the proposed plan was insufficient on two counts. It objected to "the filling of two well-developed riparian corridors in Copper and Buttewig canyons and has concerns regarding high potential for significantly increasing erosion in the watershed from the combination of road widening, new vehicle trail construction, fence installation on steep slopes, and fence installation across intermittent streams." The EPA predicted these intrusions would "have unacceptable adverse impacts under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, especially considering cumulative impacts from other border fence projects that are proposed in the Tijuana River Watershed. These impacts must be avoided to provide adequate protection for the environment."

Wilderness advocates were much more blunt in their denunciation of the administration's decision to savage the Otay – by blasting its canyon walls, trucking out more than 500,000 cubic yards of fill, and grading and leveling a 150-foot-wide swath on which to erect the wall.

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, lambasted the presidential decision: "Wilderness areas are designated by Congress specifically to protect sensitive places from projects like this road construction. This road sets terrible precedent and clearly demonstrates the dangers of granting the secretary of homeland security authority to waive any law in order to build walls along our international borders." As Matt Clark, Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, asserted: "Such harmful impacts to wilderness characteristics and values are clearly inconsistent with the congressional intent of the law that established the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area in 1999. The waiver and the wall are an affront to our nation's laws and natural heritage."

The Bush administration ignored these principled arguments and in doing so the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, like countless other sensitive ecosystems along the U.S.-Mexico border, has paid a heavy price.

We are paying, too: By compromising the Otay's historic function as wildlands and cutting off the javelina from its primeval habitat, and by serving as a tool for subverting national environmental regulations, the Bush wall casts a long shadow over contemporary American politics. What a grim and costly legacy.

Miller is visiting professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont. He is author of "Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism" and "Deep in the Heart of Texas: Land and Life in South Texas."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

City sits on border fence

February 12, 2009
Brownsville Herald
Emma Perez-Trevino

The City Commission tabled action Thursday on an agreement regarding the construction of a border fence with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, announcing that the proposal would be re-evaluated by the federal government.

Just minutes before the start of the scheduled public hearing, Commissioner Anthony Troiani said that new DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano's staff indicated that the proposal would be re-evaluated.

"We are in a position to re-evaluate the situation," Troiani said at the onset of the session that drew a standing room only crowd in commission chambers at City Hall.

Troiani said that Napolitano's staff had not been aware that the federal negotiating team had given the city an ultimatum or a deadline for approval of the agreement and had not known of Thursday's meeting in Brownsville.

Commissioner Ricardo Longoria said that city officials hope to meet with Napolitano later this month or in mid-March.

Troiani pointed to the efforts of commissioners, city staff and U.S. Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, while Mayor Pat M. Ahumada Jr. said, "This didn't just happen." Instead, the mayor pointed to the efforts of the Texas Border Coalition and No Border Wall groups.

Discussions between the mayor and commissioners were contentious as usual, with commissioners noting that they are not the ones who are divided.

Ahumada, on the other hand, felt that Commissioner Charlie Atkinson should not have taken part in the deliberations due to a potential conflict of interest because Atkinson is a federal officer.

Some commissioners also told Ahumada that they fear going to Mexico because he has said in Mexico that commissioners are in favor of the border wall.

Residents urged the mayor and commissioners to put differences aside, encouraging communication and unity.

"We need you all to unite," Erasmo Castro said. "We need something that is substantial, something that is clear, that is transparent. We need to be informed. That is all we ask," Castro added.

Jay Johnson-Castro, who has protested the wall for years throughout the border and has walked more than 700 miles in protest, urged the commission to put their political differences aside.

"Join with ‘We the people' and say no to this," Johnson-Castro emphasized. "Don't be divided on this. Stand with us. This is ground zero in Texas," he said, telling commissioners and the mayor to be statesmen and not politicians.

Judy Vera with Valley Interfaith also pointed out to The Brownsville Herald that the organization obtained many signatures opposing the border wall, which have been presented to the commission. "We really touched a lot of people," Vera said.

Dennis Sanchez, who represents two landowners near the city's property between the Gateway International Bridge and the B&M International Bridge, told the commission that neither the federal government nor the city consulted with his clients.

"Now is the opportunity," Sanchez said, noting that it is great news that the city will actually have the opportunity to meet with federal officials in Washington, D.C. He also told the commission that it needs to be united.

Sanchez said: "Look at this as a business deal and try to make the best deal you can."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New Brownsville-DHS contract no different than the last one, border wall critics claim

February 10, 2009
Rio Grande Guardian
by Steve Taylor and Joey Gomez

AUSTIN, February 10 - The No Border Wall coalition has obtained a copy of the contract that Brownsville City Commission will consider entering into with the Department of Homeland Security to develop a border fence.

City commissioners will consider signing the contract at a meeting at city hall on Thursday evening.

“It is almost word for word identical to the one that was tabled last July in response to a very vocal outcry from Brownsville residents. It even contains the clause allowing DHS to condemn Brownsville's land, and forcing Brownsville to cooperate with the condemnation,” said No Border Wall spokesman Scott Nicol.

The only difference, Nicol said, is that the value of the land has changed, rising from $93,500 to $95,800.

“Of course, the city will not receive a penny for that land. Instead, they will get to remove the ‘floating fence’ if they first build a levee-border wall ‘at no cost to the United States of America, Department of Homeland Security or its successor agency’.”

Nicol pointed out that the levee-border wall in Hidalgo County cost $10 million to $12 million per mile.

“It seems unlikely that Brownsville will find the funds any time soon, so the wall will in fact be as permanent as that built anywhere else along the border,” Nicol said.

The No Border Wall coalition and the church-based Coalition of Amigos in Solidarity and Action (CASA) are leading the opposition to the contract being signed.

Elizabeth Garcia, founder of CASA, Garcia pointed out that Brownsville residents have forced the City to stop negotiations with DHS in the past.

“Last summer, the Brownsville City Commission considered a contract, drafted by the Army Corps of Engineers that would have turned over $93,500 worth of municipal property to build the wall,” Garcia said.

“One clause of the contract would have allowed the federal government to condemn the city’s property, and force the City to assist the government in the condemnation rather than fight to keep their property. When word of the contract was leaked, outraged Brownsville residents packed the city commission meeting, forcing them to table the deal.”

Garcia said the citizenry of Brownsville can have the same success they had last July.

“These are our elected officials, and they should be representing the concerns of their constituents,” Garcia said. “This community is still overwhelmingly opposed to the border wall, and our city government should support that sentiment.”

Garcia said that if the City wants to “compromise” with DHS, it should do so in federal court, just like the University of Texas at Brownsville and dozens of landowners have done.

“We hope that, just as UTB did, our commissioners will fight before they compromise. It will be wrong for them to reach a deal behind closed doors, without informing the public and without giving the community at large the opportunity for some input,” Garcia said.

Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada is opposed to the deal with DHS but it appears a majority of the commission now backs it.

“Basically, they (DHS) laid it on the line. Either we put up a permanent fence or you come up with another option,” Brownsville Mayor Pro Tem Charlie Atkinson told the Guardian last week.
Atkinson said he and other city commissioners had no alternative but to come up with another option.

“We are trying to build our East Loop that goes from Veterans Bridge to the Port of Brownsville to get the trucks out of the inner city. They (DHS) have conceded to us that we can have a temporary fence. They (DHS) said once you have built the East Loop you can take it (the border fence) out. They will put that in writing to us.”

The alternative, Atkinson said, was stark. “DHS builds a permanent fence and they take the land. Those are the only two options we have.”

Atkinson said he “appreciates” the concerns of Brownsville residents opposed to the border fence.

“Nobody wants a fence in Brownsville. Nobody does. But when the federal government has you the way they have you, you have got to work with what you have. That’s what we are trying to do,” Atkinson said.

Monday, February 9, 2009

No Border Wall group asks Brownsville leaders to clarify land ownership

February 9, 2009
Rio Grande Guardian
Steve Taylor and Joey Gomez

AUSTIN, February 9 - The No Border Wall coalition is asking City of Brownsville officials to clarify who owns the land where the Department of Homeland Security wants to build a border wall.

City officials say their cards will be laid on the table at a public meeting at city hall on Thursday evening. The special meeting is designed to give city commissioners the option of accepting or rejecting a DHS proposal that would allow them to construct temporary fencing on the property.

“We were confused about the statements made by some Brownsville city officials regarding the ownership of the property where DHS wants to build the border wall,” No Border Wall spokeswoman Stefanie Herweck said, in an open letter to city commissioners.

“Commissioner Troiani was quoted in the Brownsville Herald as saying "the fact is they (the federal government) own the property." City Manager Charlie Cabler made a similar statement in the Rio Grande Guardian. We wondered how this supposed "ownership" had been affected when no court order had been announced.”

Herweck said she and the No Border Wall group have received an explanation from an attorney with experience on eminent domain.

“In a Declaration of Taking case, the U.S. Attorney's office prepares complaint and files the case. When it is filed, a deposit of estimated compensation is made with the clerk of the court, and title to the land passes to the United States upon the filing of the Declaration of Taking and deposit of funds. Taking the title is a procedure that occurs automatically, and does not depend on a judge taking any action. It is purely procedural,” Herweck said, citing the legal advice she obtained.

“For the government to take possession requires that a court fix the time, date and conditions that the owner will surrender possession. That is the nature of the trial in Judge Hanen's court. Title does not mean a thing in a Declaration of Taking case. The government wins title by simply filing suit. What matters is possession, and that will be determined by a judge,” Herweck said.

By confusing the commissioners about title and possession, the CBP is pulling the wool over their eyes, Herweck believes.

“If you were not aware of this, you have a duty to consult with an attorney who has expertise on these cases, so that you don't spread disinformation to the public,” Herweck said.

“If you were aware of this, you owe it to the citizens of Brownsville to clarify this with them. It is misleading to use the granting of the title as a pretense for not meeting DHS in the courtroom, when in fact the title transfer is an automatic procedure that occurs in all such cases.”

Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada told the Guardian over the weekend that he continues to oppose DHS’s attempts to build a border wall in his city. Some of his colleagues on the city commission believe they have no choice but to cooperate with DHS on a “temporary fence” that will come down when certain economic development projects are complete. If they do not cooperate, Mayor Pro Tem Charlie Atkinson told the Guardian, DHS will build a permanent fence.

Meanwhile, the Texas Border Coalition has announced its members will hold on-the-ground consultations with DHS over the planned border wall beginning Friday, Feb. 13, in Brownsville.

TBC Chair and Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster said the process, called “Walk the Line,” is designed to give local officials an opportunity to examine the border wall’s proposed footprint. A tour of planned locations in Cameron County will be held from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“As local officials, we’re happy that we will finally be able to examine where the wall is being built and gain the information we’ve been seeking for more than a year,” Foster said.

TBC, a coalition of border mayors, county judges and economic development associations, has complained about the federal government's lack of consultation with local representatives over the wall’s construction.

Foster pointed out that under the Consolidated Fiscal 2008 Appropriations Act, homeland security officials are obliged to consult with the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, states, local governments, Indian tribes, and property owners in communities where the wall is to be built. The point is to minimize the barrier’s impact on Rio Grande Valley communities and residents from an environmental, cultural and economic standpoint.

That lack of consultation has created a sense of mistrust among landowners in Brownsville. And, as first reported in the Guardian, Ahumada is still waiting to hear how the wall will affect city-owned property.

Although the TBC has asked that landowners in the impacted communities be included in walking the line, DHS officials have insisted that the presence of landowners would make effective consultation difficult.

DHS refused to walk the line if TBC invited property owners to attend. In order to gain an understanding of where the federal government intends to build the wall, TBC officials agreed not to issue such invitations.

Ahumada told the Guardian that he only recently learned that the federal government has engaged in secret negotiations with city management to build a temporary wall on city-owned land.

Ahumada hopes city commissioners will postpone any decision until TBC members have had an opportunity to complete their on-the-ground consultation with homeland security officials.

“We’ve waited over a year for answers,” Ahumada said. “What’s one more day going hurt?”

Fence Supplants 'Friendship' At U.S.-Mexico Border

February 9, 2009
NPR Day to Day
By Jason Beaubien

At the very western edge of the U.S.-Mexico border, there used to be a small plaza between San Diego and Tijuana called Friendship Park. The international border fence ran through the middle of it before dropping into the Pacific, and it was one of the few places on the border where people from Mexico and the U.S. could meet and talk across the frontier.

Now, it's a construction site.

The Department of Homeland Security is installing a secondary fence — essentially creating a no man's land where Friendship Park once stood. Massive yellow bulldozers, backhoes and earthmovers are tearing up what used to be the plaza.

Cross-Border Reunions

The park is just a stone's throw from the beach. The Mexico side sits next to a bullring and a series of small restaurants selling seafood and cold drinks.

On this particular weekday afternoon, Delfino Rodriguez is standing in Tijuana next to the 15-foot-high border fence, watching the heavy equipment push around huge piles of earth.

"[Friendship Park] was a very nice green park … and it's gone," he says with a laugh.

Rodriguez says that, especially on the weekends, people who were unable to cross the border would gather here to chat. Families would set up beach chairs on both sides of the fence. Lovers would clasp fingers through the mesh.

All that's over now, Rodriguez says.

Two weekends ago, he says, he was at the park and he saw a Mexican woman crying. She had come from San Quintin, in the south of Baja California.

"She traveled by herself to share a lunch with her husband, but her husband couldn't show up here. It wasn't allowed. So she was crying here," Rodriquez says.

U.S.: Illegal Activity In Park

The Department of Homeland Security is shutting down this meeting spot as part of a huge project to install more than 600 miles of fencing along the southern border with Mexico.

Here, federal contractors are installing triple fencing along the final three and a half miles of the boundary between San Diego and Tijuana. They're filling canyons with dirt and bulldozing land along the border to put in a high-speed access road.

Mike Fisher, the head of the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego, says the decision to shut down all access to the fence at Friendship Park was a difficult one. But Fisher says it was necessary because smugglers were using the large crowds as cover for illegal activity, such as sales of fraudulent documents and narcotics smuggling.

"They'd have parties on both sides of the border and would throw soccer balls from one side to the other," Fisher says. "And the balls would contain narcotics."

Meeting Point And Cultural Venue

Friendship Park was dedicated in 1971 by then-first lady Patricia Nixon to celebrate the bonds between Mexico and the United States.

In addition to being a meeting point for family and friends, in recent years ad hoc cultural events used to happen here. There were cross-border concerts, Christmas celebrations and English-Spanish language classes through the fence.

And California being California, this may have been one of the few places in the world to have hosted "international yoga classes" with half the class in one country and half the class in another.

Civil Disobedience At Unique Spot On Border

Since last summer, John Fanestil, a United Methodist preacher, has been holding a weekly Mass at the park. Competing with the drone of Border Patrol helicopters, ice cream vendors and music from the cantinas on the Tijuana beachfront, Fanestil offers Communion through the fence.

On a recent Sunday, Fanestil and a couple dozen other people stepped over a flimsy, plastic construction barrier to hold this Mass at the border. Fanestil says he plans to continue the service as long as possible as an act of civil disobedience.

"The idea that they couldn't control illegal behavior, prevent undocumented crossings without building this massive wall I think is, on the face of it, absurd," Fanestil says.

He says a one-size-fits-all federal policy is wiping out a unique spot on the border.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the clash between U.S. policy and Mexico's twisted love affair with its northern neighbor plays out on this mesa by the Pacific.

On the San Diego side of the fence, construction crews are leveling the ground to put in a stronger barrier, while on the Tijuana side, three weathered old men in cowboy hats sing a song about crossing it.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Levee-wall almost done, over budget

February 8, 2009

The Monitor

By Jared Jones

EDINBURG — The Hidalgo County levee-wall project came in way over budget and slightly behind schedule.

But as far as Hidalgo County is concerned, that's mostly the federal government's problem.

Touch-up work is all that remains on eight segments of the project — which combines a federally mandated border barrier with needed levee enhancements — said Godfrey Garza, the manager of Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 and the county's point man on the project.

Two segments near PeƱitas, slow to start due to unexpected expenses, should be done within three weeks, about two months behind the original schedule, Garza said.

Delays in constructing the levee-wall project usually came down to costs.

Construction crews ran into snags that increased expenses, and work temporarily stopped until officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security were notified, Garza said. The cost overruns were entirely picked up by the federal government.

"It was not within the budget," Garza said. "(The total cost) adds up when you start putting all the numbers together."

According to the latest figures available, Hidalgo County's 10 segments will cost $80 million more than budgeted.

In the original cooperative agreement to roll the security barrier and levee upgrades into one project, Homeland Security agreed to pay 57 percent of the $114 million cost. The increased expenses — all covered by the department — expanded its contribution to 76 percent.

County officials are waiting to see whether Congress approves measures requiring the feds to reimburse the county for the $44 million it invested in the project. Similar bills failed to make it out of committee last year.

Once the levee-wall and county-funded improvements to river levees are completed, about 33 miles on the western side of the county will be protected from river surges, Garza said. Levees along the entire floodway system and about 20 miles of river levees on the eastern side of the county still need to be raised to meet safety standards.

While the county's test of its improved levee system may not come for years, Border Patrol agents are already testing portions of the wall for their purposes.

Dan Doty, a local Border Patrol spokesman, said the levee-wall has allowed his agency to scale back the number of agents assigned to patrol some of the completed segments at any given time, including four miles of wall near Hidalgo.

Instead of assigning five agents to patrol the western side of Hidalgo County, Border Patrol is now able to make do with three.

Some evidence suggests the wall is stopping illegal crossings and smuggling attempts, particularly in urban areas, Doty said. But the barrier's real effect won't be known until the agency can compare months of pre-wall statistics to post wall-statistics.

Even if it does prove to work, he said, agents will continue to patrol the river side of the 20.26 miles of levee-wall that stretch along the county's southern border.

"It's not a one-stop solution," Doty said. "It was never meant to be. It's part of our overall plan."

Finishing the fence: Construction is more expensive and complicated than first estimated

February 8, 2009
The Monitor
By Jeremy Roebuck

It all comes down to the Rio Grande Valley.

More than a month after the scheduled completion of 670 miles of security fencing across the country's southwest border, nearly
70 miles remain unfinished — almost all of it in South Texas.

And while plans are moving forward, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says building the fence here has been more challenging, more expensive and more time-consuming than originally thought.

"We've run into several obstacles — whether they be logistical or problems with land acquisition," said Lloyd Easterling, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "But we're continuing to follow what we've started."

As of Jan. 23, contractors had completed 601 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers in California, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of West Texas.

But despite the recent completion of nearly 16 miles in Hidalgo County, the remaining segments set to go up in Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron counties have hit various snags.

Unlike other states where borderlands are largely publicly owned, Texas' southern extremes are divvied among private landowners. The hodgepodge of ownership rights has forced the federal government to take dozens of individuals to court to seize the necessary land. Many of those cases remain unresolved.

In Starr County, concerns that the barrier could pose a flooding risk in the event of heavy rains have prompted a review of engineering specifications. Some have called for a barrier that could be removed if needed to aid water flow.

And in a report issued in September, Homeland Security estimated costs for South Texas construction could rise because of the high price of gas, labor and construction materials here.

Some of those costs — such as gas — have dropped sharply in the intervening months, said spokeswoman Angela de Rocha. But because several contracts were awarded during the bubble, the government is locked into paying higher rates.


The segments of pedestrian fencing completed across the Southwest border by Oct. 31 cost an average of $3.9 million per mile, according to a report issued last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office — $1.7 million more per mile than Congress had originally projected.

Although no official estimates are available for Rio Grande Valley fencing, the almost complete Hidalgo County hybrid levee-wall project will cost somewhere near $9.5 million per mile — a $3.9 million-per-mile increase from initial estimates, according to county statistics.

Contractors expect to finish the project — which combines the mandated border barrier with needed levee enhancements — by the end of the month.

Cameron County unsuccessfully lobbied for a similar hybrid levee-wall project but the federal government has opted to move forward with more traditional fencing there. So far, contracts have been awarded for its 11 planned segments and construction could begin as soon as next week, Easterling said.

In Starr County, where Homeland Security still has not produced a final engineering plan for nearly 13 miles of fencing slated to go up, officials have learned to stop asking questions, County Judge Eloy Vera said.

"We're hoping it gets delayed permanently," he said. "We're playing possum for now and hope they just forget about us."


Fence critics like Vera had hoped the election of President Barack Obama would signal a change in their political fortunes. Some even grasped at the hope that the new administration would halt construction.

While the president voted for the fence as a senator, he expressed doubts about its effectiveness while on the campaign trail. Once elected, Obama quickly selected then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a once vocal detractor of the plan, to head his Homeland Security Department.

But neither has said much of anything since taking office. At her Senate confirmation hearing, Napolitano even said she could see a role for fencing around urban areas.

"It helps prevent those who are crossing illegally from blending immediately into a town population," she told senators.


Despite continued controversy in the Valley, Homeland Security spokesman Easterling says the project has already proved effective in reducing illegal immigration in other parts of the country. The fence has worked as one weapon in an arsenal of strategies that helped reduce immigrant apprehensions nationwide by 18.4 percent between fiscal years 2007 and 2008.

U.S. Border Patrol agents reported declines as high as 78 percent in sectors such as western Arizona and 60 percent for far West Texas and New Mexico, where fencing segments have been up long enough to have had an impact on immigrant crossings.

But the Rio Grande Valley Sector — which stretches from western Starr County to the Gulf of Mexico — was one of only two border regions to report an increase in apprehensions last year. The other was San Diego.

The Border Patrol uses apprehension rates as a rough gauge of effectiveness for border security policies. However, the numbers can paint a skewed picture. A lower apprehension rate could just as easily mean more immigrants are slipping past agents.

Fence critics say the Valley's 2.8 percent increase in apprehensions proves illegal crossers have shifted their routes to stretches of border with fewer obstacles.

The areas with the sharpest declines in apprehensions are those employing several successful security strategies, including increased Border Patrol presence and harsh policies promising federal prosecution for all illegal crossers.

"It's hard to give the fence all the credit," Easterling said. "It's not just any one thing. It's the right mix."