Saturday, February 7, 2009

Homeland Security offers Brownsville compromise

Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
February 6, 2009
by Christopher Sherman

McALLEN, Texas — The Department of Homeland Security has offered a compromise to Brownsville that would erect a temporary border fence in its downtown until a planned riverwalk project moves ahead with a permanent combined levee-border wall, the city said Friday.

If the proposal, the product of more than a year of negotiations, is approved, it would be a notable thaw in the government's deadlock with a city that has presented some of the fiercest opposition to the border fence.

Brownsville Mayor Pay Ahumada once called the government's short-lived proposal to offer property owners money for access to survey their land for the fence "blood money." And when U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Republican from Colorado, was booed at a border fence discussion in the city, he snapped back that if people in Brownsville oppose the fence, they should build it around the north side of the border city — in effect, leaving the city on the Mexican side of the fence.

The city commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote Thursday on the proposal that has been months in the making.

Ahumada, who was traveling in Mexico Friday and did not immediately return a call to his cell phone, opposed a similar compromise proposal in July.

The city commission voted to table the offer and it was never taken up again. But Ahumada said at the time he did not want a fence under any circumstances.

Peter Goodman, Brownsville's Historic Downtown District director, said the proposal has improved for the city since last summer, but he believes the mayor remains opposed.

"It's my understanding that he still feels the same way," Goodman said.

After hours calls to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is the part of Homeland Security overseeing the border fence project, were not immediately returned Friday.

Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos has pushed for months for a compromise similar to one Hidalgo County reached with DHS last year to combine a border barrier with needed levee improvements. While this proposal only covers a couple short stretches of the planned fence in the county, he said it would be positive.

"If they can work it out, the commission agrees and DHS follows through, it is a good compromise for the city," Cascos said. On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Cascos said he asked Customs and Border Protection officials if the new administration had signaled any willingness to postpone or stop the border fence and the answer was no.

Cascos said two city commissioners he spoke with Friday were in support of the proposal.

Rather than build an 18-foot fence above the banks of the Rio Grande where downtown runs into the river, the government would install a temporary, but permanent-looking wrought-iron style fence, Goodman said.

That fence would stay in place for an unlimited period until the city installed a concrete wall into the river side of the levee that would provide flood protection and be an imposing obstacle for illegal immigrants and smugglers.

The proposal, which was just finalized this week, also includes temporary fencing that would save the city's Hope Park and allow for a planned future bypass road called the East Loop. Once the temporary fence was removed — at government expense — and the levee barrier built, the land under the temporary fence would revert to the city, Goodman said.

"If we reject the offer, they put in a permanent fence," Goodman said. "They don't need us."

"You can't have a riverwalk with an 18-foot fence running down the middle of it," he said.

No comments: