Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Good Fences Don't Make Good Neighbors: Illegal Immigrants Are Still Crossing the Border Despite U.S. Attempts to Stop Them

ABC News
March 12, 2009

Some people from other countries want to come to the United States to kill us. Some want to freeload off us or sell us illegal things. Most just want to work here. So what should be done about all that?

It's the Border Patrol's responsibility to secure the U.S. border from illegal immigrants, but the border is long, and Border Patrol agents can't be everywhere.

Reason TV recently visited the Mexican border and spoke to Robert Crooks, who leads the Mountain Minutemen, a vigilante group that tries to keep illegals from entering America.

"The Border Patrol agents are overworked, undermanned, unappreciated," Crooks said. "I'm that added eyes and ears that the Border Patrol don't have."

Crooks thinks more needs to be done. "These borders have to be secured. We're at war."

Violence is an ongoing and escalating problem at the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths so far this year, according to federal officials. The State Department recently issued a travel warning urging caution for Americans traveling to Mexico and Wednesday President Obama said he would consider deploying National Guard troops to the area to deal with the violence.

The president said while he didn't want to militarize the border, "I think it's unacceptable if you've got drug gangs crossing our borders and killing U.S. citizens."

Congress recently decided that the best way to protect America was to build a wall. So now taxpayers are paying for a barrier that later this year will extend 670 miles across our southern border. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost at nearly $2 billion and an additional $260 million per year just to maintain the fence.

Duncan Hunter, a former presidential candidate and retired California congressman, pushed for the fence his entire career and will gladly take credit for its creation.

"The fence succeeded because I wrote the language that mandated it," he said. " I added money each year in the drug interdiction budget to build that fence."

But while the fence is hundreds of miles long, the border is thousands of miles long, so most of the border will remain unfenced. And even where there is a fence, illegal immigrants determined to get in can get around it.

San Diego Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher told "20/20," "They will try to come up over the fence. They will try to come underneath the fence. They'll try to swim around."

They often bring ladders, too. "20/20" went to San Diego to take a look and found dozens of abandoned ladders lying right next to the fence. We also found a series of holes that had been cut into the fence and subsequently repaired. Every few feet, one after the next, these repaired holes dot the brand new fence that Congress is building. It doesn't matter how high a fence is if you can just cut holes at the bottom.

There's also no evidence that the fence has reduced the number of illegals who cross, eventually. In San Diego, agents catch about 400 each day. They put most on a bus and return them to Mexico. But will that teach them a lesson? Persuade them not to try again? Of course not.

They keep trying because they want the better life that America offers. We talked to several illegal immigrants who had just been caught; all of them said they were going to keep on trying until they got in.

"Better work, better opportunities, more money," one captured illegal immigrant said. "They can catch me one, two, three, four, five times. Ten times. I'm going to cross."

Another said he'd keep trying until he got there with his family. "It doesn't matter to me. I'll cross again and I'll cross again. That's all."

A Brookings Institute survey of thousands of migrants who came to the U.S.-Mexico border found that more than nine out of 10 were able to enter, if not on the first try then on the second or third try.

And even if we built an impenetrable fence, one that's a mile high, it would only solve part of the problem, because lots of undocumented migrants don't sneak in. In fact, nearly half of illegal immigrants who are now in America came here legally through border checkpoints or they flew here and overstayed a tourist visa or a student visa.

A fence won't have any effect on them.

The 9/11 terrorists came here on tourist and student visas. They flew to America, legally. And yet you taxpayers continue to pay for construction of the border fence.

In an interview with "20/20," Drew Carey, who hosts Reason TV, said, "I don't know how anybody can't see that this stupid fence isn't a waste of money."

When Hunter retired from Congress this year, his son Duncan D. Hunter won election to his seat in the fall. He agrees with his father that we need a barrier on the southern border.

"What is it worth to the American people to not have another 9/11?" he said.

But wait a second. The border wall wouldn't have stopped 9/11.

"No," Hunter said. " But it might stop the next 9/11, or something like it."

But if it's good to wall off America, why just a wall on part of the Mexican border? What about the northern border? According to the Department of Homeland Security, last year more illegal Middle Eastern nationals were caught crossing from Canada than from Mexico.

And if we wall off Canada, we're still not covered. What about the miles of East and West Coast beaches? Are we going to have machine guns on the beaches?

The elder Duncan Hunter said that was silly. "Nobody's ever suggested doing anything mean. I think the message is this, if you want to come into the United States, which has the biggest front door in the world, you've got to knock on the front door."

But Carey points out, America doesn't make it easy to knock.

"It's so hard to get a guest worker permit and all this stuff. There's so many red tape hoops you have to jump through. It's easier to sneak across the border. We have to change it so the easiest, simplest thing isn't to sneak over the border. It should be if you want a job, you can come here and work. Get your papers and come in here and work."


Monday, March 30, 2009

Fence building in Brownsville leaves rough edges

March 27, 2009
Brownsville Herald / The Monitor
by Kevin Seiff

BROWNSVILLE - Eva Lambert woke up one morning in late February to the sound of heavy machinery. When she stepped outside, she saw tractor-trailers and cranes along the levee behind her home in El Calaboz, 15 miles west of Brownsville.

Then she saw the border fence's steel beams - 18 feet tall and rust-colored. She watched as they were erected one by one on her property.

"I was shocked," she said. "They pulled out the hurricane fence in our backyard. They messed everything up."

But Lambert's biggest surprise was that the federal government began construction without giving her her any compensation.

Unlike her neighbors, who were awarded more than $10,000 in exchange for their assent, Lambert was never asked to sign a contract allowing fencing on her property.

"But that didn't stop them from starting construction," she said Friday, pointing to the steel barrier in her backyard. "In the end, the government does what it wants."

DHS did not respond to calls for comment.

Since February, the federal government has completed construction on several miles of fencing in Lambert's El Calaboz community, part of the government's plan to construct a 700-mile barricade on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Department of Homeland Security has run into numerous legal obstacles in its attempt to construct the barrier in the Rio Grande Valley, making it one of the few places along the border where fencing plans remain incomplete.

In the last 18 months, DHS filed more than 230 land condemnation lawsuits in South Texas federal courts. Several of those cases, including one involving El Calaboz's Eloisa Tamez, are still unresolved. Tamez's court date was recently moved to October. Until then, her sliver of property will remain one of the few places in El Calaboz without fencing.

"(Homeland Security Secretary Janet) Napolitano and (President Barack) Obama have totally betrayed us," Tamez said. "Their opposition to the fence was just words. They haven't done a darn thing."

When she was governor of Arizona, Napolitano famously said, "Show me a 50-foot fence and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder." But since becoming secretary of DHS, she has done little to change the trajectory of the initial border fence plans.

"In terms of the wall itself, we are going to complete the sections that had already been begun and for which there already were appropriations," Napolitano said in a press briefing on Tuesday. "To the extent we request any other sections it will be part and parcel of a system that includes technology and manpower."

According to DHS spokesman Claude R. Knighten, contracts for all remaining segments of the barrier have already been awarded, including about 35 miles of fencing in the Brownsville-Harlingen area.

Eva Lambert still recoils at the sight of the fence in her backyard.

"It changes everything," she said. "We used to walk and ride bikes out there. ... Now we go outside and there's just that ugly wall."

On Thursday, a government official came by Lambert's house to confirm that she will eventually be compensated for her land. She sighed. It was a conversation she'd expected to have several months earlier, before steel beams lined the perimeter of her property.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Oversold? Some lawmen, politicians say cartel spillover threat exaggerated

The Monitor
March 25, 2009
by Jeremy Roebuck

ZAPATA - The nearly 50 deputies who make up the Zapata County Sheriff's Office have encountered Zetas, busted narcotics smugglers and grappled with dangerous gangs over the past several years, Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez says.

But that's nothing compared to the potential threat he sees on his community's horizon.
With Mexican drug trafficking organizations battling their country's government and each other just south of the border, the threat that violence could spill over into his rural jurisdiction weighs ever heavier on his mind.

"If you could see all the intelligence we get, you'd have no doubt," he said. "You can't ignore it - for the sake of the 13-year-old girls whose homes are invaded by masked men looking for drugs."

So far, talk like that has brought millions of dollars in state and federal funding to the officers of border sheriffs like Gonzalez and a pledge from Gov. Rick Perry to seek at least $110 million more to secure the state's southernmost counties before the end of the state legislative session.
Federal lawmakers have also devoted unprecedented attention in recent weeks to the "border situation," hosting a flurry of congressional hearings and public news conferences on the threat that violence could spill over.

But crime statistics collected by the Texas Department of Public Safety suggest the hand-wringing and speech-making may distort the reality on the state's southern frontier, according to a handful of border politicians and lawmen who are urging the state to reconsider the way it doles out border security funding.

A cadre of elected officials and rural authorities has exaggerated the threat Mexican drug cartels pose to border communities, they say, to score points with voters and bring home grant money to their otherwise cash-strapped agencies.

That outsized rhetoric has harmed economic development in border communities and unreasonably scared local residents, McAllen police Chief Victor Rodriguez said in a speech this week before the annual Texas Homeland Security Conference.

"We owe Texans and we owe our border communities responsible action that is based in reality - not rhetoric," he said.

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster went further:

"There are some entities out there that think that the louder they scream, the more funding they're going to get."


Since taking office in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has made rooting out his nation's entrenched drug trafficking organizations a top priority. The effort, while showing some signs of success in disrupting drug distribution routes, has spurred outbreaks of violence along his country's northern border.

Cities such as Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, and Tijuana, south of San Diego, have been the hardest hit, accounting for most of Mexico's 7,000 drug-related killings since January 2007. But so far, that violence has largely remained south of the border.

Starting in 2005, Perry and a group known as the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition launched a vocal public campaign to alert federal authorities to the threats in their home state. The governor granted the group $6 million divided equally among the counties to beef up equipment and pay for overtime to respond to the possible threat of spillover.

Millions of dollars more have followed since then - including part of a $110 million border security package Perry helped push through the state Legislature during the last session.

Border lawmen like Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West say every dime of that funding has been well spent because the spillover effects are already here.

In recent months, his deputies have responded to two incidents in which county residents disappeared after visiting Mexico. Although his investigators haven't linked either case to drug violence, West said during an interview Tuesday that he couldn't rule out the possibility of such a connection.

Elsewhere along the border, law enforcement agencies continue to receive calls of home invasions and drug-related kidnappings every month.

The governor's office has pointed to these crimes as evidence of a growing threat, but the DPS crime statistics paint a calmer picture of life in rural counties like Hudspeth, whose population is estimated to be just over 3,000.

Between 2005 and 2007, West's office reported only 137 index crimes - which include law violations such as murder, aggravated assault, burglary and auto theft. The crime rate there has remained stable at between 40 and 50 index crimes a year, according to the DPS statistics.

In Zapata County, index crimes dropped from 325 reported in 2005 to 267 reported two years later - an almost 18 percent decrease.

And despite being located just across the border from the epicenter of Mexican drug violence - Ciudad Juarez - El Paso remains one of the safest metropolitan areas in the United States.

West, the Hudspeth County sheriff, maintains, however, that the crime stats aren't an accurate depiction of what the grant money has done for his county. Deputies working border security details have referred dozens of cases to federal agencies and there's no telling how many crimes they have deterred just by having more peace officers on the street, he said.

"The threat has been exaggerated?" he said during a Tuesday interview. "Tell that to the 6,000 dead ones over there. Tell that to the ones that have been kidnapped on our side."


Those who wish to reform border security spending define the spillover threat differently.

While Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño concedes his jurisdiction has had its fair share of drug-related crimes in the past several years, he points out that the day-to-day narcotics violence rarely involves Mexican cartel members and can be seen in any major U.S. city with a drug problem. Average Hidalgo County residents are no more or less safe than they were before Calderón began his cartel war.

Treviño advocates stricter auditing of how state grant money is spent and has argued more assistance should go to counties such as Cameron, El Paso and Webb, which lie on major smuggling routes near the state's ports of entry.

"Those types of crimes have been occurring for as long as drugs have been shipped across the border," the sheriff said. "If the sky is falling, then you better say it. But you don't want to be Chicken Littles either."


Wildlife versus the wall

Denver Post
March 26, 2009
by Claire Martin

There's just a set of raccoon tracks on the dusty road in one of Wendy Shattil's new wildlife photographs. You can't see the raccoon.

But you can understand its determination as the tracks travel steadily alongside one stretch of the giant, and controversial, border wall that is going up along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Shattil, a Denver photographer renowned for her wildlife images, followed the little footprints for more than half a mile as they doggedly followed the access road next to the wall in Hidalgo County, Texas. A river courses on the other side of the wall, sometimes close enough to hear.

"It's hard to tell what's in the mind of a raccoon, but it could have been looking for the end of the barrier because it wanted to (cross over)," Shattil said.

"That could explain why it walked so far next to the wall. The tracks didn't stray from the road the entire distance."

Shattil, a slim woman with a piercing gaze and a mane of dark hair, recently spent three weeks on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands along with 12 other International League of Conservation Photographers. Each photographer documented a section of the wall between San Diego, Calif., and Brownsville, Texas.

Her trip to the borderlands produced a portfolio that illustrates how the formidable wall, designed to deter illegal border crossings, is also blocking ancient wildlife migration paths and habitat on more than 100,000 acres of riverfront public land and wildlife reserves.

The public is divided on merits of the wall, to say the least. Proponents argue it is a necessary step toward stopping lawbreakers and preserving security. Others fear it will take a terrible toll on the natural environment.

To hasten the wall's construction, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived scores of federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

Borderland environmentalists joke, sort of, that once the wall is built, the only ocelot likely to thrive in Texas is the Ocelot Grove subdivision, a housing development. The wall will separate a Mexican ocelot population from a tiny and increasingly inbred Texas ocelot community that wildlife preservationists say desperately needs new blood to survive.

Bulldozed access roads flank both sides of the steadily growing 15-foot wall, ravaging U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge tracts, a state park, several birding centers and a butterfly preserve. Both the Nature Conservancy's Southmost Preserve and the Sabal Palm Audubon sanctuary are in the wall's path.

"People outside the borderlands don't have a clue about what's up with the wall," Shattil said.

"A lot of animals will starve or dehydrate unless they can find alternatives to what they've historically used."

Though birds can fly over the wall, the construction is destroying habitat hard- won over the past two decades by Ducks Unlimited, state and federal wildlife officials, and other conservation groups.

The refuges lured birds, and then a growing number of bird-watching tourists, who flocked to the borderlands to add to their life lists. Texas is the only state with its own Peterson's Field Guide, the birders' handbook.

Green jays, kiskadees, pauraques, roseate spoonbills, kingfishers and other rare birds — the second sighting of the snail kite was on the no-man's land between the wall and the Rio Grande river — have drawn so many birders to this part of Texas

that birding has become a commercial business along the border.

In acknowledgment of the wall's potential impact on wildlife, construction crews drape potato sacks and other fabric bags on top of the hollow metal posts that spike into the air. The bags are meant to protect the birds in case they land on the posts, one worker explained to Shattil.

Her photographs and others from the project will be displayed on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to draw attention to proposed legislation that would halt the wall's construction.

"When you look at the wall from the ground, it looks like an artistic statement that will be taken down in a few days," Shattil said.

"It's such an anomaly. It doesn't look like a wall that should exist in the U.S. Especially in Texas."


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Carrizo spraying delayed

Laredo Morning Times
March 26, 2009
By Miguel Timoshenkov

NUEVO LAREDO - Officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol agreed Tuesday to temporarily delay aerial spraying of herbicide on carrizo along the Rio Grande until there can be a deeper international discussion of the crossborder impact of such a project.

"We saw the willingness of the U.S. authorities to suspend the use of the herbicide for now," said José de Jesús Luévano Grano, a Mexico representative on the International Boundary and Water Commission, speaking on behalf of the group of agencies that met Tuesday.

"We support their use of mechanical means to uproot the carrizo."

Luévano said Mexican officials are aware that the carrizo, a non-native cane that clogs the riverbanks, consumes great quantities of water and that its eradication could help preserve the vital fluid in times of drought.

But they don't believe using the herbicide containing imazaypr is the safe way to do that.

A new date for starting the aerial spraying has not been determined, but U.S. authorities confirmed that it has been delayed as a result of Tuesday's meeting.

"We don't have a definitive start date," said Roque Sarinana, a spokesman for Border Patrol.

"It's still undergoing negotiations."

Last week, the Laredo City Council granted Border Patrol an easement for carrizo eradication along 1.1 miles of land along the Rio Grande.

The agency plans to try several methods, including the herbicide, to determine which would be the best way to get rid of the plant.

Tuesday, officials from numerous government agencies at local, state and federal levels, on both sides of the Rio Grande met for more than an a hour to discuss the situation and then had a news conference to announce the U.S. agencies' decision to delay implementation of the spraying.

Mexican and U.S. officials will exchange a series of studies within a week.

Once that is done, another meeting will be set up for a strictly technical discussion of the facts and to determine the next course of action.

Environmental officials and experts on both sides of the border will be reviewing the studies because, while U.S. officials believe use of imazapyr does not pose a health hazard, Mexican officials believe it could cause irreversible damage.

At the news conference, Luévano said Mexican officials told Border Patrol that when their agency is going to do something that affects both sides of the river, they should ask the opinion of Mexican environmental authorities.

"The American authorities thought that by conducting their own environmental study, it would suffice as a study of the environment on the Mexican side and that we would be in agreement," Luévano said, but that is not the case.

Luévano said the Mexico-U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission has followed official procedure since the controversy over use of the herbicide began.

He asserted the commission favors eradication of the carrizo, but supports other non-herbicide means of accomplishing that goal.

Carlos Montiel Saheb, director of the city's waterworks system, said his concern over the application of the herbicide has been relieved, at least temporarily, but that there needs to be a clear understanding of the rights of both nations when something is going to affect both sides of the river.

Both sides need to be consulted, he said. In this case, Mexican authorities should have been involved in the discussion.

"Now we will present our case and give a precise explanation of the risks to public health, particularly how it (herbicide) can affect vision as well as cancer-related concerns," Montiel said.

Luévano was clear in stating that the temporary delay didn't mean that the United States was canceling the project, and noted that negotiations are continuing.

It's up to the U.S. side of the International Boundary and Water Commission to provide a detailed study on the use of imazapyr to ensure that it poses no negative effects to the Mexican side of the river, according to a news release from the Nuevo Laredo city government.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

House panel hears testimony against border wall

Rio Grande Guardian
March 23, 2009
by Julian Aguilar

AUSTIN, March 23 – Border lawmakers have again stated their opposition to the border fence in South Texas, this time in a proposed concurrent resolution urging the federal government to research alternatives to the barrier.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, on Monday laid out HCR 75 to the House Committee on Border and Intergovernmental Affairs. The resolution would ask Congress to consider how best to secure the border in ways that leave out what Lucio said was an “archaic, brick and mortar” solution.

“If there is anyone who has a significant interest in making sure that my community is safe it’s me. We definitely are pro-border security and making a safe community for us to grow up in,” Lucio said. “That being said we realize we must do so in a responsible, meaningful and effective way and the border construction that has taken place and continued to be composed along the border, I think, does none of that.”

Lucio pointed first to the fact that the price tag of the proposed fence has increased to $1.2 million per mile of construction.

“That’s federal money, taxpayer money that we are paying to construct a border fence,” he said. “Over its construction cycle - which is 25 years - that cost will increase to 16.4 million dollars per mile.”

Lucio said the issue was not about open borders or opinions for or against immigration, but instead about investigating real solutions to the controversy that has become border security.

“To me this is about responsibly investing and having a secure border. For the millions of dollars we are spending per mile, for a fraction of that cost we can invest in having Border Patrol officers on the ground,” he said. “A brick-and-mortar wall does not think, does not have the ability to adapt to situations. If it is 10 feet (tall), folks that want to come into our country illegally will build an 11-foot ladder.

“If we invest a fraction of a cost that will go into building a proposed border fence into restoring that body of water (the Rio Grande) to its original luster, you’ll have a wonderful barrier there.”

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, agreed with Lucio and said finding alternative methods to security should be explored.

“We can build a virtual fence, we can install more cameras (and) we can actually have more boots on the ground. We can hire more agents to assist,” she said. Gonzales also agreed that the issue was not about being for or against immigration and said, at least in her district, the issue was not even a partisan one.

“Living along the border, I want to thank you for bringing this resolution,” she told Lucio. “I have constituents where it doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you are on, whether you’re Democrat or Republican. Some that are extremely conservative Republican who live in my district are very much against the wall.”

Lucio also cited his concerns about the access to the river for testing.

“Some of the issues that have been shared with our office is the concern over being able to maintain and test the water quality that is in the Rio Grande River, once these fences go up we cannot guarantee that TCEQ will have adequate access to the water to test,” he said.

Committee Vice-Chair Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, said he thought a combination of methods, including a fence in parts of Texas, are necessary to secure the border. Brownsville Mayor and Texas Border Coalition member Pat Ahumada agreed that in some parts of Texas the barrier would make sense, but local communities should be looked at individually.

“We are for smart and effective solutions, we are patriots just like everybody else and we feel that one size doesn’t fit all,” he said. “We are not against the fence where it is appropriate. The problem is you have somebody from East Texas or the interior of the U.S. trying to dictate something they have no clue about. Why? Because there has been no true consultation.”

Ahumada urged the committee to vote the issue out so it could to be debated in front of the Texas House as a whole.

“We all knew from day one it was going to create a lot of stir, but that’s good,” he said. “Debating the issue is healthy, that’s the way to arrive at a conclusion that hopefully is what’s best for everybody.”

Ahumada added that more studies needed to be done on the economic effects a border wall in the area would have on trade between the U.S. and Mexico. He added, like Lucio did, that historically walls have had no significant effect in deterring outsiders. Flynn told Lucio that the Berlin Wall did have its stated effect on the region, to which some in the room wondered aloud if it was the wall or the armed soldiers that patrolled on top of it.

Ahumada revisited Flynn’s comment during his remarks.

“Millions of dollars are being spent to invest in another wall that is not going to work,” he said. “No wall has ever worked and yes, you want to put machine guns on there and go Communist, maybe you can make it work. But, I don’t think that’s the American way.”

Adrienne Evans, a founder of the No Border Wall-Big Bend coalition and member of the Sierra Club, said that in her region of Terlingua,Texas near the city of Presidio, residents were “strong armed” into signing easements for the federal government.

“Every rancher and farmer was given five minutes to sign an agreement saying ‘Sign off on the easement for access to your water or we can’t guarantee you access to your water.’ These are seventh-generation farmers or ranchers,” she testified.

Like Ahumada, she said locals are usually left with little or no guidance about the issue.

“The City of Presidio and the County of Presidio voted to join the Texas Border Coalition in June to join their lawsuit because they are not quite sure what to do to have a voice in this, they were not consulted,” she said.

Evans said that according to a recent study by the Army Corps of Engineers that focused on the “lost” part of the Rio Grande, from El Paso to Presidio where there is little or no water flow, reinvesting in the river could be looked at as an option to help Border Patrol.

“If the river would restore, the Border Patrol could do their job, it creates a line of sight,” she said.

Evans added that on a recent protest walk over the 57-mile route of planned fencing in Sunland Park, a small community in West El Paso County, she saw firsthand what would likely still happen should a border wall be constructed. After a prayer vigil, attended by Mexican and U.S. citizens, people on the U.S. side wanted to give their leftover supplies to the Mexicans.

“There was no opening in the wall so they had to stand on the cars and hand it up over the wall,” she said. “The people who received the food were under the age of ten and it took them ten seconds to stand on each other’s shoulder and scale the wall.”


Saturday, March 21, 2009

Rio Grande town with new border fence says illegal immigrants still pouring in

Associated Press / Dallas Morning News
March 21, 2009
by Christopher Sherman

GRANJENO, Texas – When the government announced plans to build a new fence along portions of the Mexican border, residents of this sleepy town on 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 farmland. Parts of the fence would have run through existing houses or backyards.

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, and families still still have river access.

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.

"Up here you don't just see a few. You see bunches" of as many as 50 people, he said.

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 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.

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


The border’s “Agent Orange” controversy

Newspaper Tree
March 21, 2009

In the Vietnam War, the United States sprayed vast tracts of land with the chemical defoliant Agent Orange as part of a counter-insurgency strategy aimed at removing forest cover for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Although the toxic dioxin released by Agent Orange was later blamed by US veterans’ groups and Vietnamese officials for illnesses and diseases that struck thousands of former US soldiers and upwards of four million Vietnamese citizens, the US Supreme Court recently refused to consider a case by pursued by Vietnamese plaintiffs against the manufacturers of Agent Orange.

Four decades later, on the US-Mexico border, the US Border Patrol intends to employ a chemical herbicide in order to eradicate stands of the Carrizo cane, an invasive plant that grows as tall as 30 feet and provides convenient cover for undocumented border crossers and smugglers. The variety of Carrizo cane that is common in the Laredo-Del Rio borderlands is from the region of Valencia, Spain.

Possibly beginning next week, the US Border Patrol could commence aerial herbicide spraying along a slice of the Rio Grande between the twin cities of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. The experimental spraying would cover an area that stretches 1.1 miles between the Laredo Railroad Bridge and Laredo Community College directly across from Mexico, said Roque Sarinana, public affairs officer for the Border Patrol’s Laredo sector.

In addition to aerial spraying of the herbicide imazapyr, the Border Patrol will employ hand-cutting and mechanical methods that involve applying the killer chemical at ground-level, Sarinana told Frontera
NorteSur in an a phone interview. Getting rid of Carrizo cane should improve the Border Patrol’s “line of sight up and down the river,” Sarinana said.

Depending on weather conditions, the first dustings of imazapyr could begin March 25, Sarinana confirmed. “As of now, that’s the plan,” he said.

Concerned about risks to public health from possible herbicide spray drift, runoff and leaching, officials from the city government of neighboring Nuevo Laredo are steadfastly opposed to aerial spraying. “I’ve always been respectful of the law and sovereignty,” said Nuevo Laredo Mayor Ramon Garza Barrios. “But herbicides that affect health in both
countries can’t be sprayed.”

Mayor Garza’s stance is supported by other elected and appointed officials in Mexico. On Thursday, March 19, the Tamaulipas State Legislature issued a statement requesting information about the proposed spraying from the Mexican and US sections of the International Boundary and Water Commission as well as Mexican federal agencies.

The zone targeted for spraying is across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo’s Hidalgo neighborhood and only hundreds of yards from the Mexican city’s public water intake system.

Carlos Montiel Saeb, general manager for Nuevo Laredo’s water utility, said the Border Patrol advised his office to turn off water pumps a few hours prior to spraying. “If there is no problem, why are they asking us to do this?” Montiel questioned.

Border Patrol spokesman Sarinana said he had not seen a written objection from Mayor Garza, but stressed it did not mean other US officials had not
received a letter. “This is all in the works, so we’ll see what happens,” Sarinana said, adding the Border Patrol plans on releasing a more detailed statement about the future of the Carrizo cane project.

Opposition to the Border Patrol’s aerial spraying plans is likewise growing in Laredo, Texas. The two sides turned out to a March 16 meeting of the Laredo City Council in which elected officials narrowly approved by a controversial 5-4 vote an easement for the US government on city property targeted for spraying.

Jay J. Johnson Castro, Sr., executive director of the Rio Grande International Studies Center at Laredo Community College told Frontera NorteSur the planned aerial spraying caught residents off guard. The aerial applications could threaten more than 1,000 bird and other species at a time when spring hatchings begin and migratory birds are still in the
area, Johnson said by phone from his office. The Border Patrol’s Carrizo Cane Eradication Project abuts a nature trail running near the community
college, Johnson lamented.

“Nobody knows the impact of imazapyr,” Johnson contended. “It’s no different than Agent Orange.” Citing the program’s environmental assessment, Johnson said aerial spraying could eventually extend along a strip of river bank 16 miles upriver from the pilot project zone. Despite the potential magnitude of the project, the Border Patrol did not gather local input as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, Johnson charged.

Like virtually all chemical pest control agents, lack of complete public information and multiple, contradictory reports surround the history of imazapyr, a substance first registered in 1984 and currently manufactured under the trade name Habitat by the multinational BASF corporation.

A fact sheet prepared by the Washington State Department of Agriculture reported imazapyr was “low in toxicity to invertebrates and practically
non-toxic to fish, birds and mammals.” Still, the fact sheet reported imazapyr was highly mobile and persistent in soils.

In 2007, BASF spokesman Joel Vollmer told the press his company’s imazapyr product was widely used in wildlife refuges across the US and along the Pecos River and its tributaries to control salt cedar, another
troublesome, invasive plant species afflicting the US Southwest.

Public controversies over imazapyr applications have previously erupted in Alaska, California and Colombia, where experimental use of the herbicide to control illegal coca plantings was approved in 2000. A report on the chemical’s history developed for the non-governmental group Alaska Community Action on Toxics said evidence existed that identified imazapyr as a contaminant of soil, groundwater and surface water. Imazapyr also contains an acid that can irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory system,
the report stated. According to the report’s authors, additional evidence linked the herbicide to Parkinson’s Disease-like symptoms.

In developing its Carrizo cane aerial spraying project, the Border Patrol ignored studies by Laredo Community College researchers that examined different means of killing off the invasive species, Johnson charged.

“We are not opposed to the eradication of Carrizo,” he affirmed. “We think it has to go because it consumes about 500 gallons of water per meter and
chokes out native vegetation.”

At the federal level, Department of Homeland Security-sponsored researchers earlier explored using biological controls, including wasps, to control Carrizo cane.

US officials have been urging a Carrizo cane eradication program for some time. In 2007, US Representative Henry J. Cuellar (D-Tx) called the tall,
thirsty plant a national security issue. Quoted in the news media, Rep. Cuellar said then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had been to
the border to get a first-hand look at the Carrizo cane foe. The Laredo Congressman assured the press officials were “looking at what is the
fastest, safest way to address the effectiveness of addressing this issue of Carrizo.”

With the clock ticking, Johnson and a growing network of activists on both sides of the border are lobbying high officials to prevent aerial spraying before it occurs. In an e-mail, longtime border environmental advocate and Sierra Club activist Bill Addington contended spraying would violate the 1983 La Paz
accord between the United States and Mexico that requires mutual notification in the event of projects impacting the environment within a 60 mile radius on either side of the border.

“We considering all democratic options-court actions, political protests, media attention,” Johnson added. “We expect our message to be heard by the environmentally-friendly Obama administration. This is too unprecedented to aerially spray a toxic chemical in a densely-populated area.”

Meanwhile, word of the planned herbicide spraying is spreading fast in the two Laredos. Interviewed on the banks of the Rio Grande, a 26-year-old Honduran migrant told the Mexican press he intended to cross into the US without papers before spraying commenced. “They say they will put poison into the river,” said Walter Hernandez. “That’s why I want to cross before then.”

Mario Garcia, a Mexican national who frequents the Rio Grande on the Nuevo Laredo side with his sons, also expressed concern to a Mexican reporter. “I frequently come to fish in the area,” Garcia said. “With what degree of confidence are we going to eat a fish if we know it is contaminated?”

In response to an article about the imazapyr controversy in the Laredo Morning Times, several readers sent pointed e-mails to the news publication that proposed solutions to the Carrizo cane issue or, as is increasingly the case with border news web sites, used the immediate topic at hand to vent ideological broadsides on issues of race, the environment and US-Mexico relations.


Additional Sources:
-- Enlineadirecta.info, March 19, 20 and 21, 2009.
Articles by Gaston Monge and Hugo Reyna.
-- Laredo Morning Times, March 19, 2009. Article by Miguel Timoshenkov.
-- Lider Informativo (Nuevo Laredo), March 17, 2009. Article by Ericka Morales.
-- El Diario de Juarez, March 16, 2009.
-- Commondreams.org/Inter Press Service, March 16, 2009. Article by Helen Clark.
-- La Jornada, March 8 and 11, 2009. Articles by Carlos Figueroa and editorial staff.
-- Rio Grande Guardian, November 8, 2007.
-- Homelandsecurity.org/journal/, April 2007. Article by Gail Cleere.
-- Panna.org (Pesticide Action Network) August 1, 2000 and April 11, 2008.
-- Akaction.net (Alaska Community Action on Toxics.)


Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico. For a free electronic subscription email


BORDER: US and Mexico can win the fight with drug cartels

Fort Worth Star Telegram
March 20, 2009
by Chad Foster
Op-ed by the Mayor of Eagle Pass, TX

What are the three safest cities in the United States?

No. 1 is San Jose, Calif. No. 2 is Honolulu — and America’s third safest city is El Paso.

If you have been watching cable TV lately, El Paso is a shocker. Cable news wants you to believe that violence from the Mexican drug cartels is spilling blood into the streets of U.S. communities on the Mexican border.

There is a pretty strong consensus among Texas border mayors and county judges, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and President Obama that the cable news version is not so.

Crime on the Texas border is on the way down after decreasing 65 percent over the past several years. Apprehensions of illegal border crossers are down more than 40 percent, and that was before they started building a fence.

The reason for this success in securing the Texas-Mexico border includes more local police, effective policies that punish bad guys and an increase in the number of Border Patrol agents. Most recently, the numbers have continued to decline but are not yet in the data, because of the nation’s economic downturn.

So what is really happening on the border?

President Felipe Calderón of Mexico is fighting for his country and ours by confronting the transnational drug cartels. The fight is concentrated in a few parts of northern Mexico.

It is a very difficult fight against a tough, well-armed and well-financed enemy. The drug cartels are supplying the United States with vast quantities of narcotics and marijuana and receiving billions of dollars and stockpiles of weapons in return.

Because Calderón is taking on a powerful enemy, some academics and government officials warn that Mexico is on the brink of becoming a "failed state."

The Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and business leaders in the Texas counties that border Mexico, disagree. Calderón has not lost any part of Mexican territory and there is no indication that Mexico is falling apart.

Rather, the Calderón government has engaged in a fight to defeat the cartels and the United States ought to join him for the sake of our own national interest.

We are working with Mexico through the Merida Initiative, sharing equipment and training with Mexican troops. But it is only half of the solution. The other half demands a border security policy that attacks real problems instead of pretending to cure the problem by walling off our neighbor.

The Texas Border Coalition recommends a strategy that delivers the balance of Merida Initiative training and equipment, and implements a strategy to stop the drugs and guns from crossing our bridges.

And that is where the illegal traffic occurs: on the bridges. There is too much risk to million-dollar drug cargoes to try to cross between the ports of entry. The drugs, money and arms (and most of America’s undocumented aliens) cross on the international bridges.

To make sure that Calderón wins the fight against the drug cartels, the Texas Border Coalition supports:

Z-Ports X-ray devices for each traveling lane at every land port of entry to identify drugs, money and guns being smuggled in hidden compartments in cars and trucks crossing the Rio Grande;

Overtime funding for local police to secure their assistance in conducting southbound checks for firearms and cash under Customs and Border Patrol control and supervision;

Use of National Guard troops to provide intelligence and logistics support and training;

More Border Patrol agents dispatched from areas between the ports of entry to the land ports with appropriate training; and

More infrastructure, technology and personnel at the land ports of entry to curtail drug smuggling and other criminal activity.

We have presented our plan to the Texas Legislature and are taking it to the U.S. Congress, Department of Homeland Security and the White House. With a smart, concerted effort, the U.S. and Mexico can win this war.

Chad Foster is chairman of the Texas Border Coalition and mayor of Eagle Pass.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

NL not sold on herbicide

Laredo Morning Times
March 19, 2009
by Miguel Timoshenkov

NUEVO LAREDO - If the U.S. CBP Border Patrol resorts to using herbicide to eliminate the carrizo growing on the banks of the Rio Grande, border residents must be warned that they could suffer skin irritations, eye

problems - including possible blindness - respiratory distress and even cancer, Dr. Luis Eduardo Campbell Loa, head of this city's health department, said this week.

Carlos Montiel Saeb, head of the city's waterworks system, also expressed concern about Border Patrol's plan, saying that the pesticide would be used within about 450 yards of where the city draws water from the river for its estimated 500,000 residents.

"They have sent us a letter asking us to stop the pumps three hours before they spray the chemical," Montiel said at a news conference Tuesday.

"If the experts are so sure that there won't be irreversible damage, why are they asking us to stop pumping the water for the city?"

Campbell, Montiel, Nuevo Laredo City Councilman José Guadalupe Bautista and Environmental Director Gustavo Pantoja said at the news conference that they have raised protests with various U.S. federal agencies about the planned spraying, to little avail.

"But we will go to the necessary higher authorities and will seek support from the Mexican Consulate," Bautista said.

"We were at the meeting of the Laredo City Council (on Monday), where we laid out our concerns."

Bautista said the concerns were raised with the entire council, including Héctor J. García, Juan Narvaez, Johnny Rendon, Gene Belmares and Jose Valdez Jr.

"They (nevertheless) gave their approval, supporting the Border Patrol's request, but the problem is that we are sharing the same river," Bautista said.

"It can affect us on both sides and we believe that the utmost safety regarding collateral effects should be demonstrated."

The Laredo council members voting against the herbicide pilot project were Mike Garza, Cindy Liendo Espinoza and Mike Landeck.

Mayor Raul Salinas did not vote on the matter; the city charter allows the mayor to vote only in ties.

As a result of the council's decision, Border Patrol has permission to try a variety of methods to eradicate carrizo, including the controversial herbicide, on a 1.1-mile segment of the river.

Campbell and Montiel said the effects of the herbicide won't be known until the long term, and it's unknown how it will affect the international community.

At Monday night's meeting, photos and graphics were shown where the herbicide is to be used, including its effects on an area where a test spraying was conducted.

One of the photos showed the dead carrizo on the U.S. side, while the Mexican side was only slightly affected.

At the news conference in Nuevo Laredo, Bautista said a Laredo rancher expressed his concern that his land may have been used without his permission.

"The environmental impact that will be caused by the herbicide has not been fully explored, let alone the fact that it will remain three years in the subsoil and affect the water down 3 meters," Bautista said.

For his part, Montiel emphasized that Nuevo Laredo's water treatment plant can't eliminate the risks posed by the herbicide.

"We make the water potable (safe to drink), but we could not clean it of chemicals," Montiel said, adding that if the water is contaminated, the only way officials would know that is by means of laboratory tests on water samples.

Making the water potable involves removing sediment and other particles from the water, filtering it and treating it with chlorine to kill germs.

The Tamaulipas state water commission has sent a formal notice to the United States to not spray the herbicide near the city's water intake, Montiel said.

"The problem is that they will spray the chemical upstream, and the current will take it to the intake," Montiel said.

"They should not be experimenting at our expense."

He added that "so-called experts" have assured that they will block the intakes on the Mexican side, but Montiel warned that they should not attempt to invade Mexican territory and make such decisions.

That will not be allowed, he said.

Meanwhile, Nuevo Laredo Mayor Ramón Garza Barrios was in Mexico City, expressing his disapproval of the U.S. side's unilateral action on the issue.

Pantoja, the city's environmental director, said the city will continue to seek redress from other federal authorities to revoke the dubious decision allowing the spraying of the herbicide.


Monday, March 16, 2009

A fine border line between cartels, immigration debate

The Hill
March 16, 2009
by Bridget Johnson

Fear of the gruesome Mexican drug-cartel violence spilling over America's southern border is reigniting debate over immigration reform and controversial border-security measures.

Three dozen Republican representatives penned a letter last week to President Obama asking him to complete the border fence in light of the cartel violence that has seen Camp Pendleton Marines banned from visiting the party town of Tijuana, the Ciudad Juarez mayor relocating his family to Texas for safety, and a State Department travel alert issued last month urging renewed caution in the tourist destination.

"While more than 600 miles of pedestrian fencing and vehicle barriers have been constructed so far, it is out understanding that nearly 70 miles of infrastructure, designated for specific areas that are susceptible to significant cross-border traffic, remains uncompleted," the members — 13 representing border states — say in the letter.

"In areas where construction has been unnecessarily delayed, the REAL ID Act (P.L. 109-13) provides the Secretary of Homeland Security with the authority to waive any legal requirements that impede the construction of border security barriers," the letter continues. "Given this authority, in addition to the requirement for at least 700 miles of border infrastructure, we request that you take immediate action to finish the 70 miles of uncompleted fence construction projects.

"We urge you to also consider expanding this infrastructure to other areas of the border that continue to experience the effects of increased border violence."

Joe Kasper, spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), one of the letter's signatories, told The Hill that the infrastructure "is not the silver bullet, but part of a multifaceted approach" to battling both drug and human smuggling.

Hunter's district sits in a major smuggling corridor between the border and Los Angeles. "People in any border community feel the effects of illegal immigration and smuggling more than they do elsewhere in the United States," Kasper said. "They continue to call for an enhanced security presence along the border. Their position on the issue hasn't changed."

But the leader of the Border Patrol union says the border fencing has just increased attacks on officers, while the director of a pro-immigration organization blasted the call for more fencing as "self-serving."

T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, told The Hill that officers continue to be subject to a "dramatic increase" in assaults, with 1,097 documented incidents in the fiscal year between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008. "Obviously, we're extremely concerned about the continued escalation of violence, which has been increasing every year for at least the past six years," he said.

While the completed border infrastructure has had a "negligible effect on border violence," Bonner said, "there appears to be a correlation between the fortification of the border and assaults on our agents."

"The fence affords cartels a degree of protection to launch assaults on our agents without being detected," Bonner said.

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), said that border restrictions continue to give drug cartels a revenue stream as immigrants pay cartel-controlled human trafficking groups to get across.

"By sealing off the border in this way, what you end up doing is giving [the cartels] more power," Salas said. "Their money-making is actually increased."

David Hernandez, a community activist and founder of Los Angeles Conservative Hispanic Americans, told The Hill that the border violence presents the opportunity to open a dialogue about security issues.

"When it was not politically correct to talk about the crimes that the illegal-alien criminal element was participating in, if you were to even mention that you were thrown in with 'you're a racist, you're a bigot,' " said Hernandez, who has run twice as the Republican nominee against Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and plans to challenge the congressman again in 2010. "It's become so publicized that for even the most timid person on illegal immigration, it's a real concern."

While the Department of Homeland Security is anticipated soon to announce assistance to help Mexico crack down on the cartels in terms of weapons and money laundering, the border violence may have an effect not just on the immigration debate but on immigration levels as well.

"Any steps that you take to curtail Mexican drug violence will help illegal immigration," said Bryan Griffith, spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, noting that though stepped-up enforcement may help, the violence itself may spur more northward journeys. "Generally, people come to the U.S. to find jobs," Griffith said. "If you have violence, there's more of a motivation."

Bonner said that at the moment the poor economy seems to be resulting in fewer immigrants ponying up smuggling fees to cross into the U.S. and fewer jobs waiting for migrants on this side. "It's very rare for someone to cross the border without employment lined up," he said.

He does say, though, that the possibility remains for a flood of Mexicans being driven north by the bloody streets at home.

"If Mexican violence continues at this pace, then you're going to have refugees fleeing the violence," Bonner said, adding that cartels have shown they will just follow those who have escaped their wrath into American cities to exact kidnappings, home invasions and killings — "sending the message that you can't run far enough to get away from us."

The solutions being offered to the Obama administration to keep drug violence from spilling into America's streets are, again, inextricably linked to the immigration debate.

Salas said it's a question of priorities. "Homeland Security should be focused on the criminal element ... but right now they're busy catching farmworkers heading to California to pick crops," she said. "[Their] duty and responsibility is being neglected because they're trying to catch these low-wage workers.

"The best way to cut the power of the drug cartels in terms of reducing violence is by passing immigration reform this year," Salas said, adding that hope for reform "is one of the main reasons that so many Latinos and Asians decided to support President Obama."

Hernandez said civilian border-enforcement groups that have been talking for years about the potential for increased violence will now move the debate toward protecting communities. "It's reached a point where it's going to force politicians to take action to make it appear that they are doing something about it, whether it's moving forward with more funding for building the fence, whether it's sending more National Guard to the border — this time with ammunition for their weapons."

The leader of the Border Patrol union said that during Operation Jump Start, in which National Guard troops were deployed to the Mexican border to offer limited enforcement assistance to the Border Patrol by observing and reporting, cartels quickly learned that the rules of engagement meant they could conduct business as usual. "You don't scare the cartels by having a few extra bodies and a few extra guns," said Bonner, noting that he doesn't hear any calls for Guardsmen to assume a different role this time around.

Texas Gov. Ricky Perry (R) has asked for 1,000 National Guard troops and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has asked for 250. Obama has indicated that while the administration is still weighing its options to combat the Mexican drug violence, he doesn't want to "militarize" the border.

And though Obama met with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently to discuss potential aid to Mexico, Bonner says that more military aid could just end up benefiting the cartels — as have the U.S. guns intended as aid that are now used by Mexican police and military working for the drug lords.

Bonner said that while having the U.S. military on standby to respond to events such as Mexican military incursions would be a "rational approach," the most important element in combating the border violence is nixing migrant traffic "by revamping the worksite enforcement strategy," thus freeing up overwhelmed border agents to combat the criminal element.

Such a refocused strategy would likely clean up the border, he said, and leave cartels looking for air and sea routes like the Colombian cartels of the 1970s.

"As long as you have such strong demand [for drugs] in the U.S.," Bonner said, "then you'd have cartels trying to find a way in."


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Border fences grow, as does debate that rages over them

Arizona Daily Star
March 15, 2009
by Brady McCombs

NOGALES — Three men prop a ladder on top of a tree branch and lean it against a 15-foot border fence made of steel tubes so close together a man can't fit his head through.

One by one, they climb over and shimmy down the other side, landing in the United States at the bottom of the Mariposa Wash, about two miles west of Nogales. They jog north across a concrete road, fading into the brush.

On a nearby ridge, a U.S. Border Patrol agent watches, then jumps in his SUV and speeds down the new access road that, like the fence, is part of the biggest, fastest and most expensive buildup of border infrastructure in U.S. history.

The three illegal border crossers run, but it isn't long before several agents converge and eventually find their hiding spot.

The scene illustrates the debate over the effectiveness of border fences that now cover one-third of Arizona's 378 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, up from 7 percent three years ago.

"These fences present between a 30-second to two-minute speed bump for most healthy individuals," said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife, a group that works to protect endangered species. "We are paying how many millions of dollars for this?"

Walls, particularly unguarded, have historically been shown to be ineffective, he said.

"It's just a piece of scrap metal that will be jumped over, tunneled under, gone around," Clark said. "At the end of the day, it's just a big waste of money."

Clark and other critics say the economic recession, and not the fence, is responsible for the decline in illegal immigration in the past two years and that border crossers will always find a way to defeat it, no matter how many miles it stretches or how menacing it appears.

"They can build a fence to the heavens, and they will find a way to get across," Mexican rancher Juan Soto Moreno said in Spanish. He owns four acres along the border east of Sonoyta, Sonora, where a new five-mile steel- mesh pedestrian fence lines the southern border of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. "Forget about it. They are never going to stop them."

The Border Patrol sees the same scene as an example of how the fences help the patrol.

"When you are crossing a fence 15 feet in the air, it's a lot easier for me to see," said Alan White, Border Patrol Nogales station chief. "With a barrier that they have to negotiate, it gives us a little more time to react and catch these people."

Border Patrol officials acknowledge that the barriers are not a panacea but say they deter, slow and funnel traffic, providing them with a tool that gives them the upper hand in the eternal cat-and-mouse game with smugglers. They credit the fences, along with the increase in agents, for a 36 percent decrease in apprehensions in the Tucson Sector over the past two years.

"These fences are absolutely necessary," White said. "I can't look you in the eye and tell you I'm doing a good job without these barriers."

Menacing barriers

The international border flows up and down rolling hills covered with green shrubs and brown mesquite as it stretches east and west out of Nogales.

Five years ago, it was difficult to decipher exactly where the international line was. Marked only by three- or five-strand barbed-wire fences, an occasional border monument every couple of miles and only a few miles of dirt roads, it required close inspection to figure it out.

That's not the case anymore.

The George W. Bush-led buildup has hardened large stretches of international boundary, transforming it with 308 miles of menacing fences and broad access roads. Combined with an additional 300 miles of vehicle barriers, there are 608 total miles of barriers along the nearly 2,000-mile Southwest border that stretches from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. That total falls just short of the 670 miles mandated by Congress in 2006.

Nowhere is the overhaul more evident than in Arizona, where today four-fifths of the border has pedestrian fences or vehicle barriers, up from about one-fifth three years ago.

For nearly eight miles to the east and 2 1/2 miles to the west of Nogales, towering steel fences and dirt and gravel roads cut across the desert floor like a white stripe across a yellow, green and brown canvas.

The new fencing bookends about 2 1/2 miles of steel landing-mat fence put up in the 1990s for a total of 13 miles of continuous fencing in the Nogales area.

Pedestrian fences and roads also stretch across 40-plus continuous miles of border in Cochise County from the foot of the Huachuca Mountains to east of Douglas with the only breaks in the washes and rivers.

The fencing covers seven miles around Sasabe, five-plus miles flanking Lukeville and 45 miles from San Luis east across the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range.

In addition to the 124 miles of pedestrian fences, there are 183 miles of vehicle barriers along Arizona's border, including most of the 75 miles along the Tohono O'odham Reservation, across most of the 88 miles of border across the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southwestern Arizona, and east of Douglas toward the New Mexico state line.

The new pedestrian fences — built mostly by private contractors — make the fences of the 1990s look weak.

Those fences, made of Army-surplus landing mat and put up by Border Patrol agents and the military, stand about 10 to 12 feet high and are easily scaled or cut through — and difficult to repair. Most look like old quilts today, a patchwork of welded pieces covering the breaches.

Most of the new fences are 15 feet or higher, made of double steel mesh or concrete-filled steel tubes, and are much more difficult to cut through, said White, the Border Patrol agent in charge in Nogales. There have been only two breaches to the new fencing at Nogales since last year, he said.

Homeland Security paid $166 million in 10 contracts for the construction of nearly 45 miles of pedestrian fences in Arizona in 2007-2008, information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows. The per-mile cost ranged from $2.59 million for 7.5 miles of fence east of Nogales to $7.425 million for 2.08 miles west of Nogales.

White said using subcontractors to build fencing resulted in more effective barriers.

"They hit the ground running, have engineers troubleshooting. They have all the right equipment for the job. They are the professionals," he said.

The new and improved roads have also been invaluable in areas that were previously accessible to agents only by foot, ATV or horseback.

The roads also mean lower vehicle-maintenance costs and faster response and transport times, he said.

Blockade or speed bump?

East of the Lukeville port of entry in Mexico, an unpaved road runs parallel to a double steel mesh pedestrian fence.

On a recent visit, scouts could be seen driving back and forth along the road eyeing the movements of Border Patrol agents on the U.S. side. Shortly after an agent drove west toward the Lukeville, two taxis emerged from a cluster of homes and ranches in Mexico and drove east along the border on the dirt road. When they reached the end of the fence about three miles west of Lukeville, they stopped and dropped off about 10 people.

The group casually walked over the waist-high vehicle barriers and into the United States, fading into the sea of cactus and shrubs. Whether they succeeded in evading the Border Patrol is unknown, but they had no problem defeating the fence.

Smugglers staging the crossing of people or drugs is a daily occurrence near Soto's ranch.

Going around is just one tactic smugglers use, Soto said. They commonly cut through the mesh fence or use ladders to go over it.

"It doesn't do anything," Soto said in Spanish.

Lee Baiza, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument superintendent, says the verdict is still out on the five-plus miles of pedestrian fencing put up last year on the monument's southern border.

"The thing that amazes me is that they still bother to just cut through it," Baiza said. "It has deviated some traffic but not in totality the way I would have expected it to."

Glenn Spencer, who runs the non-governmental organization American Border Patrol from his 100 acres along the border west of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, says it depends on the type of fencing.

The 18-foot-high steel bollard fence that stretches from the San Pedro River across his ranch nearly six miles west to the foot of the Huachuca Mountains has completely stopped illegal immigration, Spencer said.

But a shorter steel mesh fence on the other side of the San Pedro that is easy to climb hasn't slowed smugglers and illegal border crossers much, he said. And he considers vehicle barriers useless for stopping people and gets annoyed when Homeland Security counts them in its total miles of fencing.

"It has to be tall enough, it has to be effectively designed," Spencer said.

The same bollard fencing Spencer raves about can also be found east of Nogales and in two stretches around Douglas. Variations of the bollard fencing are up west of Nogales, flanking Sasabe and east of Naco.

"It is the best investment we could make on our border," said Spencer, who flies the border in a small plane to track the fence construction. "We are going to be cutting back on the drugs entering the United States, criminals entering the United States, illegal aliens. We are going to cut down on Border Patrol costs."


Border fences make critics fear for the area's wildlife

Arizona Daily Star
March 15, 2009
by Brady McCombs

It could take years to fully comprehend the environmental toll of border fencing, but critics say it is bound to create problems for the land and wildlife.

The attempts by environmentalists and public-land managers to address their concerns were brushed aside early on by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who invoked a provision of the 2005 Real ID Act that allowed a waiver of environmental and other federal regulations for border projects.

And it wasn't long after that problems began cropping up.

In testimony last year, Tohono O'odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. told a House subcommittee that near Douglas and Naco, construction workers dug up fragments of human remains in Tohono O'odham ancestral lands.

He also noted that during the construction, some birds died when they got stuck in 12-inch-diameter steel pipes.

The Gila woodpeckers were confused by the pipes, which looked enough like a saguaro cactus that the birds flew into the open ends and became trapped, said Jeffrey Brooks, who worked as an archaeological and ecological construction monitor for a private company in the spring of 2008. The exact number that died is unknown, but it was probably as high 100, he said.

Now anecdotal evidence is showing that the fences are harming wildlife, said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife, a group that works to protect endangered species.

"They are encountering the wall, hesitant at the wall, being deflected away from the wall, in some cases hitting the wall or getting stuck in the bollards," Clark said. "Indications are that it is having the sorts of impact that we anticipated."

Those concerns include fragmentation of habitat; increase of wildlife disturbance by motorized vehicles that now have more access; and severing of migration and dispersal corridors for animals such as the jaguar, ocelot, black bear, cougar and coatimundi, all species that require large amounts of habitat, Clark said.

And there are other problems attributed to the fencing, including flooding at Nogales and Lukeville during the 2008 monsoon that was caused, or at least compounded, by border fences.

Border Patrol officials say the fencing is beneficial to the environment and wildlife because it is cutting down on the trash left behind by illegal immigrants.

Clark and others argue that a real assessment of the border fence's adverse impact will have to await the completion of a formal study by a neutral agency. So far, however, nothing like that has been started.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lawsuit alleges feds improperly withheld information regarding border fence

March 11, 2009
Brownsville Herald / The Monitor
by Laura Tillman

The consumer advocacy non-profit Public Citizen filed a lawsuit on behalf of a University of Texas School of Law professor on Wednesday, claiming that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers withheld documents about the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

Clinical Law Professor Denise Gilman said she made a Freedom of Information Act request in April on behalf of the University of Texas Working Group on Human Rights and the Border Wall.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court Washington, D. C., claims that Gilman requested documents identifying properties that would be affected by fence construction, maps of where the border fence would be located, the agreements sought between property owners and the federal government, and property appraisals, among other documents.

In October, the working group of UT faculty and students told the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the location of the border fence inordinately affected minorities and low-income individuals.

"After we prepared our report we continued to push for documents and transparency and came up short," Gilman said. "We were unable to get the things that are necessary to continue with this massive investigation."

Even though the Army Corps of Engineers initially estimated that the documents included in the request would be so voluminous that the working group would have to pay an estimated $54,000 in photocopying charges, the group has received less than two dozen documents.

"There has been an apparent dispute between CBP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as to who has proper custody of the documents," Gilman said. "I don't think it's proper for us to have been denied, but given the time, they could have resolved those disputes."

DHS and the Army Corps of Engineers did not return phone calls requesting comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says that government agencies have 20-working days to respond to FOIA requests. In exceptional cases, the agencies can ask for a 10-working day extension before fulfilling requests. But Public Citizen lawyer Margaret Kwoka says that each of the three agencies inappropriately responded to Gilman's requests in different ways.

CBP waited beyond the 20-working day period to tell Gilman they would need more time, but then did not contact her again, said Kwoka. After contacting CBP on several occasions, Gilman received two documents with redactions on Dec. 18, Kwoka said. She made an appeal for the redacted sections to be released and received no response until Jan. 30, when she was told her request was still being processed.

According to Kwoka, the Army Corps of Engineers responded to Gilman on May 6, asking her to narrow her request. She complied and was told she would receive more information by June 25. At that point, the corps denied Gilman's request in full, said Kwoka, adding that Gilman appealed but received no response. Gilman contacted the agency repeatedly until she was told the Army Corps of Engineers would release some documents in mid-January, said Kwoka. The Army Corps of Engineers did release some documents on Jan. 29. On Feb. 19 the agency released a few additional documents which had redactions, Kwoka said.

DHS simply deferred Gilman's request to CBP and did not provide any documents, according to Kwoka. But the lawsuit claims that DHS still has some of the requested information.

Kwoka says Gilman has exhausted every avenue of the FOIA appeals process before filing a lawsuit, and waited nearly a year after her initial requests for the agencies to comply.

"We're hoping to point out the broken nature of a system in which a requester can wait for a year and the response of agencies is to claim each document is being held by the other," Kwoka said. "Agencies can't shirk their responsibilities by passing the buck. An effort has to be made to comply with deadlines."

Gilman says that the motives behind the delay are unclear.

"What I can say with certainty is that there was a lack of transparency throughout this process," Gilman said. "Whether or not that was the intention, it certainly had the effect of making it easier (for the border fence) to move forward. I hope that under this new administration, which has made it a point to make transparency and access pillars, documents will be released and given consideration before the wall is completed."

Public Citizen works pro bono and takes on "impact litigation," or lawsuits that aim to set legal precedents. Kwoka says fixing the FOIA system would have a positive impact on future requests.

"Information is frequently only as good as its timeliness," Kwoka said. "If you don't get information about a decision making process until after the decision is made, there's no chance for public input. Often it's really just that the agency doesn't have enough resources. Whatever the motive, it's unacceptable."


Non-profit sues feds over border fence

March 11, 2009
Associated Press / El Paso Times
by Christopher Sherman

McALLEN, Texas—A national consumer advocacy group sued the federal government Wednesday on behalf of a University of Texas law professor seeking documents about the planning of the border fence.

Public Citizen, the group founded by Ralph Nader, filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court in Washington against the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The suit alleges the agencies didn't comply with a request from the University of Texas Working Group on Human Rights and the Border Wall. Denise Gilman, a law professor and member of the group, used the Freedom of Information Act to request documents in April regarding the location of the fence segments and criteria used in determining its placement.

The lawsuit asks that the government provide the documents.

The government is nearing completion of 670 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. The project has met widespread opposition in South Texas, where segments will touch hundreds of private property owners and leave thousands of acres of farmland between the fence and the Rio Grande.

The Texas group has suggested the fence disproportionately impacted low-income minorities.
"Researchers have found statistically significant differences between the income and race of property owners whose land will be affected by the wall versus those whose land will remain unaffected," the lawsuit reads. "Affected property owners are, on average, less wealthy and include more people of color than property owners whose land will not be affected."

According to the lawsuit, the Department of Homeland Security referred Gilman's request to Customs and Border Protection, which is overseeing the fence project.

That agency has provided a partial response to Gilman's request. The Army Corps of Engineers told Gilman that her request would incur copying costs of $54,545 and after appeals partially filled her request.

A Customs and Border Protection spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment.

"We sincerely hope that the Obama administration, which has pledged greater transparency and accountability in government, will release the requested documents so that informed debate and consultation regarding the border wall can take place before there is any further construction." Gilman said in a prepared statement.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mayors decry ‘culture of fear' on border

March 9, 2009
The Monitor
by Jennifer Berghom

AUSTIN -- State and national influence makers have exaggerated the security situation on the Texas-Mexico border, creating a "culture of fear" that has hurt economic development, a panel of mayors said Monday.

The city heads urged politicians, law enforcement officials and media organizations to find a balance between economics and public safety when developing their response to Mexico's mounting drug violence.

"It's important to understand that the situation in Mexico is not the situation in Iraq," Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada said, testifying before the state House Committee on Border and Intergovernmental Affairs. "While there are places with great turmoil, this is not the whole country."

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched his ongoing campaign to root out his nation's entrenched crime syndicates in 2006, sporadic violence has erupted up and down the border between cartels fighting federal forces and each other.

More than 6,000 people died last year as a result of drug-related violence, according to statistics kept by the Mexican attorney general's office.

"I've seen those heads of people cut off and rolled across the floor," said Dan Flynn, an East Texas Republican who serves as the committee's vice chair. "Anytime you have that kind of violence, you have to be prepared for spillover."

But aside from exceptions like Ciudad Juarez - where more than 460 people have died this year -- most Mexican border cities remain relatively safe. That hasn't stopped a handful of politicians and law enforcement officials from using sporadic incidents to push perceptions of a rapidly deteriorating situation, the mayors said.

"The more they shout wolf, the more funds they get sent to them," said Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster.

Gov. Rick Perry cited a Feb. 17 shootout in Reynosa that left six dead in his request last month for troops to help protect against the threat of "spillover violence."

Last week, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, re-emphasized the need for federal intervention by noting U.S. Defense Department estimates that Mexico's two largest drug cartels had amassed a "small army" of 100,000 foot soldiers.

Such talk at the state and national level has already had an impact on the Rio Grande Valley, McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez said.

Nineteen businesses considering moves to McAllen and the bordering Reynosa maquila district have backed out in the past several months over security concerns.

Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada pointed to his city's recent Charro Days festival, in which the city had planned to host more than 600 square dancers for a record setting event. Instead, only 80 showed up.

The misperceptions have become so widespread, Cortez told lawmakers, that members of his family living in other cities expressed concern recently that he might be assassinated.

"I can tell you today that there is no violence in the streets of McAllen," he said.

The mayors urged lawmakers to consider policies that would address the demand for drugs on this side of the border, crack down on U.S. cash and arms smuggling networks and upgrade technology and personnel along the ports of entry.

"Unless we address the underlying problem you'll have to keep spending more and more," Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz said. "The day drugs are worthless on the American streets - that's the day the drug cartels move away from our border."


Border mayors: Our region of the state is not a war zone

March 10, 2009
Rio Grande Guardian
by Julian Aguilar

AUSTIN, March 9 – Officials from the Rio Grande Valley and West Texas banded together on Monday in defense of their districts and told lawmakers misinformation about the border is casting their communities in a negative light.

Members of the Texas Border Coalition, including Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada, Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz and McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez, told the House Committee on Border and Intergovernmental Affairs that media reports and politicians give the rest of the country an impression the border is a war zone comparable to the worst seen in the Middle East.

“Mexico is not another Iraq,” Ahumada said, and instead compared Mexico to other countries that experience violence on a daily basis.

“You could be in Israel, where there is a war going on and live in certain areas of Israel and you wouldn’t even know there is a war going on. Detroit, Chicago, Washington (D.C.) have these isolated incidences of gun battles and violent crime. Washington (D.C.) itself had to pass laws where it banned people from owning hand guns because the crime rate is so high.”

The mayors reminded the committee more than once that the violence, blamed on rival drug cartels, is not happening in the U.S. and that media reports - combined with discussions of contingency plans where militarizing the border is an option - send the wrong message.

“There are unintended consequences when you say ‘I am going to send the military to the border,’” Cortez said, adding that the City of McAllen recently witnessed first hand a direct effect of the negative press.

“We recruit the maquiladores to come to our area and we’ve had many and we’ve been very successful in doing that,” he said.

“As soon as word came out that we were sending military to the border, 19 companies that we were about to sign up and recruit left.”

Committee Vice-Chair Dan Flynn, R-Van, seemed taken aback somewhat, and proffered that the evidence he’s seen goes against what the mayors’ testimony.

“I’ve seen videos provided by our various law enforcement that doesn’t bear out what you’re saying and I have talked to many of those local people there (and) they are very concerned,” he said. “Even our United States Justice Department has warned our teenagers not to be going over to Mexico during Spring Break because of the violence of drug cartels.”

Despite being across from Ciudad Juarez, where thousands have been killed since Jan. 2008, the City of El Paso was recently named the third safest in the country by FBI crime reports, testified Bob Cook, the president of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corporation. Cook said the non-profit is equally focused on recruiting business to both El Paso and Juarez and testified, like the mayors, that negative images painted of the border by the media and lawmakers are unwarranted.

“Because primarily of the perception that’s out there nationally I am spending 70 percent of every business day dealing with this one issue, dealing with the perception and its impact on our clients,” he said. Lawmakers, he added, are drawing inaccurate conclusions.

“The major problem that we are dealing with (is) when national media and policy-makers at the state and federal levels start talking about the issue we see them making, many times, massive leaps when they are drawing conclusions,” he said.

Though he agreed with the border mayors about perception, Cook said the economic impact of the violence in Juarez isn’t like witnesses in the McAllen area.

“Once we talk openly about what’s happening in Ciudad Juarez and the current security environment and we bring law enforcement and security experts to the table to share in depth information about the current environment and what companies can do to mitigate against risk in the current environment, we have not had one, not one, single company that has pulled out of Ciudad Juarez nor (that) has refused to locate in Ciudad Juarez,” he said.

El Paso is also not witnessing a flood of refugees, Cook added, and said retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, stated there was “no evidence” Mexico was on the verge of becoming a failed state during a recent visit to El Paso with Gov. Rick Perry.

Committee Chair Rep. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, further bolstered the assessment that Mexico remained self sufficient when she read excerpts from an opinion letter written by Antonio Garza, the former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.

“He said ‘Failed states do not have functioning executive, legislative and judicial branches, they do not boast the world’s twelfth largest economy nor do they trade with the United States at a pace of more than $1 billion a day,’” she quoted Garza as writing.

“‘And failed states do not demonstrate, as President Felipe Calderon has done, the political will to take on the transnational cartels that threaten the region’s security.’”

Ahumada and Cortez both said it was possible that lawmakers knew facts that spur their decisions that local officials on the border do not. Ahumada was openly surprised when Flynn cited evidence that cartels had a training camp in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas.

“We don’t know that, do you know that?” Ahumada asked Foster rhetorically.After he testified Ahumada said he’d like lawmakers to share what they knew with local officials.

“If vice-chairman Flynn has information that he could share with us, that he is privy to that we are not, I’d love to hear it,” he said. “Statements like that create a perception that does not represent the way we are living in the Southwest border region. It’s very disconnected from what I heard in some of those statements.”

Ahumada also expounded upon one issue that was touched upon briefly during their testimony: the demand for illegal narcotics in the U.S. and the power that gives the drug cartels.

“Why is it (the violence) happening? What’s driving the problem? Obviously there is a demand (for drugs) from the U.S. side and somebody is trying to meet that demand,” he said.