Monday, March 2, 2009

Fence protects while it divides

March 1, 2009
San Antonio Express-News
By John MacCormack

EL PASO — From a rocky desert promontory a few miles west of town, Border Patrol Agent Joe Romero looked down into the tranquil, sunlit streets of Anapra, Mexico, and Sunland Park, N.M.

Not long ago, these adjacent communities were separated only by a few hundred yards of open desert, a chain-link fence and a nearly invisible international boundary.

When the sun dropped in the west, this bleak outpost became a chaotic hotspot for Border Patrol agents trying to intercept drugs and immigrants entering the United States.

“A year ago, our barrier up here was a barbed wire cattle fence. You could stand here and see groups of people getting ready to cross,” Romero said, indicating the Mexican side.

A few years earlier, gangs from Anapra preyed on passing Union Pacific trains, forcing them to stop to loot them. In one confrontation, robbers beat two train-riding FBI agents before they were rescued.

But an unnatural calm now prevails. The freights pass unmolested and few attempts are made to cross the border, even at night. The ever-present Border Patrol agents in their idling green-and-white trucks mostly sit and watch.

Now the border is demarcated here by a giant rusty metal seam that loops east over the arid hills toward El Paso and cuts west into the New Mexico desert.

Call it a fence. Call it a wall. Call it a political gesture. Call it a reasonable deterrent. The federal border barrier that triggered protests, petitions and lawsuits is nearly complete.

Love it or hate it, this imposing obstacle of double mesh steel already has dramatically changed the border dynamic, both here and elsewhere, particularly as violence in Mexico becomes more alarming.

Rising 15 to 18 feet and backed by watchful agents, the barrier has made a speedy pedestrian crossing or a mad dash with a vehicle loaded with drugs all but impossible.

While some see the wall as a symbol of xenophobia and political pandering, Romero calls it just another useful tool. Apprehensions already are down 60 percent from last year, when about 30,000 people were caught in the sector.

In another month or two, the last portion of the 53-mile El Paso pedestrian barrier will be finished at a contract cost of about $218 million, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“A lot of people liken it to the Berlin Wall. But the Berlin Wall was built to keep people in, not to keep people out,” he said.

More than four centuries ago, Spanish explorers named this remote wilderness crossing “El Paso del Norte,” for the deep cut in the Sierra Madre that allowed weary travelers to reach the Rio Grande.

Since then, it has been a natural north-south crossing point. When the Mexican American War ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the river became the international boundary.

As Ciudad Juárez grew on the southern bank and El Paso on the northern, like two halves of the same community, the border often was little more than a technicality.

“When I was a kid, we'd go back and forth at will. My parents went over every Sunday to have dinner,” recalled Larry Francis, 75, a two-term El Paso mayor who grew up here.

“Twenty years ago, it was an open border. The daily ebb and flow was very peaceful and could be handled,” he said.

As the two cities grew, to now contain more than 2.5 million people, the travel back and forth was casual and constant.

Not long ago, street vendors on the U.S. side sold snacks to Mexicans who waded the shallow Rio Grande to work or shop in El Paso's busy downtown.

But that all began to change in 1993 when U.S. Border Patrol Sector Chief Silvestre Reyes, now a U.S. congressman, started a controversial policy called “Hold the Line.”

Instead of having agents chase down unauthorized immigrants after they reached the United States, Reyes threw up a virtual human blockade by stationing agents at close intervals right on the border, around the clock.

The beneficial effects in El Paso were felt almost instantly, as burglaries, car thefts and similar crimes dropped. But a few miles outside of town, the illegal crossing continued unabated.

In 2001, the terror attacks on the East Coast made securing the country's borders a priority for the Bush administration and fueled a polarizing debate over immigration policy.

Congress agreed to spend up to $2.7 billion to fortify the border with 670 miles of new barriers, including 370 miles of metal pedestrian fencing and another 300 miles of concrete vehicular barriers.

In Texas, similar pedestrian barriers are going up in Cameron, Hidalgo, Maverick, Val Verde and Hudspeth counties despite protests and legal challenges by landowners and some local governments.

In solidly Democratic El Paso, the approximately 54 miles of metal barrier have been erected in just over a year after environmental concerns were brushed aside, and a federal judge dismissed lawsuits filed by the city and county.

El Paso Mayor John Cook still is rankled over the “lip service” he said was given to local officials when they visited Washington more than a year ago to discuss the proposed fence with Homeland Security Department chiefs.

“It was typical of the Bush administration. They were going to do what they were going to do, whether it was keeping prisoners in Guantanamo or building a wall between two countries,” he said recently.

“Something like a fence is an easy solution. It's a lot easier than having a holistic conversation in Washington, D.C., about immigration reform,” he said.

But, he conceded, a massive wave of drug violence in Ciudad Juárez has muted opposition in El Paso.

With killings just across the river running at 200 a month and some wealthy Ciudad Juárez residents already seeking shelter in El Paso, many now see the barrier as a welcome protective shield.

“That's the irony of the whole thing. The wall is not a good thing. We're trying to wall off two cities that shouldn't be walled off,” former Mayor Francis said.

“But we've had a huge number of gruesome deaths within yards of our border. I'd rather fight the problem over in Mexico than in El Paso. I don't want them shooting people in El Paso.”

Although the sign on the office door of “The Border Network for Human Rights,” reads “No Wall Between Amigos,” director Fernando Garcia concedes much of that battle is lost.

“Our struggle is not to tear down the wall. That would be political unreality. What is built, is built,” he said during an interview in his downtown office.

“We're hoping this new administration will change course. If they stop construction, it will open up space for a reasonable discussion,” he said.

In El Paso, Garcia's organization led opposition to the barrier, which he said neither reflects America's values nor enhances its national security.

While it certainly will deflect immigrants away from El Paso, it also will push them into the arms of organized crime and toward more dangerous crossings, he said.

The barrier, in his view, was little more than an expensive, shortsighted political sop to conservatives.

“It was part of the Bush administration's macho attitude and of the anti-immigration hysteria. It was a political gesture that will lead people to die in the desert,” he said.

“We believe in enforcement. There are real threats,” he said.

But instead of rushing to spend billions to erect barriers to illegal immigration, he said, the country should focus on resolving the underlying causes.

“There are two things that can immediately be done to take pressure off the border. Legalize the immigrants who are already here and create programs to bring workers in legally,” he said.

“We need to de-link immigration policy and criminal policy. Then we can focus on the real threats, the drug dealers, the terrorists and the criminals,” he said.

From his rear office window, George Cudahy, the majority owner of American Eagle Brick Co., pointed out a white stone object on the hill of shale that overlooks his factory.

“See that white point on top of that hill. That's Monument 2. That's the border,” he said.

A former Air Force fighter pilot and aerospace executive, Cudahy, 75, now makes bricks for a living and enjoys a unique perspective on border issues, the barrier included.

His factory sits hard against Mexico, south of the Rio Grande and west of El Paso, where the river ceases to be the international border.

And while things are peaceful now, in years past he kept an armed guard on duty 24 hours a day. Now a watchdog that arrived as a stray from Mexico barks to warn of strangers.

“It used to be the Wild West here. The trains would stop here and gangs of kids would run over, throw everything off and come back later. We used to have a lot of crime on Paisano Drive, with them stopping cars,” he said.

But all that ended after “Hold the Line” started in 1993, and since then roaming Border Patrol agents have been ubiquitous around this narrow slice of New Mexico.

During a brief driving tour of his border property, Cudahy aroused the interest of a watchful agent who quickly approached to check him out.

“See that draw right there. That's sort of the border. No fence. No nothing,” Cudahy said, pointing out an unmarked rocky ravine.

“See all those rocks we put there? They used to drive stolen cars right across here. No more,” he said.

Because of the rough terrain, the metal barrier doesn't protect Cudahy's property. He'd be delighted if he could look out his back window and see it running up the hill past the monument.

“I'm all for stopping illegal immigration. We've got people working all over the country and not paying taxes, and we've got a lot of felony crime because of the illegals,” he said.

“I'm all for the fence if it's properly done. It will focus places where the immigrants attempt to cross,” he said.

From another window a few miles away, in his well-appointed municipal office, Ciudad Juárez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz indicated an notorious one-track railroad bridge crossing the Rio Grande.

“That's the Puente Negra. There used to be a ladder on this side, and a man who had a rope attached to the other side. The owner used to charge people a dollar to climb over,” he said.

While that border entrepreneur is long gone, the mayor's point was that illegal entry into the United States can't be stopped, even by an expensive and imposing barrier.

“You can defeat a billion-dollar wall with a $20 ladder,” he said with a shrug.

With his city being torn apart by warring drug cartels and occupied by several thousand soldiers, and with his police officers being shot down almost daily, Ferriz had little time to chat about a border wall.

“It doesn't necessarily offend us. It's ugly, but we understand it's a border. It was clearly a political thing,” he said of the decision to build it.

“You don't stop immigration with a wall. It was just throwing money away, not solving the real issue,” he said, with a bodyguard looking on.

Outside his office on Avenida Juárez, the city's main tourist drag, many of the bars, restaurants and tourist shops were closed. The strip had an abandoned feel, and even Martino, an elegant landmark restaurant with dignified white-jacketed waiters, was forlorn and empty.

Because of the drug violence, few Americans come anymore. For the same reason, Mexicans who can leave already have taken measures. Even Mayor Ferriz has a second residence in El Paso.

In the days after the interview, his chief of police resigned. More police officers were killed. Gunmen also fired on a caravan that included Chihuahua Gov. Jose Reyes Baeza, killing one of his bodyguards.

When the death threats finally reached Ferriz early last week, he acted quickly. He moved his family to safer ground, on the far side of the wall, in El Paso.

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