Friday, March 6, 2009

Officials present ‘no fence' alternatives

March 6, 2009
Brownsville Herald
by Laura Tillman

Brownsville officials presented a "no fence" alternative to officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, a proposal to designate the city a "center of excellence" where alternative border surveillance technologies would be tested in lieu of a U.S.-Mexico border fence.

No agreements were reached during the meeting, which was held in Washington, D.C., but city officials said the opportunity to sit down with members of the Obama administration and discuss alternatives was a hopeful change from the tenor of the Bush administration.

Mayor Pat M. Ahumada Jr. and U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, along with other Brownsville city officials, urged DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Rand Beers to impose a moratorium on fence construction until the impact of the structure on the city's environment and economy could be assessed.

Brownsville officials who joined Ahumada and Ortiz were City Commissioners Anthony Troiani, Leonel Garza and Edward Camarillo and Historic Downtown District Manager Peter Goodman. Also joining the group was developer Sam Marasco, who resides in California.

"(DHS) hasn't agreed to our proposal yet, but they were very receptive and very willing to listen," Troiani said.

The DHS Office of Public Affairs declined to comment on the meeting.

Ahumada said he presented 14 reasons why a moratorium on city fencing should be declared. He also urged Beers to consider the proposed dam project east of Brownsville, which would raise the height and width of the Rio Grande, thereby making it more difficult for people from Mexico to cross and easier to patrol by speed boat.

Commissioner Camarillo called Thursday's proposal "Option 1," in which no fencing would be built in Brownsville. But Camarillo said that if DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano doesn't agree to forgo fencing altogether, city officials would be willing to discuss excluding the fence in certain key areas, like the proposed site of the river walk development and the East Loop project.

"This is a time to think outside the box," Camarillo said. "With this new administration there's no limitations to what we could do to work out this issue."

The river walk project developer, Marasco, said that he had lost hope for the multimillion-dollar development during the past year, but was optimistic after Thursday's meeting.

Brownsville Crossings L.L.C., Marasco's development group, stands to lose millions of dollars and two and a half years of investment if the project does not work out, Marasco acknowledged.

"I think ‘no fence' would be a great win for the city," Marasco said. "But it's very important for the city to realize that they may have to create a compromised solution, otherwise they will be shooting themselves in the foot by losing these other projects."

Ortiz agreed that the border fence would hinder the city's economic growth.

"The current border wall plan would limit Brownsville's ability to improve its local economy and infrastructure," Ortiz said in a press release. "I am grateful that DHS has an open ear to working with our local community while finding effective ways to address our border security concerns."

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