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.