October 2, 2006
Los Angeles Times / Chicago Tribune
by Miguel Bustillo
Few Americans are more fed up with the unending human caravan of illegalimmigration–and more familiar with its macabre toll–than rancher MikeVickers.
Multitudes of bedraggled migrants cut through his southern Texas homesteadevery day to skirt U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints on their journey north, andmany do not make it out alive. He has found frightened children sitting infields alone, abandoned. His dogs once brought home a human head.
He badly wants to stop the trail of death and despair that passes by hisdoorstep. But when he considers the wisdom of building twin steel walls along the Rio Grande to seal off the Mexican border, the plan Congress just approved before heading home for the November elections, his verdict is swift andharsh: stupid idea.
“That’s just a big waste of money,” said Vickers, a Republican activist who heads a group opposing illegal immigration that until recently was the state branch of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. “The Rio Grande is the lifeblood of South Texas. A wall is just going to stand between farmers and ranchers and others who need legitimate access to water. It’s not going to stop the illegals.”
From Laredo to Brownsville, a meandering 200-mile stretch of the Rio Grandethat would be walled off if President Bush, as expected, signs the bill tofence 700 miles of the border, reaction was overwhelmingly negative.
In the Texas border towns–many of which blossomed right on the riverbanks near the border in a bilingual, binational culture where everyone knows someone on the other side–the planned fence was widely seen as a federa lgovernment misadventure that would trample private property rights without accomplishing anything in return.
“Whether it’s over rivers or deserts, or now, this wall, people will keep coming, as long as they can find a job here that’s so much better,” said Angelica Garcia, 26, a worker at a shop on McAllen’s bustling Main Street that caters to Mexicans visiting Texas. “This wall isn’t going to do a thing.”
A postmodern Berlin Wall?
Many expressed shock that a proposal they considered a pipe dream by Washington politicians was really happening, and that a fence they regarded as a postmodern equivalent of the Berlin Wall would soon separate them from their neighbors.
“For so many years, we talked about tearing down that wall. Now we want tobuild a wall between us and Mexico? It makes us look like hypocrites,” said Denise Carreon, 21, who like many border residents still has family members tothe south.
Many others expressed outrage that the Rio Grande, a near-mystical river in the Texas imagination and one of the most prized bird-watching spots in North America, could soon be blocked from view.
“Zero: That’s how many people I know who support this. People are opposed from Brownsville to El Paso,” said Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, the head of agroup of frontier leaders called the Texas Border Coalition. “The Rio Grande is a very historic and scenic place, one of the natural treasures of Texas.We’re going to wall it off?”
But lawmakers who voted for the bill say it will beef up border security.
“This is something the American people have been wanting us to do for along time,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), whose state would be the site ofsubstantial fence construction.
As Congress approved building the fence, it was hard to find a southernTexas politician, merchant, economic analyst or academic who believed a wallwould work–and who did not consider it an insult to the people of Mexico,with whom the region shares a strong social and economic bond, especially since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
“I don’t know who is advising the Senate,” said Richard Cortez, the mayor of McAllen, which became one of the fastest-growing areas in America after NAFTA went into effect. “A fence is not going to keep people from crossing theborder. But it’s certainly going to hurt us.”
`A slap in the face’
Like many of those who live along the Rio Grande, Cortez travels frequentlybetween its banks; his two sons married Mexican-born women, and while they areU.S. citizens, many of their relatives are not, so reunions often take placesouth of the border. He and other border leaders worry that long-standingfriendships, and family ties that go back generations, will be frayed.
“If you’re building walls, what message are you sending to your neighbors?Do you think they are really going to want to visit? It’s a slap in the faceto them,” said Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas, a former FBI agent. “People who havenever been to the border, who do not understand the border, are shoving thisdown our throats.”
While the fence plan in no way prevents Mexicans from legally coming toTexas with temporary visas that allow them to travel within 25 miles of the border, local politicians and business leaders worry that Mexicans will nolonger feel welcome.
Mexican shoppers are a major source of money for Texas border towns.Between 1978 and 2001, Mexican shoppers made 26 percent of all retailpurchases in Brownsville, 35 percent in McAllen and 51 percent in Laredo,according to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Local officials said more recent estimates are higher.
“The fence is a knee-jerk reaction by Congress. No one really studied the economic impacts, the environmental impacts,” said Eddie Aldrete, senior vicepresident for the Laredo-based IBC Bank.
To Mike Allen, a former Catholic priest who helped the poor in Texas’ Hidalgo County, then became a leading economic booster for the border region,the fence is a manifestation of politics at its ugliest.
“It is just so sad that the relationships we have worked years to build arebeing torn down by politicians in Washington who quite frankly don’t have anyidea what they are doing,” Allen said. “I’ll say it: It’s the browning ofAmerica, and people are afraid of that. That’s what this is all about.”