Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Landowner Says The Border Wall Has Cut Off Access To Their Property

KRGV news
January 25, 2010
by Christina Rendon

BROWNSVILLE - Ernesto De Leon's family has owned land south of town for generations. They've allowed a Fermin Leal to use the land grow crops on it since the 1970's.

Leal says recent work on the border wall has cut off access to the land.

"We don't have access to our property without going through someone else's property," says Leal.

Leal tells CHANNEL 5 NEWS up until a few weeks ago, there was a gap they used to access the land, but the government has now closed that gap.

Ernesto De Leon says he didn't fight the government when they initially built the wall, giving it away on the condition crews built a 40 foot gate on his property.

"We had four or five different properties we had to sign up for that fence to go through," says De Leon.

De Leon says he plans to fight for the fence he was promised, even if he has to take it to court.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

All Walled Up

Texas Observer
January 22, 2010
by Melissa del Bosque

In the early spring of 2008, the uniformed Border Patrol officers delivering condemnation notices door-to-door seemed surprised by the defiance they met from Brownsville landowners. The first time the officers came, it was with clipboards and a few documents to sign—the feds like to call it a “friendly condemnation,” which means folks are expected to happily sign away portions of their land for meager compensation from the U.S. government.

Along the border, it’s not unusual for landowners to take a look at the legalese, stare at the olive drab uniforms and shiny gold badges, and sign on the spot. But in Brownsville and Cameron County, many glanced at the words “taking” and “U.S. government” and showed the agents the door.

The next time the Department of Homeland Security came calling, all pretense of “friendliness” was gone. With real estate specialists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in tow, they now had pointed words. Congress had mandated the building of a 670-mile fence along the southern border in its 2006 Secure Border Fence Act. Sign the form or not, residents were told: The government will get its land.

The sterner message had little effect. Those who had the money, or the pro bono attorneys willing to help, filed lawsuits against DHS and dug in their heels. The battle of Brownsville—the most pitched and prolonged fight along the Texas border—was joined.

It wasn’t just landowning citizens who were up in arms. Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada, insisting the wall would split his already-troubled community and wreck its hopes for the future, became one of the nation’s most outspoken opponents of the “security fence.” Juliet Garcia, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, declared that the government was not going to build its wall through the middle of her campus.

Garcia channeled popular sentiment in Brownsville with her statement on the federal agency’s move to seize property: “Of course, we believe in protecting our borders. Of course, we believe in strong immigration policy. But we also understand that a fence, no matter how high or how wide, is no substitute for either.”

Residents marched in protest. Ahumada joined other border mayors and lobbied Washington. University students picketed the federal courthouse. Brownsville caused such a commotion that Congressman Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, scheduled a public hearing at the university that April. Dozens of students and residents gathered outside, holding signs reading “Build Bridges Not Walls” and “No Wall Between Amigos.”

Inside, border-fence champion Tom Tancredo, then a Republican congressman from Colorado, was flummoxed by the fierce opposition. As one resident after another stood up to protest the plan, Tancredo huffed: “Why don’t we just build the fence north of Brownsville then?” Responding to a letter from Ahumada after the hearing, Tancredo shot back: “This is a matter of national importance, and the American public should not be asked to sit back and allow a handful of local governments and their friends in the ‘open borders’ lobby to exercise veto power over something that impacts not only our security, but our national sovereignty.”

Brownsville staged a lively rebellion. For a while, an unlikely victory seemed possible, thanks in large part to Andrew Hanen, the only federal judge in the nation who forced Homeland Security to acknowledge landowners’ constitutional protections. In case after case, Hanen refused to rubber-stamp the condemnations and ruled that the government would have to provide “fair compensation” for the land it was taking.

Residents pinned their hopes on dragging out their lawsuits long enough for President Barack Obama to take office. They expected him to send his Homeland Security team to take stock of the environmental and economic damage being done by the steel-and-cement monstrosity, and halt construction on a project whose $2.4 billion cost continues to rise. Those hopes were dashed when Obama announced the “secure fence” would be finished. In a final plea last May, Brownsville residents (along with others along the border) wrote a letter to the new president. “Absent your intercession, a great, lasting and damaging injustice will be dealt to the people of the Texas-Mexico border,” it read in part.

Obama never answered. More than 27 miles of border wall now snake raggedly through Cameron County. Only seven more miles remain to be built.

The rust-colored, steel-and-cement wall has become a surreal fixture on Brownsville’s skyline. It cleaves downtown Hope Park, built as a symbol of unity between the United States and Mexico. It stops and starts, without rhyme or reason, along the Rio Grande River’s levees, leaving miles of gaps. It highlights the city’s economic divide: It’s the first thing folks in the poorer barrios see when they look out their windows, while richer folks enjoy unaltered views of palm trees and manicured fairways when they tee off on private golf courses. It zigs and zags through residents’ backyards, through citrus orchards—an ugly red scar on a green, subtropical landscape.

“We don’t call it a fence,” says Ahumada. “It’s a wall. A fence is something you’d want to put up in your backyard.”

On an unseasonably frigid Friday morning in early January, the mayor sits in his downtown office sipping coffee and recounting the arguments he tried to make to Washington. “This wall has killed Brownsville,” he says. “We have a per-capita income of $14,000 per household, high unemployment, a high dropout rate. We don’t need a wall to compound the problems we’re already having. What we need is an investment from the federal government to help us fulfill our future.”

As he speaks, Kiewit Corp., one of the nation’s largest construction companies, is busy draining resacas (lakes created by the shifting tides of the Rio Grande) and bulldozing citrus orchards to build those last seven miles of wall through Cameron County. To date, 199 county residents have had land seized, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures. Every day, the Brownsville Herald publishes government notices of the properties to be condemned by the Department of Homeland Security.

The agency is already one year late and several million dollars over budget in fulfilling Congress’ 2006 mandate—and counting. The Secure Fence Act was cobbled together so poorly that legislators failed to take several important factors into consideration. For one, thousands of private landowners would have to forfeit their land—and not all would go willingly. For another, a 1944 treaty forbade construction of anything in the Rio Grande floodplain that would push floodwaters into either Mexico or the United States.

Because of the treaty, DHS was forced to build its wall north of the river’s levee—sometimes as far as two miles upland. In Brownsville, the 8-foot-tall earthen levee follows the twists and turns of the Rio Grande for several miles. The mayor had seen the river shared with Mexico not as a security threat, but as a selling point for his city. Before the wall, Brownsville had plans to build a river walk like San Antonio’s—an anchor for downtown revitalization and a transit loop that would spur more commerce.

“We had a private investor group from California looking to invest $150 million in the downtown revitalization with the river walk as the anchor,” Ahumada says, “but they backed out because of the wall.” Making matters worse, DHS ran the wall close to the planned transit loop. “To build the loop now, we would have to move the border wall and put it somewhere else to the DHS’s specifications,” he says. “We estimate it would cost the city $13 million a mile.”

In June 2009, Brownsville council members finally voted to surrender 15 acres of city land to the federal government despite many residents’ persistent opposition. Ahumada never resigned himself to it. The two-year-long debate over ceding land to the DHS bitterly divided the city government—especially after the council’s majority agreed to perhaps the worst deal struck by any border community. They forfeited the $123,100 DHS had offered to buy the land and allowed, without compensation, a “floating fence” with 15-foot steel posts stuck into a concrete base to be built downtown.

What does Brownsville get in return? According to its contract with DHS, the city agreed to eventually build a combination levee-border wall, a permanent structure to replace the floating fence. Brownsville taxpayers will foot the entire bill, last estimated at $12 million to $16 million per mile.

So the battle of Brownsville became a surrender. But a few folks still fight on.

Seventy-two-year-old Leonard Loop lives on the outskirts of Brownsville, where he flies the American flag outside his feedstore. He’s as patriotic as anybody: an Air Force veteran whose wife used to work for the State Department. Two years ago, when he got wind of the government’s plan to seize their land, he called a family meeting.

“We sat down and talked about it and decided we had to do what was right,” Loop says. “My sons own the 730 acres on the river side of the fence. It’s their livelihood, and they are in deep debt for it. I told my boys, ‘the federal government will ruin you if you don’t stick up for your rights.’”

The Loop family filed suit against DHS. Leonard Loop likes to call it his “disagreement.” It’s gone on for 18 months now.

Like most folks around Brownsville, Loop says he’s all for border security. But the wall hasn’t made anybody safer, he says. In fact, just the opposite, especially for those—like his sons—who will be locked out on the river side of the wall with access controlled by the Border Patrol. Besides, Loop says, a poorly constructed fence with miles of gaps doesn’t exactly spell security. “I heard they already figured out a way in Mexico to use old motorcycle tires to climb the fence. They jam them in the gaps and climb it like a ladder.”

Loop owns 160 acres dotted with citrus orchards. He and Debbie, his wife, sell sweet Rio Red grapefruits and oranges at their feedstore. Their sons, Frank and Ray, grow cabbage, corn, and other vegetables on their 730 fertile acres along the riverbank. The Loops have farmed here for almost four decades. Even now, their lives are mostly marked by tranquility and backbreaking work. Occasionally, their routines are punctuated by bizarre moments that remind them they live along an international border. “I once saw a truck being chased by the Border Patrol drive into a wheat field,” he recalls. “The driver fled on foot and left five women behind in their underwear who had just swum across the river.”

The Loops occupy a particularly breathtaking patch of the Rio Grande. There’s a horseshoe-shaped resaca full of bass and catfish, lined with palm trees. There’s a pavilion on the river’s edge they use for family reunions and church picnics. They don’t make a mint off this land by a long shot. But it’s easy to see why they won’t give it up without a struggle.

On a bitter-cold January afternoon, Loop tells me he’s been up since 2:30 a.m. trying to save his citrus orchards from Brownsville’s first hard freeze in 20 years. No matter how exhausted he is, the notion of what the government’s done still raises his blood pressure. “This has been a learning experience,” he says. “I never thought this country would treat you that way.”

Last November, DHS sent bulldozers to mow down Loop’s grapefruit orchard. Then they drained a resaca and condemned his nephew’s driveway to start building the wall through the family land.

When it’s finished, Loop’s nephew and his son Ray’s family will live on the Rio Grande side of the wall—part of more than 50,000 acres of U.S. land along the river that will be walled off by the fence from the start of the levee in Hidalgo County through Cameron County. Leonard, Debbie and their other son will live on the other side. Homeland Security is building a 50-foot gate. The agency, Loop says, refuses to tell him whether his family members and their employees will be able to use it without a Border Patrol escort.

Loop says a federal official told his son Ray that if there were an orange alert—meaning a high threat level—his family would have to evacuate their home and the gates would be locked behind them. That strikes Leonard as especially ludicrous, since the segment of wall that cuts through the land will end a half-mile away from his property—commencing a 14-mile stretch of levee, largely federal land, that won’t have any fence at all. “You can just walk around it and do anything,” he says.

Claude Knighten, a public information officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, tells the Observer he’s not aware of the orange-alert policy. His e-mailed response was that the agency “has no knowledge of this statement and therefore cannot respond.”

That’s the kind of thing that galls Loop the most. He can’t get reliable information from the government, he says, so his family can plan for the future. “Initially, when we got into this 18 months ago, I thought the government would work with us, and we would sit down and discuss things like access,” he says. “But they just do whatever they please whether it’s right or not.”

At first, the government seized a 60-foot-wide strip of Loop land starting at the base of the levee. Then they took a 120-foot-wide strip. “First they told us we could drive on the levee. Then they told us we couldn’t,” Loop says. “How can a landowner feel safe when the government keeps changing its mind all the time?”

Loop falls quiet for a moment as we roll up on the levee in his silver pickup truck to where the Kiewit Corp. workers are building the fence that cuts through his orchard. Majestic pink spoonbills and white egrets forage for food in a half-drained resaca. A worker on an earthmover is filling the lake with mud.

“They can do that,” Loop finally says. “Homeland Security waived all the environmental laws. It’s unbelievable the power they’ve got.”

Two Border Patrol SUVs are parked side-by-side, blocking the levee up ahead. As we’ve circled his land, we’ve been under constant observation by the Border Patrol. Recently, Loop was told he could no longer drive the levee, which he must cross to access his son’s property and reach a portion of his own. “They haven’t paid me yet for the second condemnation,” he says. “As far as I am concerned I can still drive the levee till they pay me.”

Loop contemplates the situation, then turns back onto the highway. “There are so many things that don’t make sense,” he says. “I’m no expert, but I was born and raised down here, and I know what things are like on the border. The guys who are calling the shots—they’ve never lived here, and they have no idea what it’s like.”

Loop is slated to receive $24,900 for the three acres the government has taken. His property valuation has plummeted. The only thing he can hope to achieve now with his lawsuit is better compensation for his land. Nobody would buy it now, he says, with an 18-foot wall running through the middle of it. “The only buyers I could see interested in riverfront property now are the drug cartels or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

I feel like we live in an occupied zone now,” says 74-year-old Eloisa Tamez. Early on the coldest Saturday morning in memory, Tamez, a nursing professor at UT-Brownsville who looks 20 years younger than her age, sits in her modest home on her family property. An heir to a 12,600-acre Spanish land grant deeded by the king of Spain to her family in the 18th century, Tamez is struggling to hold on to the last three acres. Like Leonard Loop, she feels like she’s going to be the last holdout in Brownsville—battling the government not only for her family, but for all the border landowners intimidated into signing away their rights or giving up because they couldn’t afford court battles.

“People stop me all the time in the store or recognize me at the bank, and they say, ‘Good for you. Keep on fighting the government,’” Tamez says.

She’s been able to carry on thanks to lawyer Peter Schey at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles. He has handled her two-year-old case against DHS pro bono. “I will not give up my land,” Tamez says. She intends to leave it to her grandchildren.

The government has other ideas. Last summer, it seized one of Tamez’s three acres. While she was at a conference in Colorado, contractors erected the 18-foot wall outside her house almost overnight. They didn’t give her a gate, and now they want to bar her access to the levee—as they are doing with the Loop Family. That would cut Tamez off from her riverfront property.

Tamez believes it is punishment for having been one of Brownsville’s most vocal critics of the wall. “Homeland Security has been very aggressive,” she says. “Border Patrol agents rush over to my car and start questioning me whenever I drive on the levee. I haven’t been to my property on the south side of the fence since July.”

In December, Tamez rented out her deceased aunt’s home, which sits right next door to her own. Her tenant, a security guard who works at night, complains that the Border Patrol had stopped him to check his citizenship status on his way to work. He reports that Border Patrol agents often park outside the house. His family feels like they are being watched.

“They are intimidating people and stopping cars all the time to check citizenship,” says Tamez. “Border Patrol agents should recognize our cars and know that we live here by now.”

Traffic stops by Border Patrol to check citizenship status are routine in Brownsville these days. The green-and-white SUVs constantly race up and down the levees, leaving plumes of white dust in their wake. Steel towers with video cameras dot the South Texas skyline, and, now, the 18-foot wall.

“Where are our rights?” asks Tamez. “We are U.S. citizens, too.”

Mayor Ahumada wonders the same thing. When will Washington start listening to the people who live along the border?

“In terms of providing the security we need against illegal drugs and deterring illegal immigration, this wall has not helped us. In fact, it’s hurt us,” he says. “The congressional leaders like Tancredo who wanted to build a wall here—they did it to get votes from the interior of America so they could appear to be doing something to protect our country. We’re just a pawn in the political chess game.”

Increasingly, racism is cloaked in border security, he says. “Interior America is clamoring for anti-Mexican rhetoric. They disguise it under border security, but it’s racism in my opinion. We have an immigration problem, but what are they so afraid of?”

Clearly, they were not afraid of the citizens of Brownsville.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Texas woman's home sits between new border wall, Mexico

November 30, 2009
by Brian New

BROWNSVILLE, Texas - The border wall has a Texas woman feeling left out and unprotected.

For the past 11 months, crews have been busy along the Rio Grande River constructing the border wall.

The federal government said the $49-billion project is working. Fewer illegal immigrants are sneaking across, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said residents of Texas' border cities are now safer.

However, Brownsville resident Pamela Taylor said the wall has actually made her less safe.

"I'm outside of the wall,” said 81 year-old Taylor. “I'm on what we refer to as the Mexican side."

Taylor said she assumed the border wall would be built along the Rio Grande River, the border of Texas, but the government said because of environmental reasons and expense much of wall is not being built on the actual border.

"It doesn't make sense," Taylor said.

The section of the wall near Taylor’s home in Brownsville is nearly a mile away from the border, trapping her between Mexico and the wall.

"We feel like we've been forgotten," Taylor said. “My son-in-law asked them, 'How are we going to get out?' and they said, 'We hadn't even thought of anyone getting out.'"

The U.S. Border Patrol said getting out will not be a problem because at the top of Taylor's street is a hole in the fence. Along the Texas border there are hundreds of holes, but the government said there are no gaps in security.

The U.S. Border Patrol said the wall alone was never intended to keep people out; rather, the wall is in place to divert illegal immigrants away from neighborhoods and into the gaps where Border Patrol agents will be waiting

"We want to utilize this as a tool," said U.S. Border Patrol agent John Lopez. "It's a matter of protecting this community and the country.”

"Well, he is not protecting me," Taylor said.

Taylor said this diversion strategy has put her in the crossfire.

"We are the funnel," she said. "We don't want to kill anybody. We don't want to harm anybody, but we do have to protect ourselves."

Even before the wall, Taylor has had encounters with illegal immigrants on her land and in her home.

"I saw this person standing in my living room and then he would go and sit down and rock for awhile," she said. "I was so angry that someone had come into my home that I just came in … I was going to barrette this person."

But before she could say a word, the man took off, she said.

The U.S. Border Patrol said it has increased patrol on Taylor's street. It also monitors hundreds of cameras along the border around the clock.

"There is always going to be opposition, but our goal here to protect our country by keeping it safe," Lopez said.

It's a goal the government continues to build towards even as some point out its holes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Along the Border Fence, an Environment Fractured

New York Times
Student Journalism Institute
January 10, 2010
by Stephen Ceasar

The border fence separating the United States from Mexico is intended to impede illegal immigration and drug smuggling. But to environmentalists, the fence is a barrier of yet another kind: a man-made hazard that fragments the natural world.

“So far it has been nothing but an unmitigated disaster,” said Dan Millis, a campaign organizer in Tucson for the Sierra Club.

The U.S. government, acknowledging numerous environmental problems with the barricade, is studying ways to lessen the fence’s impact on the surrounding ecosystem. In December, the Department of the Interior asked 16 scientists, including several from the University of Arizona, to create a plan to balance environmental concerns with security needs along the country’s Southwest border. Their recommendations, expected in April, are intended to serve as a road map for national security officials.

In Arizona, the fence has contributed to flooding on both sides of the border, changed the roaming patterns of the area’s native jaguars and destroyed the desert habitats of several bird species, including an endangered quail, according to federal land managers and environmentalists.

But the fence is not without its environmental positives, some say.

“It protects the lands inside the fence because those have been heavily trampled and impacted by the people crossing,” said Edward Glenn, an environmental science professor at the University of Arizona who is working on the plan. “It’s hard to overemphasize how much traffic” was crossing the border, he added.

Fencing and other barricades span nearly 643 miles of the almost 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border, and more are being built, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security.

“You couldn’t think of a worse thing to do to the delicate Sonoran ecosystem than put an impermeable barrier through it,” said Michael Robinson, a conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, a national wildlife defense group based in Tucson.

Meanwhile, there is no clear indication that the fence is integral to national security, according to a September report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. In its report, the GAO states that the impact such barriers have on border security is not known and has not been measured by Customs and Border Protection.

“Until CBP determines the contribution of tactical infrastructure to border security,” the report said, “it is not positioned to address the impact of this investment.”

Representatives for Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

According to a 2008 Homeland Security report, the agency conceded that the fence would alter the environment by splitting animal habitats. But the report stated that the effect would be “minimal,” as most wildlife would not perceive the vehicle fence, a lower type of barricade, “as a barrier.”

Part of the problem, environmentalists say, is the speed with which the barricades have been built. In 2007, Michael Chertoff, then the secretary of Homeland Security, expedited fence construction in Arizona at Congress’ request. To do so, he invoked a little-known provision in the Real ID Act of 2005, which set a federal identification standard, allowing the agency to bypass numerous environmental reviews that would have examined the ramifications of the fence.

Chertoff’s action concerned several environmental groups. “These regulations are not only designed to protect the environment, but also protect democratic process,” said Matt Clark, Southwest representative for the wildlife conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.

The fence has already caused several problems. In the border town of Lukeville, Ariz., flooding occurred when trash and debris clogged a drainage gate on the fence during a monsoon rain, according to a 2008 report from the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which manages the area around that part of the fence. The water overran businesses, private property and government buildings.

Clark said similar damage occurred in Nogales, on the Mexico side, where a concrete portion of the border fence acted as a dam, contributing to flooding that inundated businesses.

Native animals have also left the area or have been cut off from their natural habitats. For instance, a jaguar nicknamed Macho B by officials of the Arizona Game and Fish Department once roamed the border, said the Sierra Club’s Millis. After officials tried to follow the jaguar’s movements by placing a tracking collar around its neck, the jaguar experienced kidney failure and was euthanized.

Because of the fence, no other jaguar has roamed into Macho B’s territory, as would usually happen, Millis said.

“They would if they could find their way around the wall — that’s a big if,” Millis said.

A representative for the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument said the endangered lesser long-nosed bat has also suffered. While building the fence, workers cleared more than 200 cactuses in the national monument commonly used by the bats, which migrate long distances and spend the summer in Mexico.

In addition, during construction of a patrol road in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson, the endangered masked bobwhite quail lost at least 50 acres of habitat, Millis said.

The building of patrol roads has also decreased the Sonoran pronghorn’s habitat, as the antelopelike animal rarely crosses roads, according to a 2006 report from Defenders of Wildlife. The pronghorn’s limited jumping ability also does not allow it to leap over barriers.

Bill Odle, 69, a retiree, says he knows the ambiguous nature of the border barrier all too well.

A steel mesh fence was built 380 feet from Odle’s home two years ago, with little to no communication from the Department of Homeland Security before construction, he said. The fence has done little to prevent border crossers from tromping through his property, located between Bisbee and Sierra Vista.

“We have had pregnant women, kids, guys climbing over it,” Odle said. “Ladders have turned up in the yard — it hasn’t stopped.”

What the fence does do, Odle said, is confuse the local wildlife.

“The deer just stand there staring at it,” Odle said, “or they run up and down the fence until they give up and go back.”

The government’s new plan — part of its Border Fence Monitoring and Mitigation Project — is expected to address some of these issues. It will be a “standardized, scientifically defensible approach to monitoring the border,” said Robert Webb, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a member of the 16-person team working on the plan.

Scientists will identify priorities and make recommendations based on their expertise in varying areas of study. Webb said he would like to look at the different types of border barriers and how they affect water flow.

If the Department of Homeland Security agrees with the recommendations, Webb said, proposals will be made, financing will be found, and implementation of the program will begin. Work could start late this year, he added.

Environmentalists said that the project was an important first step and that they hoped national security officials would take the recommendations seriously.

“It looks like the ball is rolling, and that’s positive,” said Clark, from Defenders of Wildlife, “but we are starting well after the damage was done.”


Friday, January 8, 2010

BORDER FENCE: Smuggler's Gulch project bleeding dirt into Tijuana River estuary

Land Letter
January 7, 2010
by April Reese

Six months after workers filled a canyon south of San Diego to enhance border security, California environmental officials say the controversial project is damaging a nearby estuary.

Customs and Border Protection officials completed the Smuggler's Gulch project in July.

Contractors filled the gulch, long a conduit of illegal activity, and built a new 15-foot-high fence and an access road across it. Once a deep canyon, the gulch is now bridged by a 100-foot-high earthen berm.

Department of Homeland Security officials say the berm allows agents to drive straight across what used to be a formidable obstacle, providing much quicker response times and a safer route to handle law enforcement and public safety emergencies. But while the berm -- as high as some of the West's towering concrete dams -- and accompanying fence may stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers, those benefits have come at a significant environmental cost, critics say.

During peak rain events, barren slopes along the newly filled Smuggler's Gulch erode, sending sediment downstream into the Tijuana River estuary.

Like the other drainages in the rugged "border highlands" region, as the westernmost stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border is called, Smuggler's Gulch and other nearby canyons funnel streams from Mexico northward into the Tijuana River and its estuary (Land Letter, Jan. 15, 2009).

The estuary, which has undergone a multi-decade restoration effort, encompasses a national wildlife refuge and state parklands and is home to a number of endangered bird species, including the light-footed clapper rail, the California least tern, the least Bell's vireo and the American peregrine falcon.

California regulators and environmental groups, who warned DHS of the potential adverse effects of the $58 million project when it began, say their fears of damage to the estuary from an influx of eroded sediment are now proving true.

"The river valley keeps getting more and more sediment in it," said Jim Peugh, conservation chair of the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club. "It has long-term flooding effects and long-term habitat effects for both the river valley and the estuary it flows into."

CBP was able to undertake the project without adhering to state or federal environmental laws due to waiver provisions both in a 1996 law pertaining just to the Smuggler's Gulch area and the REAL ID Act of 2005, which extended the waiver authority to the entire border region (Land Letter, Sept. 22, 2005).

As a result, regulators had little authority to address environmental problems.

"In some places, erosion control practices were not properly employed, in my opinion, and there's been significant erosion," said David Gibson, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. "Normally I would have issued a violation for failing to meet the [state] standards for construction, but in this case we couldn't do that."

After meeting with CBP and its contractors, however, officials agreed to fix those problems, Gibson added. "Now that they've seen where the weak spots are, they're addressing them," he said.

Most of the sediment choking the estuary is flowing across the border from Mexico, but the fence project has exacerbated the problem, Gibson said.

"This was an extremely large construction project," he noted. "You just can't have that much earthmoving without having major problems."

DHS spokesman Claude Knighten said contractors did employ erosion barriers, such as waddles, and attempted to plant soil-stabilizing vegetation. But some of those efforts did not work as well as officials had expected, he acknowledged.

Some of the seeds that were planted on the newly created slopes, for example, did not take root due to mistimed watering. Contractors have since reseeded those areas and plan to better irrigate the plots to make sure the plantings succeed the second time, Knighten said.

The state is also considering installing trap structures to help keep sediment out of the estuary as part of the larger restoration effort, Gibson added.

Otay Mountain problems

Further east, in the federally protected Otay Mountain Wilderness, another new stretch of fence, along with the new road needed to patrol it, also is causing environmental damage that probably would not have occurred without the waiver.

Construction workers have removed about 100 rare Tecate cypress trees there that survived a 2003 wildfire that wiped out about 68 percent of the tree's habitat. And truck traffic has sent clouds of dust into the air, coating the tree's leaves, which provide food for the equally rare Thorne's hairstreak butterfly.

As the result of a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to protect the butterfly under the Endangered Species Act.

Knighten of CBP said crews are now wetting the roads to reduce dust. "We'll be monitoring the dust to make sure there aren't any problems," he said.

The Smuggler's Gulch and Otay Mountain projects were part of a far-reaching, congressionally mandated effort to shore up the U.S. southern border with hundreds of miles of new fencing from Texas to California. About 633 miles of new fence have been completed so far, at a cost of $2.4 billion.

Critics say the Smuggler's Gulch project will push illegal border activity further eastward and to the Pacific Ocean, where crossers will take to the water to get around the fence.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Too many dying along the border

Arizona Republic
January 6, 2010

Death still gallops along Arizona's southern border.

The Border Patrol's Tucson Sector reports that the bodies of 208 border crossers were found in fiscal 2009. That was up from 171 in fiscal 2008.

It happened at a time when the overall number of people crossing the border was thought to be down - something experts gleaned from the fact that apprehensions in the Tucson Sector were at a 10-year low of 241,600 in 2009. (The Tucson Sector includes all of Arizona except a small area near Yuma).

Fewer crossings and more deaths testify to the continued failure of border policies.

Those strategies, heavy on enforcement, have failed for years to impose order on the border. Arizona became the hot spot for illegal immigration after enhanced enforcement in Texas and California funneled smuggling activity into our state. Enhanced enforcement in Nogales and other cities along our border drove illegal immigration into remote and rugged deserts, where people perish on their way to reach jobs or families in the United States.

Since 2006, 46 tunnels have been discovered in the Tucson Sector, including a 36-foot smuggling tunnel snaking 25 feet into Nogales, Ariz. It was discovered in late December after illicit burrowing created a sinkhole in the street. And long treks through harsh desert continue to claim lives.

This is a human-rights crisis at America's southern border. It got worse despite barriers and increased numbers of Border Patrol boots on the ground. In fiscal 2004, for example, the death toll was 142, according to the patrol.

Ironically, agents of the Border Patrol, whose job description is enforcement, have become a significant lifesaving force. Their search-and-rescue team, Borstar, saved 586 people who were in distress in the Tucson Sector in fiscal 2009. The previous year, Borstar prevented 443 people from becoming statistics in the deadly saga of this nation's failed immigration policies.

Those policies are not rational or enforceable. Congress needs to enact immigration reform
that creates a legal mechanism for temporary workers to meet labor demands, status adjustment for workers who are here, an effective system to check a worker's status and tough sanctions for those who hire illegal immigrants.

With the Obama administration offering assurances that immigration reform remains a priority, many are sizing up the political realities of doing this in an election year. But with deaths mounting under the current failed system, there is a moral imperative that should drive reform this year.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Planned border wall blocks Tiguas from sacred grounds

El Paso Times
May 14, 2008
by Brandi Grissom

Proposed border fencing in El Paso could cut off the Tiguas' access to parts of the Rio Grande the tribe has used for centuries to conduct sacred ceremonies.

"It is an infringement on our First Amendment right of freedom of religion," Tigua War Captain Rick Quezada said this week.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is working to build 670 miles of fencing along the border by the end of this year. That plan includes about 57 miles of barrier starting at Socorro and extending east of the Fabens port of entry.

Federal officials said they were meeting with the tribe and many other communities in Texas where opposition to the fence is widespread.

The Tiguas have been conducting sacred ceremonies in the Rio Grande for more than 300 years, Quezada said. It's where the tribe starts its calendar year, inducting elected tribal officers, and where they conduct naming ceremonies.

They use a section of the river that stretches from the Ascarate area to Fabens.

The Department of Homeland Security's fence plans would cut off the tribe's access to the river.

"That's one of the biggest concerns," Quezada said, "our continuous practice of our culture and our religion."

Typically, governmental agencies are required to respect customs, traditions and ceremonies of Native Americans under the federal American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Tigua objections to a proposed Lee Treviño extension from North Loop to the C(c)sar Chávez Border Highway that would have encroached on sacred land sent El Paso city leaders looking for alternatives to solve traffic problems in that area.

Last month, though, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he would use waivers to sidestep about 30 laws and ensure the fencing could be completed this year. One of the laws Chertoff said he would ignore is the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

That announcement was one reason U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, signed onto a legal brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the waivers.

Reyes and 13 other congressmen submitted a brief in a legal challenge filed in March against Chertoff by the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife. They want the court to rule unconstitutional the law that allowed Chertoff to circumvent other laws to get the fence built.

"It is irresponsible for DHS to sidestep more than 30 federal laws, including those designed to protect Native Americans' access to sacred sites," Reyes said.

He said he has met with tribal Gov. Frank Paiz and is urging Homeland Security to respect the Tiguas' ceremonial customs.

Ramiro Cordero, a spokes man for the U.S. Border Patrol El Paso Sector, said federal officials were working with the tribe to find a solution to their concerns.

"We've been meeting with the Tiguas just like we've been meeting with other groups," he said.

And there are many other groups on the Texas border that have concerns over the fence and possible damage it could do to the environment, to local economies and to relationships with friends, family and neighbors in Mexico.

In El Paso, both the City Council and the County Commissioners Court have passed resolutions opposing the fence.

The manager of Rio Bosque Wetlands Park has said the fence could undo nearly a decade of work to restore habitat and wildlife in the area.

The Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and business leaders from across the border, has repeatedly asked Homeland Security to work more closely with local governments and to consider alternatives to the massive barrier.

Homeland Security officials and Chertoff maintain that they have discussed the fence plans with border communities and that their concerns will be taken into account. But, they have said, the fence must be built to ensure national security and curb illegal immigration.

El Paso County Commissioner Veronica Escobar said federal officials haven't done enough talking with border residents and are plowing forward with a costly plan that will not stop the flow of undocumented workers or drug and human traffickers into the United States.

"We want to be consulted," she said. "We want to have a voice, and we want meaningful solutions."

Friday, January 1, 2010

Agents seize marijuana

Yuma Sun
December 31, 2009
by James Gilbert

U.S. Border Patrol agents prevented another drug-smuggling attempt early Thursday morning, this time seizing more than 900 pounds of marijuana near San Luis, Ariz.

Agent Shaun Kuzia, a spokesman for the Yuma Sector, said at about 1:30 a.m., Border Patrol agents assigned to the Yuma Station observed a 1989 Ford Bronco drive up to the primary border fence several miles east of the U.S. Port of Entry at San Luis, Ariz.

When the vehicle stopped near the fence, several individuals that had been waiting atop the fence loaded large bundles into the vehicle.

"We were watching them on camera. It was pretty obvious what was going on," Kuzia said. "There is no reason for anyone to be out there because it is a pretty remote area."

The driver then sped away from the border at a high rate of speed. Despite attempts by the driver to blend in with local traffic, Border Patrol agents spotted the Bronco and tried to stop the vehicle.

"As soon as we determined they were loading marijuana into the vehicle, we began moving agents into the area to stop the vehicle," Kuzia said.

The driver failed to yield to the agents’ emergency equipment and then turned around and headed back toward the border.

Agents successfully deployed deflation spikes, flattening three of the vehicle’s tires.

The vehicle eventually came to a stop just north of the border fence where the driver and two other occupants exited the Bronco and climbed the fence into Mexico so they wouldn't be arrested.

Agents discovered 34 plastic-wrapped bundles of marijuana stuffed inside the vehicle. A total of 929 pounds of marijuana with an estimated street value of $743,200 was seized.

The marijuana and Ford Bronco were turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

During the month of December, Yuma Sector Border Patrol agents prevented more than 5,000 pounds of marijuana from being smuggled into the country.