Sunday, March 7, 2010

In Eagle Pass, divided view of border fence: Many see 2-mile barrier as an eyesore and waste of money; some say it helps quality of life.

March 7, 2010
Austin-American Statesman
by Jeremy Schwartz

EAGLE PASS — As the sun dips toward the horizon, Shelby Park becomes an idyllic place, a rare patch of manicured green along the Texas-Mexico border. Kids practice soccer on the expansive sports fields, and joggers make their afternoon revolutions. A couple of Border Patrol trucks hover in the parking lot alongside the dense stands of cane that hide the Rio Grande from view. Above, two international bridges funnel traffic between Eagle Pass and its Mexican counterpart, Piedras Negras, Coahuila .

Jose Luis Zuniga, watching his two sons practice soccer kicks, takes in the park's newest addition: an $11 million, 14-foot-tall black metal fence.

This part of the fence, finished in October, has roiled emotions like little else in this fast-growing city of 50,000. Like many of his neighbors, Zuniga is bewildered and angered by the placement of the fence, which cuts through nearly two miles of downtown and leaves the city's golf course and premier parkland in what some see as a no man's land between the fence and the river. Illegal immigrants and drug traffickers will simply go around, reasons Zuniga, an engineer at a plant that builds Mossberg shotguns.

"I don't know why they did it," Zuniga says in Spanish as he watches his two sons practice under the lengthening shadows of the international bridge. "Imagine, all that money for nothing."

As construction of 670 miles of fencing along the Southwest border nears completion, at a cost of at least $2.4 billion, border communities like Eagle Pass are struggling to come to terms with their new reality. Is the barrier an effective way to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs across what was an inadequately protected border? Or is it, as Zuniga contends, the physical symbol of a misguided — and expensive — policy that ignores the unique dynamics of the border?

Local Border Patrol agents say the fence plays a vital role in driving immigrant and drug smugglers to the city's edges, where agents have more time to catch them out in the brush — people crossing near downtown can quickly vanish into crowds.

Cesar Cantu, the patrol agent in charge of the Eagle Pass Border Patrol station, says they need one-third fewer agents in downtown now — allowing them to concentrate more on the drug traffickers who prefer to move their product on the outskirts of the city.

Border Patrol agents are quick to point out that the value of drug seizures has gone up — from $41.4 million in 2008 to $76.5 million last year — and apprehensions of illegal immigrants in the Eagle Pass area have steadily decreased over the past five years, as they have throughout the Texas-Mexico border area.

"This is what we need," Cantu says. "Now we have time to do our job and patrol instead of processing aliens."

City officials aren't so sure. Mayor Chad Foster says the border fence hasn't had any "significant impact" on border security since it was built and worries that it will become an eyesore in future years if the federal government later decides not to spend the billions of dollars that maintenance is estimated to cost.

And though many Eagle Pass residents say the fence doesn't interfere with daily life, they resent its presence in their city.

"We feel like we are living with this stigma," Foster said. "My opinion is, this gives a false sense of security. It gives Middle America, which has an embellished idea of the border, the sense that they can sleep at night."

Routed through towns

The erecting of new border barriers, which began in 2006, has been particularly divisive in Texas, which, unlike the rest of the border, already had a physical barrier — the Rio Grande. Because of that, the 110 planned miles of Texas border fence — covering about one-tenth of the state's 1,254-mile border with Mexico — don't straddle the border as the fence does in places like the Arizona desert. Instead, the Texas fence meanders through cities and towns, often sparking protests from residents.

The Eagle Pass portion of the fence begins under the city's second international bridge, where it envelops the municipal golf course, which now lies between the river and the fence. It then jogs across Shelby Park, along the northern edges of soccer and baseball fields, before heading out to the city's less accessible western edge, where high bluffs loom above the river.

In Shelby Park, which sits a few hundred feet from downtown, large gaps in the fencing remain to be filled in with a series of gates that Border Patrol officials say will stay open except during national emergencies. Border officials say the gates will ensure public access to the park; they say they doubt many illegal crossers will make a run for the openings.

The fencing in Eagle Pass is one of several varieties that have been built along the border. The so-called "picket fence" style, featuring tall, thin metal slats a few inches apart, stands in contrast to the more imposing wall-like structures found in parts of the California and Arizona desert and in the Rio Grande Valley. When fully completed, the Eagle Pass section will measure 1.8 miles — about half of the four miles originally planned, but ultimately reduced, by the federal government.

It's just a tiny part of the 110 miles of new fencing that's nearly complete along the Texas border — larger stretches of fencing, measuring more than 50 miles, have gone up in El Paso and in the Rio Grande Valley, and smaller pieces, just a few miles long, have been built in Del Rio and Laredo.

After the U.S. Congress passed the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which mandated the construction of 670 miles of fencing, Foster and other border mayors argued that the barrier was unnecessary, given that apprehensions along the border were already in decline, and could harm relations with Mexico. Foster was worried about the reaction by Eagle Pass' sister city of Piedras Negras. In many ways, Eagle Pass depends on Piedras Negras for survival, as Mexican shoppers have helped fuel the city's economic boom over the past decade. And many families are divided between the two cities, adding to the ties between them.

Foster and other city leaders, hoping to avoid alienating neighbors to the south, tried to deny federal officials access to city land where the fence would be built. After a heated dispute in which the U.S. government successfully sued Eagle Pass in federal court for possession of the land, construction began in 2008.

Eagle Pass was the target of the federal government's first lawsuit against recalcitrant landowners along the border; Foster said city and federal appraisers are negotiating compensation for the land.

The project is nearly finished in Texas, except for a half-mile stretch in Eagle Pass and several miles in the Rio Grande Valley, where city leaders, ranchers, the University of Texas-Brownsville and environmentalists have wrangled with federal officials over where the fence should go.

Miguel Diaz-Barriga, an anthropology professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania who is writing a book about the border wall in Texas, said most border residents oppose the wall but want more border security. A recent survey he conducted found that just 16 percent of respondents in Hidalgo County favored a border wall while 80 percent wanted the number of Border Patrol agents to stay the same or increase. "One should not interpret opposition to the border wall to mean (support for) open borders," he said. "In fact, the opposite is true."

Effectiveness disputed

It's unclear whether the fence is accomplishing what the U.S. Congress originally hoped for along the 2,000-mile Southwest border.

Illegal crossings in Eagle Pass reached their height in 2005, when Border Patrol agents in the sector containing Eagle Pass made 68,483 apprehensions, many of them at the golf course. That number has plummeted since then; last year agents made just 17,079 apprehensions — a statistic that is considered the best measure of illegal crossings.

Today, agents say illegal crossings downtown have slowed to a trickle.

Cantu said his agents — who patrol half of Eagle Pass and parts of surrounding Maverick County — process five or six illegal immigrants per day, compared with as many as 300 during the 2005 heyday. Borderwide, apprehensions have fallen dramatically over the past five years, from 1.2 million in 2005 to 556,000 last year.

Much of the immigrant traffic in Eagle Pass declined after local Border Patrol officials instituted a "zero tolerance" policy for immigrants from Central America. Before the 2006 change, "other than Mexican" detainees were simply released and ordered to appear before an immigration judge. Few appeared for their court date, and agents say Central American immigrants began seeking to be caught, viewing the policy as a free pass across the border. Under the new policy, each illegal immigrant was sent before a judge immediately, often doing jail time before being deported back to the immigrant's home country.

The new policy flooded local court dockets, spurred the creation of large detention facilities and deterred large numbers of immigrants from the Eagle Pass area, experts say. The year after the change, apprehensions fell to 23,000 in the Eagle Pass area.

More recently, the recession has helped tamp down the numbers of immigrants seeking work across the border, many experts agree. But Border Patrol officials say that without a fence, there is no guarantee that large flows of illegal immigrants would not have returned to Eagle Pass. "With the fence, it's less likely that (Eagle Pass) would return to the time of mass crossings," said Dennis Smith, Border Patrol spokesman for the area.

The Government Accountability Office, noting that apprehensions along the Southwest border were already declining by 2007, before most of the fencing was built, stated in a November report that the Border Patrol has yet to conduct a systematic evaluation of the fence's effectiveness borderwide.

The report also found that costs soared during the course of the project — the cost of fencing like what was built in Eagle Pass jumped from $3.9 million per mile to $6.5 million. Among the reasons cited in the report was a labor shortage in Texas, the result of a pre-recession construction boom.

GAO investigators said maintenance costs are estimated to reach $6.5 billion over the next 20 years.

Diverting traffic

At the Eagle Pass Municipal Golf Course, retiree Bruce Thompson hits some practice putts as he gets ready to play a round with some friends. The course hugs the Rio Grande, and from the first tee, you can see the cars and trucks lined up on the overhead bridges waiting to cross into the United States. Thompson, a retired special agent with the Department of Justice who has lived in Eagle Pass for more than two decades, remembers the chaos that golfers used to endure: great bunches of immigrants making mad dashes across the expansive greens with Border Patrol agents in hot pursuit. Worse, he said, bandits used to hide in the tall cane along the river, only to jump out at unsuspecting golfers, mugging them for their clubs and cell phones.

"In my opinion, the fence is a good thing," he said. "We used to have them coming across here by the horde. Granted, they are (crossing) somewhere else, but at least not here. It will keep them out of the downtown area. It will make them go to the outskirts."

Thompson also believes the border wall in downtown will clean up the dangerous neighborhoods just across the river in Piedras Negras, which officials say house gangs and stash houses born out of the illicit border crossing business. "I think in the long run, it will be better for the city because it will be safer," he said.

At Eagle Pass's biweekly flea market, held on the edge of Shelby Park, anger toward the border wall is palpable. The fence stands just a few feet from vendors selling everything from old washing machines to used power tools.

"Before it was very beautiful, very nice around here," said Reyes Medina, who has been selling used baseball equipment at the flea market for 15 years. "Now we feel like a catastrophe has hit us. We feel like we are in prison; it's like they have us locked up here."

"This is a wall of shame," fumed vendor Jose de Jesus Hernandez. "I can't look at it any other way."

Reyes said that in the first weeks after the wall was built, business was decimated. Customers, about 90 percent of whom cross the bridge from Mexico, were spooked, he said. Since then, business has slowly improved as customers became more used to the fencing but still hasn't reached pre-fence levels.

In Piedras Negras, where resentment toward the wall runs high — and where Coahuila's governor is building a "green wall" of trees along the Rio Grande as a response — the indignation hasn't translated into boycotts of American stores.

Fernando Estrada, whose family owns a Piedras Negras jewelry store, said that despite his opposition he still crosses the bridge almost weekly to take advantage of sales and specials at American stores like H\u2011E\u2011B. "It feels weird to see the wall when you cross," he said. "You can see it as a symbol of division, and that's why a lot of people don't like it, because it separates communities even more."

After two years, the fence is becoming part of Eagle Pass' psyche. On a recent afternoon at the municipal golf course, students Kimberley Rodriguez and Jennifer Zavala, both members of the CC Winn High School golf club, played in the shadow of the fence.

"It's a little strange," said Rodriguez, 17. "It feels like they are trying to keep us from our families (on the Mexican side of the river) in a way. "

For Zavala, 15, the fence is simply a part of her world. "I can't even remember when the wall was not here," she said. "I never really noticed, because it's part of the landscape."

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