April 13, 2010
by Jonathan Clark
U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has requested $3 million in federal funds to replace the border fence in downtown Nogales with a more impenetrable barrier, rankling fellow Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, who called the move “a political response.”
In her request filed late last month with the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Giffords cited security risks posed by the landing-mat fence, which has stood in downtown Nogales since the early 1990s.
Giffords’ request touted a “more sophisticated” border structure that would “incorporate double-wall fencing, concertina wire … and vehicle ditches,” but Giffords’ District Director Ron Barber told the Nogales International on Monday that the phrasing had been inserted by an overzealous staffer and would be toned down.
Barber said Giffords wanted to see something more like bollard fencing – a series of interconnected, concrete-filled steel tubes – and that concertina wire would not be part of the plan. He said the fence request is being considered for the upcoming fiscal year, meaning that the funds could be available by Oct. 1.
Grijalva, who represents the congressional district that includes Nogales, called Giffords’ request “a political response that sounds to me like overkill.” He wondered why Giffords hadn’t made a similar request to replace existing fencing in downtown Douglas, which lies within her own congressional district. And he said he wished Giffords had consulted with him before making the request, saying he’d like to see a more detailed analysis before committing to a new fence.
“I'm not sure (the request) addresses the real needs of the Nogales area,” Grijalva said in an e-mail, noting that the wrong design could have a negative impact on the city’s economy.
Deputy City Manager John Kissinger said he was in favor of “any fencing project that (will) protect the citizens of Nogales, Arizona,” though he added that the legal and efficient movement of people through the fencing should not be compromised.
“The economy of the City of Nogales and this region depends on our retail trade with Mexico,” he said.
Giffords’ request for the new fencing followed a March 9 meeting of the local Border Patrol Citizens Advisory Board, at which Al White, top patrol agent at the Nogales Station, told attendees that the downtown fence has become a defensive liability.
While drug seizures and apprehensions of illegal immigrants have dropped significantly in the Nogales area, White said, anecdotal evidence suggests that new fencing to the east and west has pushed illegal activity toward the downtown area.
In a letter written to Giffords after the meeting, Citizens Advisory Board member Jim Price described “an untenable situation, one which is endangering the lives of Border Patrol agents and turning back the clock on downtown security here in Nogales.”
Price wrote that “downtown Nogales is rapidly returning to the situation of pre-landing mat fencing, with the criminal element making a significant incursion, thus endangering local citizens and visitors.”
“We are exposed to vandalism, theft, and physical threats on an increasing basis,” he wrote, without citing evidence.
Giffords attached Price’s letter to her funding request, noting on her Web site that all of her appropriations petitions “have at least one letter of support from a state or local official indicating why the project is important to southern Arizona.”
Price, however, is not a state or local official, and no other letter was posted with the funding request.
Greg Kory, who owns a store near the landing-mat fence in downtown Nogales, disagreed with Price’s assessment of security in the area.
“I think it’s one of the most secure places in the country,” he said, noting the large number of law enforcement officers patrolling the area.
Kory said he saw no need to spend $3 million on a replacement fence.
“I don’t want to pay those taxes; I’m overtaxed as it is,” he said. “I’d like to talk to Gabrielle Giffords. I really would.”
Barber said he had received several other e-mails similar to Price’s, but opted not to post them. And he said he had gone on a nighttime patrol with the Border Patrol earlier in the year and witnessed first-hand the problems with the landing-mat fence.
The fence, he said, is not only easy to breach, but also makes agents vulnerable to rock-throwings.
“It’s just not OK that agents who are trying to do their job should be subjected to rockings from the other side,” he said. “If a fence can prevent, or at least minimize that, it seems to me that it’s a good idea.”
Barber’s assessment of the fence had also contributed to Giffords’ request for a replacement, he said.
However, he acknowledged that except for the meeting with the Citizens Advisory Board, a small group that includes people from around the county, the Giffords camp did little to solicit feedback from residents or business leaders in the downtown area.
Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network, an organization that advocates for the rights of border communities, said that residents of predominantly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking areas like downtown Nogales are often left out of discussions on border policy.
Allen said her group has been urging members of Congress to treat good relationships with border residents as an integral part of border policy. While they may not be as vocal as other groups, Hispanic border residents also want to be part of the solution to local border issues, she said.
“People feel that if they are not treated as part of the solution, they are being viewed, to the contrary, as part of the problem,” she said.
Barber said that in hindsight, he would have liked to have made a more comprehensive outreach effort. But he said the intention behind the funding request – to replace the fence and reduce illegal incursions while improving agent safety in the process – was good.
And he said Giffords had had to move quickly on the plan in order to meet a late-March deadline for appropriations requests.
“There was no intent to slight anybody in the process,” Barber said. “We were on a timeline when this issue came to a head, and we moved as quickly as we could to beat the deadline.”