December 26, 2010
by Jazmine Ulloa
On a crisp December morning, Justo Ahumada stood at the edge of the levee near Hope Park watching a group of construction workers ply at the rusty iron fence now snaking its way along the U.S.-Mexico border. Their highlighter-yellow jackets beamed under the gray skies.
He pointed to a spot beyond them, just within sight, where he crossed the Rio Grande from Matamoros for the first time. He had been 17, maybe 18.
“There weren’t any Border Patrol agents back then,” he recalled. “We’d cross to work for the season, then we’d cross back to go home, back with our family.”
Now employees with the construction company, Kiewit, are extending the U.S.-Mexico border fence, finishing up the one mile in Brownsville needed to complete the 34 miles slated for Cameron County. The iron bars stretch along Military Highway and block the view of the river from Hope Park, a green space created off Levee Street to commemorate ties between the United States and Mexico.
Texas, which was allocated about 115 miles of fencing, is the last state to see the initiative completed, according to the Department of Homeland Security. About 1.3 miles of the fence are still to be constructed in El Paso and Del Rio — another 0.2 miles of fencing devised to prevent vehicles from crossing the border were planned for and already created along the state’s southern border.
For those who fought against the creation of the fence — dubbed the “The Wall” by its opponents — its completion is disheartening, a historic symbol that will long divide a once bicultural, binational area. It is also a sign the battle might be over, though some refuse to lose it. Still, those in favor of enhanced border security say it’s a necessary step to ensure the nation’s safety, especially as the drug war rages in open warfare on the streets of Mexico.
Among those most bereaved by the final installation of the fence are property owners. Eloisa Tamez remembers when federal surveyors came to her door in 2008, asking her to sign property condemnation documents — papers that would outright hand over the land her family has nurtured and cultivated since 1767, when they attained it through a Spanish land grant.
She quickly became one of the most vocal opponents against the fence, grazing the front page of the New York Times and the cover of The Economist. She denied the contractors access to her property, and was sued the federal government and to this day continues in court proceedings with DHS.
“There are gaps all over the fence, and they have not compensated any of us for our land,” she said. “They continue with the injustice, and reasons to validate it keep changing.”
When plans for the fence began rolling forward, Tamez recalls, the federal government said the construction was to protect the United States from terrorists crossing into the United States. Now they say the fence is needed to protect against violence surging Mexico, she said.
Rusty Monsees, who back in 2008 agreed to sell 3.3 acres of his land to the government, was still sued by the government, even as he was one of the staunchest advocates for the fence. The lawsuit filed against him – one of more than 100 land condemnation cases pending in Cameron County – was a type of case the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called a "friendly land condemnation."
Now workers have built the fence running through his citrus yard, cutting him access to some of his acreage. Monsees believes the fence is worthless and a waste.
“It is a bad use of money,” he said. “When they (government officials) asked me about the fence initially, I said I thought it was a good idea. But if you do not follow up, people learn to get around it. You have to have people on the ground, and you have to have them on the ground every day, 24 hours a day in specific areas for patrol.”
The average cost of pedestrian fence, which is designed to prevent the passage of people, across all of the nation’s sectors is $6.5 million per mile — including all planning, material and construction costs with the exception of costs associated with adverse condemnation. That totals to about $748 million in Texas alone. The average cost of fence designed specifically to prevent vehicles from passing through is $1.8 million per mile.
But Daniel Milian, supervisor of Public Affairs for the U.S. Border Patrol, said the fence was an added security measure for the country, helping the department with its day-to-day operations and putting its resources to better use.
The fence “serves a delay, it becomes another obstacle for smugglers,” he explained. “It also provides a bottleneck effect. It forces them to cross in areas where we have the technical advantage, where we have more time to respond.”
Back at the riverside, Ahumada, 84, says he must have made the journey through the roads from his native Tampico in Tamaulipas, the river and into Brownsville more than six times, he said. Like millions before him, he came to the United States in search of jobs and new opportunities. But when he realized an anti-immigrant sentiment growing in the country, he settled in Bayview in the 1950s, where he picked crops and worked odd jobs. He eventually became a U.S. citizen.
"What a shame for the people coming to look for work these days," he lamented.