Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Iron Canvas

Texas Observer
March 24, 2010
by Jazmine Ulloa

On a windy, late-February Sunday in Brownsville, gallery owner Mark Clark and a dozen artists left the gallery carrying paintings and other pieces. They crossed the street, passed a lone Border Patrol van on the river levee, and arrived in Hope Park, a green space on the Rio Grande that celebrates ties between Mexico and the United States. In defiance of the Border Patrol, they began hanging artwork on the rusty, unfinished wall snaking its way partly through the park, the art’s colors popping against the gritty iron bars and overcast sky. It was a way to “beautify the ugly,” Clark says. “It lets people know that the wall has not gone away as a political issue and that we are extremely disappointed in the Obama administration and their decision to continue this idiocy.”

Clark has been fighting the wall since 2006, when former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his entourage first came to the border city. Clark picketed Chertoff’s press conferences, participated in citywide protests, and tagged the gallery’s roof with No Al Muro (“No Border Wall”) in charcoal. When Chertoff’s tenure ended in 2009, Clark threw him a retirement party at the gallery, where guests could pummel a piƱata modeled after Chertoff and throw shoes at a George W. Bush impersonator.

Clark is still fighting, even though the struggle can feel doomed at times. Immigration reform has fallen on the nation’s backburner, and construction on the wall is rolling along at $12 to $18 million a mile. The rest of the country may have moved on to other topics, but Clark and his neighbors can’t because of the hulking reminder. He no longer rides his bicycle along the levee to work. “It used to be a quiet, serene ride through nature,” he says. “When you have an iron curtain on one side blocking your view, it is a little on the oppressive and depressing side.”

He says he is not going to let the United States forget it’s making a mistake. So on Feb. 28, he turned the wall into a canvas that displayed people’s frustrations with the metal divide. There were paintings of moonlit mojadas, female border-crossers, and the river view undisrupted by the fence. An illustration by Clark depicted dozens of Mexicans marching into the country through a hole in the fence. One Mexican was an unemployed Ronald McDonald selling helados, ice cream, on the corner. It is “every nightmare about Mexican immigration,” he says. There were conceptual pieces, such as a missing-person poster and a pile of stuff including a pair of shoes, a deflated flotation tire, and a water jug left behind by immigrants illegally crossing the border through Arizona. A 30-foot ladder of green bamboo and twine leaned against the fence, reaching toward the sky and swaying in the wind. Artist David Freeman, an arts instructor at South Texas College in McAllen, stuck salva-tree thorns on the rungs to symbolize obstacles faced by illegal immigrants in the United States.

Perhaps the brightest display was that of Susan Harbage Page, a photographer and lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Page designed a funeral wreath using colored ribbons and plastic flowers arranged like a target. It is a memorial to the lives lost crossing the border, “a beautiful thing that sucks you in but represents many harsh realities and losses,” she says.
The installation came and went quietly, without any clashes with U.S. Border Patrol or local authorities. “I plan to do this every year,” Clark says, “until the wall goes away.”

A Small Victory in the Border Wall Boondoggle

Texas Observer
March 5, 2010
by Melissa del Bosque

Much has been written in the Observer about the border wall boondoggle winding its way along the Texas-Mexico border. At $2.4 billion and counting the 670 mile border wall ranges from California to Texas. Several landowners in Texas are still fighting for fair compensation for their land from the U.S. government.

Brownsville landowner Eloisa Tamez, 74, has been one of the most outspoken landowners against the 18-foot wall being built through her backyard. In January, I wrote a story “All Walled Up” about the battle between Cameron County landowners such as Tamez and the Department of Homeland Security who has seized their land to build the wall.

At the time, DHS was back for more and planned to seize an additional piece of her property so that she would be unable to access her land on the southern side of the wall.

The other day she sent me some good news in an email “DHS backed away. I was notified that there will not be a second taking,” she wrote. “I want the people to know that it pays to raise your voice when the government practices injustice and violates human rights.”

Finally, some good news to report on the border wall front. Eloisa Tamez has been a consistent crusader for the rights of border landowners. It’s good to see a victory among all of the injustice.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

We All Fight the Wall

San Diego Reader
March 21, 2010
by Carolyn Grace Matteo

U.S./Mexico border problems and their effect on the Tijuana Estuary was the focus of the March 19 Sierra Club’s meeting in Hillcrest.

According to a Sierra Club press release, laws protecting the environment, archaeological sites, religious freedom, and cultural concerns were waived so border-wall construction could proceed.

“Our committee has been fighting the border wall for a long time,” said Jean Costa, international committee representative. “The Sierra Club supports HR4321 because it prohibits construction of more border walls and the breaking of environmental and community protection laws....

“In Texas, it went right through people’s land. But, you won’t find the wall in any fancy resorts. They build the wall where they think people don’t have the power to fight it. This bill is the beginning of solving a very complicated problem, the roots of which aren’t being addressed. I urge you to support it.”

Dr. Mike McCoy said, “The [construction of] border fence between the U.S. and Mexico called Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994. There were no permits. They just built it. The big problem with these fences is that the animals that migrate north — jaguar, deer, reptiles, and other mammals — separate gene pools on both sides. You decrease the biological capability of that organism to survive; this especially impacts bighorn sheep."

McCoy considers the border wall a tribute to the politics of fear. “Injustice, economic disparity, and the inability to distribute wealth and opportunity equitably are at the root of the wall.”

Friday, March 19, 2010

The right way to mend immigration

Washington Post
March 19, 2010
by Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham

Our immigration system is badly broken. Although our borders have become far more secure in recent years, too many people seeking illegal entry get through. We have no way to track whether the millions who enter the United States on valid visas each year leave when they are supposed to. And employers are burdened by a complicated system for verifying workers' immigration status.

Last week we met with President Obama to discuss our draft framework for action on immigration. We expressed our belief that America's security and economic well-being depend on enacting sensible immigration policies.

The answer is simple: Americans overwhelmingly oppose illegal immigration and support legal immigration. Throughout our history, immigrants have contributed to making this country more vibrant and economically dynamic. Once it is clear that in 20 years our nation will not again confront the specter of another 11 million people coming here illegally, Americans will embrace more welcoming immigration policies.

Our plan has four pillars: requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs; fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement; creating a process for admitting temporary workers; and implementing a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here.

Besides border security, ending illegal immigration will also require an effective employment verification system that holds employers accountable for hiring illegal workers. A tamper-proof ID system would dramatically decrease illegal immigration, experts have said, and would reduce the government revenue lost when employers and workers here illegally fail to pay taxes.

We would require all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card. Each card's unique biometric identifier would be stored only on the card; no government database would house everyone's information. The cards would not contain any private information, medical information or tracking devices. The card would be a high-tech version of the Social Security card that citizens already have.

Prospective employers would be responsible for swiping the cards through a machine to confirm a person's identity and immigration status. Employers who refused to swipe the card or who otherwise knowingly hired unauthorized workers would face stiff fines and, for repeat offenses, prison sentences.

We propose a zero-tolerance policy for gang members, smugglers, terrorists and those who commit other felonies after coming here illegally. We would bolster recent efforts to secure our borders by increasing the Border Patrol's staffing and funding for infrastructure and technology. More personnel would be deployed to the border immediately to fill gaps in apprehension capabilities.

Other steps include expanding domestic enforcement to better apprehend and deport those who commit crimes and completing an entry-exit system that tracks people who enter the United States on legal visas and reports those who overstay their visas to law enforcement databases.

Ending illegal immigration, however, cannot be the sole objective of reform. Developing a rational legal immigration system is essential to ensuring America's future economic prosperity.

Ensuring economic prosperity requires attracting the world's best and brightest. Our legislation would award green cards to immigrants who receive a PhD or master's degree in science, technology, engineering or math from a U.S. university. It makes no sense to educate the world's future inventors and entrepreneurs and then force them to leave when they are able to contribute to our economy.

Our blueprint also creates a rational system for admitting lower-skilled workers. Our current system prohibits lower-skilled immigrants from coming here to earn money and then returning home. Our framework would facilitate this desired circular migration by allowing employers to hire immigrants if they can show they were unsuccessful in recruiting an American to fill an open position; allowing more lower-skilled immigrants to come here when our economy is creating jobs and fewer in a recession; and permitting workers who have succeeded in the workplace, and contributed to their communities over many years, the chance to earn a green card.

For the 11 million immigrants already in this country illegally, we would provide a tough but fair path forward. They would be required to admit they broke the law and to pay their debt to society by performing community service and paying fines and back taxes. These people would be required to pass background checks and be proficient in English before going to the back of the line of prospective immigrants to earn the opportunity to work toward lawful permanent residence.

The American people deserve more than empty rhetoric and impractical calls for mass deportation. We urge the public and our colleagues to join our bipartisan efforts in enacting these reforms.

Charles E. Schumer is a Democratic senator from New York. Lindsey O. Graham is a Republican senator from South Carolina.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Guardsman stole $13K in border-fence scrap

Air Force Times
March 18, 2010
by Tom Spoth

A federal jury has found a former Air National Guard master sergeant guilty of stealing scrap metal while supervising the construction of a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Robert Kelley, 49, sold 90 tons of ill-gotten steel for $13,055 between July 2007 and March 2008. He then used the money to buy a laptop computer, a printer, a router, Geek Squad home install services, a chop saw, a ratchet set, cowboy boots, a .45-caliber handgun, an AR-15 rifle and a variety of tools, according to a press release from the U.S. attorney’s office in Arizona.

Kelley was serving with the Wyoming Air National Guard at the time. He was the noncommissioned officer in charge of a team of Air and Army National Guardsmen building the border fence. Kelley told his unit he had the authority to sell scrap from the project, and ordered the Guardsmen to load it in dump trucks, sell it at a metal recycler in Tucson, and give the proceeds to him so he could spend it on unit welfare.

Guardsmen testified at the trial that Kelley ordered them to intentionally create scrap to increase the size of the loads sold in Tucson. Witnesses from the U.S. Border Patrol and the military testified that Kelley had no authority to sell the scrap.

Kelley was convicted of theft of public property, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years, a $250,000 fine, or both.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Budget Cut for Fence on U.S.-Mexico Border

New York Times
March 16, 2010
By Randal C. Archibold

Citing a plague of “cost overruns and missed deadlines,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that she would cut millions of dollars intended for a high-tech “virtual fence” along the Mexican border that has produced little more than headaches for the federal government.

Ms. Napolitano said her department would divert about $50 million in federal stimulus money intended for the project to other technological needs on the border, including laptops, radios, thermal-imaging devices and cameras requested by border guards.

In addition, she said, no money will be spent on expanding the project beyond two areas in Arizona where it is being tested until the department completes a reassessment she ordered in January.

Ms. Napolitano’s announcement came two days before a scheduled Congressional hearing on the program. The House Homeland Security Committee is expected to receive the latest in a string of Government Accountability Office reports calling the program into question. That new report says tests designed to evaluate the system are flawed and mismanaged.

Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and chairman of the committee, questioned whether it was time to pull the plug entirely.

“We still need to see whether or not this virtual fence that was promised by the department and its contractor Boeing is something that is feasible,” he said Tuesday. “Or is it just a several-hundred-million-dollar waste of taxpayer money?”

The virtual fence is part of a multiyear, multibillion-dollar effort known as the Secure Border Initiative that was announced with fanfare by the Bush administration in November 2005. Besides increasing the number of guards and expanding a border wall, it promised a sophisticated system of cameras, sensors and radar that would zero in on people crossing the border with new speed and clarity and quickly guide agents to them.

By now, according to the original timeline, the system was supposed to be working along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. But shortly after Boeing was awarded the contract, red flags went up over its lack of oversight and potential for cost overruns.

Boeing said in a statement on Tuesday that it was “fully committed to delivering border-security technology that successfully assists” the department, but it declined to answer questions about its handling of the project. About $1.1 billion has been spent on the virtual fence, with little to show for it beyond the two testing sites in the Arizona desert and a series of embarrassments, including radar that could not function properly in the rain and wind-blown trees mistaken for border crossers.

Those first, limited segments of the fence are now expected to be delivered to the government early next year, and the Government Accountability Office has estimated that it would take several years to cover the entire border with equivalent technology.

The department has said it was revamping the system to address the problems, though the Obama administration had already scaled back financing for it, to a request of $574 million for the fiscal year that begins in October from the current $800 million Congress has authorized.

The accountability office has previously said Boeing pushed forward with designing the system without consulting with the Border Patrol, whose agents would be the primary users.

It has released 14 critical reports that, taken together, point to a system that “was over-promised and under-delivered,” said Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues for the office.

The office’s latest report, to be released Thursday, says the department and Boeing have not designed tests well enough to assess the program. In some cases, the tests appeared designed to achieve positive results instead of evaluate the system.

Work to cease on 'virtual fence' along U.S.-Mexico border

Washington Post
March 16, 2010
by Spencer Hsu

The Obama administration will halt new work on a "virtual fence" on the U.S.-Mexican border, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced Tuesday, diverting $50 million in planned economic stimulus funds for the project to other purposes.

Napolitano said the freeze on work beyond two pilot projects in Arizona was pending a broader reassessment. But the move signals a likely death knell for a troubled five-year plan to drape a chain of tower-mounted sensors and other surveillance gear across most of the 2,000-mile southern border.

That vision, initiated in 2006 by President George W. Bush, called for a series of networked cameras, radar and communications gear to help speed the response of U.S. Border Patrol officers to catch illegal immigrants and smugglers over the vast border area. However, the effort has been plagued by technical problems and delays with prime contractor Boeing Corp.

Obama officials embraced the program, known as SBInet, on taking office in 2009, setting out a new five-year timetable for completion. However, the administration last month proposed cutting funding to finish SBInet's first phase by roughly 30 percent to $574 million, under new congressional questioning about the plan's feasibility.

In a four-sentence statement, Napolitano said the department will immediately redeploy $50 million of stimulus funds to other technology, including mobile surveillance devices, sensors, radios and laptop computers.

"Not only do we have an obligation to secure our borders, we have a responsibility to do so in the most cost-effective way possible," Napolitano said. "The system of sensors and cameras along the Southwest border known as SBInet has been plagued with cost overruns and missed deadlines."

In a statement, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) called SBInet "a grave and expensive disappointment."

"Today's announcement is recognition that this troubled program needs better management and stronger oversight," Thompson said, adding that his committee would examine the program in a hearing Thursday.

In recent weeks, congressional Democrats have stepped up criticism of the program.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), head of a House homeland security funding panel, noted last month at a House hearing that completion of SBInet's first phase could take until 2013, and no funding has been requested for Block 2. "With only deployment to about 50 miles of the border scheduled, it appears that SBInet deployment will take many more years," Price said.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, criticized the multibillion-dollar contract to Boeing. "I continue to have concerns about this program's implementation," he said in statement.

DHS has spent $3.4 billion on border fencing in recent years, completing 640 of a planned 652 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers as part of the Secure Border Initiative. Block 1 of SBInet, the technology portion of the plan, was budgeted to spend $700 million to erect about 50 camera and radio towers on a 28-mile segment south of Tucson and a 30-mile stretch near Ajo, Ariz.

Last year, DHS officials predicted SBInet would cost $6.7 billion to secure the full border, minus a 200-mile span in southwestern Texas that is difficult to cross and expensive to monitor.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm, has found the government rushed to use off-the-shelf equipment without adequate testing. Boeing initially relied on police dispatching software that was not able to process the vast flow of information streaming from the desert, and other technical problems plagued cameras and radar.

SBInet is the federal government's third attempt to secure the border with technology. Between 1998 and 2005, it spent $429 million on earlier surveillance initiatives that were so unreliable that only 1 percent of alarms led to arrests.

Analysts say technology remains a vital component of efforts to secure the border, a goal that includes combating terrorism, organized crime, drug cartels and illegal immigration. Tightened border security has also been viewed as a prerequisite for winning Senate approval of legislation that would extend legal status to some of an estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

Federal officials have said their goal was to enable the Border Patrol to detect 70 to 85 percent of incursions with as few as 22,000 to 25,000 officers. The agency has doubled in size over the past decade, to 20,000 officers.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Border Patrol eyes replacement for downtown fence

Nogales International
March 12, 2010
by Jonathan Clark

New fencing east and west of town is helping to reduce illegal border activity in the local area, Nogales’ top Border Patrol agent said, but it’s also exposing an older stretch of barrier in the downtown area as a weak link in the agency’s line of defense.

In the wake of the construction of two-plus miles of new fencing to Nogales’ west and another nearly eight miles to the east, local Border Patrol agents have seen a 17-percent drop in narcotics seizures and a 15-percent decline in apprehensions during the current fiscal year, said Al White, patrol agent in charge at the Nogales Station, during a meeting of the Border Patrol Citizens’ Advisory Board on Tuesday.

“It’s showing that we’re starting to make a dent,” White said.

But anecdotal evidence suggests a rise in illegal activity along the two-and-three-quarters-mile border fence that runs through the center of town, White said, since wrongdoers have an easier time cutting through and tunneling under the sheets of aircraft landing mat that have separated Ambos Nogales since the late 1980s.

Agents have found more than 240 cuts in the fence since October, and the Nogales station has spent approximately $750,000 on fence repairs during the past year, White said.

“It’s just a constant battle,” he said.

The new sections of local border wall are comprised largely of a series of interconnected, 15-foot-high steel tubes filled with concrete and driven five feet into the ground. Known as bollard fencing, these barriers have only been penetrated twice, White said.

He’d like to replace the landing-mat barrier with bollard fencing, not only because the landing mats are easier to cut, but also because the solid slabs block water runoff and create impediments and hazards for agents.

“You can’t see someone with a torch, you can’t see someone with a rock,” he said.

Even so, a replacement fence for central Nogales is likely to remain on the Border Patrol’s wish list for the near future. White estimates that the project would cost up to $7 million, and the Nogales Station’s budget has already been reduced by 18.5 percent for the current fiscal year. He said he’s not willing to reduce personnel or cut other essential expenditures to fund the effort.

“We’re going to be living with (the landing-mat fence) a little bit longer,” he said.

Terry Shannon Jr. , who runs a customs brokerage firm one block from the landing-mat fence in downtown Nogales, said he hadn’t noticed any recent increase in illegal activity in the area. Shannon says he considers the downtown area to be one of the city’s safest spots, thanks to the large number of law-enforcement agents on duty there.

Still, he favored the idea of a replacement fence, largely for aesthetic reasons.

“As far as the landing-mat fence is concerned, anything would be better than that,” he said. “It looks like something out of the ‘MASH’ movie.”

A better-looking fence could help improve the image of Nogales and make the city more appealing to tourists, Shannon said.

But Sarah Roberts of the humanitarian group No More Deaths doubted the effectiveness of a new border wall and said a new, more impenetrable barrier in central Nogales would only serve to drive migrants further out into the dangerous surrounding areas.

“It’s another example of deterrence through death,” she said.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Little Lizard Gets Another Chance at Protection

Couthouse News Service
March 9, 2010

WASHINGTON (CN) - The flat-tailed horned lizard finally may get protection under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened species, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reintroduced a 1993 proposal to list the little lizard. In 1993, the agency concluded that the tiny sand colored reptile faced potential extinction due to destruction of its habitat by human encroachment, but the proposal was pulled. The agency has proposed and withdrawn the proposal two more times.

Each time, legal action by the Tucson Herpetological Society, the Horned Lizard Conservation Society, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity forced the agency to reinstate its proposal. The most recent action was in 2009 when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the agency's determination that flat-tailed horned lizard populations were stable and viable throughout most of the species' current range was not supported by the administrative record.

The flat-tailed horned lizard has a flat body and sandy coloration that allows it to disappear into the desert floor when a predator threatens. The species is put at risk by habitat loss from development, specifically, U.S. Border Patrol construction of roads and the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, the Arizona Fish and Game Department notes on its Web site.

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."

Monday, March 1, 2010

For artists, border fence is subject and venue

March 1, 2010
Brownsville Herald
by Laura Tillman

The U.S.-Mexico border fence was both the subject of protest and the venue at the "Art Against the Wall" exhibition on Sunday in Brownsville.

About a dozen artists hung or rested their work on the fence in Hope Park, overlooking the Rio Grande. A 30-foot ladder fashioned out of bamboo and twine, a wreath of ribbon and artificial flowers measuring 8 feet in diameter, and a deflated black inner tube that had been salvaged from along the riverbank were included in the exhibition. The art flapped in the breeze for about three and a half hours before stronger winds forced the artists inside.

Meanwhile, Border Patrol stood watch of the stretch of river under the Gateway International Bridge, maintaining a distance of about 100 yards from the artists. Some artists approached the agents, who reportedly asked questions about the event but kept their opinions to themselves.

Mark Clark, the owner and founder of the nearby Galeria 409, devised the exhibition as a form of non-violent protest against the border fence. He didn’t know who or what would show up during Sunday’s show, which was not advertised to the public. But he did plan ahead: Clark spent about three months painting his own contribution to the show and got a permit from the Brownsville Parks and Recreation Department to have an art display in the park.

Clark’s painting, titled "La Venganza de Monctezuma," or "Montezuma’s Revenge," depicts the chaotic convergence of dozens of Mexican figures walking through a gap in the border fence into the United States.

"It’s every gringo’s worst fears of Mexican immigration," Clark said.

The six-foot by four-foot canvas required about five minutes of explanation from Clark to simply enumerate its dozens of figures. Among these were a shaman dispensing peyote buttons, Americans covering their ears at the sound of a mariachi band, an unemployed McDonald’s worker selling Mexican ice cream, Mayan women washing their clothes in a blonde woman’s swimming pool, a Mayan soccer player and an American soccer player kicking around the decapitated head of a Dallas Cowboys football player, a native Mexican carving hieroglyphs into tablets of the Ten Commandments, and a statue of George Washington lying disassembled on the ground.

Local art professor David Freeman built the 30-foot tall ladder, which Clark helped him to assemble, and propped it up against the fence. Held vertically, the ladder is taller than the fence itself. Freeman glued thorns to the bottom rungs of the ladder, signifying the pain and suffering that many immigrants experience once they reach the U.S.

"To me the wall represents everything that’s wrong with the United States," Freeman said. "All the malfeasance and avarice. "It’s anti-democratic and anti-integration."

Brownsville’s stretch of border fence remains incomplete. Next to the artists exhibition spot the structure cuts off, with metal poles signifying the increments where it will eventually be completed. For now, artists could view their works from both sides of the fence. On one side they could see an oil painting of the Rio Grande, viewed fence-free from that very spot. Standing on the other side, they could see the river itself.

Clark says he’d like to continue the tradition of hanging artwork on the wall annually.

"Until they take the thing down," he said.