Wednesday, December 29, 2010

King Outlines Immigration Plans for 2011

New York Times Blog
December 13, 2010
by Julia Preston

The Republican who is expected to lead the main subcommittee on immigration in the House of Representatives in the new congress next year said on Monday that he will push for a bill that would cancel employers’ tax deductions for wages of workers who are illegal immigrants.

In an interview, Representative Steve King of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration in the current congress, said his priority as chairman would be to pass a bill he introduced last year that would also require the Internal Revenue Service to share information with the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration about the immigration status of workers.

Mr. King said his measure would increase pressure on employers to fire unauthorized immigrant workers by increasing their cost. He estimated that if employers were not able to claim tax deductions for those workers’ wages and benefits, an unauthorized immigrant making $10 an hour would cost the employer the equivalent of $16 an hour.
Mr. King said his measure would be a “velvet glove” that would leave it up to employers to fire unauthorized workers. “That opens up lots of jobs for Americans,” he said.

The proposal would break down a major privacy firewall that protects tax information from scrutiny by Homeland Security authorities. Millions of authorized immigrants in the workforce have payroll taxes deducted and file tax returns using a taxpayer number issued by the I.R.S., which is not routinely shared with immigration agencies.

Mr. King’s strategy would be a sharp departure from the outgoing Democratic-controlled House, which last week passed a bill known as the Dream Act. Mr. King was a leading opponent of that bill, which would open a path to legal status for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant students if they attend college or serve in the military.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, has said he plans to bring up the House version of the student bill for a vote before the end of the lame-duck session. Although it gained some momentum from the House action, its chances for Senate passage appear slim. Mr. King said that if the bills fails there, “it is dead.”

Mr. King, who cautioned that he has not been formally named chairman of the sub-committee, said he also hoped to conduct a review of the Obama administration’s spending on border enforcement, and perhaps seek new construction of physical fence barriers to stop illegal border-crossers. “Build it until they stop going around the end – that would be my standard,” Mr. King said.

On a call with reporters on Monday, several leading immigration scholars said the young immigrants who are eligible for legal status under the student bill, some of whom are already in college, would be forced into a shadow existence if it fails. The researchers were among 280 immigration scholars who signed a letter of support for the bill.

“It would be a complete waste of the taxpayer money we have spent to this point to educate them,” said Douglas Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton who studies Mexican migration. “Just when they are about to come on to the labor market to take up their jobs, we seem to be throwing that investment all away. And it means incredible hardship for them. The only place they can go is into the underground economy.”

King-size ideas on immigration

New York Post
December 28, 2010
by S.A. Miller

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Peter King, who next week becomes chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, says he will push legislation to tighten border security and arrest more illegal aliens -- challenging what he considers to be President Obama's lax immigration policies.

"The Obama administration continues to display an obvious lack of urgency when it comes to gaining operational control of the border, which is absolutely critical," King (R-LI) said.

He said Obama has "done little" in the past two years to keep out illegal immigrants and the country needs a new strategy "that incorporates the necessary staffing, fencing and technology to do the job."

King's immigration proposals will include an aggressive crackdown on private companies that hire illegal aliens and increased federal support for local police to help arrest illegal immigrants.

These measures are near the top of a packed Homeland Security agenda that includes efforts to better combat domestic radicalization, stopping Obama's plans to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees to the US for civilian trials and bolstering national cybersecurity.

The border security initiatives would be a sharp departure from the current Obama administration policy that is focused on deporting illegal aliens who commit serious crimes.

It also underscores the dead end awaiting Obama's immigration reform proposals when he confronts a new Republican majority in the House and a larger Republican minority in the Senate starting next week.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Border fence construction nears completion in Hope Park

Brownsville Herald
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.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Wilderness areas face criticism from border security advocates

Los Angeles Times
December 25, 2010
by Nicholas Riccardi

A proposal to consolidate a swath of 250,000 acres of wilderness study areas in New Mexico has sparked an outcry from groups fearing an influx of illegal immigrants and drugs from Mexico. But the Border Patrol says the designation has little effect on its work.

Reporting from the Potrillo Mountains Wilderness — A new front has opened in the centuries-old battle over preserving federal lands in the West, with some advocates of a tighter border arguing that designating some lands as wilderness — meaning they are so precious that no mechanized vehicle can enter — hinders border security.

The U.S. Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies can take vehicles into wilderness areas while chasing lawbreakers. But to patrol the lands by vehicle, plant sensors or build operating bases, they must get permission from the federal agency controlling the region. Some retired agents say they were told by managers of wilderness areas that they could not use helicopters to pick up injured migrants, or that they could patrol only on horseback.

Critics point to Arizona, the main gateway for illegal immigrants and drugs from Mexico; much of that traffic passes through wilderness areas in the south-central and eastern parts of the state. A Border Patrol agent was shot to death this month in an isolated canyon south of Tucson, in an area being studied for wilderness designation.

Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah has proposed a law to allow the Border Patrol unlimited access to federal lands along the border, just as it has access to all private land. The current situation, he said, forces the agency to ask permission to do its job.

"There is now a conflict," he said, "between wilderness and border security."

Environmental groups and some federal officials, however, contend that the conflict is overblown and that there is more cooperation than confrontation between the Border Patrol and land managers. They point to a Government Accountability Office report issued in October that found that 22 of 26 Border Patrol station chiefs in the southwest said that though environmental regulations can cause delays, they have no effect on overall security.

Lynn Scarlett, who as deputy secretary of Interior under President George W. Bush in 2006 drew up an agreement with the patrol on how to police wilderness lands, acknowledged there have been misunderstandings over the issue.

But she argued that the belief that Border Patrol efforts are hindered in wilderness areas stems not from facts, but a deep distrust of federal environmental protections among some in the West. "The debate about the Border Patrol becomes another vehicle for that long-standing debate," she said.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Environmental waiver in hand, agency boosts its stewardship

Nogales International
December 24, 2010
by Jonathan Clark

A Department of Homeland Security-sponsored public forum last week on an upcoming border fence and road-building project in Nogales looked pretty much like any meeting that a federal agency might hold as part of its National Environmental Protection Act requirements.

Engineers and experts manned poster displays that described the technical details of the projects and detailed the ways that issues like water quality, biological resources, soils and geology would be taken into account. Meanwhile, a team of stenographers and court reporters stood at the ready to document citizen concerns.

“The reason we’re here is we want your input, we want information from you,” said Greg Gephart program manager for tactical infrastructure for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at the start of the Dec. 14 meeting at the Holiday Inn Express.

We want to know what your concerns are on the projects, recommendations on how to do it differently, or how to do it better,” Gephart said, adding that those concerns and recommendations would be incorporated into the environmental planning documents for the project.

But whether CBP/Border Patrol follows any of the recommendations – or obeys federal environmental law during the planning or execution of the projects – is essentially optional.

For the past two-and-a-half years, the agency has been operating under a waiver that allows it to build border fencing and related infrastructure in the U.S. Southwest without having to adhere to more than 30 environmental laws. Then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the waiver in April 2008 to allow the Border Patrol to skip the environmental review process and speed up its fence-building efforts.

“The waiver doesn’t mean we’re throwing out all environmental considerations,” Gephart said. “It’s just a method that allows us to expedite the construction.”

But that hurry-up approach worries local resident Carolyn Wemlinger, who attended last week’s meeting to express her concerns about the effects the fence-building effort might have on local hydrology. Wemlinger, who lives in the Kino Springs area, said she’s worried that the 2.8 miles of concrete-anchored, bollard-style fencing planned for central Nogales could exacerbate flooding problems by creating dams above ground and blockages below.

“They say they’re going to start in 2011, and they’re going to do all these impact reports. How are they going to have time? And is the public going to get to see those before they start?” she asked.

“I think it’s going to have a tremendous impact on the environment; we can see the impact on the environment out where we are, where the wall already exists,” Wemlinger said. “There are some environmental needs that I haven’t heard addressed. I want the (Border Patrol) agents to be safe and to be able to do their job, but you cannot tell me that it’s not going to have an impact on wildlife, on flora, on fauna.”

Jenny Neeley, conservation policy director for the environmental advocacy group Sky Island Alliance, said she wasn’t sure how much project planners would listen to concerns like Wemilnger’s. But if Homeland Security is genuinely interested in environmental impact and citizen participation, she said, there’s an easy way to prove it.

“If they truly wanted public involvement and public input, that is exactly what the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed to do,” Neeley said. “And that’s what we would really like the Border Patrol to be doing: to be working inside of federal environmental law, like every single other agency in the federal government.”

Checkpoint past

Waiver or no waiver, Keith Graves, district ranger at the Coronado National Forest’s Nogales Ranger District, is confident in CBP/Border Patrol’s approach. “Their environmental compliance process is right up there with anything anyone has done under NEPA,” he said.

But grass-roots advocates say CBP/Border Patrol’s track record shows that environmental concerns receive mostly lip service as the agency pursues its primary mission of bolstering border security.

“We’ve gone through it in the north part of the county with the checkpoint,” said Sherry Sass, president of Friends of Santa Cruz River. “We’ve gone through rounds and rounds with the Border Patrol on the checkpoint. And that seems to be what happens; there’s a lot of talk, and then they do what they’re going to do anyway.”

A lackluster effort to publicize last week’s meeting also demonstrates CBP/Border Patrol’s level of interest in soliciting environmental feedback, the critics say. Indeed, the Nogales International only learned about the event from a packet of information forwarded by an aide at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ office. It then took phone calls to four different CBP spokespeople in Tucson and Washington, D.C. to confirm the meeting in time for a same-day preview article.

Attendance at the Dec. 14 meeting barely broke double figures. And while Gephart said citizens can submit feedback on the projects through Dec. 30, at the website, as of Dec. 20, the address redirected browsers to a non-interactive, general information CBP page titled “TI Environmental Stewardship.”

“I think it’s pretty telling that we didn’t even know about (the Dec. 14 meeting),” Neeley said. “We didn’t even know about a meeting they had with stakeholders and we obviously consider ourselves to be a pretty big stakeholder.”

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ariz. drug tunnel opened to metered parking space

Associated Press / ABC
December 14, 2010

NOGALES, Ariz. -- Immigration agents discovered a 13-foot drug tunnel stretching from the Mexican border to a metered parking space in Arizona, where vehicles with holes cut in the bottom would park and take marijuana from people inside the underground space.

"It was pretty brazen," said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Vincent Picard. "Right in the middle of downtown Nogales."

The tunnel begins directly against the border fence on the Mexican side and leads to an opening 10 inches in diameter on a street in downtown Nogales.

Agents uncovered the tunnel Monday after seeing a cylindrical bundle fall out of a van.

After they began chasing the van, the driver escaped on foot. The passenger, who was not identified, was arrested and will face federal charges of possession of narcotics with the intent to distribute and re-entry after deportation of an aggravated felon.

About 2,200 pounds of pot were seized from the van.

Picard said it's unclear how long the tunnel had been operating or how many drugs were smuggled through it, although he said it likely wasn't very long because it was in such a conspicuous location.

Mexican authorities have secured the tunnel entrance in Mexico, and the Nogales city workers covered the tunnel exit with a steel plate.

The U.S. Border Patrol will guard the tunnel until Mexican officials fill it with concrete, likely soon.

Agents have found dozens of drug tunnels in Nogales since the 1990s. In September, Border Patrol agents found a 3-by-3-foot drug smuggling tunnel tied into the city's storm drain.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Federal Agents Go Door-To-Door To Crack Down On Drug Tunnels.

December 14, 2010
by Amy Isackson

U.S. federal Authorities are trying out a new tactic in their hunt for subterranean drug smuggling tunnels near the border in San Diego. Authorities are going door-to-door to ask business owners to keep their heads up for underground activity.

"Hello?" shout federal agents as they peek their heads into a warehouse in Otay Mesa, an industrial area just a few blocks from the border fence.

"Hi, how’s it going?," asks an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, who asked not to be named for security reasons, as he introduced himself to the warehouse owner. "I don’t know if you know this or not," the agent tells the owner, "but Otay Mesa is a real hotbed for tunnels. Drug tunnels."

Just last month, federal authorities unearthed two sophisticated tunnels a few blocks from this complex, in the maze of streets filled with generic looking warehouses. The tunnels had electricity and ventilation. One had a hydraulic trap door. And they aren't the only ones that have been discovered in the area. Last year, there was one with an elevator. Back in 2006, authorities found the longest tunnel ever, a mile-and-a-half.

The subterranean passageways surfaced in warehouses nearby. "These are some of the things we’re asking the warehouse managers and owners to be looking for," says the agent, "Things like subterranean noises or jack hammering, without a visible road crew. Or, there’s no construction going on, but you’re hearing construction."

Agents are also asking business owners to be on the lookout for renters who pay in cash and people who keep odd hours.

Agents ask the warehouse manager if they can take a look around. The space is about as big as a football field. Hundreds of boxes bound for Carl’s Jr. restaurants in Mexico are stacked on wooden palates. "That’s toys for kids meals. This is the cheese," says Gabriel Andrade who manages the operation.

He says at least once a week he would pass by the building where they found one of the tunnels last month. He never suspected anything. "I think it is very hard to know. It is a lot of traffic of trucks. We don’t know and hear nothing," says Andrade. He says it’s also difficult to see anything. He says, for example, the neighbors keep their doors closed all day.

That peaks agents’ interest and they go next door. A forklift zips around. Workers unload boxes of chicken taquitos to be sent to U.S. grocery stores.

Margarito Calleja, the manger, says they keep the doors down to keep the sun off the food. "Really, we don’t communicate with people at other warehouses. You arrive. You go inside. You do your work. You leave at 6 in the afternoon. Adios. Bye bye," says Calleja.

There’s constant commotion in the area. Trucks rumble down the roads and ilde outside buildings a few blocks from the commercial border crossing. Joe Garcia, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, say that’s part of what makes Otay Mesa attractive to tunnelers. "You have shipping and distribution going on almost around the clock up here in Otay Mesa. There’s a lot of truck traffic. It is a perfect cover for them," says Garcia.

And that’s the case for the tunnel found on Thanksgiving day.

The ICE agent, who cannot be named, climbs down a ladder in a hole in the floor in the back room of a warehouse, into the tunnel. He pats the wall. "This is a hard clay that’s pretty common in the Otay Mesa area," says the agent. It's another reason tunnelers like this spot. "It holds its form pretty well. Right here you can see the jackhammer lines where the tunnel diggers jack hammered out this clay," says the agent. He says diggers can advance about 10 feet a day. He calculates this 2,000 foot-long tunnel took about 200 days to build. "The construction is impressive. You are navigating underground. Things like GPS don't work and you have to rely on a compasses. It would take an engineer," says the agent.

This tunnel began in kitchen floor of a home in Tijuana. It plunged down 90 feet and travel about a half-mile, beneath the border fence, before surfacing in the warehouse. Smugglers laid tracks in the tunnel and used a homemade cart to ferry tons of drugs underneath the border. They had carved out a room at the bottom of the tunnel where they stored bales of marijuana. With the two tunnels last month, agents seized about 50 tons of marijuana. That’s a record for the U.S.

ICE agent Garcia says they didn’t used to get enormous seizures like that. He says four years ago, Mexican authorities warned the smugglers that a raid was coming. "We know for a fact that in 2006, things were delayed so the cartel could pull their narcotics out of the tunnel," says Garcia.

He says that doesn’t happen anymore. He says now U.S. and Mexican authorities work together, almost like peers. And he says the extra eyes and ears of Otay Mesa business owners will also help authorities outsmart the criminals. "I think the only thing that stops it from being Swiss cheese around here is that it costs a lot of money to build tunnels. Do I think there's another out there? I'd be naive to think we got them all," ponders Garcia. "We're going to keep doing what we are doing, good investigative work." says Garcia.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Border realities, policies focus of film trifecta

Arizona Daily Star
December 9, 2010
by Phil Villarreal

Several groups that support human-rights and environmental causes in the border region have joined forces to stage a free documentary triple feature at the Loft Cinema.

"Wild vs. Wall," a 2009 film on the environmental impact of border policies, will lead off the night. "Fencing the Border and its Birds," from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials express concerns about the impact the border fence will have on animals, is second. HBO's "The Fence," which features interviews with people on various sides of border issues, closes out the event.

The total running time for the films is two hours.

The Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, CoaliciĆ³n de Derechos Humanos, the Defenders of Wildlife, No More Deaths and the Sky Island Alliance are sponsoring the screening, which will be followed by a panel discussion with a border landowner and representatives from the sponsoring organizations.

Dan Millis, a 31-year-old campaign organizer for the Sierra Club, is one of the event coordinators, and he spoke to us about the films. Millis, a graduate of Lewis and Clark College, is from Flagstaff but has lived in Tucson since 2005.

Tell me about the movies.

" 'Wild vs. Wall' was originally produced here in Tucson in 2008 by filmmaker Steev Hise, through the grass-roots efforts of locals who are concerned about threats to our border environment. It has been recently updated for 2010 and beyond, and we are excited to share the new footage, information and Spanish subtitles featured in this most recent version."

What about the others?

"The Cornell Ornithology Lab has some amazing footage of beautiful bird species along the border, and at only seven minutes long, the short makes a wonderful opener. Rory Kennedy's 'The Fence' is a masterful production that highlights the pointlessness, expense, impact and hypocrisy of the border wall, using humor and a fast pace to keep the audience involved. It is amazing, and we're very pleased to be able to share it with Tucson."

Do you have plans for future festivals like this?

"We don't have any specific plans for future screenings, though we regularly present 'Wild vs. Wall' to community groups locally, nationally, even abroad. During the month of November, for example, I traveled to Hermosillo and Denver to show the film at a biology conference and at a church event."

What concept do you want viewers to take away from the event?

"There is a big disconnect between how the border is often portrayed in the media, and the reality on the ground. Folks who watch these films will get a taste of how wonderful the protected natural areas along the border really are.

"It would be hard to watch these films and not question the knee-jerk policies that are currently militarizing our borderlands. In about an hour total, these three films will hopefully inspire folks to help us look for a better way to protect our precious border wildlands."


• What: Border Film Festival, a program of three short documentaries.

• When: 11 a.m. Saturday

• Where: The Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway.

• Admission: Free, but donations to the Sierra Club's Borderlands Campaign will be accepted.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Officials OK final levee-wall segments

The Monitor
December 1, 2010
by Jared Janes

More than three years after officials floated a plan to combine the county’s levee repairs into border fence construction, county commissioners are signing off on the concrete barriers that serve both as a deterrent to illegal border crossings and a barrier against a raging Rio Grande.

County commissioners have approved certificates of final completion on roughly 75 percent of the 20.26 miles of levee-fence that were given the green light by former Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in spring 2008. Only paperwork remains for the last stretch of work done by Ballenger Construction before the barrier is officially complete.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Tito Palacios, who was on the Commissioners Court when the levee-fence compromise was proposed, said the barrier has helped limit drug smuggling and held back floodwaters this summer. Although county officials were adamantly opposed to the fence at the time because of its socioeconomic and environmental impact, Palacios said the county’s solution was a win-win.

"We were able to push the right buttons in (Washington) D.C. with our congressional people," Palacios said. "Without it, we would have been left without the levee work
we needed."

Hidalgo County drainage district manager Godfrey Garza, the county’s director for the project, said all construction on the barrier has been complete for about nine months. The drainage district has been preparing the paperwork that is needed to certify the barriers as meeting the specifications of levees.

The International Boundary and Water Commission will use the county’s documentation to prepare the report that includes the barriers on the flood maps, said agency spokeswoman Sally Spener, whose federal agency manages flood control along the Rio Grande. The certification package will be turned over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency sometime early next year.

Constructing the barrier wasn’t a problem-free exercise. Hidalgo County’s hybrid levee-wall project cost roughly $9.5 million per mile — a $3.9 million-per-mile increase from initial estimates, increased costs that were covered by DHS. But the county still hasn’t been reimbursed by the federal government for the $82 million it invested in the hybrid barrier and other levee improvements.

Hidalgo County’s levee-fence barrier is part of 670 miles of security fencing constructed along the county’s southwest border. Only about six miles remain incomplete, mostly due to environmental or land acquisition problems.

But DHS officials consistently call it a crucial component of an overall border security strategy.

In the Rio Grande Valley, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents dropped about 15,000 from 2008 to 2009, the first full year the barrier was complete. A weaker U.S. economy likely contributed to the drop in apprehensions as fewer had an economic incentive to cross, but DHS officials also believe that tough enforcement measures — including the wall — are deterring some would-be-crossers.

Rosalinda Huey, a local Border Patrol spokeswoman, said the levee-fence pushes illegal entries away from dense, brushy areas into gaps in the fence where they are easily spotted.

"With the agents we have out there, they’re going to be monitoring the wall," Huey said. "It does what it was intended to do, which is being a persistent impediment that pushes them out to open areas where we can apprehend them."

But Garza, the drainage district manager, said the barrier also had a significant impact in holding back the worst river flooding the Rio Grande Valley had seen since Hurricane Beulah. Without the attention that constructing the levee-wall barrier brought to the need for greater flood protection, Garza said, another $220 million in levee improvements might not have been included in the federal stimulus package.

Those stimulus package funds are being used to complete virtually all of the remaining work needed to bring the Valley’s levees up to certification. Certification will save residents in low-lying areas from having to pay expensive flood insurance premiums.

Preventing the high flood insurance costs mean most Hidalgo County residents will never see one aspect of the levee-fence, said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Cuellar voted against the Secure Fence Act of 2006 that funded the construction of the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

He said he never believed the fence was a cost-effective security strategy, but he added that it worked as a two-prong approach here.

"(The levee-fence) is serving a dual mission," Cuellar said. "One mission is for border security and the other is protection of life and property from any flooding we might see."