San Antonio Express News
September 9, 2011
By Jason Buch and Lynn Brezosky
LAREDO — In the decade since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, property owners along the Rio Grande have lost land to the border fence and those who live near gaps in the unfinished structure are in the mouth of a funnel for illegal immigration and smuggling.
Travelers can no longer gain entry into the U.S. simply by declaring “American citizen.” Instead, they're met with long lines, rifle-toting customs officers and an array of electronics to scan documents and vehicles.
Cross-border communities in West Texas have withered and died when the unofficial crossings they relied upon were closed. A privately run detention center holding thousands of immigrants went up in a flash near the border.
RFID scanners, X-ray and Gamma-ray machines, SENTRI passes and FAST lanes have become part of the border lexicon, the response to the terrorist attack that cost thousands of U.S. lives and the effort to prevent it from happening again.
“It changed the way we live in this country, and rightfully so,” said Gene Garza, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection field office director who oversees eight ports of entry from Brownsville to Del Rio. “I think we were too relaxed. I think it raised the level of security in this country.”
Overseeing the changes for the last eight years is the Department of Homeland Security with its 200,000 employees and $50 billion annual budget. Often derided as a behemoth bureaucracy, officials defend it as a way to bring the nearly two dozen agencies tasked with protecting the country under one roof.
“I can tell you that our ability to investigate customs related crimes or to investigate immigration related crime would be enhanced by bringing it all under one agent,” said Jerry Robinette, the special agent in charge of the San Antonio office for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which covers much of South Texas.
But the increased security has divided communities, separated families, and, according to Cynta De Narvaez, a West Texas activist who lives in Terlingua, weakened cross border communication and made some border communities more susceptible to the corrupting influences of drug traffickers.
“We messed up pretty badly,” said De Narvaez, who's worked with Mexican families in remote towns that were cut off from U.S. grocery stores and medical facilities after 9/11. “We just didn't do our homework. I think we were in a pretty bad situation and everyone drummed up this stuff about border security.”
Half a continent away from ground zero, on a small plot of land with three white frame houses, Texas border resident Eloisa Tamez sees daily a reminder of the 9/11 attacks — what locals call the muro, or border wall.
“They defaced our community, and no telling the outcome on wildlife,” she said. “We are those unrecognized, invisible victims of 9/11. We should be having a memorial also, because we lost our land.”
Tamez was the poster child of protests against the Secure Fence Act of 2006, a keystone of President Bush's pledge to crack down on illegal immigration and secure the porous southern border.
The tangle was that in Texas, most of the land backing up to the Rio Grande was private, in some cases dating to Spanish land grants predating America's Revolutionary War. A map leaked to the press showed federal engineers had drawn lines for the fence without local input. It cut through a college campus and wildlife preserves and created a “no man's land” south of the fence that would have engulfed much of a small city.
There were bumper stickers and protests. At one, Tamez shouted “ No al muro!” and beat apart a wall-shaped piñata.
In the end, the fence that went up near her wasn't very imposing. It stretches in back of neighborhoods like a long row of toothpicks.
The fence is intermittent, meaning migrants and drug traffickers just come through the gaps. About an hour west in Granjeno, now backed by a reinforced levee-wall, resident Gloria Garza said one such opening funnels migrants through at a rate that has neighbors terrified.
“It used to be those people would come now and then... you'd give them a lunch bag or water,” she said. “We don't do that any more.”
She's seen them hiding in her plants, sitting on her porch. One rang the doorbell to say thanks; the smuggler had told him residents were paid a sort of campsite fee. Another was belligerent and demanded water. The faces are from India and China, not just Mexico and Central America.
Border Patrol spokesman Daniel Milian said the agency recently hosted two open houses to tell residents that punch-code gates were on the way.
“It's a very lengthy process as far as getting all the particulars behind the gates, figuring out what dimensions they needed to be, what type of design they wanted to use,” he said.
Some of the changes wrought by 9/11 took years to manifest themselves. For almost eight years after the attacks, it was possible to enter the U.S. at the international bridges simply by declaring citizenship.
Travelers are now encouraged to show a passport card, enhanced drivers license, a passport or documents identifying them as part of a trusted traveler program. CBP cannot deny entry to a U.S. citizen, but someone trying to get through without approved documents is likely to face a battery of questions and possibly spend some time in secondary inspection. Short-term visitors from Mexico must cough up $150 for a border crossing card.
That's had an impact on commerce. Les Norton, whose family owns three stores in the downtown Laredo shopping district full of shops that offer “ mayoreo y menudeo” (wholesale and retail) products primarily to Mexican customers who walk across the international bridge, said increased scrutiny makes it harder for shoppers to enter the U.S. and longer lines discourage them.
It wiped out McAllen merchant Monica Weisberg-Stewart's customer base: the maquila workers who'd cross by foot and take a bus to shop for discounted bras and dresses.
“In over 57 years of family business, we've never seen anything like this,” she said. “This was worse than any peso devaluation.”
The long lines are a burden as well to Nuevo Laredo resident Jose Manuel Zamora Diaz, who crosses several times a day to buy goods in Laredo that he ships to Mexico City and sells. When lines reach 1 ½ to two hours, he can sometimes only cross once a day, Zamora Diaz said.
CBP has put in programs intended to make the bridges run more smoothly, most of which involve CBP electronically collecting information about people and goods before they reach the ports of entry. Travelers with a SENTRI pass pay about $125 and undergo a background check to use an expedited lane.
In order to qualify for bringing goods across through expedited commercial lanes, customs broker Daniel B. Hastings Jr. said he's dropped money into heightened security including random drug tests for employees, camera surveillance of trucks as they're loaded and measures that restrict the movement of employees and visitors around company property.
“Our lives have changed in that we have placed security at a paramount of importance,” Hastings said.
Increased security or no, large-scale international commerce continues to thrive. Trade between the U.S. and Mexico is at an all-time high.
Some positive impact
The focus on security has had a positive economic impact as well. The major population centers along the Texas-Mexico border performed well in the recession, in part due to the increased federal spending there.
Since 2004, the number of Border Patrol agents in the country has doubled to more than 20,000 by 2010. In the Laredo Border Patrol sector, the number has increased by more than 800 to 1,858. In the Rio Grande Valley sector, it's increased by about 1,000 to 2,441. An entry-level position with Border Patrol pays about $38,000.
“For every one government employee that comes, like Border Patrol or a customs inspector, the multiplier factor can be 3.1 to 3.7” jobs created, said Hastings, who serves on the board of directors for the International Bank of Commerce in Laredo and is a past member of the board of directors for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas' San Antonio branch.
Those government employees spend money on things like “housing, retail, electricity, schooling,” Hastings said. “Plus they're paying taxes. So the impact is exponential.”
In addition, the government has spent money on infrastructure and technology. Newfangled scanners grace ports of entry and Border Patrol checkpoints and agents now zoom up and down the river in airboats and overhead in helicopters and airplanes.
Even as Homeland Security finds ways to accommodate border life — Laredo's new port director said he plans to add more pedestrian lanes to the international bridge there and CBP says that next year the famous Boquillas crossing at Big Bend National Park will reopen — there are broader implications.
University of Texas law professor Denise Gilman said the fence is only part of how the Sept. 11 attacks brought a sea change in how the nation viewed the southern border and illegal immigrants.
“I remember President (Vicente) Fox and President Bush meeting and promising that there was going to be reform, that we were going to bring the approximately 11 million undocumented individuals out of the shadows,” she said. “Those negotiations completely fell apart and we went pretty much in the other direction.”
Deportations escalated, she said, as did detentions. There was the round-the-clock construction to erect the “tent city” detention center in Raymondville in time for Bush to announce the end of “catch and release” of non-Mexican illegal immigrants. Allegations of human rights abuses have been rampant.
University of Texas-El Paso economist Thomas Fullerton published a study on how the attacks impacted border trade.
“Even while El Paso wasn't hit by any of the planes, it was clear that regulatory practices at the airport and the international bridges were disrupting travel and commuting patterns,” he said.
It was a multi-year effect, he said, that started with three-hour wait times on the Mexican side of international bridges in the months after the attacks.
“The geographic proximity of Ciudad Juarez was dealt a blow by 9-11,” he said. “It was as if Ciudad Juarez all of a sudden was three hours south in the interior of Mexico.”
Laredo resident Roberto Sanchez said he crosses to Nuevo Laredo occasionally to buy medicine. The longer wait times are a hassle, Sanchez said, but he's more concerned about the lack of bathrooms on the bridge than the increased scrutiny.
“They check every card from everybody,” he said. “But that's OK, because it's more secure.”