Saturday, September 17, 2011

Impact of border wall discussed at meeting

Brownsville Herald / The Monitor
September 17, 2011
by Jacqueline Armendariz

BROWNSVILLE -- Drug trafficking from Mexico into Cameron County has increased, not decreased, since the border fence was built, a sheriff’s lieutenant said Saturday at a public meeting.

It was one of many points discussed at the “Border Wall Impact” meeting hosted by State Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. at the Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course. The event brought together legislators, city representatives, state and county law enforcement and private citizens to air concerns about the fence.

“Is the fence keeping drugs from coming in? No,” Lieutenant Rick Perez said responding to a question. “We have more drugs now than before.”

Perez is part of the special investigations unit of the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department.

A disconnect between U.S. border communities and the federal government, and the perceived ineffectiveness of the border fence, emerged as the major themes at Saturday’s gathering.

One property owner shared stories about finding drugs near her home and also being the victim of a home burglary.

Among people who spoke, some supported the fence while most did not.

“This is terrorism from the United States to other countries,” Yolanda Garza Birdwell said of the fence and its environmental impact. She described herself as a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico and a Laguna Vista resident for a year.

Dagoberto Berrera was at the opposite end of the spectrum. He said he supported the fence, and he spoke disparagingly of undocumented immigrants.

‘Better than nothing’

“The wall is better than nothing,” he said. “Sure, it costs a lot of money, but it also costs us by just letting everybody in here. We are a land of law and order. You’ve got to obey the laws.”

The audience, which included District 4 City Commissioner John Villarreal, numbered a little more than 20 people.

Lucio said he has been disappointed by the lack of information about the impact of the border fence, and said he hoped to use what he learned Saturday to be an advocate for the region in Austin.

“I truly hope that today’s meeting will be the first true step in understanding the real impacts of the border wall on our region with the information that you share, being armed with facts, figures and knowledge,” Lucio told those in attendance.

Lobbying for property owners

Lucio’s brother, Bob Lucio, is the manager of the border golf course that hosted the meeting and said his hope is to get more support for his group called the No Man’s Land Association.

With power in numbers, he said he wants to lobby to help for property owners or businesses like himself whose land has ended up between the Rio Grande River and the border fence.

At the meeting, several audience members brought up concerns about being able to communicate with law enforcement and the environmental impact of the fence, while others spoke to decreased property values and alleged that the federal government has abused its power of eminent domain.

Still others spoke to serious safety concerns, while another audience member raised concerns about the potential psychological effects the border wall has created for communities on both sides. There was also discussion of a University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College study that found the fence effects minorities disproportionately.

Fears for safety

Michelle Moncivaiz identified herself as a property owner living just a short distance from the border fence, but she said she feared for the safety of her family. She pleaded to the law enforcement representatives and legislators present for “more boots on the ground” to help.

“Washington doesn’t understand what this fence has created,” she said. “Where is our Homeland Security? ... Where is America helping us on the border?”

No one at the meeting disputed the assertion that more law enforcement officers are needed along the border. Perez said at the end of this year the Sheriff’s Department will lose 12 deputies who were temporarily staffed through a $2.2 million grant from the Department of Justice.

He read a statement on behalf of Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio saying that he never supported the fence. The sheriff was not present at the meeting.

“The sheriff suggests that instead of building the fence, take into consideration giving him the $10 million and you can hire 12 deputies for several years and they would do a better job than the fence,” Perez said. Still, the statement discussed a high-traffic drug smuggling area along Highway 4, where there is no fence.

Sharing information

Texas Ranger Staff Lieutenant Art Barrera said he is the liaison between local, state and federal law enforcement in Operation Border Star, and he reports information to Austin. He and Perez said the entities they work for have not conducted studies on the impact of the fence.

“It’s getting better,” Barrera said of sharing knowledge. “I’m not saying we’re there yet, but information sharing between federal, state and local is on the right track.”

Hearing Monday

A federal hearing on border security is scheduled for Monday. Lucio said state legislators were not invited and that testimony would not be taken from the public. He invited people to attend and submit written testimony with him.

“Only those that have been invited will be able to testify,” he said. “That’s not the practice we’re used to in Austin, and it bothers me.”

On Saturday, Lucio said he had just found out about the federal forum that day, but earlier in the week his spokesman told The Herald that the timing of Saturday’s meeting and Monday’s hearing was coincidental.

The “Secure our Texas Border Forum,” headed by House Representative Ted Poe, R-Humble, and other members of the House Committee on the Judiciary, was rescheduled at least once already this summer. The forum will be at the UTB-TSC Arts Center at 10 a.m. Prominent figures related to border security are scheduled to testify as witnesses.

Too expensive

Lucio said he introduced Senate Bill 1809 this past legislative session in an effort to secure an economic impact study of the border fence in this area. It failed in the House, he said.

He said the state comptroller told him such a study would likely be too expensive to undertake, but he hoped legislation for it could be pushed for in the future.

State Representative Rene Oliveira said the issue of security and immigration were two different things, though they are often connected when discussing the desirability of the border fence.

“I don’t want cartels in the Valley or Texas,” he said. “I don’t want those people to flourish in our country.”

But, he said, learning the impact of the border fence, and how to mitigate any negative effects, is now the necessary focus.

“The wall is here whether we like it or not,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is going to tear it down. The political will is clearly nonexistent for that.”

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