December 21, 2011
by Liz Goodwin
BROWNSVILLE, Texas—Pamela Taylor's living room has a Santa-hat-wearing stuffed dog atop a red doily on her coffee table, poinsettias near the couch, and, in the center of the room, an angel-topped Christmas tree with a few wrapped presents underneath.
Outside, the Christmas spirit is less visible, amid repeated warnings to KEEP OUT—though a "Merry Christmas!" sign hangs next to a warning to would-be trespassers that they're being filmed by a surveillance system. Written outside the front gate is the message: "Don't even think about parking here."
This will be Taylor's fourth Christmas living on what some Texans call the "Mexican side" of the U.S. border fence. Although she lives in Texas, her home is south of the 18-feet steel-and-concrete border wall erected by the American government. Taylor, who is 84, can see it from her front porch.
The wall was built to satisfy a law, passed in 2006 and 2008, that authorized 700 miles of fence on the southern border, 315 miles of it in Texas. President Bush said the fence would make the border safer and was "an important step toward immigration reform." Many of the 2012 Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, say they want to build a fence that spans the entire U.S. border. The Brownsville area shows just how complicated that project would be.
Because of a decades-old treaty with Mexico prohibiting building in the Rio Grande floodplain, the government built its border fence more than a mile north of the snaky river, trapping tens of thousands of acres of Texas--land in Cameron and Hidalgo counties--on the wrong side of the fence. The border wall is also riddled with miles-long gaps, seemingly placed at random. The U.S. Border Patrol says that illegal crossers are pushed to these gaps, where they are more easily apprehended.
Some Texans, like Taylor, live completely on the other side of the $6.2 million-a-mile wall. Others had their property split in half by the fence, after the government seized portions of their land. At least 200 people in Cameron County had some of their land seized for the fence.
'It's really done nothing for us'
Ten years ago, Taylor found a stranger sitting in her living room. "He had used my bathroom, he had shaved and cleaned himself off and he was watching the border patrol go by, sitting in that rocking chair," she said in an interview with Yahoo News. A few years later, she found 40 kilos of marijuana hidden in her bougainvilleas.
Taylor says she had to work hard to get her citizenship when she married an American soldier and moved to Texas from England after World War II. She doesn't think illegal immigrants should get a chance to become citizens. "If anything comes really easy, it's not appreciated," she said.
But the government's solution to the problem strikes her as ridiculous. "It's really done nothing for us because they're still coming across," Taylor says. Earlier this year, teenage illegal immigrants pounded on her front door in the middle of the night. She called the Border Patrol, which arrested them and a group of Hondurans they were trafficking, according to Taylor. She keeps a gun and a taser in her house, just in case.
'This is our property'
A few miles east of Taylor's house, Tim Loop's green two-story home, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, is also stuck behind the border wall. He agrees that the fence is not solving anything. Driving in his truck along the fence this week, he pointed out several places where scuffmarks suggested that people had recently climbed over. On one part of the fence not too far from his house, a torn shirt hung from the top of a pole.
Loop worries that the government will close the gaps in the fence. A complete wall wouldn't let him get to his house from the road, which is on the "American" side. The road also provides access to his farm, which grows sugar cane, grapefruit, corn, and other crops, for his eight employees.
Earlier this year, Homeland Security told landowners that it planned to close the gaps with 15-feet-wide gates that would have keypads on them. Each landowner would get a personal code to open the gate, and the government would be in charge of who else might be allowed to use each code.
"This is our property behind here," Loop said in an interview with Yahoo News. "We don't want somebody else to be the boss of our gate."
Taylor worries about a proposed highway whose path would require the government to move the fence closer to her house. "We will be more shut in than ever before," she said.
'We're in the United States'
Bob Lucio, the owner of a 165-acre golf course that lies entirely on the "Mexican" side of the fence, says the thought of Homeland Security using a secured gate to close the one entrance to the course keeps him up at night.
"If that happens, I don't think we can survive," he told Yahoo News during an interview in his office.
Lucio worked with Homeland Security to beautify the fence. Near the course, the wall is several feet shorter than elsewhere and is painted green. The wall is so subtle that some putters, many of them "winter Texans" from Canada and the Midwest, don't realize they're on the south side of the border wall, he says. A gate would change that.
"Technically, we're in the United States," Lucio said. But during a drug-cartel gun battle in June just across the Mexican border from his property, several Border Patrol agents lined up on the north side of the fence and didn't venture beyond it, he said. It gave him the impression that the Border Patrol was securing the fence line in times of trouble, instead of the actual border.
"The whole situation left me kind of numb," he said. "It's kind of like, 'You're on your own, buddy.'"
Rosalinda Huey, a spokeswoman for the Customs and Border Patrol, declined to comment on that episode but said agents patrol both sides of the fence.
'I couldn't sell my house now'
The landowners on the other side of the fence in Brownsville know their property isn't as valuable as it once was. "Would you want to buy a house behind the border wall?" Loop asked dryly.
The government didn't offer to buy the land it walled off from the rest of Texas, or to compensate people for the subsequent devaluation. It offered only to pay for the strips of land that were seized for the fence's path.
Eloisa Tamez, a nursing professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville and an outspoken opponent of the fence, refused to sell the government a quarter of an acre of her three-acre plot. She was initially offered $100 for the patch of land, which was used for the fence that now bisects her property.
Tamez's family has lived on her land since the 1700s. The family traditionally held an Easter party near the river, which is now on the other side of the wall. The only way Tamez can access the other part of her land is through a gap 1,200 feet away, which she can reach only by trespassing on her neighbors' land.
The government's offer eventually went up to $13,000, but she still didn't accept. She refused to sign the papers and is locked in a court battle with the government over the quarter acre it took from her.
"I couldn't sell my house now," she says.