November 22, 2013
Alberto Tomas Halpern
The Department of Homeland Security or DHS, which oversees the U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection or CBP, will build approximately 0.6 miles of additional border fencing near the historic Hart’s Mill area of El Paso.
Federal and local officials oppose the fencing, citing historical and environmental concerns.
The fence will be built at a site where Spanish explorer Juan de
Oñate crossed the Rio Grande in 1598 as he and his band of settlers made
their way north from Mexico City. Oñate’s path became a major trade
route for the next 300 years, bringing livestock and trade goods into
the U.S. The route also introduced new cultures to a westward expanding
In 2000, Oñate’s trail was added to the National Trails System and is
called El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail. It is
noted for being the oldest route leading north out of Mexico.
The Secure Fence Act of 2006 amended a 1996 law, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, charging DHS to construct physical barriers and reinforced fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. The amended law gives authority to the DHS secretary to waive environmental laws in order to build border barriers expediently.
The Secure Fence Act, in part, provided for fencing from five miles
west of the Columbus, New Mexico port of entry to ten miles east of El
Paso, though gaps in fencing exist in sections along the way.
According to Border Patrol and CBP spokesman Bill Brooks, the latest construction of fencing is a continuation of a previous fence project.
The fence that will be built is what CBP
calls a “pedestrian fence,” meant to stop pedestrians and vehicles from
crossing. Brooks said the fence will look similar to what already exists
near the area, which includes layers of thick wires crossed over one
Brooks explained that the notice to proceed with construction was
issued on Wednesday, November 20.
The fencing contractor is C3
Construction, an Arizona-based company. Newspaper Tree observed no construction activity at the area the day the notice was issued.
Construction is expected to be completed sometime next spring.
Brooks described CBP as committed to responsible environmental stewardship, despite the environmental law waiver. He added that CBP
conducted an intensive cultural resources survey and consulted with the
Texas Historical Commission. The historical commission, Brooks said,
agreed with CBP’s determination that the fence construction would have
no significant impact on cultural resources.
Mark Wolfe, the executive director and state historic preservation officer at the Texas Historical Commission, told Newspaper Tree that CBP
contracted with Gulf South Research Corporation, a Louisiana
environmental consulting firm, to conduct an archeological review of the
area in 2011.
Wolfe said CBP’s study showed that no historical or cultural
resources would be disturbed by the fence, nor would it have an adverse
affect on the appearance of historic buildings. The study was reviewed
by the historical commission’s archaeological, historical and
architectural divisions, all of whom agreed that the fence would have no
“That’s the extent of our review,” Wolfe said, noting that his agency
did not conduct its own independent study. “We don’t have the budget
for that. Our decisions are based on the information provided (by CBP).”
Wolfe explained that the Texas Historical Commission does not have
the authority to delay or halt federal projects, even if they disagree
with the findings of federal agencies. If they do find that federal
projects would negatively impact historic sites, the historical
commission can work with agencies to mitigate those affects.
“What we do is we comment on the undertaking proposed by the federal
agency,” Wolfe said. He added, “The whole purpose of it is for federal
agencies to step back and think about the implications.”
In the case of the fence in the Hart’s Mill area, Wolfe says CBP did consider those implications. “So the process, I think, works.”
In 2009, the El Paso city council unanimously adopted a resolution
opposing the construction of border fences. The resolution says in part,
“Across the world, walls erected to divide peoples and nations are
symbols of failed and repressive efforts to thwart human freedom and
Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX 16) was a city representative in 2009 and joined in supporting the city resolution.
The recent news of the fence construction prompted him to write letters of opposition to CBP and Border Patrol officials, citing the historical and cultural value of the area.
In his letters, O’Rourke stresses the history of El Paso’s Hart’s
Mill area, describing Oñate’s crossing near the area, the Hart’s Mill
residence and the establishment of the original Fort Bliss in the area.
“[T]he historical significance of this area to our country, the state of Texas, and City of El Paso is immense,” O’Rourke said.
He described Oñate’s crossing in the area as the first Thanksgiving celebration in the United States.
“As a point of comparison, if the Border Patrol were to propose the
construction of a fence at Plymouth Rock I am sure Congressional
representatives and the surrounding community would object based on its
importance as a symbol in American history,” O’Rourke said. “The
proposed fence construction at Hart’s Mill should be viewed no
Joining O’Rourke in opposition to the fencing, in a November 19 letter to CBP
commissioner Thomas Winkowski, are congressmen Pete Gallego (D-TX 23),
Tony Cardenas (D-CA 29), Filemon Vela (D-TX 34), Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX
15), and Eric Swalwell (D-CA 15).
O’Rourke added that more fencing is unnecessary in El Paso, since the
sector is at a level of operational control that exceeds that of other
parts along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It seems that there is little need to construct additional fence
from a safety perspective when taxpayer dollars could be used more
effectively in other areas of the border,” O’Rourke told Winkowski.
According to Border Patrol data, apprehensions of undocumented
crossers in the El Paso sector are at their lowest level in 20 years. In
1993, the Border Patrol reported 258,781 apprehensions in the El Paso
sector. In 2012, that number fell to 9,678 apprehensions (see chart
“Total Illegal Alien Apprehensions By Fiscal Year” in slideshow, above).
In late September, during a visit to the border fence near Sunland
Park, New Mexico, El Paso Border Patrol Sector spokesman Ramiro Cordero
attributed the reduction in apprehensions and El Paso’s safety to the
“Fences make good neighbors,” Cordero said. He added, “You have
Ciudad Juarez in 2008, 2009, 2010 as the most dangerous city in the
world, the worst in the world. And El Paso was what? And continues to
be: the safest city in the nation. What a contrast.”
Cordero stated that critics of border fences are wrong in saying they divide communities.
“You don’t see people, cousins, coming up to the middle of the river
to talk to each other,” he said. “This has nothing to do with dividing
communities, absolutely nothing. This is to protect people.”
Cordero concedes that border fences, while designed to deter people
from scaling them, can be overcome, but with much difficulty.
He asked rhetorically, “Can you climb it? Oh yeah.”
Still, he thinks the fences do slow down would-be border crossers and are an effective tool.
O’Rourke noted that several local officials, including State Senator
Jose Rodriguez, County Judge Veronica Escobar, County Commissioner
Patrick Abeln, Mayor Oscar Leeser and City Representative Cortney
Niland, were also concerned about the construction of the fence.
Rodriguez said in a statement that he was opposed to a border fence
when he was the county attorney and he continues to oppose it as a
“This portion of the wall will harm historical resources of national
significance. It’s extremely unfortunate that local concerns and even
federal rules can be disregarded in order to impose this expensive and
unnecessary wall on communities that don’t want it,” he said.
Mayor Leeser issued a statement to Newspaper Tree, saying
that the upcoming construction of the fence is being monitored at the
federal level by O’Rourke and that the congressman is keeping the city
informed on the issue.
“I want to stress that at this time the City is allowing Congressman
O’Rourke to handle the issue and will rely on his diligence to do what
is necessary to address the issues,” Leeser stated.
Commissioner Abeln’s concerns were similar to O’Rourke’s and he
thinks more thought should have been taken in considering whether a
fence should be built in the area.
“To fence that off is like fencing off a piece of history,” Abeln
said. “It is just a disappointment to me because it’s another place
where we have failed to realize the history of our community.”
Abeln pondered how history could have been very different if border fences existed in the 16th Century.
“Had they put that fence in 1598, maybe Juan de Oñate would not have crossed,” he surmised.
Abeln made clear that he supports federal law enforcement officials,
but thinks that they have been unduly burdened by failed immigration and
drug control policies.
After considering the role of border fences from a larger
perspective, Commissioner Abeln drew one conclusion, saying: “The fact
is, when you think about it, they’re a failure of public policy at some
level. You don’t build fences because something is working. You build
them because something is not working.”