Monday, November 25, 2013

Border fence to be built at Juan de Oñate crossing, site of Hart’s Mill and the first Fort Bliss

Newspaper Tree
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 America.

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 another.

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 significant impacts.

“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 prosperity.”

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 differently.”

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 fence.

“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 senator.

“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.”

No comments: