Monday, November 25, 2013

Cornyn urges CBP to rethink border fence

El Paso Inc.
November 24, 2013
by David Crowder

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has weighed into the fray over plans to fill in the half-mile gap in the border fence at the historic site of the first Spanish crossing, Hart’s Mill and Old Fort Bliss.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, has organized a last-minute campaign to persuade U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, to reconsider the project and to work with El Paso leaders and stakeholders before proceeding.

On Wednesday, Cornyn wrote to Thomas Winkowski, CBP’s acting commissioner, after meeting with O’Rourke.

“I understand that the project is near significant cultural and historical sites, and I would strongly encourage you to work closely with the El Paso community to ensure preservation of sensitive areas,” Cornyn wrote.

Construction of the 17-foot steel wall was to start last Wednesday and even though it didn’t, Border Patrol spokesman Doug Mosier said CBP has notified the contractor to proceed.

Called by some the epicenter of El Paso’s history, the site on West Paisano Drive is now in the midst of several large construction projects.

They include taking down the Yandell Street overpass while putting up massive concrete supports for the toll road that will complete the last leg of Loop 375.

In his letter, Cornyn noted that CBP “conducted Environmental Stewardship Plans to consider the impact of the proposed pedestrian fencing on significant historic sites in the Hart’s Mill area.”

The result of that survey was that “the project would not result in significant impacts to cultural resources in October 2011.”

“While I recognize the efforts of CBP to consider sensitive resources in the region I would urge you to coordinate closely with local stakeholders and consider any further action which may be necessary to balance project goals with historic preservation,” Cornyn’s letter concluded.

O’Rourke’s chief of staff, David Wysong, said Winkowski “is the only one who could, theoretically, halt it.”

Six signers

On Tuesday, Winkowski received a similar letter signed by O’Rourke and five more House members: Democrats Pete Gallego, Filemon Vela and Rubén Hinojosa of Texas, and from California, Democrats Tony Cárdenas and Eric Swalwell.

Their letter, stronger than Cornyn’s, refers to the site as the place where Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate crossed the Rio Grande in 1598, a rocky ford that came to be known as the Paso del Norte.

“The proposed fence construction is antithetical to Congress’ intentions in establishing Oñate’s crossing as part of the National Historic Trail in October 2000 and will hamper future development and improvements to this site that adequately reflect its historical and cultural significance,” their letter states.

They call on the Border Patrol to delay construction.

“Preserving the historic significance of this area should be our first priority and we strongly believe that a compromise can be reached,” the representatives’ letter continues.

It notes that the El Paso sector has a 93-percent level of operational control, which far exceeds other sectors on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“This has contributed to the recognition of El Paso as the safest city in America for the third straight year,” the letter reads. “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.”

Border Patrol spokesman Mosier said that while Congress has set aside some environmental and archaeological protections to speed the fence, CBP “has made a commitment to responsible environmental stewardship.”

In an email, Mosier said, “Specific to the Hart’s Mill area, in order to protect cultural resources, CBP conducted intensive cultural resources surveys and consulted with the Texas state historic preservation office, who concurred with CBP’s determination that no significant impacts to cultural resources would occur as a result of fence construction,”

The CBP has arranged to have an independent environmental monitor on-site during fence construction, Mosier added.

Although the site has never been developed as a tourist attraction beyond construction of historic markers, the Texas Historical Commission’s executive director Mark Wolfe, in a Nov. 19 letter, said the National Park Service has recognized it as a “high potential site.”

Wolfe, the state’s historic preservation officer, told El Paso Inc. that his agency agrees with CBP’s archaeological review that determined “no features of concern would be disturbed by the project.”

Property owner Chip Johns said he wonders when the archaeological review was conducted and by whom. He owns the acreage that takes in the Oñate crossing, the Old Fort Bliss officers’ barracks and the mid-1800s home of Simeon Hart, best known as the Hacienda Restaurant, which is now closed.

“If they came on the property, they never asked me,” Johns said, adding he finds it hard to believe there is nothing of historical or archaeological significance in the path of the fence, given that it was a very busy place for hundreds of years.

Wolfe sent his letter to state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, who conceded that neither the city nor the county have done anything to protect or develop the site. But that’s no reason not to protect it, he said.

“The mayor and City Council ought to be involved in preventing the federal government from going forward,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t lose another one of our historic treasures.”

O’Rourke, he said, is doing everything he can “but it’s up to the federal government to step back and reassess the project.”

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser was ill and could not be reached for a comment, but city spokeswoman Juli Lozano released a statement from him saying O’Rourke has kept him up to date 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,” the statement says.

Johns was surprised last Thursday when two O’Rourke’s staffers, district representative Mario Porras and intern Dana Ramos, showed up at the site to see if construction had begun. “Hot damn, it’s amazing and kind of hard to believe that someone in Washington is actually doing what they say they’re going to do,” Johns said of O’Rourke. “He’s picked up the ball and run with it. How far he’ll get, who knows?”

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