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
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
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.”
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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?”