Monday, November 25, 2013

O’Rourke: No border fence at historic site

El Paso Inc.
November 17, 2013
by David Crowder

Construction is set to start Wednesday to close the half-mile gap in the border fence at the historic site of Don Juan de Oñate’s Rio Grande crossing, Hart’s Mill and Old Fort Bliss.

The site is generally known as El Paso del Norte, the river crossing point from which El Paso takes its name.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, said he just learned of the start date.

“Given that this is arguably the most historic part of the entire U.S.-Mexican border, I feel very strongly that we must do everything we can to ensure that we understand the consequences of any action we take here and explore alternatives to putting up a wall.”

O’Rourke said he thinks the chances of stopping a project that has been in the works for several years aren’t good.

But, he said, he will do what he can in the coming days.

“I’ve spoken to other members of Congress who represent border communities, and they’re with us in this,” he said. “I’m going to look at other options politically, legislatively and administratively to ensure that El Paso’s needs are included in whatever decisions that are made.”

O’Rourke spoke with Thomas Winkowski, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, on Thursday and said he sought to impress upon him the importance of the site and the urgency of the situation.

“To cut to the quick, he and I are at an impasse,” the freshman congressman told El Paso Inc. “He feels that this is going to be very hard to stop at this point.”

O’Rourke wrote Winkowski a forceful letter Oct. 22 asking for a historic and cultural survey of the site and for “alternative fencing options.”

“I feel like El Paso has a very strong case to make,” O’Rourke said Thursday. “We’re going to renew that case with his team and explore what our options are and what the alternatives are.”

Historic crossing

The Oñate crossing site just off West Paisano is owned by rancher and businessman Chip Johns. It is in the midst of multiple construction projects – demolishing the Yandell Street overpass, improving West Paisano Drive and preparing for an overhead toll road to complete Loop 375.

Johns says he has been fighting the border fence project for more than three years, looking for support from local governments and historical groups to no avail.

He’s also hired a lawyer to help him negotiate a higher sale price for the right of way taken by the project.
“The government ‘eminent domained’ me and took that property behind Fort Bliss and the Hacienda Café along the river and now they want 20 more feet,” he said.

“That will put the fence very, very close to the historic markers back there.”

The standard 17-foot-high border fence would dominate the site, Johns said, but it could be significantly preserved if just 100 yards were left open or if another type of fence were built.

O’Rourke said Winkowski did tell him that the project calls for erection of a “removable barrier” to close the gap that measures about six-tenths of a mile.

“But I think we all know that once a wall goes up, whether it’s removable or permanent, it’s very unlikely that it’s going to be removed,” O’Rourke said.

“It just sets the stage for a more permanent structure and conditions the community to never expect to see something better in that location.”

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