Monday, July 28, 2014

Vehicle-sized gap cut in border fence

Nogales International
July 28, 2014
by Curt Prendergast

While Mother Nature was tearing a hole in the border fence west of Nogales, human hands were at work on the other side of town cutting a gap in the barrier the size of a garage door.

Someone cut through eight poles in the border fence approximately 1-1/4 miles east of downtown Nogales, apparently using a precision tool to slice through the six-inch steel tubes filled with concrete and a strand of rebar.

The cuts were made at the bases of the poles and about 10 feet above the ground, creating a gap that appeared large enough to drive a medium-sized vehicle through.

The cuts were discovered on Saturday, according to Border Patrol spokeswoman Nicole Ballistrea, the same day monsoon runoff and debris toppled a section of the border fence west of the Mariposa Port of Entry.

By Monday morning, contractors were using blowtorches and metal clamps to repair the fence. This reporter saw agents in vehicles making their usual patrols along the access road next to the border fence, but there appeared to be no special contingent designated to protect the breach.

No tools were found at the site and the Border Patrol does not yet know who cut the fence, Ballistrea said.

Smugglers often attempt to cut border fences, as well as dig under them and climb over them, she wrote in an emailed statement.

“As the Tucson Sector continues to improve deterrence efforts along the border, smuggling organizations are finding it more difficult to move their illicit goods into the interior of the United States,” she wrote.

“Fencing infrastructure gives Border Patrol agents the time they need to stop illegal cross-border activity,” she wrote.

A contractor with Granite Construction, the company that built the fence in 2011, estimated at the time that someone would need about 15 minutes to cut through the steel tubes. By that math, if the person who cut the fence on Saturday were acting alone, the 16 total cuts would have taken about four hours to complete.

One of the selling points of the fence, which covers 2.8 miles of border and cost a reported $11.8 million to build, was that it would be more difficult to cut through than the landing-mat barrier it replaced.

GOP: Border patrol agents handcuffed by wildlife rules

The Hill
July 28, 2014
By Tinothy Cama

Federal land protections are hampering efforts to stop the flow of illegal immigrants across the border, Republicans say.

The Interior Department controls about 800 miles along the dividing line with Mexico, or about 40 percent of the total, with other land in the region owned by the Forest Service.

GOP lawmakers argue federal regulations intended to protect land and wildlife have become an obstacle for Customs and Borders Protection officers because they restrict their ability to drive near the border, build infrastructure or install surveillance technology.

“There is no doubt that the restrictions on accessing land along the border have made it more difficult for the Border Patrol to do their job,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who traveled to McAllen County, Texas, earlier this month to meet with officials about the surge of child migrants into the United States.

Smugglers know where agents cannot patrol or monitor, Cruz said, so they target those areas when moving people across the border.

“It seems a commonsense reform to say that the border patrol should be able to fully access and patrol the border,” he said.

A House Republican working group led by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) this week recommended prohibiting the Interior and Forest Service from in any way hampering border patrol.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who accompanied Cruz, wants border security to play a larger role in how federal officials manage land. At a hearing this week in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she said officers sometimes cannot build roads or even trails on federal land.

“We’re not asking for a major highway around there, but … we need to think about national security issues and how we enforce our own laws, when you juxtapose that with other priorities within the federal agencies,” she said.

Murkowski is the top Republican on the energy panel, which oversees Interior.

Democrats aren’t buying the GOP’s argument.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said conservation issues are just one of the policies that are falling victim to the current crisis.

“These kids have become both the excuse and the reason that they can revisit some of these policies,” Grijalva said.

“You see everything from getting rid of [deferred action] because of the kids, we have to have troops on the border because of the kids, now we don’t need environmental regulations on public lands because of the kids.”

Grijalva said the Homeland Security Department has repeatedly told Congress that land protections don’t hamper border operations.

“If they’re talking about the most recent influx, it’s happening in areas that have nothing to do with protected federal lands,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “So I think it’s a specious argument to continue their anti-conservation agenda.”

This is not the first time that land restrictions have been drawn into the debate over border patrol.
Many Republicans criticized President Obama in May for creating the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, abutting the border in New Mexico.

The designation, said Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), will “place additional burdens on Border Patrol personnel and limit access to high crime areas along the border, making it easier for drug smugglers and human traffickers to move in and out of the country.”

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee’s subpanel with responsibility over national parks, has made border security a top issue, and introduced the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act in an attempt to ensure that the issue is prioritized over environmental conservation.

The Obama administration and congressional Democrats don’t see the problem.

Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said Interior, the Forest Service and Customs and Border Protection entered an agreement in 2006 to cooperate on the border.

“This [plan] has served to strengthen border security measures while at the same time protecting important natural and cultural resources located in national parks and national wildlife refuges and other public lands,” Kershaw said.

Kirk Emerson, an environmental law professor at the University of Arizona, said conservation and security issues often clashed in the last decade, when large expanses of border fence were being built rapidly.

“What I’m generally finding is that there are very few of those kinds of challenges on the ground now,” she said. “There’s more radio interoperability, some of the protocols that weren’t in place before are now in place for cooperation, and the cooperation works both ways.”

Emerson said federal land managers know how to accommodate border patrol officers, and noted that patrol officers are often the first ones to see environmental problems such as fires and report them.

Dinah Bear, an environmental attorney and consultant who works with border advocacy group Humane Borders, said officers don’t complain about land protections.

“We have a very close working relationship with the border patrol, and I have never heard the border patrol ever complain,” she said. “They are clearly puzzled as to why Congress keeps trying to give them more waivers of things that they don’t need.”

She said conservation has nothing to do with the current crisis, because the children and families aren’t trying to evade officers.

“In fact, the kids and the families are usually running toward the border patrol,” she said. “It’s not a question of border security.”

Rainstorm runoff topples border fence, floods Western Avenue

Nogales International
July 27, 2014
by Jonathan Clark and Manuel C. Coppola

Runoff from a monsoon downpour toppled a section of border fence west of the Mariposa Port of Entry overnight Saturday, sending a torrent of debris-filled floodwater down Ephraim Canyon and into yards and homes along Western Avenue.

Leyva Bridge on Western Avenue, just east of the intersection with Interstate 19, was a particular trouble spot. Tree branches, logs and other detritus clogged two culverts under the bridge, and the muddy floodwaters surged out of the wash and into surrounding properties, including that of Raul Origel, immediately south of the bridge.

Origel’s front yard was covered Sunday morning with mud and stones that had been used to line the nearby wash. The water also entered his elevated trailer, reaching a foot in depth and destroying furniture, he said. He does not have flood insurance.

Standing next to a Ford Taurus embedded in the mud – one of five vehicles he owns that were damaged by the flood – Origel complained that the authorities don’t keep the wash clean, which allows for the culverts to clog during heavy runoff.

“There has to be someone, either at the city or county, to take responsibility,” he said.

The downpour began at around 11:30 p.m. Saturday night and was accompanied by intense thunder and lightning. As runoff surged south through the border fence – a structure comprised of interconnected metal tubes with 4-inch gaps that allow water to pass through – debris apparently accumulated behind it, blocking flow creating enough pressure to eventually topple an approximately 60-foot length of the barrier.

From there, the water surged through a pair of culverts and into Ephraim Canyon, combining with more runoff and debris until the wash met Western Avenue at Leyva Bridge.

The segment of border fence that collapsed was built above an existing arroyo, with large gates at its bottom that were meant to be opened to relieve pressure from flooding. The gates did not appear to have been opened. A Border Patrol spokeswoman reached Sunday was not immediately able to provide information on the mishap.

No injuries from the flooding were reported, but a family of five had to be rescued from their car near Leyva Bridge, said Nogales Fire Chief Hector Robles.

When an engine was unable to make it to the car on Western Avenue, NFD sent its Ladder One truck up Interstate 19 to reach the scene from the west. Firefighters then used the bucket at the end of the 101-foot ladder to rescue the family, Robles said.

The Southern Arizona Chapter of the American Red Cross said it is assisting 10 people – a family of seven plus an elderly couple and a single elderly person – whose homes were affected by the flooding in Nogales.

"We are providing temporary lodging, food and clothing and will have the families contact us tomorrow to see what other assistance can be made available to them," the organization said in a statement.

A woman at a property on the south side of the bend at Leyva Bridge said her aunt and uncle were evacuated from their home after floodwaters inside the residence reached the level of their midsections.

The woman, who did not wish to be named, allowed the NI access to her relatives’ mud-filled home on Sunday. Ruined furniture was strewn about the interior, including a refrigerator that had toppled over, and marks on the wall suggested the water had reached approximately 3 feet in depth.
Her aunt and uncle do not have flood insurance, the woman said.

Next door at the Cypress Trailer Park, residents were clearing away mud on Sunday morning and crossing their fingers that once-submerged cars would eventually start.

Three vehicles that had been parked outside Alma Alcaraz’s trailer were flooded and non-functioning, but the interior of her home, where she and four family members waited out the storm, remained dry.

“We stayed because we didn’t have any way to leave," Alcaraz said. “We were really nervous because we could feel the trailer moving.”

Those inside the trailer included two children, ages 5 and 7, she said.

Nancy Rodriguez, who rents a trailer at the park, said that once the rain started, she began taking regular peeks out her window at the wash. Once she saw the water breach the banks, she went to her car and tried to leave, but got stuck instead. So she drove it to higher ground at the park and waited out the storm in her trailer.

“It was very scary. I thought it was a dream or something,” she said.

The water never got into Rodriguez's home, but it left piles of debris underneath and a large log in her front lawn.

“I want the city to do something, because this happens every four years or two years,” Rodriguez said. “Every time it rains, this happens.”

She soon had a chance to deliver her complaints directly to Mayor Arturo Garino when he and Councilman Jose “Joe” Diaz arrived at the trailer park to assess the damage.

“This shouldn’t be happening,” Garino said. “I look at this, and just by the flow and the way the debris is leaning against the guardrails, it looks like the water was trying to get back into the channels. So I think the street was the channel – that’s the problem.

“The Leyva Bridge has to be addressed,” as does a bridge farther downstream near the Circle K, he said. “We need to be able to channelize the water and keep it inside. This is too much.”

Garino said he would put the issue on the agenda for the Aug. 6 city council meeting, and noted that the county government would need to participate in a solution, since it governs the county flood control district, of which Nogales is a part.

Reached by telephone, Deputy City Manager John E. Kissinger said Western Avenue was the only area in the city affected by overnight flooding, and acknowledged that the problem resulted from clogs at Leyva Bridge.

“We have reached out to the IBWC (International Boundary and Water Commission) and have assessed all the major washes in the area and any critical infrastructure that could affect the IOI (international sewage line) and found no problems,” Kissinger said.

Asked if the Santa Cruz County Flood Control District can do anything to prevent this type of problem on Western Avenue in the future, he said, “Other than clearing out the wash on this side I don’t suspect that there’s not much more you can do. I believe that that most of that debris came from Mexico. I’ve been out there hundreds of times and from the border to the hospital you do not see this type of debris – huge tree trunks, pallets, car doors, plastic bottles.

“It is typical of the first flooding or microburst episode to see these things accumulate," he said. "We don’t anticipate a repeat of flooding to this magnitude (this year) because the wash has essentially been flushed of the type of debris that has been accumulating throughout the year and that would cause the water to jump its banks.”

The flood control district developed a $3-million project to construct a detention or retention pond in the Ephraim Canyon area, but it has yet to come to fruition. Garino lamented the absence of a retention pond, saying: “The water flow was just a direct water flow. There was nothing really to hold the water back and let it come slowly.”

Local officials also need to seek support from Nogales, Sonora, since Ephraim Canyon originates on that side of the border, Garino said.

As for the now-wide-open gap in the border fence, Nicole Ballistrea, spokeswoman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said the agency has procedures for maintaining security during temporary breaches, such as a tunnel or busted fence.

"For any type of breach, or breach with the fence, we do have crews that go out there and repair those," she said. "And we also have agents that work that area to monitor. And we also have cameras that will help us observe that area."

Ballistrea said she would follow up on questions about the extent of the damage and timetable for repair on Monday.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

McAllen couple donates ranchland to help ocelots

The Monitor
July 27, 2014
Paula Ann Solis

The border fence running between Mexico and Texas has inadvertently blocked and damaged the Rio Grande Valley range of ocelots.
Urbanization and political boundaries pose a danger to this endangered cat and the future of wildlife. But a McAllen family has breathed new life into their survival by placing part of their land in the hands of an interested party, the United States government.
Celebrated land stewards Karen and Phil Hunke worked for more than a decade to transform thousands of acres in Hidalgo County, known as Tecolote Ranch, into a sanctuary for endangered plants and animals such as the ocelot.
In the Valley, where 95 percent of original Texas brush land has been cleared in the name of progress, their efforts are uncommon.
“Karen and I are just really committed to helping people learn and educating them about how you can conserve land and not over graze,” Hunke said. “You can aid wildlife at the same time and have cattle and make it work together.”
The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group, took note of their commitment and successful maintenance of critical land during land inventories, Hunke said.
To take their progress one step further, the Hunkes sold 1,119 acres in June to the conservancy at a significantly reduced price, cutting their overall land value. But it was all in the name of nature and charity, Hunke said.
The land is near the intersection of Willacy, Hidalgo and Kenedy counties.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the land for $3 million with funds the Department of Homeland Security reserved to combat the negative impacts of the border fence’s construction.

Dying to flee Mexico for America: Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants

The Independant
July 27, 2014
by Tim Walker

The San Miguel crossing between Arizona and Mexico is a simple iron gate. Stretching away on either side is a border marked by concrete posts, which are driven into the Sonoran Desert scrub and strung with chicken wire that anyone could duck under without difficulty. For an undocumented migrant on foot, the hard part comes after the crossing: the long walk to safety, dodging the Border Patrol without succumbing to the harsh desert conditions.

On Wednesday morning, Mike Wilson crossed into Mexico to refill the water container at the station he maintains a few yards south of the border, and which has likely saved the lives of migrants who can drink before reaching the US. Some 20 gallons had gone since he last visited a month ago. Sometimes, he says, he finds the 50-gallon barrel bone dry. Wilson, who is 65, belongs to a small but passionate community of activists trying to reduce the number of migrant deaths in a state not known for its sympathy to their plight.

"Arizona has a reputation as an anti-immigrant state," says Todd Miller, author of the book Border Patrol Nation. "But there are many people throughout southern Arizona who organise not only to oppose anti-immigrant laws, but also to go into the desert and provide humanitarian aid... Mike is doing important and wonderful work."

Mr Wilson and his partner Susan have also offered food and temporary shelter to some of the more than 52,000 migrant children who have crossed into the US since October 2013, most of them fleeing violence in Central America. On Friday, Mr Obama met with the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and urged them to work with the US to help stem the flow of migrants, stating that many of those who have crossed the border will not be able to stay – with only the potential for some "narrow" circumstances for humanitarian or refugee status.

Mr Wilson, though he lives on the outskirts of Tucson, is a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation, a Native American community of 25,000 on a reservation the size of Connecticut, sliced in half by a 75-mile stretch of the US-Mexico border. The Tohono O'odham (meaning "Desert People") have been on this land for thousands of years and, even after the border was drawn in 1854, could pass back and forth unimpeded, often via the San Miguel gate.

After 9/11, however, crossing anywhere but at official checkpoints became illegal. Those Tohono O'odham who lacked the correct paperwork were trapped on the Mexican side. Meanwhile, the Nation found itself at the frontline of a broader border crisis. As the US increased security in the urban areas where they had traditionally crossed, economic migrants from Central America moved to more isolated routes, such as the Sonoran Desert.

By the mid-2000s, tribal officials estimated that as many as 1,500 undocumented migrants per day crossed the border through the reservation. Having survived the treacherous journey through Mexico, many were killed instead by the desert. Since 2001, the Pima County medical examiner in Tucson has received an average of 164 bodies of border-crossers per year. Around half those deaths occurred in the Tohono O'odham Nation, making it the deadliest migrant trail in the US.

Humanitarian groups sprang up to combat the problem, including the NGO Humane Borders, which maps migrant fatalities to identify the most deadly areas of the desert, and then deposits water, food and medical supplies in those spots. The group's executive director, Juanita Molina, says Humane Borders drops up to 1,200 gallons of water per week during July, the most lethal month of the year. "Many Border Patrol officers and people in the community see us not as preventing deaths, but as aiding and abetting," she says.

To Mr Wilson's dismay, the Tohono O'odham Nation sided against the migrants. "They borrowed whole cloth the Department of Homeland Security's narrative, which describes undocumented migrants as potential terrorists," he says. The Nation's leaders even passed a resolution banning outside humanitarian groups from putting out water on the reservation – so Mr Wilson decided to do it himself. "I'm a one-man organisation, by design," he explains. "I have working relationships with other groups from the social justice community. But when I put out water, I do it as a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation."

Mr Wilson's first career was in the US Special Forces, and in 1988 he was posted to El Salvador during its civil war. "We were supposedly advisers, but our mission soon changed," he recalls. "We were to prevent as much as possible the human rights abuses by the military against the civilian population … after my experience in El Salvador, I really asked myself what side of the table of justice I wanted to sit on."

During the US-sponsored Central American civil wars of the 1980s, Tucson was the centre of the Sanctuary movement, a campaign offering safe haven to refugees. That dormant humanitarian infrastructure provided a foundation for more recent human rights efforts.

2002, Mr Wilson, by then a Presbyterian lay pastor, set up five water stations – one on the far side at the San Miguel gate, and four spread across the US side of the reservation, which he named St Matthew, St Mark, St Luke and St John. He was forced to replenish the water every couple of weeks. "I could barely keep up with the demand."
That was until Tohono O'odham Police confiscated four of the stations, leaving him with just the one on the Mexican side of the border fence. No one from the Nation's executive was available to talk to The Independent on Sunday, but Mr Wilson suspects the reservation's leadership stymied his efforts because it relies on federal funding for infrastructure, education and housing. "The federal appropriations are buying silence from tribal members," he says.

Since June, Mr Wilson has offered shelter to more than 50 women and children. Their latest undocumented visitors were a Salvadoran woman, her 13-year-old daughter and two toddler sons, who crossed the border last Sunday on their way to the woman's mother, who has lived in Maryland for 25 years. Wilson doesn't like to pry into his guests' pasts, but he can make educated guesses. “The mother probably fled to the US as a political refugee during the Sanctuary movement,” he says. “I didn’t tell the woman that I’d been in El Salvador. It might open old wounds.”