Wednesday, August 20, 2014

For some Texans on the border, more walls and patrols won't solve the immigration crisis

Public Radio International
August 13, 2014
by Jason Margolis

Scott Nicol, a college art teacher and sculptor, likes to bring people to walk the border wall in Hidalgo, Texas. On a windy day, we stroll along a path in the shadow of 18-foot-high iron bars. One of Nicol’s favorite pastimes is hunting for homemade wooden ladders.

“That’s how you get over the wall," says Nicol pointing at some ladders lying on the ground. "I mean that’s what they’re for. It takes $2 or $3 worth of hardware and nails to defeat a wall that cost $12 million a mile,” says Nicol.

That’s $12 million a mile for this section of wall — the average cost per mile across the border is closer to $4.5 million.

President Obama is asking for $3.7 billion to deal with the latest border crisis tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children coming to the US border seeking asylum. House Republicans have countered with an offer of $694 million, with contingencies. The big one is that they want more border security.

That makes Nicol apoplectic. During our 30-minute stroll, we counted the Border Patrol jeeps. We found eight, as well as one ATV and a helicopter overhead. Texas Game Wardens also patrol the Rio Grande in speedboats mounted with machine guns.
“That makes me very nervous,” says Nicol. “There’s absolutely no reason or instance where you would be using that kind of artillery unless there’s a military invasion.”

Yet, more reinforcements are on the way. Texas Governor Rick Perry says he’s sending up to 1,000 National Guard troops to the border soon. Perry says they’re needed to stop drugs and criminals.

Nicol, who also does work with the Sierra Club, says the border wall became his issue for a simple reason: it just makes him angry. To him, it's too costly and divides habitat areas like a wildlife bird sanctuary on the river. He understands the need for border security, but thinks much of the wall's design simply doesn’t make sense. For example, as we’re walking along for nearly a mile, the wall stops.

“Obviously anybody that has traveled up from Central America is not going to be stopped by something that’s only 9/10th of a mile wide. They’ll just go around it,” says Nicol.

It works this way up and down the Rio Grande — there's the wall, then a gap for a few miles, then more wall.

But the chief patrol agent for the Rio Grande Valley, Kevin Oaks, says the wall isn’t as haphazard as Nicol makes it out to be.

“What it does is it slows the traffic down temporarily, so it gives the agents and whatever technology we employ a little more time to get activated,” says Oaks. The Border Patrol also has unmanned aerial vehicles — drones — that patrol more isolated stretches of the border.

Oaks admits that people can use a ladder to climb over the wall, or even tunnel under. But he says it’s all about striking a balance between what can be funded and what can be achieved.

“If you look at history, there’s no physical way that you can ever possibly, 100 percent secure the border. So you have to come up with a compromise, and that compromise is a low-risk border,” says Oaks. For him, that means safe border communities and a low flow of drugs and criminals coming across.

By many metrics, the investment is paying off — the border is the most secure it’s been in 40 years. The annual tab for immigration and border enforcement nationwide: $18 billion. The budget for just the US Border Patrol alone is closer to $3.5 billion annually.

Community activist Michael Seifert, who lives less than a mile from the border in Brownsville, says there are other costs for border residents, on both sides. Border Patrol agents have killed 19 people, some US citizens, but mostly Mexicans, in a recent two-and-a-half year period.

“And not a single one of those cases has been brought to a fitting conclusion — this is what happened, the agent was justified or not. They’re simply not pursued,” says Seifert.

Kevin Oaks says his agents aren’t acting with impunity. “Every allegation of misconduct is thoroughly investigated and adjudicated appropriately.” 
Oaks says the FBI and the Office of Inspector General oversee corruption and criminal charges lodged against Border Patrol. They also conduct internal investigations.

Scott Nicol says he's never had a problem with any agents directly and understands the vast majority are trained professionals just doing their jobs. Still, he doesn’t want more agents to deal with this latest border crisis. After all, he says, Central American children are turning themselves in, not sneaking into the US.

“The response from certain politicians is, ‘Send in the National Guard, build more walls,’” says Nicol. “They can’t get their heads around immigration, they can only think about it in terms of security.”

Nicol, as well other border residents, agree more resources are needed to deal with this latest border crisis. But they want money to ease the backlog in immigration courts and provide better services for the children, not to build more security.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In South Texas, Few On The Fence Over Divisive Border Wall Issue

National Public Radio
August 18, 2014
by John Burnett

When Congress thinks about border security, it often sees a big, imposing fence.

The federal government has spent $2.3 billion to build the fence — 649 miles of steel fencing, in sections, between the U.S. and Mexico, designed to help control the illegal movement of people and contraband.

It's called tactical infrastructure, and the Border Patrol says it works. But people on the lower Texas border have another name for it: a boondoggle.

If you ask Pamela Taylor about the tall, rust-colored fence that tops the river levee near her house outside of Brownsville, she won't mince words.

"I can't speak for the Border Patrol. For me, it seems like a useless piece of crap. Take a look. They [undocumented immigrants] are walking over. They have boats lined up on the other side of the river to row these people across," Taylor says.

Taylor has lived here beside the sluggish Rio Grande in her unair-conditioned brick home, surrounded by mesquite trees and bougainvillea, for 67 of her 86 years. Like so many residents down here in South Texas — which used to be part of Mexico — she treats the border jumpers like human beings, even if she opposes them. Every day, she puts out water bottles and sodas in ice chests by her mailbox.

"We fill that up every night. For anybody: Border Patrol, illegals, people working in the fields," she says, standing by the two Igloo chests. "They all come, and they're welcome to it."

It's only been in recent years, Taylor says, that immigrants began using her property as a favorite crossing spot. They paddle across the river, walk across the road, hide in the cotton plants and wait for the smuggler's car to show up. Then they pile in, drive through a yawning gap in the border fence, and away they go.

"Now they're insisting we need to go in and build more fence," she says. "Don't they see that the fence is not working?"

A Divisive Line

In spite of fence detractors like Taylor — and there are a lot of them — the Border Patrol steadfastly defends PF (Pedestrian Fence) 225, the official name for the Rio Grande Valley border wall.
It's not actually one continuous wall. It's 54 miles of fencing in 18 individual sections. The idea was to erect the wall mainly where cities and towns touch the border, to force illegal crossers into more rural areas where border agents have a tactical advantage.

"Our objective is to work the area on our terms. Ideally, you want to push the traffic where it's easier for us to work," says Robert Duff, chief of operational programs in the Rio Grande Valley Sector of the Border Patrol. "And that's going to be away from the metro areas, where the vanishing point is very short, to where we've got more of a response time."

Outside the federal agency, the perspective from county and city officials couldn't be more different.
"That has been the biggest waste of money," says Ramon Garcia, county judge of Hidalgo, the most populous county in the region. He refers to the reported cost of pedestrian border fencing: $6.5 million per mile, and to the recent surge of migrant children from Central America.

"It's a joke," Garcia continues. "When you got all these 58,000 unaccompanied minors getting through there, I mean, you tell me that it's worth it, and if it's working."

And it's not just people that the fence is not stopping. Sgt. Rolando Garcia is head of police special investigations in the city of San Juan, which is right on the river.

Here's what he had to say when asked if the border wall has slowed down drug smuggling from Mexico:

"In order to get their product across, they basically measured the gap between the fence and started building their marijuana bundles within that gap so they could just slide through the fence," Garcia says. "[A] border wall isn't really gonna help."

'A Fence Does Not Seal The Border'

The Border Patrol and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ran into all sorts of problems when the fence was under construction from 2008 to 2010. Some residents bitterly opposed it. The vertical steel barrier slices through city parks, college campuses, nature preserves, farmers' fields and residential property.

Most border land in Texas is private property. To build the fence, the Border Patrol had to enter into negotiations or begin condemnation proceedings with landowners, which cost time and money. Some lawsuits are still in court.

What's more, the Rio Grande flows through a broad floodplain where both countries are not supposed to build fences that would obstruct a flooding river. So, in places, the border fence sits on top of a levee that's a half-mile or more distant from the river.

And as Pamela Taylor found out, it's a no man's land on the south side of the fence.

"Fencing is not the end all, be all," says the Border Patrol's Robert Duff. "I started my career in San Diego and saw them construct the initial fence, and then two and three layers of fencing. They'll go over it, they'll go under it, they'll go through it. A fence does not seal the border. It helps, but it's not the solution."

Just as important, Duff says, are agents on the ground, aircraft, boats, lights, cameras and other tactical equipment.

Perhaps expectations were too high. Perhaps people thought the wall was supposed to stop illegal traffic.

"They built an 18-foot wall, and people came with a 19-foot ladder and people just crossed right over the top. So I think a fence can only be so tall," says Chris Cabrera, local spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union.

As for PF225, it's done. There were plans to build 16 more miles of wall in the Upper Valley in Starr County, but the agency ran out of money.