When it comes to the Texas/Mexico wall, no one’s sitting on the fence
By Eileen Mattei
Controversy swirls around the South Texas border fence like a dust devil. The intermittent concrete and metal barrier erected parallel to the Rio Grande in the name of national security and protection against terrorists has sparked battles over property rights, transparency, rule of law and wildlife survival.
Called the Southwest Border Fence by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the border wall in Texas stretches around El Paso for 165 miles, then appears briefly at the cities of Del Rio and Eagle Pass, which opposed the wall with no success.
In the lower Rio Grande Valley, the brawl over the wall is in the final rounds. The last 36 intermittent miles of fence in Cameron County have been going up—through the city of Brownsville, through private property, family farms and wildlife preserves. The structure here is a combination of fence and reinforced levies along the Rio Grande’s flood plain. Despite protests, injunctions and negotiations, the wall was nearly complete by mid-June. But several lawsuits were pending.
Of the planned 55 miles of fence for the Rio Grande Valley, about 33 have been completed.
A 2008 Rasmussen Reports poll showed 52 percent of Texans favored the fence. But along the border, it seems that many residents rarely have a good word to say about it.
“The wall is unnecessary. It doesn’t accomplish anything,” said Bill Summers, president and CEO of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce. He pointed out that the wall, which is “definitely not pretty,” stops when it reaches a country club and a golfing resort along the river. The local joke is that terrorists are afraid of being chased by golf-club wielding retirees.
“It’s a waste of money. The whole thing is a farce!” said 79-year-old M.G. Dyer, who serves on the board of directors for the Mercedes-based Magic Valley Electric Cooperative. Barbara Miller, a fellow board member, describes herself as “ambivalent,” saying, “I don’t think the wall will deter immigration. It might shift (immigration) patterns a little.”
The fence itself, the border wall, consists of 18-foot-tall, rust-red hollow posts sunk six inches apart in a concrete base. With a cost of about $6.5 million per mile for pedestrian fence and about $1.7 million per mile for vehicle fence (made of concrete and reinforced steel), it is projected to cover about 340 of the 1,250 miles that form the Texas-Mexico border. California, Arizona and New Mexico combined have another 350 miles of intermittent fence, which innovative drug smugglers and others have used tunnels and blowtorches to get through.
Gaps of from three-quarters to 10 miles separate some segments of the fence in Cameron County in the southern tip of Texas. That’s why when asked, “Will the border wall make you and the U.S. more secure?” the typical response from border residents is a laugh.
The Secure Fence Act of 2006 was aimed to detect and/or deter illegal-entry attempts. Ideally, the patchwork wall would prevent terrorists, illegal immigrants and smugglers from blending into urban populations by funneling them to areas where surveillance is easier. What it seems to do, some say, is momentarily delay illegal-immigrant entries … and aggravate the people who have to live with what they call an outrageously tall wall running through their farms, private property or towns.
The DHS was given authority to waive 30 laws to speed construction of the barrier. In the Valley, that led to people riled by what they said was the difficulty in getting official information on the wall’s route and on the periods for public comment. Citizens in the path of the fence felt the procedure of land taking was chillingly un-American. Some people say they have no guaranteed access to their land on the south side of the barrier, although government officials say that property owners do have guaranteed access. And in some areas where levies and fencing have not been completed, property owners don’t know where gates will be placed.
Farmers in the Path: Some property owners made peace on their terms. They sold strips of land for decent money (for example, $24,700 was offered for 1.75 acres of farmland), which is fine, unless that strands hundreds of acres of productive land in no-man’s land between the fence and the river.
East of Brownsville where the Rio Grande zigzags like a dropped ball of string, the Loop brothers grow watermelons, corn and grain. To avoid the river’s deep meanders, the border wall here can be as many as two miles from the river. For the Loops, that leaves approximately 700 acres of good tillable soil and a home east of the projected fence, in no-man’s land. The Loops are not alone in saying they never receive confirmation on the type of gates that will go in the wall and who will control access through them.
“I’m sick to my stomach about this, that as Americans this is happening to us,” said Debbie Loop, the brothers’ mother. The wall is slated to stop shortly after their property ends, so the Loops just don’t see the point. The family said a federal agent told them that if an orange-level (high) terrorist security alert occurred, one of her sons could not stay on his farm east of the wall. “I believe in border security,” Debbie Loop said, but she questions why technology isn’t being used instead of the disruptive wall. The Loops were granted a temporary stay in early summer, halting wall construction across their land.
Miguel Diaz-Barriga, an anthropology professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania who’s writing a book about the border fence, conducted focus groups in the Rio Grande Valley. Deep patriotism and concern about national security were the predominant feelings expressed by those who participated. Yet the overwhelming majority did not believe the border wall would work at deterring illegal immigrants or making the nation safer. Most saw the wall as pure political grandstanding, a waste of good money and a scar on the land. Others opposed the wall because it seemed to be a giant land grab, with the government invoking eminent domain on some families who had held their land since the early 1800s. Government officials say eminent domain was exercised after some landowners turned down fair and equitable offers.
“Opposition to the border wall in the Valley is not color or culture specific,” Diaz-Barriga said. The 18-foot wall, people joke, has prompted a run on 19-foot ladders.
Compromises: University of Texas system negotiators fought to prevent the looming wall from running through the University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) campus, which abuts the Rio Grande. The university was allowed to install a white, 10-foot-tall fence. Rotarians from Brownsville and Matamoros and UTB students and staff then planted flowers and vines along the one-mile, $1 million stretch.
Upstream in Hidalgo County, local authorities, who had been unable to get federal funding to repair 22 miles of deteriorated levees along the Rio Grande, reached a compromise with the DHS: If the levees were repaired, the fence could go up north of the levees, without opposition. Improvements were made, and about 20 miles of fence was built on or near the levees.
The Harlingen Irrigation District, which oversees a pumping plant on a Rio Grande inlet, also got the compromises it sought, according to General Manager Wayne Halbert. “We’ve negotiated with all the powers that be,” he said. “Everything they’ve done so far has accommodated us.” The fence stops near the plant entrance.
Magic Valley Electric’s Dyer is relieved that his home and farm south of the levee were not stranded from the mainland as they would have been had the wall’s route not been placed north of the levee. Dyer says he regularly sees illegal immigrants ducking through his citrus grove along the Rio Grande near the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge. He reports his sightings to the U.S. Border Patrol, which promptly comes out in force. He believes reviving the immigrant worker or bracero program of the 1950s is the best way to cut down on illegal immigration. The program allowed much needed workers to enter the United States to do agricultural labor. If work is legalized and Mexicans don’t have to sneak across the border for work, the Border Patrol can turn its attention to drug smugglers and other threats, Dyer says.
At any rate, the Rio Grande Valley now hosts a very tall, very expensive, intermittent wall. Will future generations have trouble discerning what purpose the border wall served? Unlike the Great Wall of China, which in its time must have seemed like a reassuring defense, it’s hard to imagine that the Great Here and There Fence will ever defend against the porous Texas/Mexico border or be a venerable tourist attraction.
SIDEBAR: THE LONELY PALMS
For 30 years, public and private organizations have worked to restore habitat along the river, creating the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary and other refuges. The Valley heavily markets its eco-assets: semitropical birds, butterflies and plants.
The fence, which has 50-foot-wide strips of bare earth on either side, isn’t expected to impede the flights of most birds, but it is expected to cut off the access of other wildlife to water. And sadly, officials say, the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary is now closed and will remain so until sustained funding can be secured and the fence status is finalized.
As for the rare Texas native sabal palms growing in the fence’s wide path, five organizations—The Nature Conservancy, Aubudon Texas, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection—and a private contractor, Kiewit, have transplanted at least 150 of the trees to the conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve and the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary.
Eileen Mattei has lived on both sides of the Rio Grande and in Harlingen for 16 years.