Friday, October 31, 2008

Border fence threatens supporter's S. Texas home

Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
October 31, 2008
by Christopher Sherman

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Dorothy Irwin is one of the Border Patrol's staunchest local supporters and was a fan of the proposed border fence — until she found out it would run right through her house.

It has been an awkward situation for Irwin as she tries simultaneously to protect the 19th-century plantation that her grandparents moved into in 1924.

The case of the Old Nye Plantation has been discussed at levels as high as Washignton, D.C., among U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, but is now back in the hands of U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville.

Two weeks ago, Hanen gave the government and Irwin more time to negotiate an agreement. They are scheduled to be back in court Friday.

"This is the first situation we've had where someone said, 'Hey, this fence is coming through my house,'" Hanen said.

In the past two weeks, an assistant U.S. attorney toured the 600-acre farm with officials from Homeland Security and the Army Corps of Engineers and discussed the case in Irwin's home. Two days ago there was still no deal.

Irwin's simple question: "Why is this being done the way it's being done?"

The fenceline would run just behind Irwin's red brick, two-story house. But the Border Patrol also plans to build rights-of-way for their patrol vehicles, which would go right where her house stands now.

The plantation's main buildings sit at the foot of the levee on the north side of the Rio Grande. The plantation, approached along a long palm-lined drive, sits squarely between properties owned by The Nature Conservancy and the Audubon Society.

The government's plan to build the border fence along the north edge of the levee would leave more than 400 acres of the plantation behind the fence.

That is what really gets Irwin. As much as she supports the idea of securing the border, she said the U.S. landowners are the ones being punished by building the fence as much as two miles from the winding Rio Grande in some places.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is overseeing the project, said it has to be built on the north side of the levee to avoid diverting the flow of floodwaters and running afoul of international treaties with Mexico. It is a reason the agency has stuck to in many of the contested land cases, but has worked out other arrangements in places such as Los Ebanos, where the lack of a levee forced the government to propose a removable fence to be placed in the floodplain.

To Irwin, who has seen her government put a man on the moon, the reasoning is weak. A permeable fence, she said, built along the river should be considered.

As of October 22, the government had built 216 miles of pedestrian fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and 154 miles of vehicle barriers.

But of the 110 miles of fence planned for Texas, only 3.3 miles are complete, according to Customs and Border Protection.

Amigos, Divided: Along the Texas-Mexico border, security fencing impacts more than illegal immigration

The Yale Globalist
October 30, 2008

In Eagle Pass, Texas, familiar faces greet each other with “Hey y’all” and “Hola amigos” from beneath the brims of Stetson hats and sombre- ros. This border city boasts the closest relationship with its neighbors across the Rio Grande of any municipality in the Lone Star State.

Eagle Pass is just across a bridge from Piedras Negras, Mexico. While the towns lie in two countries, they have operated as one community for generations.

But as the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) constructs a fence along the southern U.S. border in an attempt to combat illegal immigration, these vecinos y amigos—neighbors and friends—will face more than a physical divide.

Eagle Pass and the Peso
Zapopan Rodriguez Moran crossed the international bridge connecting Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, her young niece tagging along in the humid Texas heat.

“We cross into Eagle Pass one or two times a week,” she said, fidgeting for her papers before arriving at Border Patrol. “It helps us buy things for a little bit cheaper.”

The businesses of Commercial Street in the heart of Eagle Pass receive 90 percent of their market from Mexican shoppers, who cross the bridge to buy products ranging from Western wear to tortillas.

Eagle Grocery, located on Commercial Street, is one of many Eagle Pass businesses dependent on the peso. Owners Benny and Angie Rodriguez said that even though fencing between the cities will not directly impede legal foot traffic, they are worried about the “ill feelings” the barrier could generate.

“The wall is more of an emotional barrier than it is a physical barrier,” said Angie Rodriguez. “Just seeing it will in fact send a message to the Mexicans that they are not welcome.”

Rodriguez is one of many Texas residents opposed to the fence because of the threat it could pose to maintaining amicable relations with Mexico and its citizens.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Wall
Moran returned to Piedras Negras hours lat- er with grocery bags in hand. As she passed over the riverbank of the Rio Grande, hidden Border Patrol officials eyed the tall grasses for any traces of illegal crossings.

Standing on the bridge with a clear view of the two towns, Moran wondered out loud how a fence might change their longstanding friendship. “We are not sure how it will af- fect us,” she admitted apprehensively. “Our Leaders of many Texas border towns have fought fervently against the fence. They argue that the Rio Grande, which has served as a natural boundary between Texas and Mexico since 1848, should be reinforced with technology and security before the government resorts to physical barriers. neighbors in Texas used to embrace us with friendship, but now I think everything will change.”

Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass, has been fighting this change from the start. He explained how the Department of Homeland Security came to Eagle Pass in January 2006 to give a presentation to the city council, pro- posing a number of new border patrol measures.

These measures were part of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized the con- struction of double-reinforced steel fencing and the installation of lighting, cameras, ve- hicle barriers, and other security measures along the U.S.-Mexico border. At a cost of $49 billion, the Secure Fence Act mandates the construction of 700 miles of fencing through- out the 1,200 miles of border dividing the U.S. and Mexico.

The city council agreed to all proposals except for one: they firmly rejected the idea that a fence might divide Eagle Pass from Piedras Negras.

Foster said DHS officials returned to Eagle Pass in 2007 with a compromise plan that did not include the fence provision. The proposal passed on a three-two vote.

When the mayor asked the two dissenting council members why they voted against the plan, they said they did not trust DHS. Twelve days later, government representatives insisted their hands were tied by the Secure Fence Act, which allows for the construction of physical barriers regardless of objections by local communities. Fence construction would proceed as originally proposed.

Foster worked with the Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials from El Paso to Brownsville, on two separate letters of objection. Neither received a response.

“The first time Eagle Pass got a letter, we were sued for 233 acres of land to begin the project,” Foster said of the ex parte lawsuit filed by DHS in January 2008. “We were sucker-punched.”

The Texas Border Coalition punched back, suing the Department of Homeland Security, but ultimately Foster lost the fight.

City Attorney Eddie Morales said Eagle Pass officials ultimately gave DHS right of entry to the property because they deter- mined it would be “impossible” to win their case against the government.

The United States Army Corps of Engi- neers and DHS have now begun construction on 1.5 miles of fencing in Eagle Pass, a project they aim to complete to “a point of no return” by December 2008.

Salt Cedar Security
The Department of Homeland Security claims that the fence, in combination with doubling the size of border patrol and up- grading to the newest technologies, will help prevent undocumented immigrants, terrorist threats, and illegal substances from crossing the border.

“The bottom line that people need to rec- ognize is that the operational need for the fence is driving our priorities here,” DHS spokesperson laura Keehner told the Glo- balist. “Community activists and landowners need to understand that this is something that is operationally necessary for national security.”

According to DHS, the fence will force illegal traffic to pass through the miles of border left unfenced, which will improve the monitoring capabilities of Border Patrol.

Project construction stages vary across the border, but Keehner explained that fencing progress in California, Arizona, and New Mexico is much further along than in Texas.

Leaders of many Texas border towns have fought fervently against the fence. They argue that the Rio Grande, which has served as a natural boundary between Texas and Mexico since 1848, should be reinforced with technology and security before the govern- ment resorts to physical barriers.

“Our position is that security is a priority, but we feel we can secure Texas if we eradicate the cane and salt cedar and update our technology,” Foster said in reference to the nonnative brush lining the Rio Grande that provides a hiding spot for undocumented immigrants.

Foster offered an explanation for the disconnect with decision-makers in Washington. “San Diego, California is the only border sector with a Congressional liaison office in Washington, and the only border area that Congress officials can take a direct flight to,” Foster said. “Congress officials return from their visits to San Diego thinking they’ve seen a representative sector of the border, when that is far from the truth.” He accused the government of applying blanket policies like the fence that overlook the inherent differences between the Texas-Mexico border and other border regions.

From Fighting to Adjusting
Despite objections by local officials, construction is under way and already impact- ing every citizen in Eagle Pass.

Since flood planes prevent construction along the river, DHS must build through pri- vate property and public grounds to meet its construction goal in Eagle Pass. Conse- quently, the new border fence will separate the city from its public park and divide Eagle Pass from the intake system for its water supply.

Robert Gonzales, general manager of the Eagle Pass Water Works System, originally fought against the fence, but now that con- struction is underway, he is working with DHS to assure the water intake system is preserved.

“There is no question that most every- body would not want to have the wall, but how we feel and think about it versus how we can address it in the best, most sensible way are obviously two different things,” Gonzales said. “If we’re going to get it one way or another, we might as well look into the seriousness of it and how we’re going to try to adjust.”

Rick Chisum, an Eagle Pass resident who leases the land that holds the biweekly flea market near the bridge to Piedras Niegras, is considering how he will adapt to the changes the fence will bring.

“My business will be affected in the sense that the Mexicans will not feel as welcome,” Chisum said. “I was thinking about putting a pole in the market with the Mexican flag to encourage the people on the other side of the border that we are with them.

Division versus Diplomacy
While Gonzales and Chisum work to ad- just to a new reality in Eagle Pass, the debate over the fence continues among politicians and diplomats who fear the effect it will have on the relationship between Mexico and the United States.

“A fence alone won’t protect us from those who want to harm us,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Commit- tee on Homeland Security of the U.S. House of Representatives. “Even DHS has come to realize that we need an integrated approach that combines personnel, equipment, tech- nology and infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, Juan Manuel Nungaray, minister of North American Relations for the Office of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City, emphasized the importance of diplomacy, rather than division, in Mexican-American relations.

“The fence is only a political move,” he said. “The U.S. government knows they need immigration, but this is a concession to con- servatives before the 2008 election to show them that they are doing something about immigration.”

Nungaray continued, “The wall will not curb immigration. People will pass through difficult pathways, which will lead to more deaths, but they will continue to go because many can make a better life for themselves there.”

Nungaray, whose three brothers immi- grated to the U.S., said the upcoming administration must consider its relationship with Mexico to be a cooperative partnership of supply and demand.

“Somos vecinos y amigos,” he said, ex- tending his hand. “We are neighbors and friends.”

Handshakes and Heartaches
In northern Mexico, Mayor Foster shared a handshake and a hug with Jesus Mario Flores Garza, then-mayor of Piedras Negras, as they sat down to discuss the fence.

“The relationship between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras will definitely change,” Garza said. “Our customs come from many years of being united, and our ways of life will not be the same.”

“This is una verguenza,” Foster said. “A disgrace.” “I respect the rights of the U.S. to protect itself, but there are many ways besides walls to protect a country,” Garza, a close colleague and friend of Foster, continued.“Walls have long been a part of history, and they always fall, they always fail.”

Catherine Cheney is a junior Political Science and International Studies double major in Trumbull College and a senior editor for the Globalist.

Feds deliver domain notices

Brownsville Herald
October 30, 2008

by Kevin Sieff

Moving forward with its plans to construct a border fence in the Rio Grande Valley, the federal government has filed land condemnation lawsuits involving nine Cameron County properties whose owners are unknown, deceased or unresponsive.

In South Texas, where land deeds are often convoluted or outdated, it's a vital formality before construction on the barrier can begin.

"We're moving forward with our real estate proceedings," said Angela de Rocha, spokeswoman for the U.S Department of Homeland Security.

In cases of unknown ownership, the government must run an advertisement in local newspapers, informing the public of pending lawsuits. The two-page advertisement ran in Thursday's Brownsville Herald, detailing several swaths of property throughout the county.

As of Sept. 10, 97 landowners in the Valley had refused to sell their property to the federal government, according to a Government Accountability Office report. DHS officials say they've continued resolving cases, but they've encountered a number of convoluted deeds.

Judge Andrew Hanen will hear seven land condemnation lawsuits this morning - a fraction of the remaining cases.

After receiving its appropriation request from Congress, the DHS is continuing with its plans to complete the fence in the coming months. But with so many pending condemnation lawsuits - and no sign of construction in Cameron County - the government's initial Dec. 31 deadline appears increasingly unrealistic.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Officials on border questioning need for fence

Citing decline in arrests of illegal immigrants, they see more agents as the solution

Houston Chronicle
October 26, 2008

For business and elected leaders in Texas border towns, it's a simple question: Since arrests of illegal immigrants are declining steadily along the Texas-Mexico border, why should the controversial and costly fence be completed?

An analysis by the Texas Border Coalition, an association of elected officials and business leaders, shows a 56 percent drop in arrests during the last four years by the U.S. Border Patrol on the Texas-Mexico border.

Government officials have maintained for years that fewer arrests mean fewer immigrants are trying to cross the border illegally.

The declining immigration arrests have revived the debate over the effectiveness of the planned fence because only a half-mile of the 110 miles of pedestrian fencing planned for the Texas border is finished. As government budget deficits soar, some question how fiscally prudent it is to build and maintain a project the Congressional Research Service estimates to cost $49 billion.

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, who heads the border coalition, said a steady increase of Border Patrol staffing is responsible for the declining arrests.

"We have a new Border Patrol station opened in Eagle Pass in the last six months, and the Border Patrol has continued to recruit agents," Foster said. "I think because of their strong presence (on the border), that links back to reduced apprehensions."

However, some experts maintain that a slowing economy is more responsible for the lower number of arrests. With fewer jobs available, fewer immigrants try to migrate north. That raises an obvious question: When the U.S. economy recovers, won't more immigrants try to cross into America illegally, thus making a case for a border fence?

Foster, however, said by the time the economy bounces back Congress will have passed long-anticipated immigration reform that includes a guest worker program. Immigrant workers will cross the border lawfully through ports of entry.

His border group notes that in San Diego, where heavy fencing and walls have been in place for years, apprehensions are up 28 percent during the last four years.

"Here we are in middle of a financial crisis, and we're going to spend billions on something that doesn't make sense?" said Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas. "Walls don't work — people go under, over and around them."

Fence widely opposed
Elected officials from nearly every Texas border town oppose the fence, saying it's not as effective as more border agents and installing high-tech surveillance technology.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman said that by mid-October, 210 of the 370 miles of planned pedestrian fencing and 153 of the 300 miles of vehicle barriers were finished, most of it in New Mexico, Arizona and California.

"Our operational analysis of the border has shown that fencing is a critical component of our border security strategy," said CBP spokesman Michael Friel. "The Border Patrol has made the determination that fencing is needed in certain areas along our nation's border."

Friel said construction will pick up on the Texas border as the Dec. 31 deadline nears to complete all 670 miles of fencing mandated for the Southwest border.

He said it was "not logical" to suggest that areas with fencing have more border crossers.

According to Border Patrol statistics, apprehensions of illegal immigrants along the Southwest border have fallen dramatically in the last four years. In fiscal year 2005, nearly 1.2 million immigrants were arrested, dropping to 1 million in 2006 and 860,000 by 2007. In the first 11 months of the most recent fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, arrests on the border had fallen to 660,000.

The head of a border agents union said fencing only delays illegal immigrants for the few minutes it takes them to climb over the barrier. If there are not enough agents in the area to detain them as they attempt to enter, they simply slip by.

"We don't build fences that slice and dice people," said T.J. Bonner, president of the 14,000-member National Border Patrol Council. "We design fences that slow people down ... and if you don't have the agents in place, that's all you've done."

Bonner said immigration arrests are misleading because agents say two illegal immigrants make it across the border for every one who is detained.

He said the higher number of arrests in San Diego is related to moving agents to Arizona.

"Tucson staffing has increased while the staffing in San Diego has decreased. That explains why (illegal immigrants are) going back to San Diego — because the odds of being caught in Tucson are higher," Bonner said.

Dual functions
Opposition to the fence has been blunted in some border communities, where the government incorporated the barrier with needed projects.

In Hidalgo County, county and drainage district officials teamed up with the federal government and are rebuilding dirt levees on the river with 22 miles of concrete walls topped with security fencing. The $179 million project, funded in part with $48.5 million in local flood control funds, is on existing right-of-way and does not require land acquisition.

In Laredo, plans to fence miles of riverfront were scrapped when local Border Patrol officials determined it was not needed. Instead, Border Patrol officials added hundreds of agents, are planning to clear thick stands of non-native cane that provides hiding places on the river bank and instituted a zero-tolerance arrest policy for first-time border crossers. As a result, arrests have dropped 23 percent in the last fiscal year.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Noriega Knocks Border Wall

Austin Chronicle
August 15, 2008

Staying on the offensive in his challenge to incumbent Republican John Cornyn, Demo­cratic U.S. Senate candidate Rick Noriega today unveiled his plan to deal with illegal immigration. (Just last month, Noriega released an energy plan.) The immigration plan focuses on three central planks: Secure the border with manpower and electronics rather than a wall, crack down on those who hire illegal immigrants, and "turn the immigrants into taxpayers."

Noriega jabbed at Cornyn for first rejecting and then later tepidly embracing a border wall. Noriega is no doubt banking on anger over the wall among border residents as a source of votes from that region. Calling the wall "impractical," Noriega's plan says: "Gimmicks don't count on the border. Hard work does." That hard work would be carried out by 18,000 new Border Patrol agents, what Noriega calls Operation Jump Start II (Noriega, a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, served as the Laredo sector commander in the original Operation Jump Start, which sent 6,000 Guard troops to the border in 2006).

Noriega has clearly chosen to embrace whatever voters there may be out there who are reasonable about the 12 million undocumented immigrants in this nation and decided not to worry about the more hysterical anti-immigrant faction – the plan explicitly rejects calls for mass deportations as "not realistic and ... financially unsound," and cites a study showing "that removing undocumented immigrants from Texas would cost the state gross product over $17 billion and that this population puts $420 million more into [the] Texas state economy than they use in services."

A request for a reply from Cornyn was not returned as of press time, but last year, in a speech to the Border Trade Alliance, he was squishy on the wall issue. Similar to Norie­ga's policy, Cornyn told the alliance: "I believe that the primary solution with border security has to be more Border Patrol agents, because right now we only have about 10,000 Border Patrol agents. ... And then, I believe that technology remains the primary answer beyond the human component. ... Now fencing, which I do believe is one component of the solution, has to be done in a cost-effective and an intelligent and reasonable sort of way. I have long said that I do not support a fence or, as some said, a wall between the United States and Mexico. That's irrational and just doesn't make sense, because we know that people can come over fences or walls; they can go under them; they can go through them, given sufficient opportunity."

Noriega's entire plan may be downloaded at

Thursday, October 23, 2008

U.S. to miss deadline on Mexico border fence

October 23, 2008

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will miss its deadline to complete a security fence along the Mexican border this year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Thursday.
"I don't think we're going to hit the nail on the head and be done by the end of the year," Chertoff told Reuters, adding that about 370 miles of the planned 670-mile (1,070-km) fence had been completed.
Chertoff said he hoped when the Bush administration leaves office in January about 90 to 95 percent of the fence -- a controversial measure that has raised hackles both with Mexico and with U.S. landowners along the proposed route -- would be completed or under construction.
"We've gotten most of the way there. We will be very substantially close," he told Reuters in an interview.
Congress has mandated that the fence, which will eventually stretch from California to Texas to help stem the tide of illegal immigration, be finished this year but law suits have slowed its progress.
"We've had some delay because the court proceedings in Texas have gone more slowly than I thought ... Although every time there's actually been a legal challenge, we've won," Chertoff said.
The nearly 2,000-mile 3,200-km border with Mexico is the main entry route for illegal immigrants into the United States, which is already home to 11 million to 12 million undocumented aliens, or one in every 20 workers in the country.
Better enforcement and mounting U.S. economic troubles have slowed the influx however. Border patrol agents arrested 880,000 people crossing illegally in 2007, down from 1.1 million a year earlier.
The fence is aimed at slowing the migration further, but it has been hit by delays.
About 54 percent of the proposed fence is to be built on private property, raising concerns among ranchers who fear they will lose access to irrigation pumps and ecologists who worry it will block the migration of endangered species such as the jaguar and ocelot.
The U.S. Justice Department has filed dozens of lawsuits seeking court orders to gain access to property for surveying while the Supreme Court has rejected a legal challenge by two environmental groups to Chertoff's decision to waive 19 federal laws to speed construction of the fence.
Chertoff said progress was being made on other measures aimed at boosting border security, including moves to double the number of border patrol personnel on the job to more than 18,000 by the end of 2008.
"We will hit the 18,000 target," he said.
He said that plans for a $21 million expansion of a high-tech "virtual fence" along parts of the border were being implemented and the first test section was yielding results.
"We've used it to catch thousands of illegal migrants we've also seized several tons of marijuana," he said.
The government announced this year that it was awarding Boeing Co contracts to build two sections of the fence that would include fixed towers, radar and ground sensors, remote control cameras and software linking border agents.
Newspapers have reported delays with the system, but Chertoff said there were still plans to deploy elements of the virtual fence around Tucson and Yuma in Arizona over the next year or so.
Chertoff said U.S. officials were working with their Mexican counterparts to develop measures such as border checks to help stem the trafficking of guns southward from the United States, a major complaint in Mexico.
"There's no question that having some border control facility will be an important part of their strategy for keeping guns out," he said.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New Fence Will Split a Border Park

New York Times
October 21, 2008

IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. — At a time of tumult over immigration, with illegal workers routed from businesses, record levels of deportations, border walls getting taller and longer, Friendship Park here has stood out as a spot where international neighbors can chat easily over the fence.

Or through it, anyway. Families and friends, some of them unable to cross the border because of legal or immigration trouble, exchange kisses, tamales and news through small gaps in the tattered chain-link fence. Yoga and salsa dancing, communion rites, protest and quiet reflection all transpire in the shadow of a stone obelisk commemorating the area where Mexican and American surveyors began demarcating the border nearly 160 years ago after the war between the countries.

“It’s hard to see each other, to touch,” said Manuel Meza, an American citizen sharing coffee and lunch through the fence with his wife, who was deported and now drives three hours for regular visits at the fence. “It’s strange, but our love is stronger than the fence.”

But in a sign of changing times, new border fencing that the Department of Homeland Security is counting on to help curtail illegal crossings and attacks on Border Patrol agents will slice through the park, limiting access to the monument and fence-side socializing.

In addition to the fence, a second, steel mesh barrier will line the border for several yards on the United States side, creating a no-man’s land intended to slow or stop crossings.

With construction expected to begin early next month, the federal and state governments are still negotiating how to provide some access to the monument. But more than a few San Diegans see a paradox in an area meant to celebrate friendship taking on tones of distance and separation. Pat Nixon, the former first lady, at a dedication here in 1971, declared, “I hate to see a fence anywhere” as she stepped into Mexico to shake hands.

“It’s harmful to the kind of family culture we have at the border,” said Representative Bob Filner, Democrat of California, who has urged the department not to build in the park. “We have a friendly country at the border. We have family ties across the border. It is one place, certainly in San Diego, where we talk about friendship at the border.”

But Border Patrol officials, who regularly post agents there, said the park had an underside.
Although much activity may be innocent, smugglers have taken advantage by passing drugs and contraband through openings. People have even tried to pass babies through ragged metal slats that mark the border on the beach, said Michael J. Fisher, the chief patrol agent in San Diego. The agency now operates a checkpoint to screen people leaving the park.

“It’s a real shame,” Mr. Fisher said, gazing down as a young boy playing on the beach darted briefly across the border, then back again. “It is a nice area with the historical marker. Having people meet and mingle is good. But unfortunately, any time you have an area that is open, the criminal organizations are going to exploit that.”

“We cannot,” he added, “have it open, not at the expense of reducing the ability to patrol the border.”

The new fencing is part of a 14-mile project to reinforce and build new barriers from the ocean to areas east of the Otay Mesa port of entry. The project includes filling in a deep valley known as Smuggler’s Gulch, a notorious crossing point just east of the park, with tons of dirt, to the dismay of environmentalists.

Unlike the trend in the past year or two along most of the 2,000-mile Southwest border, Mr. Fisher said, illegal crossings have increased in the San Diego area, along with attacks on agents who encounter smugglers raining stones and other objects on them and their trucks. One-fourth of all such assaults, he said, occur in the San Diego sector, which more than a decade ago was one of the hottest spots for illegal crossings.

While a flood of new agents and bolstered fencing has pushed much of the crossings to the eastern deserts and the sea, where smuggling by boat is a growing problem, people still regularly climb over, tunnel under or cut through the fence, sometimes with blowtorches and sophisticated cutting tools.

But critics of the plan to extend the fencing in Friendship Park said the Border Patrol had exaggerated problems there, one of a smattering of spots along the border where the prospect of new fencing has dampened cross-border bonhomie.

Naco, Ariz., no longer plays an annual volleyball game using the fence as a net because the ragged wire one has been replaced by a taller barrier of solid plates. Residents of Jacumba, Calif., and Jacume, Mexico, who once freely crossed back and forth, complain that reinforced fencing has severed generation-long ties.

But Friendship Park, part of the surrounding Border Field State Park, had come to symbolize the tight embrace of San Diego and Tijuana, the border’s biggest cities.

Already, construction of the new fence has cut off a long stretch of the old one. But on a recent Sunday, a steady stream of people came to greet friends and relatives there.

Jacqueline Huerta pressed her face against the fence on the Tijuana side to get her first look at her 4-month-old niece, Yisell.

“Oh, how cute you are,” she exclaimed, forcing her hand through an opening to caress the baby’s hair.

“Where else can she do that?” said Ms. Huerta’s mother, Socorro Estrada, who drove six hours from Bakersfield, Calif., with family members to the fence. The baby’s father said he was on probation and could not leave the country and, in any case, Ms. Estrada had advised them against traveling into Mexico with such a young infant.

Nearby, the Rev. John Fanestil, a United Methodist minister, offered his weekly communion through the fence, passing the wafer through a hole to a small gathering on the Mexican side. (Technically, that was a customs violation, but Border Patrol agents nearby tolerate most casual contact.)

“Arresting a clergy person for passing a communion wafer through the fence would be a public relations nightmare for them,” Mr. Fanestil said with a smile just before beginning.

Juventino Martin Gonzalez, 40, accepted the wafer. He had been deported to Mexico a month ago after living and working in the United States for 20 years, fathering three children, now teenagers, here.

He came, he said, for a glimpse of the American side he still considers home.

“It is hard because I was the one paying the rent,” he said. “I belong over there, not here. But until then, this is the closest I can get, but it is not close enough for them.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Texas group opposing border fence in Washington

Houston Chronicle
October 21, 2008

DALLAS — A fence along the U.S.-Mexico border would trample on human rights and its construction should be halted, a group from the University of Texas will contend during the first international hearing on the issue Wednesday.

Several students and faculty will present their concerns during the hearing in Washington before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is part of the Organization of American States.

The university group wants the commission to recommend stopping the construction of 670 miles of barriers that were approved by Congress in an effort to stem illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

"I think this hearing is the moment when the border wall issue becomes an international human rights issue," said Denise Gilman, a professor who oversees the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. The group contends the U.S is violating an OAS human rights agreement by building the fence.

A representative from the U.S. can respond to the group's contentions during the hearing, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Lloyd Easterling said the agency will not.
"Because of pending litigation on several issues ... it really would be inappropriate," he said.

A fence would infringe on traditional ceremonies conducted along the Rio Grande River by the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. The fence also would impede the Kickapoo from crossing freely between Texas and Mexico, a right secured through an agreement with the federal government, the group said.

CBP wouldn't address specific allegations from the group, Easterling said.

Members of the UT group point to an analysis that found small landowners will lose property to the fence while more lucrative and developed parcels are not in the fence's path. Those whose land will be most affected tend to be poor, less educated Latino families, the analysis by an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville found.

"There's a connection between income and education levels related to gaps in the fence," said Karla Vargas, a law school and public affairs student who is part of the university group. "It's definitely an argument for bias and discrimination toward the lower income community."

Easterling said CBP, which is in charge of the border fence, has held many discussions with local governments and landowners since the start of the project.

The UT group plans to urge the commission to request more detailed information about the project from the U.S. government. Requests by the university group to the federal government for details on the plan have yet to be answered even though they were made in April under the Freedom of Information Act, Gilman said.

"So the government really has not been transparent on information on this," she said.

Members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights do not give opinions immediately after the hearing or at the end of a session. If the commission chooses decides to take any action, it would not be judicially binding, said spokeswoman Maria Isabel Rivero.

UT faculty and students began studying plans to build a fence along the border after being approached by the Tamez family, Lipan Apache property owners who oppose the wall because it would cut through land that's been in the family for centuries, back to Spanish land grants.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Border-fence dispute snares rare jaguars

May 5, 2008

DOUGLAS, Arizona (CNN) -- It's a tale of homeland security concerns blocking wildlife management, and the hue and cry that ensues.

When most people think of jaguars, they think of the jungles of Central and South America, not the remote desert ranges between the United States and Mexico.

That region is known as mountain lion country, and that's what rancher Warner Glenn thought he was tracking when he saddled up his mules on a summer day 12 years ago near Douglas, Arizona.

Glenn has hunted mountain lions for 60 years, since he was eight years old. But Glenn was stunned when he saw what his hunting dogs had chased up to a high mountain perch.

The rancher took what's believed to be the first photo of a live jaguar in the United States. But it wasn't his last. In 2006, some 40 miles away, Glenn and his hunting party again cornered a jaguar -- a different one.

Jaguars, an endangered species, have a breeding population in northern Mexico. Scientists believe there are no more than 120 left in the wild there.

It's believed that since 1910, the cats are only visitors north of the border. They have been virtually unstudied here until recently.

But Glenn and other conservationists worry that the possible return of breeding jaguars to the United States could be stopped in its tracks. The reason: the border fence.

Last month the Department of Homeland Security waived 30 environmental laws to finish 470 miles of the fence by the end of the year.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress that the agency continues to talk to some 600 landowners along the border to get their input. But in order to comply with the congressional mandate, he said, there is no time to deal with "unnecessary delays caused by administrative processes or potential litigation."

"We are currently in a lawless situation at the border," says Chertoff. "I feel an urgency to get this tactical infrastructure in. And although we're going to be respectful of the environment, we're going to be expeditious."

Two environmental groups, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, have filed appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming the waivers are unconstitutional and set a dangerous precedent.

"National security and environmental protection do not have to be at odds with each other," says Defenders of Wildlife spokesman Matt Clark. "If we can drop this arbitrary deadline for constructing the fence and go through the proper procedures, then there are inevitably ways to minimize environmental impact, but as it is now it's throwing all of those laws out the window."

Mountain lion tracker Jack Childs also worries about the impact of the fence on local wildlife, especially the jaguar.

Childs captured the first video of a live jaguar in the late summer of 1996, a few months after Warner Glenn. Watch Childs and Glenn talk about efforts to preserve the jaguar »

"I knew historically there had been a few jaguars sighted in Arizona but in the last hundred years never in any numbers."

His encounter sparked a passion for the big cats. Along with wife Anna and biologist Emil McCain, he created the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project.

Childs and McCain hike into remote mountain areas where the jaguars roam and have placed more than 50 motion sensor cameras near the border. They've taken 69 photos of three different jaguars since 2001, including several of the same cat Childs first saw in 1996.

He has nicknamed that cat Macho B.

A jaguar's spots are like fingerprints -- each cat has a unique set. One of the spots on Macho B resembles a Pinocchio cartoon figure, and that's how they identify him.

"We spend a lot of time walking along the border during the daytime, and we actually find his tracks going through the fence, so we know for sure that he crosses back and forth," says Childs.

"A fence like that is going to inhibit wildlife movements and migrations back and forth. It's not going to effectively stop human traffic. They've got wire cutters and torches." See where the jaguars have been spotted »

Childs says the fence also has an impact on wildlife because drug runners and human traffickers have been pushed up into the mountain areas to avoid the fence in the lowland valleys.

"It's impacting the animals number one, what's going on down there. It's almost brought my wildlife study to a stop because they (the traffickers) are tearing down my cameras as fast as I'm putting them up because they think we're taking pictures of them."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds itself in a unique position. Its mission is wildlife and habitat protection, but it must uphold another federal agency's mission to override environmental concerns. Bill Radke, manager of the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge, says the Border Patrol is trying to work with his agency.

"The hope is that by working with Border Patrol that we can meet the national security mandate and at the same time protect the wildlife," says Radke. "Border Patrol is putting up camera towers but are putting them up on areas that are off the refuge. They're working on barriers but not barriers that would impede wildlife and large animals like jaguars."

At 6 foot 6, with steely blue eyes, dressed in leather chaps astride his mule, rancher Warner Glenn is every inch the American cowboy. And he is a man forever changed by his encounters with the jaguar. He has written a book, "Eyes of Fire," about his experience. He says he'd like to "invite Mr. Bush to come out on a mule" so he can see "what's going on here in these mountains."

For Glenn, the cat represents all that is wild about the Southwest.

"It would be a loss to me that maybe my granddaughter or my daughter wouldn't be able to see one like I have. It's just an animal that's a beautiful, magnificent cat and they're having a little bit of trouble surviving. But they're doing it, and I would hate to see us do anything that would cause the survival of that cat to go backwards.

"I'm a livestock rancher, but I wouldn't mind donating a few calves to that jaguar, so to speak."

Biologist Emil McCain agrees.

"They are part of our natural heritage. They are part of the American West. They are part of the American wild as much as the bald eagle or the grizzly bear, and the jaguar is really special because it is such an elusive and beautiful creature [that] it evokes a sense of imagination and curiosity about the natural world."

Though the jaguar is elusive, conservationists say the animal is caught -- in the political crossfire at the border.

A Growing Divide: Families Dread the Pending Fortification of Border at a Park on the U.S.-Mexican Line

Washington Post
October 19, 2008

BORDER FIELD STATE PARK, Calif. -- Each face would be overlaid with the rusted chain links of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, but Jorge Ibarra snapped the photos anyway.

There was his cousin, holding up her baby boy for the family to see. There, his aunt, wiping her eyes under the shade of her parasol. And there, his grandmother, her face filled with joy as she touched her daughter's fingertips through the fence with her own.

Ibarra, 17, of National City, Calif., shot the family photos on a recent Sunday afternoon here, where the 2,000-mile line separating the United States and Mexico sinks into the Pacific Ocean. For years, Mexican American families have flocked to this beachside park to see, touch, hear and feed loved ones through the modest openings of the fence.

But the days of such reunions are numbered. Starting this month, construction of a more fortified barrier along the southern edge of the park and the three miles to the east will begin as part of the federal government's crackdown on drug and document smuggling, illegal crossings and violence in the surrounding area.

Two 15-foot-high fences will flank the current one, forging a 90-foot-wide stretch for a paved border patrol road and stadium lights, according to Angela de Rocha, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokeswoman. The gap will transform the dynamics of the gatherings here, preventing touching and close conversation. With only distant glimpses to offer, it may mark an end to many, if not all, such visits.

"We don't know when they're going to do it," said Ibarra, standing with his sister, mother and young nephews. "So we've been trying to come every weekend."

The $60 million construction project comprises the western portion of the San Diego Border Infrastructure System, a 14-mile, federally mandated initiative that dates to 1996. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) secured funding for the fence and thousands more Border Patrol Officers to combat rampant smuggling of illegal immigrants and border gangs who raped, robbed and murdered along portions of this border north of Tijuana.

Some construction was completed, slicing the numbers of illegal immigrants, bandits and drug smugglers who traversed the border, Hunter said.

But until this year, litigation has delayed construction of these three miles. Environmental groups opposed flattening terrain by lopping the tops off two mesas and pouring 5.5 million cubic feet of dirt into a canyon known as Smuggler's Gulch, an area prone to narcotics smuggling.

In 2005, when Congress gave Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff the power to waive all regulations that govern border construction, the project was cleared to proceed.

A newly erected mesh enclosure in the 418-acre park has squeezed visitors into a smaller space, sending them down to the beach or a small strip on a bluff. Most prefer the bluff near the 1851 border monument, the Italian marble obelisk that marks the end of the Mexican-American War and Mexico's ceding of the land that now forms the Southwestern United States.

This is where visitors come now, against the backdrop of Tijuana's Bull Ring, with umbrellas or folding chairs slung under their arms. They bring photo albums. They share updates and laugh. Many say nothing for long periods, standing, eyes closed, foreheads against the fence, fingers intertwined through the links.

But the scene is not as harmless as it looks, said Lloyd Easterling, assistant chief with the Border Patrol. Drugs and false documents are passed through the fence's holes -- holes that are repeatedly repaired and sliced open -- while thieves cross illegally to burglarize nearby communities.

"It's going on in secret but in a very open area, right under people's noses," Easterling said.
Easterling said agents are compassionate toward visitors and families. Many have relatives of their own living in Mexico, he said. But with smuggling and assaults increasing, he said, securing the border is a necessity.

Since October of last year, agents have apprehended more than 150,000 people, more than 45,000 pounds of marijuana and 654 pounds of cocaine in the San Diego area alone, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. Hunter said the illegal activity and violence in bordering Tijuana, where escalating drug wars have killed scores of people in a matter of weeks, has scared people away from visiting the otherwise beautiful destination.

"Nobody gets to enjoy this park. There are tons of gangs there. They are passing narcotics through the wire. Because of the historic rapes and murders there, people are afraid to go out after dark," he said. "Once we fence the park, people will be able to enjoy it again."

The characterization clashed with what San Diego Spanish teacher Daniel Watman has known.

"For 10 years, I've never seen one iota of violence," said Watman, who also heads the Border Meetup Group, a band of people who participate in poetry readings, yoga, and language exchanges along the fence. "I don't think it's dangerous at all."

Watman said most people no longer bring food to the fence. "They stopped a lady who was passing tamales through the fence to her grandkids," he said.

Some remain unaware of the construction, such as one 35-year-old garment worker from Los Angeles, who declined to give his name. He had driven three hours to visit his wife at the park, a routine they had recently started.

"Now that I've barely laid eyes upon her, they're going to push me back," he said in Spanish. It wouldn't be worth coming anymore, he said, if he could not talk to or touch her. His 5-year-old daughter stared up at him from the other side of the fence, her small fingers curling around its links. What would he say when she asked why she could no longer see him?

He looked down at her. "Because of the wall."

Friday, October 17, 2008

Fencing the Border

The Politic
October 15, 2008

A dubious attempt to deter immigrants

By Geri Smith

Geri Smith is the Mexico Bureau Chief and Senior Correspondent for Latin America for BusinessWeek magazine. She has lived in the region for 28 years, covering economic policy, business and industry, and politics. During her time in Mexico, Smith has taken many trips to the U.S.-Mexican border, the most recent of which occurred in January during the final testing of the Bush administration’s proposed “virtual fence.”

Stretching for nearly 2,100 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S.-Mexico border meanders through grassy plains, steep can­yons, rattlesnake-infested desert terrain, a muddy river with treacherous currents, and people’s backyards. Apart from the busy official crossings, where billions of dollars in trade and hundreds of thousands of commuters cross daily, much of the border is unmarked and unfenced. With the exception of prosperous San Diego County, there is little to indicate that this is the boundary of the world’s richest nation: ramshackle trailer homes, dusty, unpaved roads, and payday loan shops give this dismal stretch of the U.S. the look of a hardscrabble developing country.

Yet, for many Mexicans and Central Americans, the U.S. border beckons: migrants refer to a popular crossing point near Sasabe, Arizona as “la puerta dorada”—the golden door—their gate­way to a more prosperous future. The estimated half-million migrants who manage to sneak illegally into the U.S. each year are drawn by the prospect of jobs paying five times more than they can earn back home. For that, they are willing to risk their lives making the often dangerous journey across the bor­derlands; over the past decade, around 500 migrants a year have perished while crossing.

As the United States heads into a recession, public opin­ion is turning against undocumented migrants, believed to depress wages and take jobs that unskilled Americans might want. Even presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, who last year co-sponsored a comprehensive immigration reform bill that failed to pass, is now making a more simplistic promise to voters: he pledges that “as president, I will secure our borders” first. Democratic con­tenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both advocate exploring high-tech solutions to boost border security. It’s understandable that politicians believe they must show voters they are serious about solving the problem of il­legal immigration, but the current focus on fence-building will achieve little if it is not accompanied by meaningful immigration reform that recognizes the strong economic and labor links between Mexico and the U.S.

Building fences to keep unwanted migrants out is tempting, but it is a dubious proposition because fences are easy to breach, especially in remote areas that the Border Patrol cannot regularly police. Just 300 miles of fenc­ing have been erected over the past 15 years, most of it clustered around a half-dozen main ports of entry along the southwestern border. That fenc­ing, floodlit at night and monitored by video cameras, is designed to keep migrants from crossing in urban areas, where it is easier for them to quickly melt into the crowd. Congress in 2006 approved the Secure Fence Act, au­thorizing construction of another 700 miles of fences. But it’s slow going: just 70 miles were built last year, with another 225 miles planned for 2008. Since President George W. Bush took of­fice in 2000, the number of Border Patrol agents has nearly doubled to 14,900, supplemented by up to 6,000 National Guard troops, whose deployment ends this summer. The Department of Homeland Security credits the additional fencing and manpower with helping cut apprehensions of migrants by 20% last year, to 877,000.

Recently, I traveled to Nogales, Arizona, just south of Tucson, to see if the new fencing was deterring migrants. Private contractors were fin­ishing up a seven-mile-long segment of 15-foot-high barriers made of ce­ment-filled steel tubes anchored three feet deep in the desert sand. Designed to resist blowtorches, climbers and the impact of a heavily-loaded vehicle, the fence looked pretty formidable. But when I witnessed a Border Patrol chase a few hours later, I realized there is only so much a fence can do. Smug­glers driving a pickup truck packed with a dozen would-be migrants, pursued by two helicopters and five patrol cars in a high-speed highway chase, screeched up to the brand-new barrier, easily shim­mied over and dropped to safety on the Mexican side. As one of the Border Patrol agents told me, “Border fences don’t keep people out—they just slow them down.”

Smugglers are ingenious: Some use blow-torches to cut door-size holes in the fence, to which they attach hinges and a padlock for regular use. Officials recently seized a truck retrofitted with extendible ramps allowing other vehicles to drive up and over any barrier. As Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has remarked, “you show me a 50-foot fence, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.”

Fences are expensive, too, with one Army Corps of Engineers study estimating that erecting and maintaining a sturdy barrier along the entire border for 25 years could cost from $37 billion to $150 billion. In the 1990s, the government installed ground sensors and cameras to keep better track of would-be crossers. The Bush Administra­tion hoped to harness that technology to create a “virtual fence” to substitute for some on-the-ground patrols, and it paid aerospace and defense contractor Boeing Corp. $20 million to build nine communications towers along a 28-mile stretch of the Arizona border to test the concept. The towers, rising 98 feet above the desert scrubland, are equipped with radar and infrared cameras that use Wi-Fi technology to transmit images and data to a command cen­ter in Tucson and to laptops installed in 50 Border Patrol vehicles. But the experiment was plagued by software and equipment glitches—cameras couldn’t distinguish between coyotes and humans—and in February, Homeland Security scrapped plans to deploy the virtual fence along the Mexican and Canadian borders.

For more than a century, Mexicans have been crossing into the United States to work, with migration flows expand­ing and contracting in response to economic circumstances in the two countries. Under the World War II-era “bracero” program, some 4.2 million Mexicans worked six months each year in the U.S. on farms and in factories to replace American G.I.’s fighting abroad. When that formal program ended in 1964, illegal immigration began to rise.

In 1986, Congress granted amnesty to around 3 million Mexicans and introduced workplace sanctions for compa­nies found to have undocumented employees. But the sanc­tions were ineffective, and in the early 1990s, when voters in California and several other states balked at providing education and health services to growing numbers of il­legal immigrants, the Clinton Administration again turned its focus to border enforcement. A 14-mile-long double fence made of steel mesh and welded metal panels—surplus airplane landing mats from the Vietnam War—was built between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. It wasn’t cheap, costing $9 million per mile, but it did dramatically cut the number of illegal crossings in that area, which led many to believe that fences were the solution. Yet, migrant flows simply moved to other stretches of the border, because demand was high: the American economy was booming and workers were needed to build, landscape, and clean thousands of homes, hotels, and shopping centers.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, prompted a serious tightening of border security, though, and migrants who used to travel home periodically to visit family instead stayed put, paying smugglers known as coyotes as much as $3,000 per person to bring in their spouses and children to live in the U.S. Ironically, the expanded border fence, rather than keeping people out, may actually keep many migrants fenced in. And immigration experts estimate that one-third to one-half of the 12 million undocumented migrants in the U.S. didn’t scale any border fence at all: they entered the country legally and then overstayed their visas.

Ralph Basham, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Bor­der Protection (CBP), told a Congressional hearing in March that it may be impossible to meet CBP’s own timetable for having “operational control” over the border with Mexico by 2011, in spite of $2.7 billion spent since 2006 and another $775 million requested for fiscal year 2008. That goal, he said, had assumed that comprehensive immigration reform would be in place by now. The bill that the Senate failed to pass last year would have created 200,000 two-year visas for temporary workers and offered a path to legal residence for migrants if they paid a fine and learned English.

As long as the incomes of Mexicans remain just one-fifth of those of Americans, people will continue to breach the border, fenced or not. Exaggerated sales pitches for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) promised that the pact would dramatically narrow the wage gap, reducing migratory pressure, but that has not happened; Mexico consistently fails to create enough jobs for the 1 million young people who enter the work force each year. Certainly, the government could take steps to improve working conditions: Mexico’s insufficient protection of independent labor union organiz­ing has contributed to continued low wages by weakening workers’ collective bargaining efforts. That has led to calls by both of the Democratic presidential candidates for renegotiation of NAFTA to strengthen its labor-protection pro­visions. If NAFTA is re-opened, however, Mexico will surely push for freer cross-border movement of labor.

President Felipe Calderón says building a border fence is not a neighborly solution and insists the U.S. should reform its immigration laws to “recognize reality, our complementa­ry economies, and the importance of the free movement of labor to increase North America’s competitiveness.” Mexico, he says, cannot afford to continue losing some of its most enterprising citizens to the U.S., but at the same time, many Mexican communities have become dependent on migrant remittances from the United States, which reached $24 bil­lion last year, outstripping foreign direct investment in the country. As the U.S. economy slows, affecting industries that employ undocumented labor, some Mexican migrants will return home In January, remittances were down 5.9% from the same month in 2007, the largest drop in 13 years, indicating tougher times ahead for migrants.

For many migrants, the writing is already on the wall. At a shelter in Nogales, on the Mexican side of the border, I met 21-year-old Ramiro, who had lived most of his life in Arizona but was deported after a minor traffic violation revealed he was in the U.S. illegally. The new border fence didn’t worry him in the least: he planned to leave Nogales on foot at 3 a.m., walk seven miles to detour around the fence, and then hop a cargo train to Phoenix. Two days later, he made the 26-hour journey, and when I tracked him down on his sister’s mobile phone, he cockily chalked up his feat to “Mexican ingenuity.” He no longer had his job as a restaurant cook, though: the owner, fearful of losing his business license under Arizona’s tough new workplace-enforcement rules, said Ramiro had to prove legal residence in order to work there. In the end, it wasn’t the expensive new fence that had deterred him.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Natural Treasure That May End Up Without a Country

New York Times
April 7, 2008

At the very bottom of this country, where the Rio Grande loops up and down as if determined to thwart territorial imperatives, there sits a natural wonderland called the Sabal Palm Audubon Center. Rare birds of impossible colors dart about the rustling jungle, while snakes slink, tortoises dawdle and the occasional ocelot grants a rare sighting.

After decades of reclamation and preservation, and after millions of public and private dollars spent, this has become a vital place in one of the nation’s very poorest cities. Beyond the busloads of gawking schoolchildren, the center also attracts birders from around the world to spend money the color of their beloved olive sparrow in local restaurants and hotels.

But if you yearn to hear the clattering call of the chachalaca at Sabal Palm, your travel plans perhaps should factor in the Fence. Yes, the Fence: that ever-encroaching cross between the Berlin Wall and Christo’s Gates (Artist: Michael Chertoff, secretary of homeland security, with funding provided by the United States of America).

The guardians of Sabal Palm fear, and with good reason, that in trying to keep out illegal immigrants, the Department of Homeland Security will soon be erecting the border fence just north of the bird sanctuary, effectively trimming this natural treasure from the rest of the country and probably forcing its closure. In other words, they say, a very thoughtful gift of about 550 acres to Mexico.

And this may be a gift that keeps on giving. Conservationists and landowners worry that the Fence will also cut across a river-hugging wildlife corridor that stretches over several Texas counties, painstakingly restored and maintained by, among others, the federal government.

Nailing down Homeland Security’s plans is like trying to spot the elusive ocelot. When asked whether the agency intends to build the Fence north of the sanctuary, its chief spokesman, Russ Knocke, said: “I can’t rule that out, but I cannot also definitely tell you that that will be the case.”

He said the agency had adjusted its plans in the past to address environmental issues whenever possible (although it announced last week that it would bypass environmental reviews to expedite construction of the Fence). For example, he said, a stretch of the Fence in the Arizona desert includes crevices for an endangered lizard — crevices “too small for a human being to get through and large enough for the lizard.”

Mr. Knocke said the agency would continue to listen to advice and complaints from the public, but he emphasized its desire “to move quickly,” given its Congressional mandate to install fencing and other security measures along the southern border by the end of the year.

So when will the National Audubon Society learn whether its Sabal Palm sanctuary winds up south of the new border? “I couldn’t tell you a specific date,” Mr. Knocke said. “But there should be no uncertainty about how quickly we want to move.”

Put yourself, then, in the dusty shoes of Jimmy Paz, 66, the weathered manager of Sabal Palm. At the moment he is sitting at a picnic bench outside the modest visitors center, trying to speak above some chattering chachalacas feeding on grapefruit rinds. Now and then he interrupts himself to point out the iridescent brilliance of a green jay, or to ask passing birders where they are from.

Montana, a few say. California, say others.

Mr. Paz, a native of not just Brownsville but “beautiful Brownsville,” knows the area and its rhythms. He says the Fence would create a twilight zone out of a swath of distinctive American soil, disrupt and damage wildlife and have the opposite of the intended effect: it will be the birders and other tourists — not the illegal immigrants — who stop coming. It may also put him out of a job.

“It would be like putting a fence around Central Park,” he said.

Mr. Paz remembers cycling as a boy to the “palm jungle” along the Rio to re-enact scenes from the Tarzan movies he had just seen at the Queen Theatre in downtown beautiful Brownsville. After a decade in the Army, he returned to hold a series of jobs, including police officer and windshield repairman, while the Audubon Society acquired parcels of that jungle to create a sanctuary to be called Sabal Palm, after the stocky palm trees of the Rio Grande valley.

Ten years ago he became manager of the very property where he once imitated Johnny Weissmuller — property that sits roughly between a bio-diverse preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy of Texas and a swath of land restored by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Combined, Eden.

Mr. Paz has come to know those who frequent this sanctuary: the buff-bellied hummingbirds, the long-billed thrashers, the ever-prowling Border Patrol agents, the river-wet visitors from Mexico, passing through. Driving the grounds in his pickup truck, he points to a telltale inflatable tube, discarded at river’s edge.

A decade ago, he says, federal agents intercepted hundreds of illegal immigrants a month on Sabal Palm grounds. But as border security increased, and as patterns changed, the number of interceptions dropped dramatically. Now, he says, not even 20 a month are caught, with very few carrying contraband like marijuana.

Yes, until recently life was peaceful at Sabal Palm. The schoolchildren and birders would come in. Mr. Paz and his assistant, Cecilia Farrell, would collect the small fee, sell handbooks, maintain the grounds. Come 5 o’clock, they would leave the sanctuary in the care of a wiry night watchman who has lived on the property for nearly a half-century. His name is Ernie Ortiz, he is 82, and he packs a .38.

What’s more, the relationship between the Border Patrol and Sabal Palm was quite friendly. Border Patrol sensors are in the sanctuary’s soil, in its mesquite trees, everywhere. And when Sabal Palm staged a hawk watch, the Border Patrol provided a portable tower for spotting nothing more than birds.

But now Sabal Palm lives from rumor to rumor, gleaned mostly from Mr. Paz’s chats with border agents and a proposed map contained in a draft report by the federal government. There will be a fence along the levee. A fence along the levee with a gate. A fence along the levee with a gate, and Sabal Palm will have a key.

None of these eases the concerns that Anne Brown, the executive director of Audubon Texas, has about insurance, city services — the sanctuary’s very existence. “Do we check passports?” she asks. “Since the fence becomes the new border, what are we? Are we in Mexico?”

Homeland Security says it will reveal its plans for Brownsville very soon. Until then, the likes of Mr. Paz carry on, unsure of the very ground they stand on.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

As border fence lags, costs, controversy rise

Only half-mile of pedestrian part finished in Texas

Houston Chronicle
October 10, 2008

WASHINGTON — The federal government has completed just a half-mile section of the 110 miles of pedestrian border fence promised along the Texas-Mexico border.

Texas' incomplete portion, about 109.5 miles, accounts for about a third of the 316 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers that remains to be built along the border that officials had hoped to complete by the end of President Bush's term in January.

The delays in completing the politically charged project, designed to stem illegal immigration, have been blamed on politicians' resistance, landowners' unwillingness to sell, shortages of materials, soaring costs and unforeseen construction problems.

"The Department of Homeland Security pontificates about how they're securing the border when they're not. They have no credibility on border security," said Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston, a staunch supporter of the fence.

Some Texas officials who opposed the barrier exercised "political clout and thwarted the law," Poe said, adding that "the federal government does not need to get permission from local officials to secure the border of our country."

But Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, the chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, a leading opponent of the project, said the next president and Congress will weigh the fate of the fence and, he hopes, replace it with "a more responsible and effective border security strategy."

Border crossings by illegal immigrants have dropped 56 percent over the last four years without a fence, according to Foster's organization.

Opposition to the fence springs from concerns about impediments to businesses and families along the border, the image of a Berlin Wall-style barrier and an assessment that the fence won't help deal with a broader immigration problem.

The administration's project called for 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers, for a total of 670 miles. Another project using a high-tech blend of ground sensors, towers and integrated communications technology was planned to monitor a total of 81 miles in Arizona.

'Well on our way'"Our goal remains the 670 miles, and we're well on our way," said Angela de Rocha, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.

In addition, the Bush administration has beefed up the Border Patrol. About 18,000 agents will police the country's borders by Jan. 20, when the administration leaves office.

W. Ralph Basham, head of the border protection agency, told Congress last month that construction of all 670 miles of the fence would be completed or under contract by the end of December. But he did not promise to complete construction — a commitment Bush administration officials had previously made on Capitol Hill.

"We face many challenges in meeting our goal," Basham told the House Homeland Security Committee.

Land acquisition has posed a complex problem in Texas, where federal authorities had to acquire property to build parts of the pedestrian fence. A recent report to Congress by the Government Accountability Office said that 97 landowners in the Rio Grande Valley refused to sell plots for the fence.

Land acquisition was easier in New Mexico, Arizona and California where federal authorities held control of a 60-foot swath of land on the U.S. side of the border.

Costs have soared, too. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated that the amount spent for pedestrian fencing has jumped 88 percent since February to $7.5 million per mile.

The costs for vehicle barriers have increased 40 percent to $2.8 million per mile, according to the GAO.

De Rocha said that progress on fence construction along the Texas border ranged from completion of 0.4 miles of pedestrian fence near the Ysleta port of entry on the border to mere preparations in Laredo.

''We do not keep a running total of miles as they are completed,'' she said.

''Some projects are obviously nearer to completion than others.''

Here at a glance are statistics about the fence:
• 1,933 miles: Length of the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
• 670 miles: Planned length of the entire border fence.
• 370 miles: Total length of fencing to impede pedestrians.
• 200 miles: Portion of pedestrian fencing completed.
• 300 miles: Total length of barriers designed to impede vehicles
• 154 miles : Portion of vehicle barriers completed.
• $3.1 billion: Total cost since 2006.
• 1,241: Mileage of state's border with Mexico
• 110 miles. Total length of pedestrian fencing planned in Texas.
• Half-mile: Portion of fence completed.
• Ysleta: Location of completed section of fence.
• $575.6 million: Cost of fence in Texas.

Sources: U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency; U.S. Government Accountability Office

Friday, October 10, 2008

Texas reps want next president to think again on border fence

San Antonio Express-News
October 10, 2008

WASHINGTON — Texas congressmen, citing skyrocketing costs to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, said Thursday they would push the next presidential administration for more cost-effective measures to control drug smuggling and illegal immigration.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, made the comments after a Rio Grande flyover to view efforts on the ground by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“Let's regroup and provide border security in a smart way and not just waste the taxpayers' dollars,” Cuellar said.

McCaul called for more state and local funding to bolster law enforcement efforts, saying, “What spills across our border is a problem for every community in Texas.”

A report released by the Government Accountability Office just before Congress adjourned in September said the cost of building pedestrian fencing has shot up to $7 million per mile from estimates of $4 million per mile in February.

Ralph Basham, the CBP commissioner, has said the cost overruns are the result of rising prices for steel, materials and fuel.

Cuellar said the increased cost should prompt a serious review by the next Congress and the incoming administration.

Local officials agree.

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, said he wants comprehensive immigration reform, not just fencing, to stop unauthorized immigrants.
“We look forward to working with the new administration, whoever it may be, to provide real solutions that will finish the job of securing our borders and reforming a broken immigration system,” Foster said.

A goal to build 670 miles of fence this year under the Secure Border Initiative, undertaken by the Department Homeland Security, cannot be met, officials concede.

Lawsuits have contributed to the delays, particularly in Texas, where cities and citizens along the U.S. side of the border object to the fence construction, according to the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

Of the 122 border landowners who have refused to sell their U.S. property to the government for fence construction, 97 are located in the Rio Grande Valley, a GAO report said.

In addition, 20 of the Rio Grande Valley landowners are defendants in lawsuits filed by the federal government, on advice of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, for condemnation or taking of property, according to the GAO.

Richard Stana, GAO director for homeland security issues, said in the report, “Costs are increasing, the life-cycle cost is not yet known, and land acquisition issues pose challenges to DHS in meeting the goal it set.”

Of the 670 miles of border fencing planned, 109.5 miles are located in Texas. A short stretch of fence near El Paso is completed, and other sections are under construction in Hudspeth County and Eagle Pass.

To date, fencing costs in Texas have reached $575.6 million, said DHS spokeswoman Angela de Rocha.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso; Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio; Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; and Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, have also urged a complete review of fence construction.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Landowners Attempt to Stop the Border Wall in Eagle Pass

Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid press release
October 8, 2008

EAGLE PASS, Texas – Four local landowners are trying to stop the construction of the border wall by suing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for failing to negotiate with them before taking their property.

Represented by Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA), the leading provider of legal aid in Texas, the landowners argue that the government did not consult with them before starting construction on the wall along the Texas-Mexico border, a process which began the week of September 15. While the government has recognized that landowners have a legal right to consultation and negotiation before condemnation begins, DHS began building on the properties without any attempt to communicate with the landowners.“The government ignored these landowners’ rights in an effort to build the wall as quickly as possible,” said TRLA attorney Javier Riojas. “None of these families have been adequately compensated for losing their land during this process.”

The lawsuit also argues that DHS did consult with wealthy, Caucasian ranchers and has avoided using their properties in its final construction plans.

“These families are being forced to give up their land without having the opportunity to fight for it,” added Riojas. “The government cannot ignore their rights just because they aren’t wealthy and well-connected.”

Established in 1970, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. (TRLA) is a nonprofit organization that provides free legal services to low-income and disadvantaged clients in a 68-county service area. TRLA’s mission is to promote the dignity, self-sufficiency, safety and stability of low-income Texas residents by providing high-quality legal assistance and related educational services.

Contact: Javier Riojas, Attorney

Cynthia Martinez, Communications Director

Illegal border crossings drop, according to stats

El Paso Times
October 8, 2008

AUSTIN - Illegal border crossings in Texas have dropped dramatically in the last four years even without a fence to keep out scofflaws, statistics that a group of border political and business leaders said Wednesday show the barrier is unnecessary.

"In Texas, we are securing the border with more Border Patrol and smarter enforcement," said Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, chairman of the Texas Border Coalition. "We don't need a fence."
While U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say the fence is an important part of the strategy to keep illegal immigration down, the coalition argues the data proves the $2 billion fence is a waste.

The coalition, which has long opposed border fencing, analyzed Customs and Border Protection data from 2005 to 2008. Illegal immigrant apprehensions in Texas, where there is little fencing, dropped more than 50 percent in those years, according to the coalition's analysis. Meanwhile, in areas of California where fencing exists, the analysis showed an increase.

"The Texas Border Coalition has consistently said that border walls and fences won't work," Foster said. "Illegal crossers go over, under, through and around them."

In the U.S. Border Patrol sector that includes Hudspeth and El Paso counties and all of New Mexico, apprehensions fell about 75 percent, the analysis showed. In 2005, the region saw more than 122,000 apprehensions, and in the 2008 the number shrank to about 31,000.

El Paso Border Patrol sector spokesman Doug Mosier said he wasn't sure of the precise numbers but illegal traffic had slowed dramatically in the last several months.

More agents, more technology and more infrastructure, Mosier said, have helped deter illegal immigration. So has the agency's effort to prosecute everyone who crosses illegally.
"Will it remain that way?" he asked. "We don't know."

The border fence, Mosier said, is a key to ensuring continued reduced illegal border traffic.
The fence not only prohibits traffic, but Mosier said it also prevents attacks on border agents.
"There's no doubt that the fence is effective in changing the crossing patterns," he said.

Bill Lovelady, a cotton farmer in the Lower Valley, said he's noticed fewer illegal border crossers traipsing across his property.

But he said stopping the fence in Texas because of decreasing traffic would be "idiotic" and "moronic."

"If you just leave this thing wide open," he said, "as soon as someone on the other side perceives it's to their benefit to come across, they'll just come across."

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

As border fence rises, so does ire in southern New Mexico

Las Cruces Sun-News
October 7, 2008

LAS CRUCES — West of Sunland Park, a controversial barrier is rising.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has finished building about 3.3 miles of pedestrian fence in Doña Ana County along the international border, said Angela de Rocha, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C.

Another 3.5 miles remain to be built in the county before January.

The total cost of all pedestrian fencing in Doña Ana County is about $22 million.

In total, 110 miles of fencing are planned for the U.S. Border Patrol's El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico and the two westernmost counties of Texas.

The project has prompted plenty of controversy. City of Sunland Park officials have voiced opposition in the form of a council resolution.

Doña Ana County Commissioner Dolores Saldaña-Caviness, whose district encompasses Sunland Park and Santa Teresa, said the border fence isn't the right solution to immigration problems. She said she's not certain what the solution should be, but said it rests in the hands of federal officials.

"For me, the fence is an ugly barrier," she said. "It really bothers me that things are happening or aren't happening in Washington, D.C., and I don't think the fence is the answer."

The pedestrian fence under construction is east of the Santa Teresa Port of Entry. It consists of metal, mesh-like panels that are roughly 15 feet to 18 feet tall.

In addition to pedestrian fencing, 20.8 miles of vehicle barriers — concrete-filled piping aimed at stopping cars from crossing the border — are slated to be built in Doña Ana County, according to de Rocha. The cost is $21.3 million.

In Luna County, 12.8 miles of vehicle barriers are under construction and contracts have been awarded for an additional 11.3 miles. In Hidalgo County, 12.7 miles will be built. Construction of vehicle fencing in Hidalgo and Luna County will cost $46.8 million.

Asked if the fence is working to reduce illegal immigration, Martin Hernandez, a spokesman with U.S. Border Patrol, said it's part of "a multi-year plan to gain operational control of our nation's borders by using the right mixture of technology, infrastructure and personnel." He cited a decline in numbers of immigrants being caught.

"Apprehensions this year are at a 60-percent decrease from last year — 28,000 apprehensions compared to 75,500 last year," he said in an e-mailed statement.

Sunland Park resident Trinidad Lozano, 83, said she's doubtful how successful the fence will be.
"I know the government does things for the best, but I don't think it's going to keep (immigrants) from coming back and forth whenever they want," she said. "That thing is costing the people a lot of money, just for nothing. Maybe it helps a little; I don't know."

Homeland Security is working to complete 670 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of this year. About 340 miles of fence has been built and Congress has approved $2.6 billion for construction. But Homeland Security officials recently told Congress the project might not be finished on target and asked to re-route $400 million from other projects toward the fence construction.

Some pedestrian fencing in Anapra and vehicle barriers in Santa Teresa already existed before Congress approved the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized the recent construction.

De Rocha said the old fencing was part of 78 miles of fencing along the entire U.S.-Mexico border that had been erected over the years. That construction wasn't part of a comprehensive project and occurred piece-meal, she said.

Border fencing has met perhaps the stiffest opposition in Texas, where Homeland Security has faced legal challenges and loud protests from border residents and community leaders.

Last month, El Paso County decided to take its case against the DHS to the Supreme Court. The lawsuit — which the city, the Tigua tribe and other local groups joined — challenges the constitutionality of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's use of waivers to bypass dozens of laws and build the barrier quickly.

‘Walk the line’: Valley residents will have the opportunity to see where fence will be built

Brownsville Herald
October 6, 2008

For more than a year, South Texas residents have complained about the federal government's lack of transparency in its efforts to construction the border fence.

A lack of consultation, residents say, has bred confusion in border communities like Brownsville, where landowners are still waiting to hear how the barrier will affect their property.

But a new program sponsored by both the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Texas Border Coalition - unlikely bedfellows after a year of fence-related friction - could answer lingering questions about the future of border security in South Texas.

The program, informally called "Walk the Line," will give residents the opportunity to inspect the predicted footprint of the border fence with some of the barrier's architects.

"We expect to get input from the people who live in these areas," said Angela de Rocha, a DHS spokeswoman. "We're still planning community outreach even though we've begun awarding contracts."

The tours, which will be offered in late October or early November, are expected to span much of the southwest border.

"Community leaders will be able to physically see where the fence will be built... and gain the knowledge they've been seeking for nearly a year," said Billy Moore, a TBC consultant.

DHS held a series of town hall meetings on the fence last fall, but many criticized the meetings, alleging that there was no room for constructive dialogue. TBC Chairman Chad Foster was one of the leading critics of the government's open houses, which he called little more than "meals in restaurants and phone calls."

When the project ran out of money in September, U.S. Rep David Price, D-NC, the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, approved an additional $378 million dollars for fence construction, but stipulated that consultation between the government and border communities should continue.

In September, Price suggested that DHS "revisit border areas that remain in dispute with local communities... and seek to improve the hands-on consultation process."

For many Cameron County residents, "Walk the Line" could be a last opportunity to ask questions and offer feedback before construction begins.

"They want to know where there are going to be gates," TBC's Moore said. "Our goal is to provide them with these kinds of critical answers."

Friday, October 3, 2008

Good neighbours make fences: America is building a border barrier that is both too tight and not tight enough

The Economist
October 2, 2008

FOR the past four years Steve Johnston has been dropping food, water and socks in the Sonoran desert. They are intended for illegal immigrants, who have often been walking for three or four days. Demand has never been greater. Recently Mr Johnston left 80 gallons of water beside a popular trail, and returned the next day to find all but eight gallons gone. He has encountered 40-strong groups walking in broad daylight. It is, oddly, proof that America’s growing border fence is having an effect on illegal immigration.

The reason so many immigrants are tramping through Mr Johnston’s neighbourhood can be found 12 miles to the south-west. Around Sasabe, steel cylinders have been sunk into the desert to create an imposing fence. That has blocked a popular migration route and driven people east. No More Deaths, a humanitarian group, has drawn up a map of migration routes based on how much water and food disappears. It looks like a leaf skeleton—a pattern of interlocking lines snaking north through the desert, then east to just above a checkpoint. From there, immigrants are driven to Tucson and Phoenix, whence they travel to wherever there are jobs.

By the end of this year the American government is supposed to have erected 670 miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. Roughly half of the barrier is designed to stop everything bigger than a jackrabbit; the other half will let people through but stop vehicles. It is just part of a drive, stepped up in the past two years, to clamp down on illegal immigration and drug-smuggling. The Border Patrol is swelling from fewer than 6,000 officers in 1996 to more than 18,000 by next year. Unmanned watchtowers bristling with cameras and heat sensors are being developed. Finally, checks at proper border crossings are becoming more rigorous.

The fence is behind schedule and well over budget, and the network of electronic watchtowers is even further from deployment. But enough has been built, strengthened and staffed to make it clear what kind of border the next president will inherit. America is creating a barrier that is at once much too porous and rather too tight.

Until fairly recently the western half of the US-Mexican border was largely abstract. “As far as the eye can reach stretches one unbroken waste, barren, wild, and worthless,” wrote John Russell Bartlett, who surveyed the area for the American government in the 1850s. The border was marked at first by piles of stones, then by concrete obelisks. Over time the occasional barbed-wire fence went up, but the border was permeable. “You could ride your bike across it,” says Michael Gomez, who grew up five blocks from the border and is now mayor of Douglas, Arizona.

Before the early 1990s those who wanted to cross illegally generally headed for the cities of Tijuana and Juárez. They would wait until night, scale the puny fence and dash for San Diego and El Paso. It was a simple matter of outnumbering the Border Patrol. Then, beginning in 1993, taller fences began to go up in the busiest sections of California and Texas. The assumption was that physical barriers would stop crossers in the cities, and geography would stop them elsewhere.

The first assumption turned out to be correct: between 1994 and 2000 the number of apprehensions around San Diego plunged by two-thirds. The second did not. Rather than giving up, immigrants converged on the border’s thinly-policed midsection, braving sun and snakes on long hikes through the desert. In the late 1990s the number of apprehensions shot up in the 260-mile Tucson sector (see chart). So did deaths. Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith of the University of Arizona reckons 125 people died trying to cross the desert in the 1990s. Since 2000 the death toll has been more than 1,000. By contrast, fewer than 300 people died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall in its 28-year history.

As illegal immigrants began to funnel through Arizona, attitudes hardened. In 2004 the state’s voters approved a measure intended to deny public benefits to illegals. It was reminiscent of an initiative that Californians had supported in the previous decade, when their state was the central conduit for immigration. Two years later Janet Napolitano, Arizona’s Democratic governor, harried the federal government into sending National Guard troops to the border. In 2007 she signed a law stepping up penalties on businesses that knowingly employed illegal workers.

Even political moderates have become advocates for the border fence. Arizona’s senior senator is a good example. John McCain has long been an advocate for “comprehensive” immigration reform—Washington-speak for a bill that would allow some illegal immigrants to become citizens. In the past few months, though, he has insisted that the border must be sealed first. Mr McCain’s change of heart was probably necessary to get him through the Republican primaries. Yet it is also in harmony with the more strident tone of public opinion in his home state.

Opinions are more nuanced closer to Mexico. David Walker, whose family owns a ranch that spans ten miles of the Arizona-Sonora border, describes the fence as “kind of a Band-Aid”. The new pedestrian fence that edges his property has stemmed the flow of immigrants but not stopped it. By means of ladders, blow-torches and screwdrivers, immigrants are still getting through. They drop litter, which is harmful (“Cattle are dumb—they’ll eat plastic water bottles”) and break cisterns trying to get fresh water. But Mr Walker regards such things as fairly minor nuisances.

He is more concerned about the drug-traffickers who once tried to run him over. So are others. “I’m not a bit afraid of the little Mexicans coming across the border to work,” says one woman who runs a ranch near the border. “It’s the drug lords that worry me.” She is right to be worried.

New Tijuana moods

Though the drug trade and the violence that goes with it have long been features of the border, the past few years have seen both a rise in violence and a change in its nature. The decision of Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s president, to use the army against drug-trafficking gangs has led to an arms race and provoked turf wars along the border, from Tijuana to Matamoros. The city of Nogales, Sonora (across the border from Nogales, Arizona) has seen 72 murders so far this year, compared with 44 in 2007.

Despite talk of a united front, the Mexican authorities are divided over how to tackle the problem. Marco Antonio Martinez Dabdoub, the mayor of Nogales, reckons the federal government ought to be more heavy-handed. “This should be like the famous surge in Baghdad,” he says. Yet Arturo Ramirez Camacho, the head of Nogales’s police force, says that the deployment of the army has served only to provoke more violence. It has been hard to replace the 188 officers who have been sacked for corruption.

So far the surge of violence in Mexican border towns has been largely confined to the narcos and the police. One journalist in Nogales estimates that all but one of the murders so far this year have involved someone connected with the drug trade. Alvaro Navarro Gárate, who is in charge of promoting economic development for the city of Juárez, south of El Paso, says the violence has not yet deterred economic investment. Although some executives fret about being kidnapped, the lack of infrastructure is more off-putting.

The rise of organised crime has, however, changed patterns of illegal immigration. Ten years ago people-smuggling was a casual, low-margin business—a “mom-and-pop” operation, as locals call it. As crossing the border became harder, and the coyotes’ fees rose from about $500 to more than $2,000, the cartels saw a chance for profit. Many of those who traipse through western Arizona these days do so at the pleasure of the Sinaloa cartel, which also runs drugs across the border (although rarely at the same time as people). Its henchmen can be brutal and dishonest, but they are also pretty good at their jobs.

Counting fish in the sea

The fence is undoubtedly changing patterns of illegal immigration. But is it staunching the flow? The Border Patrol points to the fact that they are catching fewer people. Yet this is a very imperfect measure, rather like estimating the number of fish in the sea from those hauled up in fishermen’s nets. The figures do not count those who make it, and they double-count people who keep trying. Remittances to Mexico (see chart above) provide a better picture. These were rising until recently, largely because immigrants began to send more money through formal channels. Now they are falling, but not by much.

For more than ten years, Wayne Cornelius of the University of California at San Diego has been surveying people in high-emigration areas of Mexico. He finds that fewer than half of all would-be illegal immigrants are apprehended on any given trip, and virtually all get through eventually. Mexicans keep trying even though they know the border has become more dangerous. In an unpublished study, Mr Cornelius reports that more than 30% of Oaxacans who plan to steal across the border know somebody who has died trying.

There is a more obvious reason for the recent slowdown in illegal immigration. Construction and landscaping jobs, a common source of employment for Latino immigrants both legal and illegal, have disappeared as the housing market has collapsed. In the past year the Hispanic unemployment rate has risen from 5.4% to 8.0%. Among Hispanics aged 16 to 19 the rate is 22.8%. This deters would-be workers from crossing the border and curtails the ability of people already in America to pay for their relatives to make the trip.

Even if tougher border enforcement has slowed the movement of people, this is not quite the good news it seems. Until recently Mexicans crossed back and forth across the border as work and family demanded. Many years ago Mr Walker’s ranch employed a couple of “wetbacks” (the term was not so derogatory as it is today) who would work half a year each, returning to their families in the off-season.

These days, says Ms Rubio-Goldsmith, migration is not circular but linear. If people come they tend to stay, because the cost and difficulty of crossing the border have increased so steeply. They are more likely to bring their families: in the Sonoran desert, says Mr Johnston, about a quarter of the immigrants are women and children. As immigrants put down deep roots in America, villages in Oaxaca that once lacked young men are becoming utterly depopulated. The border fence may be deterring illegal immigration, but it is not reducing the number of illegal immigrants. It is also annoying people.

Not neighbourly

Ten years ago a group of mayors and other officials on both sides of the line formed the Texas Border Coalition. At first it promoted infrastructure projects, but it is now focused on fighting the fence, which almost everyone in South Texas opposes. They say that it is not neighbourly, that it will be a waste of money, and that it will cut Texans off from the Rio Grande, which marks the border in much of the state.

Texas’s two Republican senators are keener on the fence, but not much. Kay Bailey Hutchinson wrote an amendment to a spending bill that allowed the Department of Homeland Security greater latitude to decide where it should run. Hardliners argued that this was a way of “gutting” the more specific Secure Fence Act of 2006. The state’s other senator, John Cornyn, insists that despite voting for the Secure Fence Act, he doesn’t think it will be built.

Such coolness, which may seem strange in such a politically conservative state, is partly a product of economics. During the first half of this year almost 80% of all US-Mexican trade by value passed through Texas. The state’s border towns have benefited from NAFTA, which was signed 15 years ago. In July unemployment in the McAllen area was 7.8%, down from 25% in 1990.

Texans’ sanguine attitude is also a matter of demography. When the last census was taken, in 2000, Arizona, California and Texas were all between one-quarter and one-third Hispanic. But their border regions look utterly different. Arizona, which is currently America’s fastest-growing state, has experienced a wave of white immigrants—the Midwestern “snowbirds”—who have little experience of Latino culture. Its four border counties were 34% Hispanic in 2000.
California’s two border counties, which are thick with retirees and military families, were just 28% Hispanic. Texas’s border counties, by contrast, were 85% Hispanic.

Margaret Dorsey, an anthropologist from the University of Pennsylvania who studies Texas’s Lower Rio Grande Valley, says many local families can trace their roots to the mid-18th-century Spanish land-grant programme. Border Texans often speak fluent Spanish and have family and friends on the other side of the river. Students commute from Mexico to the university in El Paso, crossing in a special line that allows them to make it to class on time. They even pay instate tuition rates.

That would be unthinkable in Arizona, where the fence is broadly popular. Yet Arizonans have plenty of gripes about the tightening border. Increasingly, the problem is less the ease of illegal immigration than the difficulty of legal migration.

Roughly three-quarters of people who cross legally from Mexico into Arizona do so in order to shop. As a result, streets close to the fence have become emporiums for things that are more expensive or harder to come by on the other side. That means handbags and children’s clothes on the American side, pharmaceuticals and beer on the Mexican side. Because most twin towns are bottom-heavy (Nogales, Arizona has just 20,000 inhabitants, compared with 190,000 in Nogales, Sonora), American towns depend a lot more on Mexican shoppers than the other way around.

Jaime Fontes, the city manager of Nogales, Arizona, reckons Mexican visitors account for roughly 65% of all retail sales in his city. As border officers become more finicky about documents and more zealous in searching vehicles, he worries trade will suffer. Local businessmen say it already has. Chang Lee, who runs a clothes shop just north of the border, explains in fluent Spanglish that Mexicans are spending “too mucho time” waiting to cross, which leaves too little time for shopping. They come running into his shop, clutching fistfuls of bills and begging him to sell them something before they have to return. He estimates that trade has fallen 20-30% in the past year.

In Douglas, the number of vehicle passengers crossing during the first half of this year averaged 321,000 a month—down from 708,000 a month in the first half of 2002. There are more pedestrians, but pedestrians do not buy as much. Manufacturing firms that have set up maquilas in Mexico are suffering too. Two years ago a group of economists calculated that delays at the Tijuana border were costing San Diego County and Baja California more than $4 billion each year.

The tortilla curtain

Over time such gripes are likely to become louder, while complaints about illegal immigration will probably become more muted. Hispanics are slowly acquiring political heft to match their large presence in America; in some states, such as California and New Mexico, they are already powerful enough to punish tough talk. Perhaps more important, Mexico is changing. The country has zoomed towards a first-world birth rate. In the late 1970s the average woman could expect to give birth to five children; now she gives birth to two. As a result, the potential supply of border-crossers will gradually drop.

Yet they will not stop coming. If the Mexican border is, in the old expression, a “tortilla curtain”, it is still floppy enough to allow people and drugs through. A truly impregnable border, of the kind that Mr McCain is demanding, would involve two layers of fencing 2,000 miles long, with a large no-man’s land in the middle and plenty of watchtowers. The fence would have to look as it does near San Diego, or as it used to in Berlin. This would involve virtually rasing several towns.

Travelling through Texas in the 1850s, Bartlett encountered plenty of immigrant workers. They found employment in the copper mines for the same reason they now toil in America’s building sites and lettuce fields:

“Labour is cheap and abundant in Mexico. At El Paso, Mexican labourers could be had for sixty-two and a half cents per day, they finding themselves; but men could doubtless be procured at even less price.”

While the wage gap between America and Mexico persists, Mexicans will continue to “find themselves” in the American labour force, fence or no fence.