A massive, costly undertaking, off to a slow start, attracts growing doubts along the Rio Grande.
EAGLE PASS, Texas — He’s been living here off and on for more than half a century, so rancher Bill Moody figured he had experienced about all the excitement and madness the Texas-Mexico border could offer.
When there’s not a drug bust going down or a lost immigrant begging for food, Moody sometimes finds himself in the company of Hollywood directors, such as the one who filmed “Lonesome Dove” here years ago and was back recently working on a prequel called “Comanche Moon.”
But the federal plan for a massive security fence along the border strikes Moody, 84, as too far-fetched for a screenplay and downright nutty for his gigantic Rancho Rio Grande, which runs through three counties between Del Rio and Eagle Pass.
“If the wall would help, I wouldn’t mind. But it won’t help. It’ll be a big expense, a big problem, ugly as hell and unfriendly to Mexico,” said Moody, heir to one of the largest and oldest fortunes in Texas. “It’s not going to happen.”
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Moody and other landowners along the Rio Grande generally have little in common with open-border proponents and environmental activists, who also oppose the 698-mile fencing project Congress approved late last year. Taken together, though, their voices have cranked up the heat against a border fence.
“I think it’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard of,” said Brian O’Brien, a wealthy Houston oilman who has an 18,000-acre ranch, seven miles of it along the Rio Grande, near Eagle Pass. “If the river doesn’t keep them out, why do you think a wall will?”
The first casualty of the project actually could be a decades-long, multimillion-dollar effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore habitat for endangered plants and animals in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The brushy riverfront tracts are now the ripest of targets for a border fence because there’s no need for messy landowner negotiations or condemnation proceedings. Uncle Sam owns the property.
But, critics ask, what happens to U.S. land on the south side of the wall? Does it become a de facto part of Mexico? The University of Texas, Brownsville, discovered recently that plans called for part of its campus to be on the south side of the fence. Would students need a passport to attend math class?
And would ranchers such as Moody and O’Brien be able to water their cattle in the Rio Grande?
“I think there’s a bunch of knee-jerk politicians up in Washington who need to come down here and see what’s really going on, instead of posturing in front of the TV cameras,” said Roy Cooley, general manager of the Maverick County Water Control District in Eagle Pass. “But that’s just my opinion.”
Despite the red-hot anger a proposed wall is generating in Texas, border-fence bashing runs counter to the prevailing political winds in Congress and the American electorate.
With polls showing immigration a top concern for voters last year, U.S. lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the Secure Fence Act and President Bush signed it into law days before the November elections. Although spearheaded by the GOP, 64 Democrats in the House and 26 in the Senate — including Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois — voted for it.
Months later, critics say, only about a dozen miles of new fencing have gone up, none of it in Texas, home to roughly two-thirds of the 1,952-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Opponents to lenient treatment for illegal immigrants are using the slowpoke progress in funny but biting TV ads, titled “Where’s the Fence?”
“Border enforcement is now a national-security issue,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who led efforts in the 1990s to build double-walled barriers near San Diego and has made the latest project a cornerstone of his 2008 presidential campaign. “It’s time to build the border fence.”
Officially, the project would cost at least $2.1 billion. But building in remote areas, not to mention legal fights with landowners who don’t want to sell, could send the price soaring.
In the short term, the Department of Homeland Security has publicly committed to building 370 miles of fencing before the end of 2008, with 153 miles of it planned for Texas. Hunter said that schedule falls far short of the Secure Fence Act, which he co-authored. Only 12 miles of new fencing have gone up — near Yuma, Ariz. — according to Hunter’s office. Customs and Border Protection would neither confirm nor deny that figure.
The Secure Fence Act actually calls for 854 miles of fencing, which, because of the winding terrain, is longer than the linear 698 miles it would cover — all of which Hunter promises to build within six months if elected president.
Critics call the plan unrealistic.
“I don’t think they’re going to do that,” said. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee. “Somebody up here in Congress got a crayon and they said, ‘OK, from Laredo draw all the way down to Brownsville.’ “
Still, opponents were caught off guard this spring, when Homeland Security started contacting landowners about rights of way along their riverfront property. Fence-location maps and memos soon leaked out of Washington. Two wall-construction contracts worth up to $750 million were put out to bid.
The federal actions angered political leaders along the Texas-Mexico border. A “wall of shame,” they called it. Another Berlin Wall. Cuellar, whose district would receive more than half of the first 153 miles of Texas fencing by 2008, said the negative reaction caused Homeland Security officials to “change their tune.”
“They’re now saying they’re going to get input from the community before they do anything else,” Cuellar said.
Over White House objections and veto threats, Cuellar amended a Homeland Security funding bill — still working its way through Congress — to allow authorities to use natural and technological barriers where fencing is impractical. The bill as amended also would require input from locals.
Meanwhile, Michael Friel, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman, said the agency is “well into” meeting its goal of completing 70 miles of fencing by October, when fiscal 2007 ends. He said barriers were going up first in New Mexico, Arizona and California, where much of the land already belongs to the federal government.
“We realize that in Texas there are folks that own property, that have land on the border,” Friel said. “That dynamic is different.”
What nobody can say with certainty is whether fences will help secure the border.
Only about 88 miles, or less than 5 percent, of the U.S.-Mexico border is fenced, figures show; an additional 80 miles of vehicle barriers are designed to stop smugglers.
If there’s a gold standard for border fences, it’s the one outside San Diego. Once the nation’s premier smuggling corridor, the San Diego Sector received nine miles of double fencing, new high-tech surveillance and more agents after Operation Gatekeeper was unveiled in 1994. No one today disputes that it has had a major impact on smuggling.
The Border Patrol caught 524,231 illegal immigrants trying to cross its San Diego Sector in 1995. The sector caught 126,913 a decade later, figures show.
For fence proponents, Operation Gatekeeper is proof that fences work. For critics, it’s proof they don’t.
After the Southern California crackdown, apprehensions soared to the east, in the sometimes-deadly Arizona desert. Nationwide, apprehensions have remained relatively steady, at more than 1 million a year, even as the Border Patrol budget has more than tripled.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the net population of illegal immigrants has been growing by about 500,000 people a year since 1990. About 12 million are here now.
Some cross into the United States from the tiny Mexican village of Madero del Rio, just south of Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, and Del Rio, where Mexican farmer Samuel Gomez grows watermelons and raises cattle. Unlike his U.S. counterparts, Gomez, 76, would like nothing more than to see a fence. He ticked off a litany of problems associated with the smuggling industry — destroyed produce, dead bodies in the river, abandoned cars in the fields, strangers everywhere.
“People come through at night, and we have no idea where they’re from. With this thing, this wall, that’s protection for all of us,” Gomez said. “I’m very much in agreement with this project.”