Thursday, July 26, 2007

Border fence battle knows many faces

Note: You can also read a story very similar to this in the July 2007 edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas and more online at


Border fence concerns to spark political blasts from pro- and anti-barrier factions, walling out attention on the immediately affected Rio Grande ecology.
Disagreement over the fence’s need and implementation has many eyes and ears with fewer and fewer voices remaining silent.
Washington, D.C.-based ecological organizations Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biodiversity both fear the government project will visibly upset the Texas-Mexico border’s fragile ecosystems.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters, including CNN -- which carried his comments live, that South Texas ranchers and mayors don’t want the fence, but they’re going to get it anyway. Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, doubts that Chertoff meant anything bad by his remarks, but the June 28 defeat of the immigration bill in the Senate cut off any immediate chance to halt, or alter construction of the Secure Border Initiative, which is scheduled to include walling intended to stop and slow vehicles and people where sensor towers are not seen as sufficient.
Silver City, N.M.-based Michael Robinson – a spokesman and field representative for Biodiversity – believes there are better ways to protect the border and that a 10 foot fence would only serve to stop wildlife – not humans.
Robinson said his organization hasn’t hired legal help to stop the government, but is monitoring the situation. Robinson added that taking legal action is tougher in this case because of strong powers handed Chertoff by the White House, which allow him to proceed with very little, if any, interference from environmental concerns, or laws.
“We are very specifically concerned about the ocelot,” Robinson said by telephone, describing the area around the Rio Grande as a biodiversity wonderland. “To separate the ocelot population would be catastrophic.
“The ocelot in the north will be marooned in its breeding and that doesn’t help any animals. There are a lot of birds, but we see so much and think that animals are plentiful and that they will have no trouble getting through, but we will see.”
Robinson said Biodiversity is also monitoring the rare Mexican long-tailed bat, which is more common to the Rio Grande Valley. Robinson said a lot of animals use the stars to navigate, so there remains a great deal of the unknown because details about the border fence are unknown. Robinson said Biodiversity doesn’t know if Boeing’s government Secure Border Initiative Network (SBINet) will use large bright lights, what effects the various radio and electronic signals and waves will have on borderland wildlife.
Noah Kahn, speaking for the Defenders of Wildlife from Washington, D.C., hopes all concerned will see the need for common sense.
Kahn believes local DHS and Border Patrol people should have the authority to decide whether they need any physical barriers, designed to stop vehicles and slow down pedestrians, but Washington, D.C. has ordered 700 miles of the solid two-layered fence be constructed, denying local foresight and knowledge.
Cuellar credits the language of that law to the previous Republican majority in Congress, which also specified where along the Texas border the physical barriers would be placed. Cuellar recently battled for and gained government assurance that local input must be received, despite efforts in the capital to kick it aside.
Cuellar also believes more flexibility will work into the project.
Kahn is also concerned about the ocelot, but believes more emotion might still explode from the Rio Grande Valley where cities have profited from their river land-based environments through eco-tourism.
Kahn said ocelots and jaguarundi both swim the river to mate and his organization believes a fence would ruin the environment.
Kahn noted that many come to see the river’s unique bird species, but South Texas eco-tourism is growing.
“There’s an increasing array of people coming from all over the world,” Kahn said. “They eat at the local restaurants, buy souvenirs, stay in motels.
“Texas Parks and Wildlife spent a lot of money on Bentsen State Park. The cities of McAllen, Mission and Brownsville have all spent money on their environments -- Weslaco, too. It has become an international destination and the wall is a direct threat to those communities.”
DHS spokesman Brad Benson, in the Border Protection division said, generally, physical barriers designed to stop vehicle traffic and slow down pedestrians will be in urban areas while the electronic-based virtual fence will cover the rural Rio Grande.
A tentative map, made in March, from Benson’s Washington, D.C. office shows concentrations of physical barriers around Laredo, San Ygnacio, El Paso, Presidio in the Big Bend National Park-area, and southward in the Rio Grande Valley from Roma to Brownsville.
DHS is aiming its SBINet plans on Project 28, which is 28 miles of virtual fence in the Arizona desert where nine sensor towers are spread out to assist a command center and mobile Border Patrol agents.
Project 28 experienced some delays, postponing an expected June 13 start, but Cuellar says he has been told it should be up and running soon and he and the media should get a look sometime in the near future.
Benson said BP hopes to use the new system to intercept them before they can cut out illegal aliens’ abilities to blend into populated environments. The government also knows that pedestrian barriers don’t stop people, but they can slow them down long enough to allow BP vehicles to catch them. Benson noted that vehicular barriers would likely be found where smugglers could simply drive across the river – much as they might near Presidio.
Benson believes the urban use of physical barriers will take quite a bit away from the fear of it destroying Rio Grande wildlife.
Frequent Rio Grande traveler, author and journalist Nat Stone believes anyone concerned about the river’s ecology and how barriers can affect a city should look to El Paso.
“You can walk across it,” El Paso native and Laredo attorney Forrest Cooke said. “Through most of town it’s a concrete channel.”
Stone noted numerous walls and fences down through history that didn’t work to completely keep people in, or out, but the numerous obstructions already in El Paso intended to stop, or reroute dashing illegal aliens don’t do much for the quality of life.
Stone and Cooke both noted the effect fences and treaties with Mexico have had on El Paso’s appearances and water flow, which helped lead to severe flooding problems in recent months.
“It’s its own case study of what building a fence looks like. It looks like a police state,” Stone said from his home in New Mexico. “There’s no such thing as fishing at the river. It looks like an apartheid state.”
Stone sees little convincing reason for the fence. He believes that the U.S. could be dodging a case of national bigotry by not addressing plans to fence the Canadian border, too. He noted the military industrial complex’s appearance in the project – Boeing has been a major military contractor for decades.
“The stock market seems to be doing well, so it smacks of race,” Stone said of the overall fence project.
Stone traveled the river in phases from its headwaters in the Rockies to its frequently lifeless mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. He said he plans to write a book about the river and is putting together a documentary. Stone is author of “On The Water: A circumnavigation of the eastern United States.”
Stone had to load his kayak on a truck in several parts of the river because it isn’t flowing much south of El Paso – most notably as far as 80 miles south at the site of the Ft. Quitman ghost town.
Stone sees a shallow current of conviction on the part of several pro-barrier voices and believes more people in Washington would understand the border better if they spoke Spanish.
“The political situation makes it hard for some to believe that it’s a beautiful river,” Stone said.
Stone said the Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo as it’s called on the south bank, is a working river for many Mexicans and saw much more life on that side in his journey.
“With a few exceptions, in some 1,200 miles I saw less than 20 people on the Texas side. There used to be a much better Texan presence,” he said. “As long as drug laws are in place, we’ll have this need to control the border.”
Stone believes more information should be available and forthcoming on any ulterior motives for the fence. Someone might be getting rich off this project.
“There is a huge amount of money involved. We should follow the money trail,” Stone said.
Laredo-area rancher Joe Hein agrees with Stone, whom he’s never met, that more information would be seriously helpful.
“I think they are trying to take into account what local people want and maybe that’s why they are dragging their heels,” Hein, who does not favor the fence, said. “There are a lot of people like myself with questions, or they not telling us, and maybe we’d agree and go along with them, but they’re not telling.”
Hein believes whatever detailed information might be lacking public scrutiny could serve to empower citizens to make good, solid decisions.
Hein compares his concerns over the fence situation to a personal observation that the Bush administration made a serious mistake by rushing into the Iraq War – not stopping to properly analyze the situation.
Hein sees the fence as something that could lead to some of the very same dangers it is intended to stop, too.
“It could be a false sense of security and that could be very bad,” he said. “I think we really need to be informed, but if it’s just politics and whoever’s getting it gets a lot of money, and that would be wrong and be making the same mistake again.”
Foreign Policy In Focus online columnist Frida Berrigan is one of those who will be watching.
“In Iraq, military contractors wasted billions of dollars of reconstruction aid. Boeing, meanwhile, is no stranger to corruption scandals: its chief financial officer went to jail in 2005 for wrongdoing in securing Pentagon contracts. To put military contractors, particularly Boeing, in charge of building SBI is a recipe for disaster,” she wrote in an April 12 story. “The issue of militarizing the border goes beyond questions of accountability. In order to craft truly effective, humane and ‘comprehensive’ immigration reform, the president is going to have to do a lot more than show up in his shirtsleeves once in a while. He has to learn that the border is not a war zone, Mexicans are not combatants, and military contractors are not the solution.”
Further research doesn’t paint a better picture, either for South Texas.
Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate KTVT reported on its Web site in an Associated Press story headlined “Border Fence To Be Built On Wildlife Refuges” that “The U.S. Border Patrol informed officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that refuges in Starr, Hidalgo, and Cameron counties are on the fast track for the fence because they are on federally-owned lands.”
Valley conservationist and Rio Grande Delta Audubon Society officer Lee Zieger believes that big government doesn’t always learn from the past, either.
“Back in the 40s here we kept a gun for fear of banditos, but that didn’t happen, and now, too,” Zieger said by phone. “Drugs go through here and without the drug war we wouldn’t have no problem. We just not have won it. “
Local bank president Dennis Nixon said in a recent position paper that, generally, all law enforcement-anchored border sealings fail, but someone, or some thing, needs to wake up the government to the lingering inequality, which threatens more than the Rio Grande ecology.
Nixon noted that the need for labor – addressed, but lost for now through the guest worker program in the failed immigration bill in the Senate -- is a key economic factor in all of the U.S., and the situation shows signs of crisis, but the government is showing a very bad side by its attention on the southern border.
“Congress is so focused on the immigration problem on the southern border they are ignoring the gaping holes on the northern border that pose the largest security threat to this country since 9/11. The fact is Mexicans and Canadians are not treated equally and neither are their borders. Not from an immigration standpoint, nor a security standpoint,” Nixon wrote. “To give you more perspective on the disparity of border enforcement, there are 1,000 border patrol agents that guard the 4,000 mile Canadian border. Compare that to the 10,000 agents that guard the 2,000 mile Mexican border. If this truly is about terrorism and security, then why aren’t we treating both borders equally?”
Both of Texas’ Republican senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn voted against the immigration bill, which failed, with 46 for and 53 against.
Hutchison, a former television reporter, responded to LareDOS’ question, noting the environment while squeezing in other concerns, too.
“I believe our natural heritage is irreplaceable and should be preserved for the enjoyment and education of future generations. However, we must seek a balance between maintaining the integrity of our natural resources and encouraging economic growth, which will shape America's future,” Hutchinson said by e-mail. “I am convinced of the need for closer scrutiny of environmental regulations and of the imperative for legislation, which will allow businesses across this country to flourish. These are mutually achievable goals, and they are the principles with which I will judge any legislation concerning the environment.”
There are many minds to please in the fence issue, but one environment.


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