Amer­i­cans who live near bor­der say Trump’s wall is un­wel­come

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OBITUARIES - By Frank Bajak

LOS EBANOS, TEXAS >> All along the wind­ing Rio Grande, the peo­ple who live in this bustling, fer­tile re­gion where the U.S. bor­der meets the Gulf of Mex­ico never quite un­der­stood how Don­ald Trump’s great wall could ever be much more than cam­paign rhetoric.

Erect­ing a con­crete bar­rier across the en­tire 1,954mile fron­tier with Mex­ico, they know, col­lides headon with mul­ti­ple re­al­i­ties: the ge­ol­ogy of the river val­ley, fierce lo­cal re­sis­tance and the im­mense cost.

An elec­tron­i­cally for­ti­fied “vir­tual wall” with sur­veil­lance tech­nol­ogy that in­cludes night-and-day video cam­eras, teth­ered ob­ser­va­tion bal­loons and high-flying drones makes a lot more sense to peo­ple here. It’s al­ready in wide use and ex­pand­ing.

If a 30- to 40-foot con­crete wall is a panacea for il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, as Trump in­sisted dur­ing the cam­paign, the lo­cals are not con­vinced. And few were sur­prised when the president-elect seemed to soften his po­si­tion five days af­ter the elec­tion, say­ing that the wall could in­clude some fenc­ing.

“The wall is not go­ing to stop any­one,” said Jorge Gar­cia, who ex­pected to lose ac­cess to most of his 30-acre river­side ranch af­ter the U.S. Bor­der Fence Act was en­acted a decade ago.

Un­der the law, 652 miles of bor­der bar­rier were built, mostly in Ari­zona. The 110 miles of fences and for­ti­fied lev­ees that went up in Texas are not con­tigu­ous but bro­ken lines, some as much as a mile and a half from the river.

Eight years af­ter gov­ern­ment sur­vey­ors marked Gar­cia’s land, he and his wife, Aleida, are still wait­ing to see if the Bor­der Pa­trol will sever their prop­erty.

“This lets me know that when­ever they want to build the wall, they can,” said Aleida, hold­ing up a tax bill that shows the nom­i­nally ex­pro­pri­ated sliver of prop­erty.

If a fence or wall goes up, the cou­ple will be paid $8,300. So far, the Gar­cias and the rest of the vil­lage of Los Ebanos have been spared be­cause the ero­sion-prone clay soil is sim­ply too un­sta­ble, she be­lieves.

Ge­ol­ogy con­spires against wall-build­ing up and down the Rio Grande Val­ley. So does a boundary wa­ter treaty with Mex­ico and en­dan­gered-species laws. Cat­walks and tun­nels had to be built into ex­ist­ing fences to ac­com­mo­date en­dan­gered ocelots and jaguarundi, two species of wild cat.

The gaps in the bor­der bar­rier in­clude an en­tire flank of the River Bend golf club and re­sort in Brownsville. Univer­sity of Tex­as­Rio Grande Val­ley po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Ter­ence Gar­rett calls them “gaps of priv­i­lege” be­cause many landown­ers were po­lit­i­cally con­nected.

Other landown­ers fought the Bor­der Pa­trol in court.

“The wall might make mid-Amer­ica feel safer, but for those of us that live on the bor­der, it’s not mak­ing us feel any safer when we know that peo­ple can go over it, around it, un­der it and through it,” said Mon­ica Weis­berg-Ste­wart, se­cu­rity ex­pert for the Texas Bor­der Coali­tion, a con­sor­tium of re­gional lead­ers.

The coali­tion wants fed­eral dol­lars to go in­stead to bol­ster­ing se­cu­rity at bor­der cross­ings, where heroin, co­caine and metham­phetamine are smug­gled in. A poll con­ducted in South­west bor­der ci­ties in May found 72 per­cent of res­i­dents op­posed to build­ing a wall. The Cronkite News-Univi­sion-Dallas Morn­ing News poll had a mar­gin of er­ror of 2.6 per­cent­age points.

The wall is pop­u­lar in dis­tant ci­ties “be­cause you can see, feel and touch it. But po­lit­i­cally it just doesn’t make sense,” said J.D. Sali­nas, the coali­tion’s chair­man.

As com­mis­sioner of the bor­der county of Hi­dalgo from 2007 to 2009, Sali­nas won pub­lic back­ing for 20 miles of bor­der bar­rier by re­in­forc­ing an ex­ist­ing levee with con­crete and top­ping it with a fence. In 2010, the project paid off. The levee held back flood­ing from Hur­ri­cane Alex. The cost was about $10 mil­lion a mile, though.

In the Nov. 8 elec­tion, only three Texas bor­der coun­ties — all sparsely pop­u­lated — went for Trump. The rest are solidly Demo­cratic, at odds with the Repub­li­cans who con­trol most state cap­i­tals and have been de­mand­ing more bor­der bar­ri­ers.

Ru­ral ranch­ers wor­ried about drug traf­fick­ers and other crim­i­nals are less likely to ben­e­fit from bor­der walls and fences than city-dwellers, said Adam Isac­son, a se­cu­rity ex­pert with the non­profit ad­vo­cacy group Wash­ing­ton Of­fice on Latin Amer­ica.

“What a wall ul­ti­mately does is slow a bor­der crosser for 10 to 15 min­utes,” Isac­son said. “In an ur­ban area, that 15 min­utes is cru­cial.” Bor­der pa­trol agents can ar­rive quickly. In ru­ral ar­eas, they may be an hour or more away.

The U.S. side of the bor­der is quite safe, said Weis­berg-Ste­wart. “We are not in a war zone.”

In fact, cross-bor­der trade has been boom­ing. In 2014, more than $246 bil­lion worth of goods and 3.7 mil­lion trucks crossed the Texas-Mex­ico bor­der, ac­cord­ing to coali­tion fig­ures.

Trump needs to re­mem­ber that Mex­ico is the sec­ond-largest U.S. ex­port mar­ket, said Rep. File­mon Vela, a Texas Demo­crat whose dis­trict in­cludes most of the val­ley. Only Canada buys more Amer­i­can goods.

“There’s no way in hell he’s go­ing to see his great wall,” Vela said.

The re­gion bears the usual hall­marks of Amer­i­can pros­per­ity: strip malls, well-main­tained in­ter­states, pros­per­ous gated com­mu­ni­ties with ha­cienda-style McMan­sions. Cold-stor­age ware­houses pro­lif­er­ate for north­bound Mex­i­can okra, av­o­ca­dos and toma­toes while other ware­houses brim with south­bound used cloth­ing. Cot­ton, grape­fruit and corn fields abound.

Much of the Mex­i­can side of the bor­der has been af­flicted by drug car­tel-re­lated vi­o­lence, but crime in the Rio Grande Val­ley, which is home to 1.3 mil­lion peo­ple, has been con­sis­tently lower than other Texas ci­ties.

If lots of “bad hom­bres” are cross­ing the bor­der, as Trump has claimed, they are mostly tak­ing their law­break­ing else­where. Fur­ther, there’s no record of any­one sneak­ing across the bor­der to com­mit acts of ter­ror­ism.

The Bor­der Pa­trol’s buildup af­ter 9/11 is one rea­son, ar­gues David Aguilar, who was named to the agency’s top job in 2004 by a fel­low Texan, then-President Ge­orge W. Bush, and is now a pri­vate con­sul­tant. Since then, the num­ber of agents has climbed from 9,500 on the south­west bor­der to 17,500 in 2015.

Mean­while, the num­ber of ap­pre­hen­sions along the bor­der is down from a peak of 1.6 mil­lion in 2000 — when Aguilar said at least as many got away — to 409,000 in the year ended in Septem­ber. Nearly half were caught in the Rio Grande Val­ley.

Many an­a­lysts be­lieve the Great Re­ces­sion was a big­ger fac­tor than Bor­der Pa­trol en­force­ment in mak­ing the U.S. less at­trac­tive to Mex­i­can mi­grants in par­tic­u­lar.

Since tower-mounted video sur­veil­lance cam­eras be­gan go­ing up in 1999 in the Brownsville area, il­le­gal cross-bor­der traf­fic in the area “dried up by 85 to 90 per­cent,” said Johnny Meadors, the sec­tor’s as­sis­tant chief for tech­nol­ogy. He said the traf­fic moved west, where there were no cam­eras.

Seventy-two more of the tow­ers, which are 80 to 120 feet tall, are to be installed in the val­ley by 2021, and could in­clude mo­tion sen­sors and laser point­ers, Meadors said.

Since 2013, the Bor­der Pa­trol has also had five blimp-like aerostats that float from 1,000 to 5,000 feet above the val­ley on teth­ers. High-flying Preda­tor drones have pa­trolled vast ar­eas of south­west bor­der­lands since 2011. The agency also has un­der­ground sen­sors along the bor­der. How many, Meadors wouldn’t say.

All the gad­getry has been a bo­nanza for de­fense con­trac­tors. The gov­ern­ment spent $450 mil­lion last fis­cal year on bor­der se­cu­rity fenc­ing, in­fra­struc­ture and tech­nol­ogy.

“If you had a sen­si­ble im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, there would be no need for all this,” said Gar­rett, the po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist.

What Trump’s pol­icy will be re­mains a mys­tery.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, he said he would de­port all the es­ti­mated 11 mil­lion im­mi­grants liv­ing il­le­gally in the United States. Days af­ter the elec­tion, he ap­peared to back down some­what, say­ing he would ex­pel the crim­i­nals among them.

Whether fear of a Trump vic­tory has any­thing to do with a re­cent spike in ar­rivals from vi­o­lencewracked Cen­tral Amer­ica isn’t clear. They ac­count for more than half of Bor­der Pa­trol ap­pre­hen­sions in the Rio Grande Val­ley, where many mi­grants turn them­selves in at fron­tier bridges.

Af­ter pro­cess­ing, re­leased mi­grants are given court dates in des­ti­na­tion ci­ties where rel­a­tives typ­i­cally await. Oth­ers are sent to de­ten­tion cen­ters.

An av­er­age of 350 mi­grants, some adults wear­ing an­kle mon­i­tors, now ar­rive daily at the Sa­cred Heart par­ish com­mu­nity cen­ter in the bor­der city of McAllen, up from 100 a day in Au­gust, said Gaby Lopez, a vol­un­teer at the makeshift shel­ter that opened in June 2014.

New ar­rivals get a shower, a hot meal and can pick through do­nated cloth­ing.

In­grid Guerra, 21, a Gu­atemalan who is eight months’ preg­nant and bound for Kansas, said she was flee­ing an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship and didn’t tell the fa­ther. The fa­ther of her other child, a 2-yearold who stayed be­hind with Guerra’s mother, was killed in a drunken brawl, she said.

Sit­ting with her is Erika Machuca, a 19-year-old Sal­vado­ran.

Machuca, also eight months’ preg­nant, is bound for Dallas, where her hus­band lives. She says two of her brothers and three un­cles were killed in El Sal­vador in vi­o­lence she did not un­der­stand.

Both women said they merely want to earn a liv­ing and raise fam­i­lies in peace.

“Back there,” Guerra said of Gu­atemala, “they kill at the drop of a hat.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A young mi­grant girl from Cen­tral Amer­i­can newly re­leased af­ter pro­cess­ing by the U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pa­trol is fit­ted for shoes at the Sa­cred Heart Com­mu­nity Cen­ter in the Rio Grande Val­ley bor­der city of McAllen, Texas.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pa­trol agent searches for sus­pected il­le­gal im­mi­grants pass­ing through the area in Hi­dalgo, Texas.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Signs mark the en­trance to a bor­der cross­ing in Los Ebanos, Texas. The idea of a con­crete wall span­ning the en­tire 1,954-mile south­west fron­tier col­lides head-on with mul­ti­ple re­al­i­ties, like a loop­ing Rio Grande, fierce lo­cal re­sis­tance and cost.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pa­trol agent walks with sus­pected im­mi­grants caught en­ter­ing the coun­try il­le­gally along the Rio Grande in Hi­dalgo, Texas.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A Texas Parks and Wildlife boat pa­trols along the Rio Grande near Gran­jeno, Texas.

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