Fight ig­nites over the last sec­tion of bor­der fence

El Paso site called key part of his­tory

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY STEPHEN DINAN

Seven years af­ter Congress de­manded it, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is­sued a no­tice Wed­nes­day that it will be­gin con­struc­tion to fill the last re­main­ing gap in the 652-mile bor­der fence be­tween the U.S. and Mex­ico.

But, like much of the rest of the fence, this sec­tion in Texas — all six-tenths of a mile — is prov­ing to be con­tro­ver­sial. Even as the build­ing com­menced, law­mak­ers from the re­gion were mount­ing a last-minute cam­paign to try to halt con­struc­tion or at least to win spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tions.

Part of the prob­lem is that the site, like many other parts of the nearly 2,000-mile-long south­west­ern bor­der, is im­por­tant in Amer­i­can his­tory.

This par­tic­u­lar spot is be­lieved to be the place where con­quis­ta­dor Don Juan de Onate crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. in 1598, at El Paso del Norte — the spot that gives the city of El Paso its name.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Demo­crat whose dis­trict in­cludes the land, led a group of six House law­mak­ers this

week ask­ing for a de­lay in con­struc­tion, com­par­ing it to build­ing a fence around Ply­mouth Rock and say­ing the bor­der in El Paso is al­ready se­cure.

“It seems that there is lit­tle need to con­struct ad­di­tional fence from a safety per­spec­tive when tax­payer dol­lars could be used more ef­fec­tively in other ar­eas of the bor­der,” the law­mak­ers wrote to U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, the agency that over­sees the Bor­der Pa­trol.

But spokesman Bill Brooks said CBP has taken steps to pro­tect the his­toric na­ture of the site, has trained con­trac­tors to be care­ful about the en­vi­ron­ment and is go­ing ahead with the project.

“In or­der to pro­tect cul­tural re­sources, CBP con­ducted in­ten­sive cul­tural re­sources sur­veys and con­sulted with the Texas State His­toric Preser­va­tion Of­fice, who con­curred with CBP’s de­ter­mi­na­tion that no sig­nif­i­cant im­pacts to cul­tural re­sources would oc­cur as a re­sult of fence con­struc­tion,” Mr. Brooks said.

El Paso’s ex­pe­ri­ence en­cap­su­lates the larger bor­der fence de­bate, which has raged for much of the past decade.

Build­ing the fence was a key de­mand of the Min­ute­man protest move­ment, and it was po­lit­i­cally pop­u­lar.

As a se­na­tor, Barack Obama voted to build the fence, as did Joseph R. Bi­den and most of their col­leagues. Pres­i­dent Bush signed it into law on Oct. 26, 2006.

Groups that fa­vor crack­ing down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion won­dered whether a 700-mile fence along a 2,000-mile bor­der would be use­ful.

Mean­while, His­panic rights groups called the fence anti-im­mi­grant. Mr. Obama in par­tic­u­lar faced tough ques­tions from im­mi­grant rights ac­tivists back home in Chicago af­ter the vote.

Congress quickly be­gan to wa­ter down the bill.

As en­acted, it called for 700 miles of two-tier fenc­ing to be built along the bor­der, but soon af­ter Mr. Bush signed the leg­is­la­tion, of­fi­cials at the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment said that was un­nec­es­sary. In 2007, Congress passed a spend­ing bill weak­en­ing the re­quire­ments and let­ting the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment de­cide how much and what kind of fenc­ing to build.

That has re­sulted in the cur­rent plan, which en­vi­sions bar­ri­ers along 652 miles of the bor­der. Of that, how­ever, just 36 miles is dou­ble-tier fenc­ing and 299 miles isn’t fenc­ing at all — just bar­ri­ers de­signed to pre­vent cars and trucks from cross­ing. Wildlife — and peo­ple — can cross eas­ily.

Rep. Peter T. King, the New York Repub­li­can who spon­sored the Se­cure Fence Act, said it’s been a mixed bag.

“The Se­cure Fence Act set the stan­dard for bor­der in­fra­struc­ture. Progress has been dis­ap­point­ing and slow, es­pe­cially over the last five years,” he said in a state­ment to The Wash­ing­ton Times. “That said, what is in place has made a dif­fer­ence. It is vi­tal that the ad­min­is­tra­tion moves for­ward with a plan and sense of ur­gency to en­hance se­cu­rity on the bor­der.”

The fence re­tains its po­lit­i­cal charge to this day.

Dur­ing the Se­nate im­mi­gra­tion de­bate this year, Democrats had to agree to an amend­ment that would build an ad­di­tional 350 miles of full pedes­trian fenc­ing along the bor­der — a key con­di­tion to win enough Repub­li­can sup­port for a bill le­gal­iz­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grants.

But His­panic Democrats in the House balked. When House Demo­cratic lead­ers wrote their own bill, they kept al­most all of the Se­nate ver­sion but stripped out pro­vi­sions for the new fenc­ing and 20,000 ad­di­tional Bor­der Pa­trol agents.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have op­posed most of the fenc­ing and par­tic­u­larly dis­like fin­ish­ing the El Paso sec­tion.

“This half-mile sec­tion of bor­der wall is to­tally un­nec­es­sary, es­pe­cially when you con­sider the his­toric na­ture of the site and how easy it is to guard such a small area,” said Dan Mil­lis, pro­gram or­ga­nizer for the Sierra Club’s bor­der­lands cam­paign.

“Bor­der Pa­trol is per­fectly ca­pa­ble of mak­ing sure that this sec­tion of bor­der is se­cure and that the his­toric and ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­sources are pro­tected, with­out a dam­ag­ing and costly bor­der wall,” he said.

Chip Johns, the rancher who owns the prop­erty, said the whole sit­u­a­tion is a mess for him and deal­ing with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has been a pain. He said some­times he has been given the runaround, and other times fed­eral of­fi­cials missed meet­ings they had sched­uled with him. He said he would pre­fer to sell the his­toric prop­erty to the gov­ern­ment for preser­va­tion pur­poses.

As for the fence, “I have mixed feel­ings …,” he told The Times. “I think this fence thing could be eas­ily taken care of with elec­tron­ics. But what do I know?”


Pres­i­dent Obama hon­ors 25 Amer­i­cans with the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom, in­clud­ing for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, at the White House. Story, A3. Also Wed­nes­day, Co­manche Na­tion of Ok­la­homa Chief Wal­lace Cof­fey re­ceives a Con­gres­sional Gold Medal in recog­ni­tion of code talk­ers from 25 tribes who used their na­tive tongues as un­break­able code dur­ing both world wars.


Seven years af­ter Congress de­manded it, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is­sued a no­tice Wed­nes­day that it will be­gin con­struc­tion to fill the last re­main­ing gap in the 652-mile bor­der fence be­tween the U.S. and Mex­ico.

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