Texas: A Border Clash Over a Mexico-Border Fence

For five generations, the Benavidez family has lived on a seven-acre plot of serene farmland near the U.S.-Mexico border west of Brownsville, Texas. They've harvested cotton and squash and raised goats and pigs. They've helped sculpt the levee that snakes across the rear of the property. They've given birth there, married there and died there. Their connection to the land runs so deep that they can't imagine parting with even a piece of it. So two weeks ago, when federal employees arrived asking to purchase a rectangular slice abutting the levee for $4,100 to make way for a border fence aimed at deterring illegal immigrants, they refused. "I don't want to scare you," Idalia Benavidez, 77, says one of the employees told her, "but whether you agree or not, the government's going to make the fence." If the Feds get their way, an 18-foot-high barrier will soon traverse the Benavidez property, cutting off their cows from a pasture south of the fence's proposed path. "It's going to be ugly," says Benavidez. Worse still, she predicts, "it's not going to work."

That mostly sums up the current sentiment along the Texas border. But the Brownsville area in particular—where a unique alliance of politicians, business leaders, farmers, environmental activists, church groups and ordinary citizens has challenged the fence—has become the epicenter of the fight. On April 28 many of those constituencies plan to air their grievances at a congressional field hearing in the city designed to examine the fence's impact. Opponents decry "the wall," as they call it, as a waste of money better spent on more border personnel and surveillance technology. They lament what they consider outsiders' misunderstanding of south Texas culture, with its Anglo-Mexican blend and its view of the Rio Grande as a meeting point rather than a dividing line. And they argue that it will crimp the economy and trample landowners' rights.

Chief among their concerns is the possibility that the fence will despoil the environment. In early April, wielding authority Congress granted him in 2005, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived three dozen laws that he said interfered with his ability to build the fence. Among them: the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Environmental groups have challenged three previous waivers, but have lost each time. Now the groups are petitioning the Supreme Court to review one of those decisions.

The fence's proposed path would slice through parts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge—90,000 acres of prized nature preserve that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been slowly buying up and restoring over the last 30 years. The refuge contains 17 endangered or threatened species, including two cats: the ocelot and the jaguarundi. It's home to 500 species of birds, 300 species of butterflies and 1,200 species of plants. And it's the only place in America where some of those birds—like the red-billed pigeon and the brown jay—can be seen. Wildlife experts fear that the fence would block river access for animals and disrupt their habitat.

Any environmental damage could have pocketbook consequences as well. Nature enthusiasts help fuel a $125 million-per-year ecotourism economy in south Texas. But some of the places that draw them may soon be walled off. For instance, a Nature Conservancy preserve east of Brownsville that's populated by stands of sabal palms and rare birds like chachalacas would wind up on the Mexican side of the fence. "We're considering the possibility of giving up this area," says project manager Sonia Najera. Up the river in Alamo, Keith Hackland, who owns a bed and breakfast that caters to bird lovers from all across the world, worries that his clientele may head elsewhere. "They might not want to go when bulldozers are ripping down the remnants of our birding forests," he says. "To a birder, that's just agony."

Worries like these have prompted clashes among government officials. Ken Merritt, a Fish and Wildlife manager who used to oversee the National Wildlife Refuge, says he struggled to get information from the Department of Homeland Security about the fence. "One week, the fence would be one place; the next, it would be somewhere else," he says. "It was just chaos … I don't think DHS is sympathetic to the wildlife corridor." But his biggest headaches came from his own agency. When he failed to approve an engineering survey for the fence, deeming it too disruptive, Fish and Wildlife's Southwest regional director, Benjamin Tuggle, "really applied the pressure for me to" approve it, says Merritt. "He made it very clear that he thought I was making decisions that were career ending." After 30 years of service, Merritt quit in January. Tuggle had his own complaints about the fence; in March, he lobbied his superiors to inform DHS that the fence wasn't "compatible" with Fish and Wildlife's mission. He says he only wanted Merritt, who had approved two other wall-related studies, to be consistent. "I can tell you unequivocally that at no time did I ever make any inference to threaten Ken Merritt's career," he says.

Landowners are pursuing a separate legal battle. Though the federal government owns vast stretches of land along the border in other states, it must contend with hundreds of private landowners in Texas. It can rely on eminent domain, a legal doctrine that allows the government to seize land for public use after negotiating a fair price. But that hasn't stopped a small group of defiant landowners from trying to block the Feds from gaining access to their property or condemning it. In March, attorney Peter Schey of the L.A.-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law filed a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of aggrieved landowners, including the Benavidezes. For its part, the government filed a wave of lawsuits, most of them successful, starting last winter to gain access to the holdouts' land to conduct surveys. In May, it plans to begin filing a new wave of litigation aimed at seizing the land of owners (for a fee) who have balked at selling.

The battle over the wall began in 2006, when Congress authorized the construction of 700 miles of barrier along the border. DHS has pledged to build 370 miles of pedestrian fence by the end of the year, including more than 60 miles in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, which is home to Brownsville. Reaching as high as 18 feet and laid out in unconnected segments of one to 13 miles, the fence will mostly follow the path of the levees, which are sometimes a mile or more inland. That will place the fence disconcertingly close to some landowners, like Orlando Lambert—a neighbor of the Benavidezes—whose front door is only about 20 feet from the levees. Greg Giddens, executive director of the Secure Border Initiative at Customs and Border Protection, says existing fencing in the San Diego and Yuma, Ariz., areas, combined with beefed-up personnel and surveillance technology, has helped stem illegal immigration. Nevertheless, he says, "we recognize that there is no impermeable barrier that can be built that ingenious people can't figure out a way to get over."

Though Brownsville has become the biggest flashpoint in the fence debate, its Border Patrol sector (which includes McAllen up the river) is hardly the most-trafficked area for illegal immigrants. It ranks a distant third in border apprehensions, with about 35,000 from October 2007 to March 2008 (the most recent figures available). Still, at a time when overall border apprehensions are dropping, they've slightly increased in the Brownsville area. That's why some have been vocal in their support. "I think it'll be a good idea," says Joe Metz, a farmer who raises sugar cane, cattle and citrus trees on 1,100 riverfront acres west of McAllen. Many nights, undocumented immigrants stream across his property, hiding out amid the sugar cane. Even worse, Metz says he often sees drug smugglers ferrying bales of dope across the river in rubber rafts and loading them onto vehicles that venture onto his fields. "They'll stare at you and dare you to pick up your cell phone and call for help," he says. A border wall would help fend them off, in his view. "I'd like to see them toss 50-pound bales over an 18-foot wall."

But, opponents say, other legitimate business interests could be harmed by the fence. Farmers worry about losing access to irrigation water. Local business owners fret that Mexican nationals, many of whom cross over legally to go shopping, may decide to stay home. And consider the predicament of Bob Lucio, who poured his life savings into a deal to run the Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course at the University of Texas at Brownsville. The fence would leave all 18 holes on the Mexican side of the barrier. Already, some wary golfers are declining to renew their annual memberships. Lucio says he hasn't gotten a straight answer from the federal government about how golfers will access the course. "It's shameful the way they're handling this," he says. Giddens replies that DHS will seek to resolve situations like Lucio's "on a case-by-case basis," and that options might include an electronic gate that could be opened remotely.

As evidence that they're collaborating with locals, the Feds point to a deal they struck in February with nearby Hidalgo County, home to McAllen. Though political leaders there also opposed the fence, they concluded that they were powerless to stop it. So J. D. Salinas, the county judge (an executive position in Texas), says he sought "to kill two birds with one stone"—combine the wall with the levee system, which has dangerously deteriorated and which the Feds agreed to help pay to restore. The compromise spares many private landowners from the intrusion of a wall; environmental groups, however, insist that the ecological effects remain severe, since a sheer cement wall offers animals fewer portals. Now, Cameron County, home to Brownsville, is considering a similar agreement.

Many Brownsville residents don't want to compromise, however. Elizabeth Garcia, a longtime activist, is the quintessential border resident. Born across the Rio Grande in Brownsville's sister city, Matamoros, she has family on both sides and crosses almost daily. "We have coexisted for so many years together," she says. "La frontera [the border] is both sides of the river, not one side or the other." Since the fence was announced, she's helped galvanize opposition to it and has cobbled together a coalition of civic and faith groups. Now, she and some peers are considering civil disobedience. "We're willing to put ourselves at risk," she says. If DHS begins construction of the fence as scheduled in June, there's little doubt that passions will remain as inflamed as ever.