Could it be that the biggest problem along the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t undocumented immigrants but Washington politicians who want to build a fence?
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I’ll confess that I tossed the plan almost immediately. I’d intended simply to drive from Laredo to Brownsville, the stretch of border where most of Texas’ share of the proposed security fence is supposed to be built. A day here, a day there; I hadn’t meant to linger in any one place, but after three days I found myself still in Laredo, darting on and off the tail end of Interstate 35. Hot, overcast, and clogged with cargo-laden rigs, the city had little to lure the casual traveler, but if you were interested in the matter of the fence, there was always another person to see. There was Joseph Hein, who took me to his family ranch on the Rio Grande, where he raises Appaloosas; he told me he’d have to get out of the business if the water were fenced off. There was Dennis Nixon, the chairman of IBC Bank, who met me in his expansive office, outlined a broad economic case against the fence, and sent me off with a white paper on immigration policy he’d distributed to every member of Congress. There was a young woman from Mexico, undocumented, living and working in Laredo, who told me that her estranged husband had reported her to the Border Patrol so that he could kidnap their children. If a fence were built, she speculated, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to see their families as much.
Last summer, in Laredo and elsewhere along the U.S.-Mexico border, what had once been presumed a political phantasm now loomed as a real possibility: that the Secure Fence Act, passed by Congress to prevent “terrorists [and] other unlawful aliens” from entering the country, might result in an actual fence being built along sizable stretches of the Rio Grande. When President Bush signed the bill in October 2006, it was perceived as a feint meant to appeal to voters on the eve of the election. (Because their immigration bill had failed, the thinking goes, Republicans had to do something to show that they’d confronted the issue.) Yet $1.2 billion was quickly appropriated for border security projects, and this year the Border Patrol, in a clumsy, quasi-clandestine fashion, began to circulate maps indicating where the fence might go. From afar it was difficult to imagine: Hundreds of miles of fence between two countries? The state of Texas partially walled off? What would such a thing look like? Where would it go? What effects would it have? The best way to begin to answer those questions, it seemed to me, was to drive to the border and ask them.
This was not an original notion. I arrived in Laredo to discover the city full of reporters—from newspapers, magazines, CNN—booked at the posh pseudo-colonial La Posada Hotel, drinking at a new bar off Del Mar Boulevard, comparing notes and names. It wasn’t just the fence. Some had come to report on the case of three National Guardsmen who’d recently been caught smuggling Mexicans into the country, but there were also the Nuevo Laredo violence stories, the drug stories, the immigration stories, all of them tangled together. A town whose name had once been synonymous with “dusty backwater” had lately become a fishbowl for certain national woes.
The stated aim of the Secure Fence Act is “operational control,” defined as “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States” (both unwanted people and contraband may qualify as “entries”)—in essence, the fantasy of a perfectly sealed border. Like the aim of eradicating all terrorists from the globe, operational control serves to justify considerable expenditures and the overriding of other laws. The two missions blur together at times, and the militarized view of border control has become standard. The phrase I kept encountering as I spent time on the border was “more boots on the ground.” Whether or not they were in favor of the fence, people spoke of the need for more boots on the ground in order to secure the border. And this from environmentalists, mayors, schoolteachers.
There is in fact a portion of existing border fence right in the city of Laredo. Several years ago the Border Patrol approached Laredo Community College, which is situated on the river, with a proposal to build a length of fence along the edge of the campus. Though the immigrants who regularly crossed the grounds had not, as a rule, created much of a disturbance, drug smugglers had been a greater concern; bales of marijuana had been found hidden near the tennis courts, for instance. (I was unable to learn whether news of this discovery had caused a surge in applications to Laredo Community College.) As it turned out, the fence, made of eight-foot-high wrought-iron bars that narrow to spikes curving outward toward Mexico, had not rid the campus of smugglers, though the number of immigrant crossings had dropped.
One afternoon I drove over to the campus to see it for myself. With its spearlike protrusions and tall black bars, the fence was unsettling. And depressing: I was surprised by how immediate and visceral my distaste was. I walked beside it, past athletic fields and a swimming pool and barracks-style housing on the campus side; across the divide were thorny brush and a gravel road suitable for a Border Patrol four-by-four. The fence wound past an elementary school and stopped at a brick wall about five feet high. I looked over it. On the other side was a dead-end street, where two small boys were lobbing a basketball at a six-foot-high basket. Black-haired, brown-skinned: Who knows where they might have come from?
My second day in Laredo, I stood on a bluff a short distance from the World Trade Bridge, north of town, which had been dedicated in April 2000 in a ceremony attended by presidential candidate George W. Bush. Bush had been tarred during the campaign as a foreign policy greenhorn, and his trip was widely viewed as an attempt to muster up a little cosmopolitan flair. Sharing a stage with Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo on the Mexican side of the bridge, Bush declared to the assembled crowd of mostly Mexicans that in the past there had been “walls of divide between Mexico and the United States. We must, we must be committed to raise the bridges of trade and friendship and freedom.”
Looking down at the bridge, I could tell by the line of idling rigs waiting to enter the U.S. that trade, at least, was in full swing. (Friendship and freedom, however, were in doubt. After Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, Mexican president-elect Felipe Calderón called the fence “a grave mistake.”) I was there with Tom Vaughan, a biologist who leads groups of students on a tour of Laredo as part of a four-week environmental health program for aspiring medical workers; they make stops along the river and also wade into its midst to sample for toxins and coliform. By visiting the border, I hoped, if nothing else, to be able to picture what a fence would look like, in the literal sense: how it would fit into the landscape. And so I spent half a day with Vaughan’s group, squinting at different spots along the Rio Grande, trying to make out a fence that didn’t yet exist.
A co-founder of the Rio Grande International Study Center, an environmental education nonprofit, Vaughan could have passed for a water sprite: a lean man with wisps of white hair winging out from beneath a red nylon cap. He wore a waterproof camera around his neck and elfin river shoes that resembled rubber socks. Though his research specialty is benthic macroinvertebrates (think shrimp, snails, aquatic worms), his impromptu lecturing to the students ranged over coal and trade and long-haul versus short-haul trucking and salt cedar trees and the Mexican petroleum industry—as if he were trying to spool out as much of his local expertise as he could in the time he had. The air was thick and warm, full of the trucks’ rumbling. After a while he came around to the subject of the fence.
“Where are we going to build it?” Vaughan asked. “It’ll move the border from the middle of the river to where the fence is. For example, here’s some high ground where we could build a fence.” He pointed directly in front of us, to the top of a steep bank. “Now we get over on that side,” he said, pointing across the road that led to the bridge. There, the high ground receded farther away from the river, and the low riverbank widened. “Is it going to follow the high ridges or is it going to go straight down? I will tell you, it’s not uncommon for that area there to be underwater. No fence can hold up underwater. Any fence anywhere in the floodplain is going to get washed away, and the floodplain’s pretty wide. So we’re talking about moving the border two hundred, three hundred, four hundred feet away from the river.”
He took a couple of steps in the direction of our parked cars, then paused and flung his arm back toward the bridge. “Anyway, this is international commerce in action!”
We drove to a private ranch, where Vaughan had been given permission to take water samples. Some of the students began to pull on waders. We all filed down a narrow path through the mesquite to the river, and those of us who were not venturing in for samples sat around a small clearing at the water’s edge. It had been hard enough to visualize a fence near the World Trade Bridge; it was all the harder to imagine this quiet terrain of grass and foliage riven by “at least two layers of reinforced fencing,” which is what the Secure Fence Act proposes, as well as “additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors.”
On the ground were signs of people who’d passed by: a blue pair of men’s underwear, two warped and rusted cans of black beans, a dusty shirt. Traces of the international labor pool in action.
The proposed fence would be built in high-traffic urban areas.
Illustration by Eddie Guy
The Border Patrol made its first foray into fence building in its San Diego sector, in 1990. The “primary fence,” as it became known, was constructed from surplus corrugated steel panels, of a kind that had been used to build portable landing strips in Vietnam, and originally extended from the Pacific Ocean fourteen miles inland. (Today it covers more than fifty miles.) Only ten feet high and easy to climb or to dig under, it might as well have been a privacy hedge. Work on a secondary fence—higher, less easy to climb, and floodlit—began in 1996. Yet immigrants are still able to scale both fences in a few minutes; even the Border Patrol has labeled the fences a “filter,” slowing people down rather than stopping them.
So why not build a fence that can’t be so easily surmounted? Why not, say, put razor wire on top? Or at least make it higher? According to an article that appeared in Foreign Policy, the ease of climbing the primary fence in San Diego was intentional: The Border Patrol didn’t want to see its agents sidetracked by injured climbers. And even a low fence could bar (or at least reroute) the vehicles that transport drugs into the country. Though the proposed border fence has been touted as a kind of all-purpose barrier, deterring immigrants, drugs, and terrorism at the same time, this rhetorical fusion breaks down, apparently, at the level of design.
It was perhaps for this reason that before the passage of the Secure Fence Act, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had been a proponent of what he called a twenty-first-century virtual fence. While acknowledging that actual physical fencing might be built in some areas, he also said, “We don’t want to lock ourselves into something that’s a one-size-fits-all solution for the entire six thousand miles of border.”
This past February, during a visit to Laredo, Chertoff was still reassuring border officials, visiting one of the city’s bridges and declaring, “I do agree that where you have a significant river as a natural obstruction, fencing is not necessarily the right solution.” Soon after, however, a Border Patrol map of planned fencing was leaked, and the DHS sent out a request for proposals from contractors to build fence in and around Laredo. Chertoff announced that fence construction in Texas would commence this year, only to retract that statement two days later.
Then, in September, the Border Patrol and the Army Corps of Engineers at last released a more detailed map of the planned fencing in the Rio Grande Valley, with short sections of fence denoted by red squiggles, like fallen bits of yarn. Brownsville contemplated a lawsuit to block construction. Texas senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, both of whom had voted for the Secure Fence Act, had called for local consultation before any fencing was built. Yet after spending time on the border, it was hard for me to see what that would accomplish. Everyone local seemed to be against building a fence altogether.
“Uno nunca sabe cruzando”—“You never know when you cross.” I was talking to a young man from Nuevo Laredo who had crossed the river, by his estimate, hundreds of times. “I came here to work, to do something more,” he said. “In this way a person can realize his dream.”
Jose Manuel (as he asked me to call him in this article) works in Laredo at a fast-food restaurant, using an invented Social Security number, and though he doesn’t cross so much anymore, he used to go back and forth thirty to forty times a year. “Back and forth, back and forth—a game of roulette,” he said. We spoke outside a business where he sometimes does odd jobs, mowing the lawn, taking out the trash. He smiled often as he told his story. He first came across when he was fifteen, with a friend, just to see what there was to see. They crossed the Rio Grande about ten miles upriver of Laredo, waited in the brush for the Border Patrol to leave the area, and then climbed out, warily, having been warned about “las abuelitas”—older women who would call the authorities if they saw people emerging from the river. Upon reaching the street, evidently clear of vigilant grandmothers, they were greeted by a man washing his car. They rode a bus into town, had a look, and then went home.
Not long thereafter, Jose Manuel started coming regularly for work, first unloading rolls of fabric off trucks, later doing odd jobs. His preferred crossing point was one that landed him in the northern part of the city, at a spot where the river was low and where he could easily disappear into the neighborhood once he’d crossed. Typically the process would take about an hour. He would descend to the river on the Mexican side, take off his clothes, and ask for God’s blessing, having also received his mother’s. (“And that’s worth a lot, a mother’s blessing,” he said.) He usually went with a friend, because it was dangerous and you could lose your footing. “The river will betray you. Many people have died trying to cross.”
Once he’d made it to the American side, he had to elude the Border Patrol, which was easy enough when the agents were sitting in their SUVs. (Jose Manuel is of the opinion that many Border Patrol agents prefer sitting in their vehicles and reading the newspaper to slogging through the thick carrizo cane that infests the riverbank.) But there were times when he was chased and had to jump through the cane, bounding like a deer. Four times he was caught and sent back. It’s become harder to do: There is more vigilancia now, he told me, more helicopters, more agents in four-by-fours.
Now that he has the job at the restaurant, he rarely crosses. He rents a house in Laredo. He talks to his mother by phone. He believes he will always live in the United States. “There is a great future that will never be over there,” he explained. “You have all the advantages to move ahead. A lot of people here don’t take advantage of them. If in Mexico they had these advantages—imagine it—everyone would be millionaires!”
Before I left town, I decided to visit the Casa del Migrante, a church-run shelter in Nuevo Laredo that offers up to fifteen nights of food and lodging to migrants on their way north. I walked over the bridge to the Mexican city, where the decline in the tourist business was evident: Signs for salty dogs and tequila sunrises fronted bars whose few patrons, all single men, looked sordidly bored; liquor salespeople glanced up at me indifferently, the shelves half-empty behind them; no one tried to sell me a hammock or pottery or chewing gum. A little spooked by the city’s reputation for violence, I’d arranged for someone to pick me up. It had begun to pour by the time we reached the long, plain, gray building, where a line of mostly men waited in the rain for the shelter to open for the evening.
They were let in shortly after I arrived. The interior was immaculate and barren. A handful of men sat around a television in one unlit room; others stared with tired red eyes into the middle distance. I talked to a few of them, from El Salvador and Honduras. It was the same old story: no jobs at home, no way to support their families, and so they’d ridden up by train, bound for Houston or New York or Los Angeles, not knowing (or at least not saying) how they planned to cross the river. They were nineteen, twenty, seventeen. They had brought next to nothing with them.
On my way out I stopped by a bulletin board near the door to read the missing-persons notices posted by friends and relatives: Height: 1.65 meters, Color of Skin: Light brown, Hair: Brown . . . To please call his mother . . . Wearing a red T-shirt with a Nike logo, blue pants, black and white sneakers . . . If you see him give him this phone number. . . Mentally disabled . . . Disappeared the 5th of April in Nuevo Laredo after having been deported . . . Se Busca . . . Se Busca . . . .
To get back to the U.S., I did not have to look for a low spot in the river or wait for the coast to clear or strip off my clothes and carry them over my head; with 30 cents and a driver’s license I was able to walk across a bridge, and from there it was just a few blocks to my hotel, with its embarrassment of pillows and televisions (there were two), its bath products in miniature bottles, its comfortable furniture, and its view of the river from above. I ate a shrimp cocktail at the adjoining restaurant and returned to my room to watch Entourage.
It’s not as if the divide between poverty and privilege is imperceptible at home, but to literally walk from one to the other, over a bridge off-limits to the men I’d just talked to, and then loll on a sofa sipping wine is to be reminded of the wall already in place.
From Laredo I had planned to go south to the Valley, but first I drove north to Eagle Pass, to meet with Chad Foster, that town’s mayor and the current head of the Texas Border Coalition. Foster told me that the way to reduce illegal activity is by improving visibility—rooting out the carrizo cane and salt cedar on the banks, installing more lights and surveillance cameras, and adding more agents. “We’ve learned to live with cameras. Why do we need physical barriers?”
Erecting a fence along the border would essentially split a community in half, he said, in reference to Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, the town across the river. The DHS has maintained that a physical fence is most needed in urban areas, to slow an immigrant’s progress into a neighborhood or to a bus station, yet in urban areas the fence is especially despised, because of the ties between communities on either side of the border. (“Where Yee Haw Meets Olé” read a pamphlet Foster gave me touting the joint advantages of the two towns.)
Foster, who speaks Spanish, frequently attends events both informal and formal in Mexico, and he offered to take me over to Piedras Negras to show me the city. After driving for a while, we came to the Plaza de las Culturas, a swath of concrete where three small pyramids, along with a scattering of statues, commemorate the Mayan, Olmec, and Aztec civilizations. We walked inside one of the pyramids, where we encountered Fernando Purón Johnston, the director of the plaza. He offered to give us a sneak preview of an exhibit on prehistoric life in the region. Following him down a wide corridor, we viewed a human jaw, then a femur. Before long, discussion turned to the fence.
“People are very angry and very politicized here,” Johnston said. “Where’s it going to go? We have problems here, as at all borders, but a wall won’t contribute anything to get rid of these problems. The river doesn’t divide us, it unites us.” Foster nodded in emphasis. As we continued through the exhibit, the two kept speaking—each trading off languages—so that I learned little about prehistoric populations but plenty about the alliance between the two cities.
Outside we ran into a salty-looking man in boots and jeans and an old T-shirt. Apparently he had been a waiter at an event Foster had attended. “Chad Foster is more Mexican than the Mexicans!” he proclaimed. “Piedras Negras is very fortunate to have two great mayors.”
As we headed back to Eagle Pass, I asked Foster what he thought of the notion that he was in some sense Mexican. He replied without skipping a beat. “I’m a product of my environment,” he said, “and I love my environment.”
President Bush signing the Secure Fence Act on October 26, 2006 (standing, from left, are U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner Ralph Basham; U.S. Border Patrol chief David Aguilar; Representative Peter King, of New York; then–House Majority Leader John Boehner, of Ohio; then–Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, of Tennessee; and Vice President Dick Cheney).
Back on the road, I was bound for the Valley at last. South of Laredo, the strip malls receded; the four-lane Zapata Highway rolled along through brush, past ranches and the turnoff for the tiny old town of San Ygnacio. A string of restaurants and gas stations marked the county seat, Zapata, where posters advertised an upcoming fishing tournament and where I had arranged to meet with the sheriff, Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr.
Over the past couple of years Gonzalez has appeared repeatedly before legislators in Austin and Washington, calling upon the state and federal governments to open their coffers to law enforcement agencies along the border, so that local officers may better patrol the region and assist in catching any drug smugglers, gang members, and terrorists who make it across. Maybe it was because of the name he’d made for himself that I’d pictured him as a large, stern, gunslinging type, but that was not the man who bid me to take a seat in his windowless office, carefully groomed and deliberate and tapping his Marlboro Lights over a green ashtray.
No sooner had I said the words “border fence” than he dismissed the idea. “If a fence were to be built, the cartels would come and cut through it. A fence is not going to stop them,” he said. “We have received information that they would bring portable torches and a small generator and saws that cut through steel.”
Information from whom? I asked.
“Informants in Mexico,” he said.
I waited in vain for him to elaborate. Instead, he told me about the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, which he helped establish in 2005 and which has lobbied for a piece of the homeland security pie. “Our border was completely vulnerable and unprotected, extremely porous,” he said. “We’ve been accused by some elected officials of exaggerating the threats in order to get funding, but regarding the violence along the border, it’s happening.”
He reeled off past incidents: snipers in Mexico shooting at officers across the river, encounters with groups of immigrants carrying automatic weapons, high-ranking members of Mexican gangs discovered on this side of the river, threats made to law enforcement personnel, hundreds of aliens from “special interest countries” apprehended in Texas. And, he added, “How many child sex abusers, rapists, robbers, murderers, and thieves are coming into this country?” (In addition to other perils, law enforcement officers on the border face the risk of monetary temptation; a week before I spoke with Gonzalez, a former deputy of his and two other men had been indicted, accused of extorting money from drug traffickers in return for help with shipments.)
Gonzalez had enumerated these dangers to state and federal lawmakers, and evidence of his persuasive powers was parked outside; on my way in I’d passed six brand-new pickups, purchased with money from the governor’s homeland security office, with “Operation Linebacker,” the name of Gonzalez’s border security initiative, printed on the rear gates. (“We wanted Border Patrol to be the first line,” he explained, “and then we would be the linebackers.”)
The low-ceilinged room felt a little bunkerlike, notwithstanding the miniature knickknacks on the shelves behind the sheriff—Washington monuments, Jesus, an eagle, and a white-bearded cowboy that looked like Santa Claus—and notwithstanding the fact that I have never been in a bunker. Maybe it was that Gonzalez’s allusions to encroaching enemies had put me in a certain mood. He went on to describe a pair of suspicious-looking patches with Arabic writing on them that had been discovered in Jim Hogg County, and he raised the possibility that Hamas had established a training camp somewhere in Central America, all the while repeatedly referring me to several unfamiliar Web sites. It is difficult to draw a clear line between prudence and paranoia in matters of national security (see: liquids and gels), and I didn’t quite know how to receive Gonzalez’s dark assessments. Yet it did strike me that here were the sort of dangers that another person might cite in arguing for a fence to be built, and here was a man who saw no value in building one.
Farther south, the tenor of the opposition to the fence shifted. While frustration was apparent all along the border, in and around Laredo anxieties stemming from the drug trade and its violent symptoms ran closer to the surface, and as a result, there was a plaintive quality to the criticisms of the fence: What about the area’s real problems, which a fence would do nothing to solve? In the Valley, where farming and eco-tourism are significant industries and shoppers from Mexico a pillar of the retail trade, I was more often informed of the damage to the environment and the economy a fence might cause: The protests seemed almost boosterish. The opposition in the Valley was also more organized and activist; here there were bumper stickers, meetings, events. “I’ve never seen this area get so spun up about anything,” I was told by John McClung, the president of the Texas Produce Association, whom I met at the association’s headquarters.
Efforts by the DHS to communicate the status of its fence plans to border residents could hardly have been more inept. Maps were leaked, officials contradicted themselves, and gestures of appeasement went decidedly awry: On June 1, Border Patrol chief David Aguilar attended a public meeting in McAllen, where he declared that the only fence map had been drawn on the back of a napkin; on the same day local Border Patrol agents met with landowners and unrolled property maps on which potential fence locations had been designated.
“They came down here with a map, the Border Patrol wish list leaked, and that’s what drove everyone down here nuts,” McClung said. “So word went up to D.C.: You’ve ticked off the locals. Go out and consult with them. So what does the Border Patrol do? They call in landowners and give no indication they’re interested in reconsidering. Consultation à la Border Patrol becomes a matter of ‘bend over and prepare yourself.’ That’s obviously not well received. Then Chertoff supposedly gets word that the natives in the Valley are having a fit and throws his hands in the air.
“I actually feel a little sorry for the Border Patrol. They’re stuck between the reality in D.C. and the outrage down here, and their efforts to clean up their public relations have been disastrous.”
Although McClung told me that the Valley farmers he represents object to a fence on the grounds that it will disrupt their access to water, I did meet some who support the plan. On a warm afternoon I stopped in Mission to see Joe Metz and Sharon Waite, who raise sugarcane, grapefruit, oranges, grain sorghum, and cattle on their 1,400-acre farm. The couple live in a modern ranch house with large picture windows that look out onto a back patio and a small reservoir. The reservoir and surrounding foliage and dangling feeders attract all varieties of bird to the property, while the proximity to the river draws other visitors. “We’ve met people from all over the world,” Waite told me. “Brazilians, Chinese, Hondurans, Salvadorans.”
One day about a month before we spoke, Waite had glanced out the window and noticed a young girl seated on a patio chair. “She was a pretty little thing,” wearing a little bit of makeup and tight jeans and a tight T-shirt, “but she looked so young despite all that.” Around fifteen, Waite guessed. She offered the girl food (declined) and water (accepted), then let her use the phone to call a number in San Antonio. The girl walked to a nearby store, and in no time men arrived to pick her up. “I was scared,” Waite said. “I don’t want to turn somebody over to the Border Patrol, but then again, what am I sending her to? Am I sending her to something more horrible than I can even imagine?”
Metz had his own story of a recent encounter; while on his usual walk at daybreak, he’d come across three young men and a woman from China. “They knew three words in En-glish—‘America,’ ‘USA,’ and ‘thank you.’ We used sign language. First, they wanted a telephone, and I said no, and then they wanted me to drive somewhere, and I said no. I sent them to a store where there’s a telephone.”
When the fence controversy began, Waite and Metz had been reluctant to give interviews. “We are for the fence, but we don’t want to be painted as racist,” Waite said. It was just that things had changed. They used to see “little stragglers” crossing, but now “it’s not uncommon to see forty people come in,” Metz explained. “They cut our fences. We have to lock all our interior gates; otherwise they leave them open and there are cattle everywhere. We are getting to feel violated. The other part is the drug dealing. We see it weekly, people bringing drugs across. They’ll do it right in front of you”—floating over in rubber boats and handing off packages to people in cars who’d driven right onto the property.
“We understand that a fence isn’t going to stop determined people,” Waite said. “But it will slow down the drug flow and the illegal flow and push them into an area where they’ll be picked up more easily.
“Growing up, people went to the river for picnics and fishing; we used to wander around. Now you are very circumscribed by what’s happening. A lot of our friends who live along the river are very hesitant to say anything, but I’d say seventy-five percent are all for the fence.”
In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, U.S. 83 begins to resemble one very long strip mall, yet a few miles south, wildlife refuges line the river. The contrast is startling. Over the past thirty years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent $70 million to acquire land for the refuge system, which is one of the most biodiverse areas in the country, and millions more to restore and maintain that land. Yet even with the restoration, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the refuges represent less than 5 percent of the original wilderness.
Today the refuges support a sliver of riparian (riverside) habitat, which is surrounded by Tamaulipan thorn forest (and North American agribusiness). That habitat supports endangered and threatened species—many kinds of birds, as well as ocelot and jaguarundi—and it is narrow enough to be threatened itself. Clearing sufficient land to build one or two fences and a road would evacuate (or eliminate) animal populations, environmental advocates fear, yet because the refuges are owned by the federal government, at least one of them is seen as a likely fence location.
One day at lunchtime I pulled up to a bright-yellow house in McAllen, where a meeting of No Border Wall, a border fence opposition group, was under way. Ten or so people sat around a dining table and on a nearby couch, eating sandwiches and chips, as a rancher named Betty Pérez moderated the discussion. In attendance was a guest from Del Rio, a muscular, salt-and-pepper-haired man in a black T-shirt who’d handed me a card proclaiming himself “The Border Ambassador.” This was Jay J. Johnson-Castro Sr., who earlier in the year had walked from Del Rio to Brownsville in protest of the fence and was now urging on the group: “Let’s show the world in an upbeat, positive way that we are an international community!” The question was how best to publicize the cause; the gradual conclusion was that they would send a group of canoes down the river and hold press conferences in towns along the way. “If we the people say we will not allow a wall, with no compromise, they will not build; they cannot build!” Johnson-Castro exhorted.
Practical concerns were raised: There had to be time to prepare. Four kayaks and a canoe weren’t an impressive flotilla. Which stretch of the river? Was there any money? Should there be a Web site?
Eric Ellman, the owner of the house, was eager to take me to a section of refuge land within the McAllen city limits that he hoped—provided that the Fish and Wildlife Service approved and a fence was not built—to see designated a city park, where people could bike and camp and canoe. So I met him again that evening. We drove to a street of large warehouses on the south side of the city, then over a levee. He’d brought two bicycles; we hopped on and started along one of the Border Patrol access roads, where he regularly goes to ride.
“So this is it!” he called back to me. “This is the three percent that’s left! I mean, look at this. How many cities have places like this?” Not as adept a biker as Ellman, my gaze was frequently on the rutted dirt road below, but even so the greenery and quiet came as a relief after a day hauling back and forth on 83. We paused at a spot on the riverbank. “This river is invisible,” Ellman said. “We’ve been scared off. People could be camping here. Rio Grande City and Roma should have a booming float-trip industry.”
He was not the only person who raised the possibility: Instead of fencing off the river, what if it were instead made more accessible, more appealing to the general population and thus less attractive to surreptitious crossers? Or as another person said to me, “What better security could you have than thousands of birders with binoculars?”
Drug smugglers, meet the Birder Patrol.
I’d come across a number of maps of South Texas as I made my way down the border: maps showing wildlife refuges or citrus farms or factory locations or prehistoric remains or bird flight patterns, each one another reminder of how many different ways you could demarcate the same territory. The political boundary between the United States and Mexico was a feature of just one map, and to build a fence along it would require ignoring all the others.
“It’s emotional for me to think what a fence would look like. I understand that the law should be upheld, but everybody here knows somebody who has crossed.” I was talking with Rachel Benavidez, the 31-year-old editor of the Brownsville Herald, at her office. “When I was younger, I asked my grandpa, ‘Do you know how to swim?’ He said, ‘M’ija, if I didn’t know how to swim, you wouldn’t be here.’”
Benavidez, attired in black and white and a string of pearls, spoke with a thoughtful confidence: She seemed like a shoe-in for class president. The question of the fence, she said, was one she’d had to confront both professionally—a matter of covering the story fairly, in the point-counterpoint way of newspapers—and personally. To her the fence seemed “like this,” she said, holding her palm up like a traffic cop.
The fence, as she construed it, had as much to do with questions of identity—the border’s and her own—as with national security. Benavidez presides over both an English and a Spanish-language edition; the latter is largely staffed by people from Mexico, and so the newsroom culture replicates a divide that exists more generally along the border. “The culture is so different between this side and that side. I had to learn, for example, that I couldn’t communicate [with Mexican staffers] by e-mail, which they find impersonal; I had to tell them things in person or they would get offended. It took someone to tell me.” Outside the newspaper, the differences extend to male-female relationships, to attitudes toward food, to the character of social events. “With every year comes more separation instead of melding, because you have people who are assimilating and those who are holding on to Mexico.” And the current politics of immigration widen that divide. “When I was growing up, this separation of us and them didn’t exist,” she said. “The idea of putting up a fence, of people coming over who are undocumented posing a threat to national security, that was never an issue.”
When we speak of “the border,” we mean different things: There is the abstract concept of the border as a clear line on a map, and then there’s the notion of the border as a place and a population and a culture. The politicians and media personalities who have foisted the fence upon us clearly have the former in mind. But in South Texas there can be no question that the latter predominates, complicating any attempt to draw exact, clear boundaries.
“They’re us, we’re them,” Benavidez said to me. “What is the line?”