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