Living With the Border Fence

The border fence cuts through a Valley farmer's property, upending his family's life.
Living with the Border Fence
Photograph by Brad Doherty

One of the obvious advantages of living within a gated community is the sense of security. But what if you live on the wrong side of the gate?

Consider the plight of Tim Loop, 47, who lives on his family farm in Brownsville, at the southernmost point along the United States-Mexico border.

Not so long ago, the Loop family farm was a pastoral vision, with its bountiful mesquite and cotton fields and orange groves. Today, imposing sections of 15- to 18-foot-high rust-colored steel bars, some of them less than four hundred feet from Loop’s front porch, are more likely to catch the eye.

In 2009 the Department of Homeland Security informed Loop, along with other landowners along the northern bank of the Rio Grande, that the new border fence, which in some areas stands more than a mile from the river, would be cutting through their properties. (A water treaty with Mexico that restricts building within the floodplain prevented the department from simply hugging the north bank.) The three-bedroom home where Loop lives with his wife and two children ended up on the south side of the fence, inside what essentially became a no-man’s land.

Many gaps remain along the fence line. But now, to seal off these openings, Homeland Security plans to install motorized gates and keypads. Like a handful of other border dwellers in the same situation, Loop and his family will be required to use a secret code to reach their home—and to re-enter the rest of his country.

“I’ll have to ask permission from the government to live my life,” Loop said.

It’s an awkward situation that Loop’s forebears could never have imagined. His grandfather settled this tract of land in the early 1900s, part of the southern migration of farmers who followed the expanding railway and the promise of an Edenic life to the Rio Grande Valley. Since then, the family has grown cotton, soybean, wheat, cabbage, corn, sorghum and sugarcane. They have endured the merciless heat, the yearly threat of hurricane season and the occasional hard freeze that can easily wipe out a citrus crop.

But although life along the Rio Grande has always demanded ingenuity and resilience, it is doubtful that Loop’s grandfather ever figured on an enormous steel fence slicing through his land.

In fact, most local residents in this remote, rural and poor corner of the country are accustomed to being virtually forgotten by Washington. That has changed dramatically in the past ten years, however. Today the area seems like a cauldron of the nation’s deepest anxieties, a place where concerns about undocumented immigration, fears of terrorism and, more recently, nervousness about spillover violence from Mexico’s drug war have boiled into repeated calls for a more secure border.

Loop seems to consider this a mixed blessing. He credits the initial boots-on-the-ground strategy with a decrease in the number of illegal crossings, but this only makes him question the need for more sections of fence.

“The fence is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” he said.

There is no doubt that the new gates and the keypads, the first round of which is scheduled to be completed by the spring, will complicate his life. Loop will be issued a personal pass code, but he will have to provide Homeland Security with the names of everyone who has regular access to the code.

According to the “Landowner Reference Guide,” a pamphlet distributed by the Border Patrol, the gates will stay open for a certain portion of every day, though the Border Patrol will have discretion over this. Emergency personnel will have access through the gates (which are designed to unlock in the event of a power failure), but the possibility of being caught on the wrong side of the fence weighs heavily on families like the Loops.

There are other worries, too. Loop wonders if possessing a secret pass code could make him a target for anyone desperate to gain access to the other side. This is, after all, a familiar area to desperate travelers.

The gates and keypads will affect a handful of other properties in the area. Ultimately, that list may include the Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve, a large tract belonging to the Nature Conservancy, which fought the border fence.

Maxwell Pons, an irascible preserve manager who, like Loop, lives in a house south of the fence has little faith the government will handle the gate and keypad project any better than the fence. “They tore down hundred-year-old trees to put up a fence,” Pons said. “You think they care about how using a keypad is going to affect us?”

Then there is the question of whether motorized gates controlled by secret pass codes will be able to secure a fence that wasn’t all that secure to begin with.

Recently, Loop noticed what from a distance might have looked like dozens of ants scampering up the south side of the 18-foot-high steel bars. Getting closer, he realized that these were scuff marks—from shoes, boots, sneakers, bare feet; there was no telling for sure—and that whoever left the marks had made it to the top, and over, undeterred.

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