By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Mike Allen, McAllen Economic Development Corporation
"If you build a ten-foot fence, they're going to find an 11-foot ladder."
Steve Ahlenius, president/CEO McAllen Chamber of Commerce
Father Roy is gunning the bass boat in the hot noonday sun while his pal Mike Allen, an economic development official, urges him on from his perch in the back.
"Go to the pump station, keep going!" he shouts over the engine. We're in a narrow stretch of the Rio Grande, near Mission, Texas, with Mexico so close we can touch it.
Cattle graze close to the shore, rows of corn are prospering and trailers long ago converted to something more permanent crowd the U.S. side. Birds chirp, scream and sweep in and out of the high grass on both sides. We're right in the middle of the Texas-Mexico border when ahead we see a young Hispanic couple in inner tubes paddling rapidly to reach the U.S. side. The Border Patrol guard tower is about a half a mile in the other direction.
In a surreal moment, the young man pauses and gives us a friendly wave. Perhaps he's seen the priest's collar. Then he resumes his progress.
They reach the other side our side and disappear into the dense brush. We never see the young man again; the girl returns and collects discarded inner tubes. Is she a waterborne coyote? Was she seeing her brother/boyfriend/husband off?
Last year, the U.S. Congress endorsed a plan to put 700 miles of fencing along the border states. This month, it continues debating the subject, this time with Senate language calling for 370 miles of fencing although this may not all be "physical" fencing and 200 miles of pylons that would let people and animals through but stop vehicles.
The proposed fences are said to be ten feet tall; plans call for clearing out a path maybe 50 to 150 feet wide alongside them. No one knows anything for sure. According to a map leaked to South Texas officials a few weeks ago, a fence would go right through this countryside, right along the river through Father Roy's youth camp and right through many of the wildlife refuges that are a chief focus for tourism here.
Part of a $7.6 billion border security package, the fence is designed to stop terrorists, drug smugglers and illegal immigrants of all types, including the couple that just crossed, although truth to tell, neither one of them looked very sinister.
In the last 20 or so years, the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife Services has spent $80 million in taxpayer money buying up old farmland, empty lots and any other property for sale along the Rio Grande. Then, with the help of volunteers including classes of schoolchildren they've gone about replanting native vegetation on it to create a wildlife corridor with a series of refuges. The area is about as biologically diverse as it gets.
It's a top birding destination and when there are birds, there are 150,000 to 200,000 birders bringing an estimated $150 million a year in trickle-down economics to the area.
The corridor is not only home to many bird species year-round, it is a major flyway for migrating birds moving up and down from North America to Central and South America. It is No. 1 in reptiles and No. 2 in mammals, and it is home to some of the few remaining ocelots and jaguarondi in Texas and the United States.
Now much of that same tract of land is going to be handed over for a fence, wiping out years of restoration work, say a chorus of critics that includes environmentalists, conservationists, farmers and city leaders. Yes, they support secure borders with ground sensors, cameras and whatever high-tech gizmos the feds want to trot out. They want more "boots on the ground." They are 95 percent with their federal government on this.
But what they don't want is a "physical" fence, and the construction work and brush-clearing that would accompany it.
They don't like the symbolism, the stay-out message it sends to their No. 1 trading partner, Mexico. They want to know why the Canadian border isn't getting a fence. They are disappointed that their senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, voted for the fence, but say they hope the two will work to temper the plans to something more reasonable.
They don't like its reality. Besides the fact that they believe it's going to wreak devastation on the environment, they say it's bad for business, both for tourists and for the farmers who may be cut off from their pump stations and water sources in the Rio Grande. They compare it to the Berlin Wall.
They don't like the fact that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff can circumvent the same federal environmental studies they would have to undergo if they wanted to put in a road or a bridge. He has specially granted waiver powers, and if he wants a fence, he gets one no matter how many dead birds and ocelots are left behind to clean up.
They can't stomach the representatives they've met in the Department of Homeland Security, from Chertoff on down, who seem to them to be unreasonable, untrustworthy creatures, arrogant in manner and not always inclined to truthfulness.