By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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The belief that outsiders don't understand the South Texas border is one constant in any conversation down here.
Mike Allen, who is retiring from the economic development corporation and the Texas Border Coalition (made up of border officials) and who was Border Texan of the Year in 2006 (sharing the honor with Sen. Cornyn), certainly thinks so. He goes back and forth across the border for business all the time, setting up maquiladoras, starting manufacturing plants, mustering up fairly serviceable Spanish as needed.
"Ninety-five percent of the people who live in our community are Hispanic or Mexican-American. Fifty-four percent of the people who live in McAllen have family in Mexico. So would you want a wall separating your family?
The Sierra Club's Scott Nicol makes the same point. "A lot of people outside of the area think of it as being like the [sparsely populated] Arizona border." Besides the fact that there's one million U.S. citizens living there, the ties with their sister border cities are long-term. The sister cities used to be a single city, built around a river, Nicol says. "When the river became the border, they split."
"It's a shame that our destiny is destined by people who don't even live in our community, who don't understand what they are doing. Who certainly don't understand how to stop illegal immigration," Allen says.
"The Border Patrol is busy chasing gardeners and maids across the river," Allen says. He has little use for a Republican Congress that he says has put its whole emphasis on building a fence. At the same time, he points out that Hillary Clinton also voted for the fence.
As little faith as he has in politicians, he has less in DHS.
"I think we have not been dealt with honestly, and it would have been better for Homeland Security to say, ‘We don't care what you think. We're going to build the wall and that's it.' It would have been much more honest to say that."
Keith Hackland is a devoted birder who makes his living operating Alamo Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Alamo, and by guiding birders. He is one example of the infrastructure both public and private that has grown enormously in the last 20 years in the Valley to support birding.
What he offers birders is the chance to see one rare species of bird after another, in an area roughly 40 miles wide and 140 miles long. That area has more than 300 butterfly species, more than 120 dragonfly species and more than 1,200 plant species.
"Without doing a lot of driving in a day, you can pick up 50 to 100 species. For many birders, these are birds they've seen for the first time," he says.
Steve Alhenius of the Chamber says that in the last six to eight years, a lot of cities have invested in putting together their own birding centers.
McClung says as a result, there's more infrastructure in place to support birding than anywhere else in the country.
"Ecotourism here is 90 to 95 percent birding. $150 million a year birding," McClung says. "I'm a hard-core birder, and I know that's true. $150 million. That's big money in a place as economically depressed as the Rio Grande Valley is."
"So it isn't just a matter of loving the birdies. It's a matter of money, too."
Hackland, who was raised in South Africa and first came to Texas as an exchange student in the late 1960s, says in terms of biodiversity, South Texas has everything that Africa has except for the big mammals.
There will be a worldwide outcry from conservationists if the fence is built, he says.
"It's a political problem that needs a political solution because there's nothing rational about it. It's stupid. It's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of."
Lack of habitat will probably force the birds to move south 200–250 miles into similar habitat in Mexico, Hackland says. "We would lose the birds. We would lose the birders."
The appeal of birds goes deep into our psyche, into the time when humans lived off the land, Hackland believes. "We used birds for food and to tell us where danger lies."
There's another appeal. "If you pluck a bird and look at it, it's a dinosaur. Birds are the survivors of the dinosaur age."
As with most endeavors, there is not complete unanimity in the anti-fence group.
Some, such as Allen of the economic development group, are ready to clear the brush, at least right along the river, to give border agents a clear line of sight something opposed by environmentalists.
Several environmentalists in turn suggest moving the fence up to the levees or Highway 281. Allen and others reject this, saying it will isolate the people and businesses in the lowest part of the valley by placing them on the wrong side of the fence.
And again, McClung is not as certain as others about the benefits of a virtual fence.
One thing they are united about is their distrust of Homeland Security.
Chad Foster, mayor of Eagle Pass and chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, repeats the oft-told tale. Told their input was vital and necessary, they found out the Border Patrol had been negotiating with private landowners in Roma. "Well, that's kind of going through the back door."