06:08 PM CDT on Saturday, July 12, 2008
DEL RIO, Texas – This city on the Rio Grande stands virtually alone, and not just because it's in vast, desolate West Texas.
Unlike other Texas cities along the Mexican border, Del Rio actually welcomes the 15-foot-high steel wall the U.S. government wants to build to guard against illegal immigrants.
Other cities have denounced the barrier as a waste of money, an eyesore, a giveback of hard-won American soil and an insult to Mexico. They have barred government surveyors from setting foot on city property, refused to sell land to Washington, or dug in their heels over the selling price.
But Del Rio's City Council voted unanimously last month to sell 70 acres to the Department of Homeland Security for $1.2 million. The mayor said the city considers itself lucky; it bought the land decades ago for $90,000 and regards it as useless.
"There's nothing here," Mayor Efrain Valdez said, gesturing toward the land near the water. "So if you put a fence here, it really doesn't bother us."
Moreover, Valdez said the existing chain-link fence is too easy for illegal immigrants to jump. And he said he is glad Homeland Security will clear the waterfront land of carrizo cane and other foliage, enabling Border Patrol agents to see the river.
Del Rio, population 34,000, is 160 miles west of San Antonio, next to Lake Amistad reservoir, a popular destination for serious bass fishermen. It sits opposite the Mexican city of Ciudad Acuna, three times its size.
Del Rio is different from other Texas border communities in a fundamental way: While the city limits extend all the way to the river, Del Rio's city center is miles from the winding, muddy flow that is a centerpiece in other border towns. While other cities grew from the Rio Grande's edge, Del Rio was built around a natural spring.
The new wall won't cut through a golf course or anyone's long-held family land, the way it may in other border communities. And it won't be visible to downtown shoppers.
In fact, for Del Rio, the government crackdown on illegal immigration has been good for business in some respects.
The city will use the proceeds from the land sale to build a new revenue-generating parking garage across from Del Rio's federal courthouse, which has been bustling with immigration cases ever since U.S. authorities in 2006 declared the sector a zero-tolerance zone for anyone caught sneaking across the border.
The influx of prosecutors, defense attorneys and other courthouse officials has been good for restaurants and stores downtown. But the courthouse crowd is using up all the parking spaces, inconveniencing shoppers and other visitors.
Dennis Smith, a spokesman for Homeland Security's Border Patrol division in Del Rio, said he didn't want to compare Del Rio to other border cities, but "we've had a pretty good understanding with local officials. It's been a pretty smooth process."
Elsewhere, the government has sued dozens of landowners who have refused to cooperate with the fence plans. And in May, a coalition of border-city mayors and business leaders, including Valdez, sued Homeland Security, saying some landowners were tricked into giving up their rights.
Valdez still supports the lawsuit, even though his own city has embraced the fence.
"What we're saying here is what works here doesn't work everywhere," he said.
Many Del Rio residents don't see much need for a fence, but it doesn't spark the kind of outrage here that it has elsewhere.
Hairstylist Brenda Garcia said customers at her salon complain more about relationship troubles than they do about the fence.
Flo Cadena, a real estate broker whose son is a federal prosecutor, said the fence "makes me feel like the Berlin Wall going up." But she added: "The government is going to do what they want to do. There's no point to wasting money on lawsuits, and people realize that."
Standing near a fluttering gray banner that read, "No al muro! Unidos sin frontera!!" ("No to the wall, united without borders"), Diana D. Abrego, a paralegal who helped organize fence protests, said she is disappointed city leaders who opposed the fence changed their position.
"Politicians will tell you one thing, but once they get put into office, it's another thing," she said.