July 19, 2008

It Begins: Granjeno prepares reluctantly for the start of border wall construction

July 19, 2008 - 11:32PM
Jackie Leatherman

Construction on the border wall begins this week in Granjeno, and the people living within 100 yards of the project know almost nothing about it.

The residents along Granjeno's only main street - El Camino Real - just know that some sort of barrier will emerge somewhere behind their homes sometime soon.

"Until they start constructing ... we don't know," said Idolina Guzman, whose mother-in-law lives on the western side of the street. "They haven't told us anything about it."

After more than a year of planning, protests and lawsuits, the roughly 12-foot high concrete wall is expected to finally face Mexico by the end of this year.

Some of the roughly 30 Granjeno residents think a fence will be constructed. Most think it will be closer to the river. Many think it will be built on top of the levee.

All of them are wrong.


Granjeno's residents said it would have been nice to have had the federal government update them on the project's status.

But the last time anyone remembers the federal government coming to their neighborhood was in the fall, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security wanted to take their back yards to start extending 22 miles of the border fence into portions of the Rio Grande Valley.

The citizens fought it. And with the help of Hidalgo County officials and Texas lawmakers, the fence was changed to a concrete floodwall and moved to federal property just south of their homes. The barrier designed to halt illegal immigration will now become the south side of the levee and help reinforce the dilapidating structure. County officials have battled the federal government for decades, trying to get funding to fix the flood control system here.

DHS officials say they've conducted community outreach for the border wall project across the nation's border as the department continues to construct 670 miles of barrier, but couldn't confirm the last time they made it to the tiny Granjeno neighborhood.
"I'm not trying to pass the buck here, but the county is the lead in the project," said Barry Morrissey, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman.

Godfrey Garza Jr., the manager of the Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1, is overseeing the project and said weekly updates were given during the Hidalgo County Commissioner's Court, public meetings and presentations were held, and information was available on the county's Web site.

Granjeno Mayor Vicente Garza Jr. said he didn't know any more details on the wall than his residents, but said he has been too busy to gather the information. He said the updates should have passed from the federal government through the county to him and then he would have informed his residents.

"We have a lot of things on our hands," he said.

Ernesto Reyes, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist in the Valley, said he has been working nonstop for the past year on keeping up on the border wall project. One of the first two segments to be built runs along less than a mile of Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge south of Donna. The remaining five segments in Hidalgo County are expected to be under construction within the next two months.

"That is all we've been doing is working on this border fence issue," he said. "Besides my regular job."


Illegal immigrants pass through Granjeno more often than visitors - or even residents from neighboring cities.

El Camino Real is a street where a knock at the door could be someone asking for help, soaking wet from just climbing out of the Rio Grande.

Almost all of the homeowners remember details of what has been stolen from their homes or someone else's. Almost all of them say the culprits are illegal immigrants.

They live in a neighborhood where Border Patrol SUVs pass through the main drag every 20 minutes or so, where people know that the crackling of twigs at night are more than just animals passing through, where no one gets out of bed to check on the dogs anymore.

The people who live there fly Dallas Cowboy pennants, leave toys in their yard, and come outside to see what's going on when a strange car parks in the neighborhood.

The homeowners are mixed between those who have the money and desire to keep up their homes - and those that don't.
They all know each other. Most have lived there all of their lives.

And seemingly none want the wall.

They said the wall won't stop the illegal traffic from cutting through their yards daily.

But the neighborhood sentiment for the project has changed over the past year from strong opposition to a reluctant acceptance.
They don't mind the new location and they are glad the levee running behind their homes will get fixed. Most say it just takes one look at the flood-control structure to see that repairs are needed.

But for them, the real answer to the problem of illegal immigration is more Border Patrol agents.

They say their phone calls to the nearest Border Patrol station in McAllen fall on deaf ears or agents take too long to respond to their reports of aliens in their neighborhood.

Erasmo Garza, 55, said he worked for the Hidalgo County Constable's Precinct 3 Office for 10 years.

He has the Border Patrol's phone numbers programmed into his cell phone and says the wall's path doesn't the block the natural funnel of illegal immigrants into their city: Anzalduas Park. The western edge of the wall starts close to the park's entrance.
"If they put the wall up here, it won't help. They still leave the park open," he said.

Garza said he sees more illegals walking through the neighborhoods than Border Patrol agents. Many residents said they've seen the green and white SUVs pass right by people soaked from head to toe walking along the street.

But Dan Doty, spokesman for the CBP's Rio Grande Valley sector say Border Patrol agents stop 100 percent of the time they suspect someone is an illegal immigrant.

"We never pass by, especially if something has been reported to us," he said. "We do not disregard that information. They may call and never see us. We could already be ... making contact. They may actually not think we show up, but we do."

No one knows exactly what will happen to flow of illegal immigration once the U.S. finishes shutting off more than one-fifth of its southern border to Mexico.

Everyone in Granjeno seems to think the $28-million wall will not stop the footprints through their grass.

They'll find out for sure by this time next year.

But for now, they are just waiting to see what their horizon will finally look like once they step outside their backdoors.

Jackie Leatherman covers Hidalgo County government and general assignments at The Monitor. She can be reached at (956) 683-4424.

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