As Valley border fence work begins, questions resurface
By Juan Castillo
Monday, August 11, 2008
Is it possible to build a border wall without the help of the very people it is intended to keep out?
That's an open question all along the border, and especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where the wall is widely unpopular but is now becoming a reality. Although the 70 miles of planned fencing in the Valley still faces legal challenges, work on the first segments began late last month, leaving some of its critics resigned to the project.
Valley longtimers have cracked wise about the barriers, saying they not only won't thwart illegal immigrants intent on entering the country but that illegal labor will probably help build them. An estimated 8 million illegal immigrants already work in the U.S., and according to a Pew Hispanic Center report, about 1 in 5 were in the construction industry in 2006.
Federal officials say they have taken steps to ensure only legal workers build the fence that Congress conceived in 2006 in the name of national security. They include:
• In June, President Bush ordered all federal contractors to participate in the Department of Homeland Security's electronic system for verifying the Social Security numbers of their workers.
• Private companies wanting a piece of the $1.2 billion fence-building project face heavy scrutiny; before they can even join a pool to bid on federal contracts, they must agree to a long list of terms, including that they will hire only legal workers.
• Contractors found using illegal labor face legal repercussions, said Homeland Security spokesman Barry Morrissey. "We expect contractors to uphold these agreements," Morrissey said.
Federal officials "are not going to embarrass themselves" by allowing illegal immigrants to build the wall, said Perry Vaughan, executive director of the Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America. He predicted that federal officials will do everything they can to avoid such a public relations disaster.
If undocumented immigrants do have a hand in building the fence, it wouldn't be the first time.
In 2006, a fence-building company in Southern California agreed to pay nearly $5 million in fines for hiring illegal immigrants to build millions of dollars' worth of fencing, work that included some of the border fence between San Diego and Mexico.
Wall has two purposes
In Hidalgo County, border security is piggybacking on flood control. After Hurricane Dolly blew through South Texas, construction began in late July on the first segments of a county-federal project to erect concrete walls along 22 miles of existing — but ailing — levees by the Rio Grande. Barriers, including concrete walls with guard rails in most places, will be 18 feet tall.
"It's border security and it's flood protection," Hidalgo County spokeswoman Cari Lambrecht said. "The whole reason why this project came about is because we have to fix our levees."
Companies working on the levee/wall in Hidalgo County must agree to the same federal contract conditions, Lambrecht said. Homeland Security is paying for up to $88 million of the estimated $133 million price tag under the county-federal agreement.
Contractors worked last week on three segments of the border wall/levee, including one in the small town of Granjeno, where workers began pouring a concrete foundation on the levees' south side. The barricades, a compromise on initial federal plans to build walls, will bring the levees up to standards and will hardly be visible from the north, Lambrecht said.
"It's essentially a sea wall, a retaining wall," Lambrecht said.
Messages left with two of the contractors, Harlingen-based Ballenger Construction, and Pasadena-based SER Construction Partners Ltd., were not returned. On its Web site, SER Construction says it was awarded a $12 million contract to work on the wall/levee project.
The federal government intends to have 670 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers in place along the nearly 2,000-mile southwestern border with Mexico by year's end. So far, 333 miles have been completed, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
But from the outset, the government's plans drew the ire of many in South Texas, where large swaths of riverfront land are privately owned by ranchers, farmers, descendants of indigenous people and inheritors of land grants made more than 300 years ago by Spanish colonizers.
Critics say that besides upsetting a way of life in which people, commerce and goods have flowed freely across the Rio Grande for centuries, a fence will harm the environment, the economy, friendships and business relationships with Mexico, Texas' biggest trading partner. Researchers say that as many as half of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S. came here legally, then overstayed their visas. The fence won't stop people like them, opponents assert.
"No one is more concerned about border security than those of us who live and raise families on the border," said Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, who heads the Texas Border Coalition, a group of elected officials and business leaders that is suing the federal government to stop the fence.
The coalition advocates other security measures, such as more Border Patrol agents and use of technology, including underground sensors and automated cameras. Foster is a big proponent of eradicating the ubiquitous Carrizo cane that chokes the Rio Grande's banks, concealing immigrants who swim across the river to the U.S.
The fence still faces other legal challenges, from cities, private landowners and descendants of tribal groups. A potential roadblock was averted in June when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a lawsuit by environmental groups who argued it was unconstitutional for Congress to give Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff power to suspend environmental laws to speed construction of the barriers.
Asked whether a border wall could be built on deadline without illegal workers, Vaughan, with the general contractors group, told the Brownsville Herald in June: "It's probably borderline impossible to be honest with you."
The remarks were widely circulated on the Internet and picked up by other news organizations. Some in cyberspace said they don't care who builds a border wall.
"I just want the damn fence built. ... I'll let the Libs and the Intellectuals sit around and worry about irony," one poster wrote on a conservative Web site.
"I was simply acknowledging that in the construction industry, a pretty significant percentage of workers are obviously undocumented," Vaughan told the American-Statesman.
Although federal law prohibits employers from knowingly hiring illegal workers, an estimated 9 percent of Texas' workforce is unauthorized; 5 percent is nationally. Many employers and business and trade groups emphasize that they don't condone immigration-related fraud but that they can't vouch for the documents their workers present.
"You may find that there could be an individual on the job site that is not legal even though you went through various processes to check," Vaughan said. Vaughan also said that E-Verify, the government's electronic system for checking Social Security numbers, can't be trusted to weed out illegal workers.
As the first segments of a border wall began to take shape, The Monitor in McAllen reported that some of the fence's most strident critics, Granjeno landowners, had resigned themselves to the project going up just yards from their homes. Many, however, insisted that a wall won't stop illegal immigrants from cutting through their yards.
But Joe Metz, who farms on 1,100 riverfront acres about 10 miles west of Mission, thinks criticism about the wall — rhetoric, he calls it — is dying down. He said he welcomes anything that will help stop illegal immigrants from tramping over his land.
"The politicians and the business leaders are finally starting to realize that all this violence they're having right across the river in Reynosa and Matamoros (in Tamaulipas) is caused by the drug trade," Metz told the American-Statesman. "If the fence will stop the drugs from coming across here, well, then the drug people will go someplace else."
1,952 Length in miles of U.S. border with Mexico
1,240 Length in miles of Texas border with Mexico
$1.2 billion Initial cost of building the wall ($3.3 million per mile)
$49 billion Estimated cost (by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service) of building and maintaining the wall over its expected 25-year life span
670 miles Length of planned pedestrian and vehicle barriers along U.S.-Mexico border
150 miles Estimated length of fencing on Texas border
70 miles Estimated length of fencing in Rio Grande Valley
22 miles Length of border wall/levee project in Valley