By Emily Bazar, USA TODAY
McALLEN, Texas — Opponents of the U.S.-Mexican border fence in the Rio Grande Valley have launched a last-ditch volley of lawsuits to stop construction of the barrier, which began Sunday.
Mayors, environmentalists, landowners and shopkeepers say the fence will destroy plant and animal species, hurt the local economy and encroach on private property.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), rushing to meet a Dec. 31 congressional deadline, argues it will keep out illegal immigrants, drug runners and terrorists.
On Thursday, the University of Texas-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College settled its legal battles with DHS. The department agreed not to condemn any university land or build fencing on campus. The university pledged to raise the height of existing fencing and install cameras and other devices.
Opponents say the fence won't stop people who are determined to cross. In a region linked with Mexico through family and economic ties, they say, the fence sends a message that Mexicans, including those who enter legally, aren't welcome.
"The fence is already taking its toll," says Monica Weisberg-Stewart, owner of Gilberto's Discount House here. She says about 60% of her customers are Mexicans. Many have told her that they feel insulted by the fence.
"My customers say, 'We think twice now whether to come,' " she says.
At stake: Balancing security, economic links
Weisberg-Stewart is part of the Texas Border Coalition, a group of communities, judges and others who sued the government. The suit argues in part that officials failed to negotiate with landowners as required when acquiring land.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says his department followed the law and has taken pains to consult voluntarily with landowners in more than 100 meetings and contacts with more than 600 property owners.
He says, however, that DHS must balance negotiations with deadlines. "We know the smugglers are not going to pause while we sort out all the varying viewpoints," he says.
"We have a right as a country to determine who gets admitted and who doesn't," Chertoff says. "We have to have the tools in place to let the Border Patrol do the job."
Congress ordered DHS to build 670 miles of fence along the 2,000-mile border by the end of this year. As of July 11, it had finished 335 miles.
About 70 miles will be in the Rio Grande Valley.
The entire border will not be fenced. Fencing is intended to deter or slow illegal crossers, so it will go where agents need more time to catch them, says Ronald Vitiello, chief of the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector. It will be used in conjunction with technology such as night-vision cameras and ground sensors.
McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez shares Weisberg-Stewart's concern that the fence alienates legal visitors and hurts the economy. He says 36% of all city sales are made to Mexicans.
Cortez says the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency doesn't need the fence because it has other means of control, such as clearing riverbanks of brush so agents can spot people crossing. "What American doesn't want" secure borders? he asks.
Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates less immigration, questions Cortez's argument. "It's simply not plausible to say you favor border enforcement and then oppose all of the actual steps needed to have the border enforced," he says.
'I don't want money'
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll in March found Americans split: 49% supported the fence and 48% opposed it.
In June, environmental groups joined the city and county of El Paso, a Native American tribe and others to file a lawsuit challenging Chertoff's waiver of environmental and land management laws to speed construction. In part, the suit says the waivers violated the Constitution because they are not subject to judicial review. The Supreme Court declined to hear a similar case.
Frontera Audubon, an environmental group, is a plaintiff. Executive Director Wayne Bartholomew says the valley is home to a delicate ecosystem that exists nowhere else in the country. Endangered and threatened species such as ocelots live there.
Development, farming and other pressures mean only 5% of the original ecosystem remains, he says, and the fence would further fragment it.
About 25 miles west of here, Aleida Flores Garcia, 48, owns 30 acres in Los Ebanos, home to the last hand-operated ferry on the Rio Grande that shuttles passengers to and from Mexico.
She and her husband, Jorge Garcia, 43, have built the property into La Paloma Ranch Retreat. They built a boat ramp and put in picnic tables and playground equipment. They host fishing derbies.
They planned cabins, but Garcia realized the fence would cut off about 25 acres. The government tells her she'd still have access to most of it through a gate.
The government offered Garcia $8,800 for the land it needs. Garcia won't sell and has received a letter of condemnation. She plans to fight in court. "I don't want money," she says. "The sentimental value is worth a lot more."