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In Texas, Little Support for Putting Up Fences

Along the Rio Grande, residents say the barrier approved by Congress would sever cultural and economic ties, and cut off access to the river.

October 01, 2006|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

McALLEN, Texas — Few Americans are more fed up with the unending human caravan of illegal immigration -- or more familiar with its macabre toll -- than rancher Mike Vickers.

Multitudes of bedraggled migrants cut through his South Texas homestead every day to skirt U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints on their journey north, and many do not make it out alive. Vickers has found frightened children sitting in fields alone, abandoned. His dogs once brought home a human head.

He very badly wants to stop the trail of death and despair that passes by his doorstep. But when he considers the wisdom of building twin steel walls along the Rio Grande to seal off the Mexican border -- the plan Congress approved early Saturday before heading home for the November election -- his verdict is swift and harsh: stupid idea.

"That's just a big waste of money," said Vickers, a Texas Republican activist who heads a group opposed to illegal immigration that until recently was the state branch of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps.

"The Rio Grande is the lifeblood of South Texas," he said. "A wall is just going to stand between farmers and ranchers and others who need legitimate access to water. It's not going to stop the illegals."

From Laredo to Brownsville, a meandering 200-mile stretch of the Rio Grande that would be walled off if President Bush signs, as expected, the bill to fence 700 miles of the border, reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

Many of these Texas border towns blossomed on the riverbanks not even a football field away from Mexico, a bilingual, binational culture where everyone knows someone on the other side. Here, the fence was widely seen as a federal government misadventure that would trample private property rights without accomplishing anything.

"Whether it's over rivers or deserts -- or now, this wall -- people will keep coming, as long as they can find a job here that's so much better," said Angelica Garcia, 26, a worker at a shop on McAllen's bustling Main Street that caters to Mexicans visiting Texas. "This wall isn't going to do a thing."

Many expressed shock that a proposal they considered a pipe dream by pandering Washington politicians had been approved, and that a fence they likened to the Berlin Wall could soon separate them from their neighbors.

"For so many years, we talked about tearing down that wall. Now we want to build a wall between us and Mexico? It makes us look like hypocrites," said Denise Carreon, 21, who like many border residents still had family members to the south.

Many others expressed outrage that the Rio Grande, a near-mystical river in the Texas imagination and one of the most prized bird-watching spots in North America, could soon be blocked from view.

"Zero -- that's how many people I know who support this. People are opposed from Brownsville to El Paso," said Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, head of a group of frontier leaders called the Texas Border Coalition.

"The Rio Grande is a very historic and scenic place, one of the natural treasures of Texas. We're going to wall it off?"

As Congress approved building the fence, it was hard to find a South Texas politician, merchant, economic analyst or academic who believed a wall would work -- and who did not consider it an insult to the people of Mexico, with whom the region shares a strong social and economic bond, especially since passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"I am reminded of when Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross and he said, 'Father, forgive them because they know not what they do,' " said Richard Cortez, the mayor of McAllen, which became one of the fastest-growing areas in America after NAFTA.

"I don't know who is advising the Senate," Cortez said. "A fence is not going to keep people from crossing the border, but it's certainly going to hurt us."

Like many of those who live along the Rio Grande, Cortez travels frequently between its banks; his two sons married Mexican-born women, and although they are U.S. citizens, many of their relatives are not, so reunions often take place south of the border.

Cortez and other border leaders worry that long-standing friendships, and family ties that go back generations, will be frayed.

"If you're building walls, what message are you sending to your neighbors? Do you think they are really going to want to visit? It's a slap in the face to them," said Laredo Mayor Raul G. Salinas, a former FBI agent. "People who have never been to the border, who do not understand the border, are shoving this down our throats."

Although the fence plan allows Mexicans to legally visit Texas with temporary visas permitting travel within 25 miles of the border, local politicians and business leaders worry that they will no longer feel welcome.

Mexican shoppers are a major source of money for Texas border towns, and gleaming malls and vast big-box outlets have been built to cater to them.

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