Thu, Feb 24, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The battle of the US-Mexico frontier

The US has built a fence to keep Mexican immigrants out. It has cost billions and split communities. But does it work?

By Chris McGreal  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has backed the fence because, she says, her state has become “the gateway to America for drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and crime.”

Fear in the state was stoked by the death in March last year of an Arizona rancher who authorities believe was shot on his farm by a drug-smuggling scout. In December, a border patrol agent was murdered by smugglers.

The barrier is a popular backdrop for political campaign adverts: Senator John McCain was pictured driving along it demanding that the government “finish the dang fence.” However, for many who live on the border, particularly in Texas, alarm at the prospect of a fence dividing communities has turned to derision at what is shaping up to be a spectacular — and expensive — failure.

Eagle Pass was the first US settlement on the Rio Grande. A narrow stretch of the river divides it from Piedras Negras in Mexico, whose singular claim to recognition is as the birthplace of the nacho. Residents of the two towns mostly regard them as one. For years, Eagle Pass had almost no restaurants because its population strolled across the border to eat in the cheaper establishments on the other side. Almost everyone in the town is of Mexican origin and families straddle the border, which was what made estate agent Chad Foster so unusual when he was elected the first non-Hispanic mayor of Eagle Pass in more than four decades.

“They couldn’t find anyone else, so they came to me,” he jokes.

He proved a shrewd choice in 2004 when there was a Texan in the White House, then-US president George W. Bush, and Eagle Pass had caught Washington’s eye as a gaping hole in border security.

Foster is the kind of Texan — an imposing, hunting, bull-wrestling Republican who is rarely seen in public without his cowboy hat — who was not easily ignored in Bush-era Washington. However, he didn’t have anything to say that the administration wanted to hear. The Department of Homeland Security was still planning the fence in 2006 and had latched on to Eagle Pass as a major problem. It wasn’t hard to see why. The town’s municipal golf course runs right up to the Rio Grande. Mexico is so close that players have little difficulty in whacking balls across the border. As it was, the real problem for golfers was to avoid hitting illegal immigrants who swam the river and scurried across the course every few minutes.

“There were 200 a day coming across,” Foster says. “The Mexicans liked to cross there because they could disappear in to the town within minutes.”

Washington told Eagle Pass and other towns strung along the Texas border that it intended to build a barrier on the frontier. Mayors of the towns, grouped under the Texas Border Coalition (TBC), collectively renounced any physical barrier. Officials from Washington arrived to talk to Eagle Pass’ council, where opposition hardened as they were told that the fence would run through the golf course.

“The number that David Aguilar, the head of border patrol, came up with is that the fence would slow down an illegal entry by three to four minutes,” Foster says. “To save three to four minutes and negatively impact our community and relations with our neighbors, you erect a wall between neighbors for no real purpose?”

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top