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

So far as Foster and much of Eagle Pass was concerned, the illegal immigrants weren’t a problem. Most got through the town as fast as they could and kept going. Others provided the agricultural and construction labor that the local residents were not prepared to do. However, the US’ drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has said the Texas border is his greatest concern because of the level of narcotraficantes, or drug trafficker, violence on the other side. The Council on Foreign Relations says that Mexico is now more violent than Afghanistan or Iraq with its 20,000-plus deaths in the government’s five-year war with the drug traffickers.

Nowhere has been hit worse than Ciudad Juarez, sitting just across the river from the US town of El Paso. Juarez is arguably the most dangerous city in the western hemisphere, with about 3,000 killings there by narcotraficantes last year alone.

“It is more dangerous to walk the streets of Juarez, a few blocks from El Paso, than it is to walk the streets of Baghdad,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott told Fox News. “There is a very serious problem that is beginning to bulge at our borders and put American lives at risk.”

What Abbot did not say was that whatever may be happening in Juarez, El Paso is statistically among the very safest cities in the US. There were just five murders there last year. In 2009 there were 12, still far below other US cities of a similar size.

But then there was the ace up Washington’s sleeve: terrorism. When the Border Patrol moved to persuade frontier communities of the need for the fence, the first slide in the presentation was an image of the Twin Towers burning on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s an emotional and persuasive argument for many Americans. If Mexicans can breeze across the border, why can’t al-Qaeda? Never mind that the perpetrators of all the terrorist attacks on the US over the past 20 years have arrived by plane on student or tourist visas. Or in the case of homegrown terrorists, such as Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 people by blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, via the local maternity ward.

The government pressed ahead with its plan for the fence, regardless. Bush’s homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, overrode dozens of federal statutes, and all state, city and tribal legislation governing everything from the environment, to property rights and historic preservation.

As the fence went up through Eagle Pass, across the river in Piedras Negras, the local state government was building a “green wall” of trees on the edge of the Rio Grande in repudiation. Residents such as Guillermo Berchelmann, who used to nip across the border to buy cigarettes because they were cheaper in the US, have seen the frontier solidify with closer immigration checks, delays and an erosion of the idea of two towns united by a common border.

“I’m no homeland security strategist, but in our view the fence is offensive,” says Berchelmann, who runs restaurants in both towns. “People don’t understand it. Eagle Pass and Piedras are one community. We intermarry. We have family there. Students from Eagle Pass come to school in Piedras Negras. We cross every day. We used to cross several times a day.”

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