No Fence, No Border? No bull!

At an April 28 congressional field hearing in Brownsville, Texas on the proposed border fence, a local resident told the visiting panel, “It isn’t really a border to most of us who live down here.” There are apparently a lot of people in south Texas who believe such things. They see the proposed fence as an unwelcome statement that we really do have a border after all. That’s precisely why we need it.  

It’s really true that some residents in Texas border towns oppose the fence in principle, not because of environmental or property rights concerns.  What those opponents are saying is not that they do not want a fence along the Rio Grande. They don’t want a border, either. 

From the rhetoric of these opponents of the border fence, you might think the Department of Homeland Security is trying to fence the entire 1950 miles of the southwest border or the full length of the Rio Grande. The current plan being debated is far more modest. By the end of 2008, we will have pedestrian fencing for only 370 miles — less than 20% — and only 65 miles of that is on the Rio Grande.  Remarkably, even this pitiful effort is an affront to the sensitivities of the open borders aficionados. 

Obviously, there are some legitimate issues raised by building an 18-foot fence along many miles of previously open land. The office of Customs and Border Protection is trying to place the fence as close to the Rio Grande as feasible — and along existing levees where possible — and trying to minimize the impact on property values and the local agricultural economy. For example, cattle need access to river water, and this need can be accommodated in most places. 

A border fence also will inevitably have some environmental impact — on wildlife and wetlands ecology for example — and those impacts can be mitigated to some extent. Yet these logistical issues do not trump the national security and public safety concerns which demand improved border security.  

The environmental activists who scream about the possible impact of the fence are hypocritically silent about the degradation caused by the hundreds of pathways and tons of trash left behind by more than one million border invaders annually. Congressman Grijalva of Arizona is proposing legislation to repeal the law allowing the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive environmental impact regulations to expedite the construction of border infrastructure. He believes border fences disturb the natural ecology. Somehow he is oblivious to the damage done to the ecology and habitat by thousands of tons of trash and thousands of human trespassers allowed over the past 20 years by the lack of a fence.  

The Rio Grande River is the international border not simply of Brownsville and the state of Texas but of the United States. Illicit drugs and illegal aliens, criminals and potential terrorists smuggled across the border at Brownsville, Laredo, Del Rio or El Paso do not stay in those towns; they end up in Tulsa, Charlotte, St. Louis and New York. The residents of border towns do not possess a veto over how we protect our border.  

It is particularly outrageous to hear comparisons of the border fence with the Berlin Wall. Such talk reveals a willful ignorance of the Cold War. If Mexico decides to build an 18-foot wall with land mines and machine guns to prevent its citizens from fleeing, that we can call a Berlin Wall. Mexican or American politicians — or religious leaders or news commentators — who voice such tripe need both a history lesson and a public rebuke. 

In many border communities the combination of complacency about border security and family ties that transcend borders leads to an arrogance which is quaint but disturbing. Residents with relatives and business interests on both sides of the border insist that they need to travel back and forth freely — for shopping, birthdays, recreational activities, and so forth. Do local residents of Brownsville and McAllen routinely swim back and forth across the Rio Grande after midnight to visit their aunt in Matamoros or a pottery factory in Monterey? No, they cross legally at the numerous ports of entry, and will continue to do so after the border fence is completed. 

On the Mexican side, over six million Mexican citizens possess Border Crossing Cards which allow entry for 72 hours. Any Mexican citizen with legitimate business in Texas has no difficulty crossing the border through a port of entry. The only travelers who will be inconvenienced by the border fence are people trying to enter our country illegally or smuggle drugs or other contraband. The north-to-south smuggling of guns intended for use by the drug cartels might also be slowed by the border fence. 

Disagreement over the optimal placement for the fence and how to mitigate the disruption to the environment is understandable. What is not understandable or acceptable is opposition to the fence based on an ideology of divided loyalties. Many residents of south Texas enjoy the privileges of dual citizenship in the US and Mexico and they move freely — and legally — back and forth across the border. Those residents need to put those divided loyalties aside and recognize the legitimate imperative for secure borders.  We can have an honest debate about where to place the fence, but not about the need for fences to help bar illegal entry. 

If there are people in Texas who really think there are no significant differences between Brownsville and its “sister city” of Matamoros, or between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez or Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, they probably haven’t spent much time south of the Rio Grande lately. A few weeks coping with the lawlessness created by the “Zetas” and the corrupt local police may change their minds. Meanwhile, the most other Americans are saying — Get on with it. Build the fence.