In Texas, Little Support for Putting Up Fences

Times Staff Writer

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.

Between 1978 and 2001, Mexican shoppers made 26% of all retail sales in Brownsville, 35% in McAllen and 51% in Laredo, according to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Local officials said more recent estimates are higher.

“The Wal-Mart with the largest number of retail transactions in the United States is in Laredo, and if you go to that parking lot, more than half the cars have Mexican plates,” said Eddie Aldrete, senior vice president for the Laredo-based International Bank of Commerce. “The fence is a knee-jerk reaction by Congress. No one really studied the economic impacts, the environmental impacts.”

Ray M. Keck III, the president of Texas A&M; International University in Laredo, said the idea of building a wall to deter immigrants ignored the lessons of history, which clearly showed that such barriers do not work unless they are patrolled by soldiers willing to kill. More important, he said, he feared that the expensive proposal demonstrated a lack of priorities.

“Are we really so terrified of what might come from Mexico,” he asked, “that we must spend billions to construct this wall, then billions to maintain it, at a time when healthcare and education so desperately need better funding?”

To Mike Allen, a former Catholic priest who helped the poor in the colonias of Texas’ Hidalgo County, then switched careers and became a leading economic booster for the border region, the fence is a manifestation of politics at its ugliest.

“It is just so sad that the relationships we have worked years to build are being torn down by politicians in Washington, who quite frankly don’t have any idea what they are doing,” Allen said.

“I’ll say it: It’s the browning of America, and people are afraid of that. That’s what this is all about. I have lived on the border most of my life. I’m not scared.”