By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007
ROMA, Tex. -- Since 1767, some 150 acres of wooded riverfront along the Rio Grande has belonged to the family of Cecilia Ramirez Benavides, land granted to her ancestors by Spanish settlers who colonized Mexico, or New Spain, as it was then known.
Generations later, much of the Ramirez tract, with its mile of riverbank, remains undisturbed, overrun by huge mesquite and ebony trees, thick clusters of prickly pear cactus and chaparral. It is inhabited by the endangered ocelot -- only 100 are believed to remain in the United States -- the bright-orange Altamira oriole with its distinctive whistle and huge, pouchlike woven nests, and the green jay, with its bright-blue nape.
Already, the modern world has intruded on this privately owned mini-nature preserve. Cecilia Benavides and her husband, Noel Benavides Sr., have given the Border Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Guard permanent access to their land to apprehend illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.
But the Department of Homeland Security's latest entreaty is where the couple have decided they must draw the line. Their tranquil piece of riverfront -- owned by the Ramirez clan long before northern Mexico became Texas -- lies directly in the path of the federal government's plan to build 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"They're going to destroy an ecosystem that took centuries and that's never going to come back," said Noel Benavides, an alderman in this small border city.
"But it's the law, we're told, and it's homeland security."
Whether Congress enacts comprehensive immigration reform legislation, one thing is sure. Part of the legacy of the contentious immigration debate on Capitol Hill will be the construction of a fence outlined in the Secure Fence Act, touted by Republicans last year as the first step toward a tougher policy on illegal immigration. The bill was signed into law by President Bush in October.
The law calls for the construction of double-sided primary fence (two sides of fencing with a roadway in between to accommodate Border Patrol vehicles) and of a "virtual" fence, created by radar and camera-equipped towers and other technology. The virtual fence will begin operating this month in parts of Arizona's mountainous desert. Seventy miles of primary fencing is being built in other parts of Arizona, California and New Mexico, and Texas is next on the construction schedule.
Congress has appropriated $1.5 billion in the fiscal 2006 and 2007 budgets for fencing, vehicle barriers and border lighting, and the White House is requesting $1 billion more in fiscal 2008, said Border Patrol spokesman Xavier Rios.
For many, the Rio Grande may only conjure up television images of illegal immigrants swimming or tubing the river from Mexico to Texas. But in South Texas, the river is the source for municipal water systems and farm irrigation districts and of recreation. It is a natural boundary between two regions whose history, families and commerce are intricately connected.
"Are we going to build another Berlin Wall, against Mexico? This will change the whole scenario of life down here," said Mike Allen, the recently retired head of the McAllen Economic Development Corp., which focuses on promoting trade and other exchanges with Mexico. "A fence is the most expensive brick in the mortar of border security and it won't work. If someone can swim this river, they can climb a fence."
Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, who said he crosses the bridge daily to Piedras Negras, the Mexican city across the Rio Grande, said the lawmakers "that voted for this fence have never seen the reality of the border" and seen "the relationship that we have with our neighbors."
Early this year, border officials had two meetings with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to get his assurances their advice and local considerations would be taken into account before the agency determined where it would build a fence and where it would erect electronic surveillance towers. But in late spring, a DHS memorandum that was leaked to South Texas officials said U.S. Customs and Border Protection was committed to building 370 miles of primary fence by the end of 2008. Texas will get 153 miles of fence; Arizona, 129 miles; California, 76 miles; and New Mexico, 12. A map of the proposed fencing was attached to the memo.
The documents sparked an outcry from border officials from El Paso down to Brownsville, as well as from farmers who plant vegetables, cotton and grain in the rich alluvium along the banks of the Rio Grande. Border businessmen who depend on Mexicans for a majority of their retail sales and private landowners, such as the Benavideses, were outraged, too.
The environmental groups that oversee a corrider of 182,000 acres of wildlife refuge along or near the river -- a top birding destination whose devotees infuse the deep South Texas economy with an estimated $150 million yearly -- said the region is now under threat.
For two decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has spent $80 million buying property along the Rio Grande, replanting the land with native vegetation to attract animals and birds and to create the wildlife corrider. That effort, environmentalists say, is now directly threatened.
"Fencing in general creates problems for wildlife," said Nancy Brown, a spokeswoman for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo. "This wildlife corrider is a string of pearls [that has] 20 federally listed threatened and endangered species. This adds one more layer of difficulty."
In recent weeks, local Border Patrol officials have been meeting with landowners whose property might be affected by a fence, handing out pamphlets that show a picture of the World Trade Center burning after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the phrase "Never Forget" and a message urging border residents to support the government's plan to build fences "to bring effective control to our nation's borders."
Border Patrol spokesman Rios said the agency is still assessing exactly where a structure would be built along the Rio Grande. "No final decisions have been made," he said, adding that the Border Patrol will take into account "environmental, cultural and historical aspects" of property that might be affected by fence construction, as well as issues regarding farmers' and municipalities' water rights to the river.
Richard Drawe is not only concerned about his water rights and access to the land he farms on the banks of the Rio Grande. He's also worried about the prospect of the federal government appropriating his land for a fence under eminent domain.
Drawe's family has been farming the area since 1917, and today he grows grain sorghum, cotton and vegetables on 1,400 acres. The fence, as proposed, would cut Drawe's farmland in half.
"All the land south of the fence would be unusable. We would be cut off from our land, plain and simple," said Drawe, who supports the addition of Border Patrol agents and the high-tech surveillance towers. "For somebody that's outside South Texas, it sounds like a great idea to have a fence. You have to have controlled borders, I know that. But there's other ways to do it."
Staff writer Matthew C. Wright in Austin contributed to this report.