By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 16, 2008
EL CALABOZ, Tex. -- In the 240 years since the Spanish Crown granted Eloisa Tamez's colonial ancestors title to this flat, grassy expanse along the Rio Grande's northern bank, her family has steadily lost its holdings to the Mexican War of Independence, the U.S. annexation of Texas and the Great Depression.
Now Tamez faces what could prove the final blow: The Department of Homeland Security has proposed building a section of the U.S-Mexico border fence mandated by Congress directly through the last three acres of the family's original 12,000-acre tract.
But the 72-year-old nursing professor has a message for any government officials who expect her to leave quietly. "I'm not going down without a fight," Tamez said, her dark eyes narrowing as she gazed beyond her back yard toward a field where she used to pick tomatoes as a child. "My father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather farmed this land. This is the land that gave me my life and my spirit. . . . I will fight this all the way."
Across South Texas, dozens of landowners and municipal leaders are making similar vows, mounting a concerted effort to prevent government surveyors from even examining their properties, let alone erecting the fence on them.
Their resistance raises questions about how quickly the Homeland Security Department would be able to build an effective border fence at a time when politicians across the spectrum insist that it must be completed before further solutions to the presence of millions of illegal immigrants can be considered.
Under the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the department was instructed to secure about one-third of the 2,000-mile Mexican border with 700 miles of double-layered fencing. However, department officials have since whittled that down to a plan for about 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers to be finished by the end of 2008.
Last year, the department completed the first 123 miles of vehicle barriers and 165 miles of fencing, much of it on federally owned land in Arizona, California and New Mexico. This year, a substantial portion of the remaining miles of fencing probably will be installed in Texas, where much border land is held privately -- and where ties to Mexico remain strong.
In December, officials sent warning letters to 135 private landowners, municipalities, universities, public utility companies and conservation societies along the border that had turned away surveyors. Landowners were given 30 days to change their minds or face legal action. More than 100 of them -- 71 in Texas -- let the deadline pass.
Over the past several weeks, U.S. attorneys acting on behalf of the Homeland Security Department have been filing lawsuits against the holdouts. Already, federal district judges have ordered one landowner in California, 11 in Arizona and 11 in Texas -- including the small city of Eagle Pass -- to temporarily surrender their properties. The mayor of Eagle Pass, which is located about 100 miles southwest of San Antonio and stands to lose 233 acres of city-owned land, said the city is planning to appeal. Suits are also pending against 14 landowners in California and 44 in South Texas, including Tamez.
News of the lawsuits has sent a chill through the chain of tiny centuries-old South Texas settlements that dot the Rio Grande like beads on a necklace. Like Tamez, many residents of these hamlets are descendants of the Spanish settlers who colonized the region in the late 1700s. But significant numbers of them are now impoverished, and even those who have become middle-class professionals, such as Tamez, lack deep pockets for a legal battle.
Nonetheless, many are following the example of Tamez, a widow who has sought free legal help from the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law.
Much of their determination stems from practical concerns. According to preliminary maps, large stretches of the proposed fence would be located more than a mile inland from the river, cutting off substantial swaths of land.
In at least some cases the landowners' stubbornness appears to be paying off: For Daniel Garza, 74, who lives with his wife in Granjeno, a one-road town of fewer than 500 residents about 55 miles east of Tamez's home, the fence would require demolishing their modest two-bedroom ranch. The prospect had kept Garza pacing at night. Though the town cemetery holds the graves of his ancestors, by the time Garza was a young man, the family no longer owned enough property from which to make a living. So for the next 35, years he and his wife traveled to California every season to work as migrant farmers, harvesting and canning vegetables. Yet they never considered settling there.
"This is my home," Garza said recently, crinkling his weathered face in a sad smile as he stood on his front porch, a few feet from the exact spot where he was born. "How can I ever leave it?"
A week ago, homeland security officials announced that Garza will not have to. Under a compromise brokered by local officials, the department will help build up levees in the area to 18 feet high -- eliminating the need for 22 miles of the proposed fence, including the stretch that would have run through Granjeno.
Still, that plan does nothing for most other South Texas landowners, including siblings Nydia and Fred Garcia. The fence would mean that 25 acres of the 80 acres of farmland that they and another brother jointly own would be on the Mexican side.
"Look at all this," said Nydia, 41, as she drove in one of the family's white pickup trucks through a field of sprouting sugar cane that stretched to the horizon. "All this would be behind the fence."
The Garcias, who work as project manager at a construction company and as manager of an Internet phone network at a hospital, acknowledge that they derive only a small portion of their income from the rent they charge a farmer to raise crops on their land. Like Garza, their opposition to the fence, they said, is ultimately rooted in something much deeper than economics. It is about preserving the Mexican American border culture that is their heritage.
Reminders of that way of life abound in the boxes of sepia-tinted photographs of sober-faced forebears they keep stacked in one of the family's garages. And despite the intrusions of modern life, the Garcias, like Tamez and the Garzas, have managed to keep up many of the old rituals.
Every Sunday they crowd into their tiny Catholic church, where parishioners whose family trees have been intertwined for generations join in the Spanish service under the benevolent gaze of a coffee-skinned statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. And when the Garcias walk their land, every step seems to bring back a memory.
"Over here, this is where we used to ride our horses when we were kids," said Fred, 38, pointing. "Oh, and that palo blanco tree is where we still hold our annual Labor Day barbecue and dove hunt. . . . And there, that's where we used to swim in the river. Right on the other side, that's Mexico."
Their anger at being asked to sacrifice all that, Fred said, is that much greater because they believe the fence would deter neither terrorists nor illegal immigrants -- who many here are convinced would simply tunnel under the fence, climb over it with ladders, or avoid it by heading for the sections of the border, including large stretches of South Texas, that will remain un-fenced.
"People in the rest of the U.S. just don't understand the reality of what's going on here," he said.
In addition to building up the levees, local officials have suggested a variety of alternatives to the fence, including deepening the Rio Grande with dams so that it is more difficult to cross and can be patrolled by boat.
Fred Garcia thinks it would be enough to maintain the beefed-up Border Patrol presence that he has noticed in the region since Sept. 11, 2001.
"Every time I come out here, they're on me in minutes," he said.
As if on a cue, a white sport-utility vehicle with the Border Patrol's distinctive green stripe loomed in the rearview mirror, lights flashing. In the distance, three more SUVs converged, and several men stepped out, wearing uniforms of the National Guard, which has supplemented the Border Patrol over the past year.
Nydia stopped the car and rolled down her window as an agent walked up.
"Hi there," he said, leaning into the window. "May I ask what you're doing here?"
"This is my property," she answered.
"Really? All of this?"
"Yup," she said, a slight edge creeping into her voice. "All of this is my property."
As the officer strolled away, Fred rolled his eyes.
"My God, what's next," he said. "Are we going to have to bring our passports every time we come back here?"