The people who live in the bustling, fertile Rio Grande Valley, where the U.S. border meets the Gulf of Mexico, think a “virtual wall” of surveillance technology makes a lot more sense. It’s already in wide use and expanding.
Erecting a 40-foot concrete barrier across the entire 1,954-mile frontier with Mexico, as Trump promised during the presidential campaign, collides head-on with multiple realities: geology, fierce local resistance and the question of who pays the bill.
People cackled at Trump’s idea that Mexico would willingly deliver the billions required. Mexican officials say they won’t. So few locals were surprised when the president-elect seemed to soften his position five days after the election, saying the wall could include some fencing.
“The wall is not going to stop anyone,” Jorge Garcia said.
Garcia expected to lose access to most of his 30-acre riverside ranch after the U.S. Border Fence Act was enacted a decade ago under President George W. Bush. Garcia is still waiting to see if the Border Patrol will put a fence or wall on the sliver of land it surveyed and promised to pay $8,300 for.
Under the law, 652 miles of border barrier were built, mostly in Arizona. The 110 miles of fences and fortified levees that went up in Texas are broken lines, some as much as a mile and a half from the river.
The Garcias believe they and the rest of Los Ebanos’ villagers were spared because the erosion-prone clay soil is simply too unstable.
Geology conspires against wall-building up and down the Rio Grande Valley. Its accomplices are a boundary water treaty with Mexico and endangered-species laws. Catwalks and tunnels had to be built into border barriers to accommodate ocelots and jaguarundi, two species of wild cat.
The plentiful breaks in the border barrier, meanwhile, include an entire flank of the River Bend golf club and resort in Brownsville — “gaps of privilege” for the well-connected, according to one critic.
Other landowners fought the Border Patrol in court.
“The wall might make mid-America feel safer, but for those of us that live on the border, it’s not making us feel any safer when we know that people can go over it, around it, under it and through it,” said Monica Weisberg-Stewart, security expert for the Texas Border Coalition, a consortium of regional leaders.
Local politicians have found inventive ways to make wall-building palatable. A 20-mile stretch in Hidalgo County consisted of a fortified levee topped with a fence. In 2010, that levee held back flooding. The cost was about $10 million a mile, though.
In the Nov. 8 election, only three Texas border counties — all sparsely populated — went for Trump. The rest are solidly Democratic and back President Obama’s more lenient immigration policies.
The U.S. side of the border is quite safe, Weisberg-Stewart said. “We are not in a war zone.”
In fact, cross-border trade has been booming. In 2014, more than $246 billion worth of goods and 3.7 million trucks crossed the Texas-Mexico border, according to the coalition.
While much of the border’s Mexican side has been afflicted by drug cartel-related violence, crime in the Rio Grande Valley, home to 1.3 million people, has been consistently lower than other Texas cities.
The Border Patrol’s buildup after 9-11 is one reason, argues a former chief, David Aguilar. Since 2004, the year he was named to the job, the number of agents on the southwest border has climbed from 9,500 to more than 17,500.
Meanwhile, the number of border apprehensions is down from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to 409,000 in the year ending in September. Nearly half were caught in the Rio Grande Valley.
The Great Recession that began in 2008 made the U.S. less attractive to Mexican migrants, and Central Americans fleeing violence and poverty in their homelands now account for more than half the arrivals.
Many migrants In the Rio Grande Valley turn themselves in at border bridges. After processing, released migrants are given court dates in destination cities where relatives typically await. Others are sent to detention centers for further interviews about their asylum claims.
The Border Patrol nevertheless credits surveillance technology for curbing illegal entries, including tower-mounted surveillance cameras, motion sensors and laser pointers.
Since 2013, the agency has also had five blimp-like aerostats that float from 1,000 to 5,000 feet above the valley on tethers and are equipped with remote-controlled cameras. High-flying Predator drones are additional eyes in the sky, patrolling vast areas of southwest borderlands since 2011.
At a community center in McAllen, Texas, a 21-year-old Guatemalan who is eight months’ pregnant was bound for Kansas after turning herself in. Ingrid Guerra said she was fleeing an abusive relationship. The father of her other child, a 2-year-old who stayed behind with Guerra’s mother, was killed in a drunken brawl, she said.
“Back there,” Guerra said of Guatemala, “they kill at the drop of a hat.”
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