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Homeland Security Issues – Secret’ Pass Codes for U.S. Landowners

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Welcome to the borderlands of the United States of America. For access you’ll need your secret pass code to punch into the DHS keypad. What? The Department of Homeland Security didn’t give you a pass code? Hope you’ve got your U.S. passport.

Yes folks, it’s come to this: a government issued pass code to access the other side of DHS’ iron curtain.  Since Congress in its intestinal wisdom passed the Secure Fence Act in 2006, mandating close to 700 miles of fence across the southern border, hundreds of landowners have been battling Uncle Sam to hold on to their private property or at least to have access to it. After all, it is their property, or, er, it was.

Some Texans like the Loop family in Brownsville were lucky enough to get 50-foot-wide gates so they could access their properties on the Rio Grande side of the 18-foot wall. Other landowners like Eloisa Tamez, west of Brownsville, didn’t get a gate, though she asked for one. True to its blackbox style, DHS never explained to landowners who would or wouldn’t get gates.

Now DHS is issuing secret pass codes to those who did get gates, like the Loop family, so they can access their own property on the other side of the iron curtain, according to Texas Monthly.

“Mr. Loop will be issued a personal pass code, but he will have to provide the Homeland Security Department with the names of everyone who has regular access to it.

According to the “Landowner Reference Guide,” a pamphlet distributed by the Border Patrol, the gates will stay open for a certain part of every day, though the Border Patrol will have discretion over this. Emergency personnel will have access through the gates (which are designed to unlock in the event of a power failure), but the possibility of being caught on the wrong side of the fence weighs heavily on families like the Loops.”

I’m sure that none of the hundreds of workers who pass through the Loop family’s farming operation will ever share that pass code. And it won’t be any hassle at all that the Loop family has to provide a list of hundreds of names to the U.S. government about anyone who has regular access to the pass code. Can this get any more nuts?

You see, if you live in the border region these days Constitutional rights are pick and choose – you don’t get to have all of them. You thought you lived in the United States? That’s a good one.

Last year when I visited with Leonard Loop in southernmost Brownsville we went for a drive around his property. Since 2008, Leonard and his family have been fighting DHS in court over 800 acres of their property that’s on the south side of the 18-foot border wall. That’s 75 percent of their family farm, trapped in the swathe of no man’s land between the border wall and the Rio Grande.

In Cameron County, where Brownsville is located, at least 50,000 acres of land are in the DMZ and hundreds of landowners have had their land seized under eminent domain by the Department of Homeland Security.

As we tooled around Loop’s property, private contractors working for the DHS were filling in a resaca with a backhoe. Pink spoonbills and white egrets camped nearby watching the muddy desecration. Workers had already ripped out several dozen grapefruit trees to pour the concrete base for the 18-foot wall.

The destruction was awful, but Loop had more immediate worries about his and his family’s financial survival. They’d grown ruby red grapefruits, sunflowers, vegetables and melons for five generations along the Rio Grande. How were he and his family going to access their farm on the south side of the wall?

The wall literally divides his family: Loop’s nephew and his son Ray’s family live on the Rio Grande side of the wall while he and his wife Debbie and their other son live north of it. Would there be 24-hour guards at the gates? Would they give you a key, or maybe a spotlight to beam a secret Border Patrol signal in the sky a la Batman?

We now know the answer: a secret pass code. What could ever go wrong?

“It’s ridiculous,” says Eloisa Tamez who is still fighting for a gate in court. Tamez said a Border Patrol spokesperson announced on local television that landowners with gates could only leave them open for five minutes at a time. If an unauthorized person were to pass through they were encouraged to call an 800-number and report the person to the Border Patrol.

A call to the Brownsville Border Patrol for comment was not returned.

“So are we supposed to do surveillance for them now, too?” she says. Last year, Homeland Security built the 18-foot wall in her backyard cutting her family off from their land that borders the Rio Grande. Border Patrol SUVs drive up and down the levee behind the house. The U.S. government is in the process of suing her for the right of way on the levee so she’ll have no legal way to cross into her own property.

To make matters worse, Tamez claims that Border Patrol is regularly parked outside her other property near Brownsville, where she lives full-time. Tamez says she has reported it to federal officials but gotten no response. Finally in frustration, Tamez called the Brownsville police to file a trespassing report against the Border Patrol but the police said there was nothing they could do against the U.S. government. “I want to know, what law are they following?” She asks. “If they can just sit on my private property, can they just come busting into my home next time as well?”

Welcome to the borderlands. Bring your passport—or at least your secret pass code.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.