Holes in the Wall
Homeland Security won’t say why the border wall is bypassing the wealthy and politically connected.
This article has been updated. Last update: February 22, 2008.
As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security marches down the Texas border serving condemnation lawsuits to frightened landowners, Brownsville resident Eloisa Tamez, 72, has one simple question. She would like to know why her land is being targeted for destruction by a border wall, while a nearby golf course and resort remain untouched.
Tamez, a nursing director at the University of Texas at Brownsville, is one of the last of the Spanish land grant heirs in Cameron County. Her ancestors once owned 12,000 acres. In the 1930s, the federal government took more than half of her inherited land, without paying a cent, to build flood levees.
Now Homeland Security wants to put an 18-foot steel and concrete wall through what remains.
While the border wall will go through her backyard and effectively destroy her home, it will stop at the edge of the River Bend Resort and golf course, a popular Winter Texan retreat two miles down the road. The wall starts up again on the other side of the resort.
“It has a golf course and all of the amenities,” Tamez says. “There are no plans to build a wall there. If the wall is so important for security, then why are we skipping parts?”
Along the border, preliminary plans for fencing seem to target landowners of modest means and cities and public institutions such as the University of Texas at Brownsville, which rely on the federal government to pay their bills.
A visit to the River Bend Resort in late January reveals row after row of RVs and trailers with license plates from chilly northern U.S. states and Canadian provinces. At the edge of a lush, green golf course, a Winter Texan from Canada enjoys the mild, South Texas winter and the landscaped ponds, where white egrets pause to contemplate golf carts whizzing past. The woman, who declines to give her name, recounts that illegal immigrants had crossed the golf course once while she was teeing off. They were promptly detained by Border Patrol agents, she says, adding that agents often park their SUVs at the edge of the golf course.
River Bend Resort is owned by John Allburg, who incorporated the business in 1983 as River Bend Resort, Inc. Allburg refused to comment for this article. A scan of the Federal Election Commission and Texas Ethics Commission databases did not find any political contributions linked to Allburg.
Just 69 miles north, Daniel Garza, 76, faces a similar situation with a neighbor who has political connections that reach the White House. In the small town of Granjeno, population 313, Garza points to a field across the street where a segment of the proposed 18-foot high border wall would abruptly end after passing through his brick home and a small, yellow house he gave his son. “All that land over there is owned by the Hunts,” he says, waving a hand toward the horizon. “The wall doesn’t go there.”
In this area everyone knows the Hunts. Dallas billionaire Ray L. Hunt and his relatives are one of the wealthiest oil and gas dynasties in the world. Hunt, a close friend of President George W. Bush, recently donated $35 million to Southern Methodist University to help build Bush’s presidential library. In 2001, Bush made him a member of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, where Hunt received a security clearance and access to classified intelligence.
Over the years, Hunt has transformed his 6,000-acre property, called the Sharyland Plantation, from acres of onions and vegetables into swathes of exclusive, gated communities where houses sell from $650,000 to $1 million and residents enjoy golf courses, elementary schools, and a sports park. The plantation contains an 1,800-acre business park and Sharyland Utilities, run by Hunt’s son Hunter, which delivers electricity to plantation residents and Mexican factories.
The development’s Web site touts its proximity to the international border and the new Anzalduas International Bridge now under construction, built on land Hunt donated. Hunt has also formed Hunt Mexico with a wealthy Mexican business partner to develop both sides of the border into a lucrative trade corridor the size of Manhattan.
Jeanne Phillips, a spokesperson for Hunt Consolidated Inc., says that since the company is private, it doesn’t have to identify the Mexican partner. Phillips says, however, that no one from the company has been directly involved in siting the fence. “We, like other citizens in the Valley, have waited for the federal government to designate the location of the wall,” she says.
Garza stands in front of his modest brick home, which he built for his retirement after 50 years as a migrant farmworker. For the past five months, he has stayed awake nights trying to find a way to stop the gears of bureaucracy from grinding over his home.
A February 8 announcement by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the agency would settle for building the fence atop the levee behind Garza’s house instead of through it, which has given Garza some hope. Like Tamez, he wonders why his home and small town were targeted by Homeland Security in the first place.
“I don’t see why they have to destroy my home, my land, and let the wall end there.” He points across the street to Hunt’s land. “How will that stop illegal immigration?”
Most border residents couldn’t believe the fence would ever be built through their homes and communities. They expected it to run along the banks of the Rio Grande, not north of the flood levees-in some cases like Tamez’s, as far as a mile north of the river. So it came as a shock last summer when residents were approached by uniformed Border Patrol agents. They asked people to sign waivers allowing Homeland Security to survey their properties for construction of the wall. When they declined, Homeland Security filed condemnation suits.
In time, local landowners realized that the fence’s location had everything to do with politics and private profit, and nothing to do with stopping illegal immigration.
In 2006, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act, authored by Republican Congressman Peter King from New York. The legislation mandated that 700 miles of double-fencing be built along the southern border from California to Texas. The bill detailed where the fencing, or, as many people along the border call it, “the wall,” would be built. After a year of inflamed rhetoric about the plague of illegal immigration and Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the bill passed with overwhelming support from Republicans and a few Democrats. All the Texas border members of the U.S. House of Representatives, except San Antonio Republican Henry Bonilla, voted against it. Texas Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn voted for the bill.
On August 10, 2007, Chertoff announced his agency would scale back the initial 700 miles of fencing to 370 miles, to be built in segments across the southern border. Chertoff cited budget shortages and technological difficulties as justifications for not complying with the bill.
How did his agency decide where to build the segments? Chad Foster, the mayor of Eagle Pass, says he thought it was a simple enough question and that the answer would be based on data and facts. Foster chairs the Texas Border Coalition. TBC, as Foster calls it, is a group of border mayors and business leaders who have repeatedly traveled to Washington for the past 18 months to try to get federal officials to listen to them.
Foster says he has never received any logical answers from Homeland Security as to why certain areas in his city had been targeted for fencing over other areas. “I puzzled a while over why the fence would bypass the industrial park and go through the city park,” he says.
Despite terse meetings with Chertoff, Foster and other coalition members say the conversation has been one-sided.
“I think we have a government within a government,” Foster says. “[This is] a tremendous bureaucracy-DHS is just a monster.”
The Observer called Homeland Security in Washington to find out how it had decided where to build the fence. The voice mail system sputtered through a dizzying array of acronyms: DOJ, USACE, CBP, and USCIS. On the second call a media spokesperson with a weary voice directed queries to Michael Friel, the fence spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. Six calls and two e-mails later, Friel responded with a curt e-mail: “Got your message. Working on answers…” it said. Days passed, and Friel’s answers never came.
Since Homeland Security wasn’t providing answers, perhaps Congress would. Phone conversations with congressional offices ranged from “but they aren’t even building a wall” to “I don’t know. That’s a good question.” At the sixth congressional office contacted, a GOP staffer who asked not to be identified, but who is familiar with the fence, says the fencing locations stemmed from statistics showing high apprehension and narcotic seizure rates. This seems questionable, since maps released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed the wall going through such properties as the University of Texas at Brownsville-hardly a hotbed for drug smugglers and immigrant trafficking.
Questioned more about where the data came from, the staffer said she would enquire further. The next day she called back. “The border fence is being handled by Greg Giddens at the Secure Border Initiative Office within the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office,” she said.
Giddens is executive director of the SBI, as it is called, which is in charge of SBInet, a consortium of private contractors led by Boeing Co. The group received a multibillion dollar contract in 2006 to secure the northern and southern borders with a network of vehicle barriers, fencing, and surveillance systems. Companies Boeing chose to secure the southern border from terrorists include DRS Technologies Inc., Kollsman Inc., L-3 Communications Inc., Perot Systems Corp., and a unit of Unisys Corp.
A February 2007 audit by the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited Homeland Security and the SBInet project for poor fiscal oversight and a lack of demonstrable objectives. The GAO audit team recommended that Homeland Security place a spending limit on the Boeing contract for SBInet since the company had been awarded an “indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract for 3 years with three 1-year options.”
The agency rejected the auditors’ recommendation, saying 6,000 miles of border is limitation enough.
In a February 2007 hearing, Congressman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had more scathing remarks for Giddens and the SBInet project. “As of December, the Department of Homeland Security had hired a staff of 98 to oversee the new SBInet contract. This may seem like progress until you ask who these overseers are. More than half are private contractors. Some of these private contractors even work for companies that are business partners of Boeing, the company they are supposed to be overseeing. And from what we are now learning from the department, this may be just the tip of the iceberg.”
Waxman said of SBInet that “virtually every detail is being outsourced from the government to private contractors. The government is relying on private contractors to design the programs, build them, and even conduct oversight over them.”
A phone call to Giddens at SBI is referred to Loren Flossman, who’s in charge of tactical infrastructure for the office. Flossman says all data regarding the placement of the fence is classified because “you don’t want to tell the very people you’re trying to keep from coming across the methodology used to deter them.”
Flossman also calls the University of Texas at Brownsville campus a problem area for illegal immigration. “I wouldn’t assume that these are folks that aren’t intelligent enough that if they dress a certain way, they’re gonna fit in,” he says.
Chief John Cardoza, head of the UT-Brownsville police, says the Border Patrol would have to advise his police force of any immigrant smuggling or narcotic seizures that happen on campus. “If it’s happening on my campus, I’m not being told about it,” he says. Cardoza says he has never come across illegal immigrants dressed as students.
Flossman goes on to say that Boeing isn’t building the fence, but is providing steel for it. Eric Mazzacone, a spokesman for Boeing, refers the Observer to Michael Friel at Customs and Border Protection, and intercedes to get him on the phone. Friel confirms that Boeing has just finished building a 30-mile stretch of fence in Arizona, but insists other questions be submitted in writing.
Boeing, a multibillion dollar aero-defense company, is the second-largest defense contractor in the nation. The company has powerful board members, such as William M. Daley, former U.S. secretary of commerce; retired Gen. James L. Jones, former supreme allied commander in Europe; and Kenneth M. Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff. The corporation is also one of the biggest political contributors in Washington, giving more than $9 million to Democratic and Republican members of Congress in the last decade. In 2006, the year the Secure Fence Act was passed, Boeing gave more than $1.4 million to Democrats and Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A majority of this money has gone to legislators such as Congressman Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who championed the Secure Fence Act. In 2006, Hunter received at least $10,000 from Boeing and more than $93,000 from defense companies bidding for the SBInet contract, according to the center. During his failed bid this year for the White House, Hunter made illegal immigration and building a border fence the major themes of his campaign.
In early February 2008, Chertoff asked Congress for $12 billion for border security. He included $775 million for the SBInet program, despite the fact that congressional leaders still can’t get straight answers from Homeland Security about the program. As recently as January 31, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee members sent a letter to Chertoff asking for “greater clarity on [the Customs and Border Protection office’s] operational objectives for SBInet and the projected milestones and anticipated costs for the project.” They have yet to receive a response.
Boeing continues to hire companies for the SBInet project. And the congressional districts of backers of the border fence continue to benefit. A recent Long Island Business News article trumpeted the success of Telephonics Corp., a local business, in Congressman King’s congressional district that won a $14.5 million bid to provide a mobile surveillance system under SBInet to protect the southern border.
While Garza and Tamez wait for answers, they say they are being asked to sacrifice something that can’t be replaced by money. They are giving up their land, their homes, their heritage, and the few remaining acres left to them that they hoped to pass on to their children and grandchildren.
“I am an old man. I have colon cancer, and I am 76 years old,” Garza says, resting against a tree in front of his home. “All I do is worry about whether they will take my home. My wife keeps asking me, ‘What are we going to do?'”
Besides these personal tragedies, Eagle Pass Mayor Foster says there is another tragedy in store for the American taxpayer. A 2006 congressional report estimates the cost of maintaining and building the fence could be as much as $49 billion over its expected 25-year life span.
“They are just going to push this problem on the next administration, and nobody is going to talk about immigration reform, and that’s the illness,” Foster says. “The wall is a Band-Aid on the problem. And to blow $49 billion and not walk away with a secure border-that’s a travesty.”