Photo by Scott Nicol

Border Communities Living in Limbo While Congress Dithers


In early May, Ruben Villarreal, Mayor of Rio Grande City, channeled the frustration of many residents in Starr and Hidalgo counties, where a proposed 14-mile border fence is slated to be built through the middle of his community. “I think it’s going to happen but they have us in limbo,” he said. “The federal government needs to give us the facts so we can be prepared. So if it is coming we can make a plan.”

A fence was first proposed in 2008. As the federal government served condemnations to Rio Grande Valley residents up and down the border, some residents in Rio Grande City, Los Ebanos and Roma were also taken to court but told the fence wouldn’t be built any time soon. U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar told the McAllen Monitor at the time that it was due to “engineering and hydraulic” problems. “Realistically and practically, they’re basically passing this decision to the next administration,” he said. “Certainly, for my constituents, we have a victory.”

The “engineering and hydraulic problems” the Congressman alluded to was the vexing problem of reality – and how to ignore it so that the Department of Homeland Security can sign off on the construction of an 18-foot fence in the middle of a floodplain. Building a fence that costs an estimated $4.5 million a mile in a floodplain sounds like a joke. It would be funny, too, if we weren’t paying for it, and if it wasn’t common practice for DHS to defy common sense and build fences in washes, floodplains and riverbeds just to fulfill its border fence quota with Congress.

As I noted back in 2011, at least 40 feet of steel border fence washed away during a flash flood in the Arizona desert. Arizona park officials warned the Department of Homeland Security that the fence would be washed away during the summer monsoon season. Despite their warnings, Border Patrol issued an environmental assessment saying that the fence “would not impede the natural flow of water or cause flooding.”

Scott Nicol, chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, has been following the issue closely since he saw mention of the fence in a 2010 government report. “I had thought they’d given up,” he told me back in 2011. “But apparently they were really pushing to get it done.”

After filing several FOIA requests, Nicol received several documents showing plans to move businesses and homes in the path of the fence. In Rio Grande City, the government’s proposed route would go right through a nursing home. Mayor Villarreal says there are only two nursing homes in the rural border county so it will be extremely difficult to find another facility for the displaced residents.

In September 2012, a representative from DHS and another from the International Boundary and Water Commission held a community meeting but failed to tell residents anything of substance, said Villarreal. The meeting was barely advertised, but even so, he said, at least 80 people showed up from the various small border towns that will be affected.

But the government meeting only created more confusion and frustration. “I would describe the meeting as the most shoddy, unorganized and insensitive meeting of that type that has ever been organized in my 13 years as a public official,” he said. “They were not forthcoming with information. They talked about hydrology studies in jargon nobody could understand and wouldn’t talk directly to the people about their concerns.”

Villarreal said after five years, city leaders and residents need the federal government to advise them on what they have planned for the communities. The Observer asked for an interview with Congressman Henry Cuellar about plans for the proposed fence. The Congressman sent a written response that he had spoken with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS, and they had “advised that due to the lack of funding in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013, there will be no additional construction of a border fence at this time. CBP plans to execute the fencing project should funding become available at a later date.”

Congress has already proposed $1.5 billion for a “Southern Border Fencing Strategy” as part of its immigration reform bill, which is making its way through Congress. Conservatives have demanded more border fence as a contingency for any type of immigration reform. Villarreal is frustrated by how little Washington listens to people who actually live on the border. Increasing the number of Border Patrol agents would be much better than a fence in a floodplain, he said. “When we had a flood in 2010 my resources as a city were strained and Border Patrol helped us. People help solve problems in emergencies. An inanimate object like the fence just sits there.”