In the early spring of 2008, the uniformed Border Patrol officers delivering condemnation notices door-to-door seemed surprised by the defiance they met from Brownsville landowners. The first time the officers came, it was with clipboards and a few documents to signthe feds like to call it a “friendly condemnation,” which means folks are expected to happily sign away por tions of their land for meager compensation from the U.S. government. SEE A VIDEO of the border wall in 2008 at www.texasobserver/ features/all-walled-up Along the border, it’s not unusual for landowners to take a look at the legalese, stare at the olive drab uniforms and shiny gold badges, and sign on the spot. But in Brownsville and Cameron County, many glanced at the words “taking” and “U.S. government” and showed the agents the door. The next time the Department of Homeland Security came calling, all pretense of “friendliness” was gone. With real estate specialists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in tow, they now had pointed words. Congress had mandated the building of a 670-mile fence along the southern border in its 2006 Secure Border Fence Act. Sign the form or not, residents were told: The government will get its land. The sterner message had little effect. Those who had the money, or the pro bono attorneys willing to help, filed lawsuits against DHS and dug in their heels. The battle of Brownsvillethe most pitched and prolonged fight along the Texas borderwas joined. It wasn’t just landowning citizens who were up in arms. Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada, insisting the wall would split his already-troubled community and wreck its hopes for the future, became one of the nation’s most outspoken opponents of the “security fence.” Juliet Garcia, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, declared that the government was not going to build its wall through the middle of her campus. Garcia channeled popular sentiment in Brownsville with her statement on the federal agency’s move to seize property: “Of course, we believe in protecting our borders. Of course, we believe in strong immigration policy. But we also understand that a fence, no matter how high or how wide, is no substitute for either.” Residents marched in protest. Ahumada joined other border mayors and lobbied Washington. University students picketed the federal courthouse. Brownsville caused such a commotion that Congressman Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, scheduled a public hearing at the university that April. Dozens of students and residents gathered outside, holding signs reading “Build Bridges Not Walls” and “No Wall Between Amigos.” Inside, border-fence champion Tom Tancredo, then a Republican congressman from Colorado, was flummoxed by the fierce opposition. As one resident after another stood up to protest the plan, Tancredo huffed: “Why don’t we just build the fence north of Brownsville then?” Responding to a letter from Ahumada after the hearing, Tancredo shot back: “This is a matter of national importance, and the American public should not be asked to sit back and allow a handful of local governments and their friends in the ‘open borders’ lobby to exercise veto power over something that impacts not only our security, but our national sovereignty.” Brownsville staged a lively rebellion. For a while, an unlikely victory seemed possible, thanks in large part to Andrew Hanen, the only federal judge in the nation who forced Homeland Security to acknowledge landowners’ constitutional protections. In case after case, Hanen refused to rubber-stamp the condemnations and ruled that the government would have to provide “fair compensation” for the land it was taking. Residents pinned their hopes on dragging out their lawsuits long enough for President Barack Obama to take office. They expected him to send his Homeland Security team to take stock of the environmental and economic damage being done by the steel-andcement monstrosity, and halt construction on a project whose $2.4 billion cost continues to rise. Those hopes were dashed when Obama announced the “secure fence” would be finished. In a final plea last May, Brownsville residents \(along with others dent. “Absent your intercession, a great, lasting and damaging injustice will be dealt to the people of the Texas-Mexico border,” it read in part. Obama never answered. More than 27 miles of border wall now snake raggedly through Cameron County. Only seven more miles remain to be built. THE RUST-COLORED, steel-and-cement wall has become a surreal fixture on Brownsville’s skyline. It cleaves downtown Hope Park, built as a symbol of unity between the United States and Mexico. It stops and starts, without rhyme or reason, along the Rio Grande River’s levees, leaving miles of gaps. It highlights the city’s economic divide: It’s the first thing folks in the poorer barrios see when they look out their windows, while richer folks enjoy unaltered views of palm trees and manicured fairways when they tee off on private golf courses. It zigs and zags through residents’ backyards, through citrus orchardsan ugly red scar on a green, subtropical landscape. “We don’t call it a fence,” says Ahumada. “It’s a wall. A fence is something you’d want to put up in your backyard.” On an unseasonably frigid Friday morning in early January, the mayor sits in his downtown office sipping coffee and recounting the arguments he tried to make to Washington. “This wall has killed Brownsville,” he says. “We have a per-capita income of $14,000 per household, high unemployment, a high dropout rate. We don’t need a wall to compound the problems we’re already having. What we need is an investment from the federal government to help us fulfill our future.” As he speaks, Kiewit Corp., one of the nation’s 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG
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