No, and as one community learned, fences don’t always make good neighbors
By ADRIANA MARTINEZ
Shortly following the Texas revolution in 1835, two sister cities sprang up on the banks of the Rio Grande. The two communities support each other in times of good and bad and have long held friendship festivals to celebrate the relationship.
I grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas, a border community with a rich culture that spans the Rio Grande. Piedras Negras, on the Mexico side of the river, was and is as much a part of my community as any neighborhood in Eagle Pass. Residents throughout the area often shop, eat, and visit family and friends in Piedras. However, in 2008, fence construction along the Rio Grande began and, despite local opposition, a construction mandate from a thousand miles away changed the landscape of my childhood and disrupted a century’s old continuity in a community.
In Eagle Pass, the federal government proposed construction of a natural landscape barrier in 2006. After realizing the construction would resemble a fence, opposition grew. The federal government sued the city of Eagle Pass in 2008 for land access causing the city to spend $200,000 in ongoing litigation costs. Since fence construction, the community has viewed the fence as an unnecessary expense imposed by decision makers outside of the border area, the frontera, dictating what life on the border should resemble.
Today, the fence stands at 14 feet tall and is less than three miles long in eight separate sections, the shortest of which is approximately 300-feet long. Gaps, typically the size of a two-lane roadway, were left to allow the city access to land on the other side of the fence. Many locals puzzle at the gaps left behind, fostering a sense of incompleteness to a project they didn’t find necessary to begin with. In addition, much of the fence is 1,500 feet inland from the riverbank, a necessity given that the river often floods in these locations. This ‘no man’s land’ cuts off resident’s access to areas including the city golf course, softball fields, and a flea market parking lot. In addition to the imposition brought on by the fence’s placement, residents feel that it disrupts long held economic and community ties with their Mexican neighbors, has caused impacts on the environment, and is an affront to their sympathies toward undocumented immigrants.
At a safe house run by a local Catholic church in Piedras Negras, I met with migrants preparing to make the cross-country journey in search of work or to reunite with their families. When asked about the fence, immigrants are adamant: nothing will keep them away. One man stated that, if needed, he would go like a “groundhog, underneath” to reunite with his children in Austin. Another woman spoke of the long journey from Honduras and an unexpected pregnancy along the way. The coyote (smuggler) would not agree to cross her due to her delicate condition. The Catholic priest allowed her housing longer than usual for this reason. Border Patrol informed us later that the body of a pregnant Honduran woman was found in the Texas desert. Despite the numerous barriers set in her path she was willing to risk everything for a chance at life in the United States.
Eagle Pass residents, and residents all along the border, see the humanity in these economic refugees. To those in Eagle Pass, they are not merely a number, but people in need of help that they interact with daily.
Today more than 100,000 trucks, 245,000 personal vehicles and 850,000 pedestrians cross the Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras border legally every year. Many of those crossings form an important component for trade in the area where goods and services are exchanged, and an influx of buyers keeps the Eagle Pass economy strong. Undocumented numbers are less well known. However, the Del Rio Border Patrol Sector, which includes Eagle Pass, estimates one of the lowest apprehension rates throughout the border. Which begs the question, is the economic and social cost of the fence feasible given these strong economic ties?
Furthermore, a fence disrupts migration patterns and exacerbates flooding. The Real ID Act of 2005 and Secure Fence Act of 2006 allowed the federal government to waive numerous laws relating to archaeological and historic sites, and the environment including the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and Clean Water Act. Recent studies point out that the barrier could disrupt the pathways of many migratory species including 113 mammals, 152 reptiles, and 38 amphibians within ecoregions that span both sides of the border. In addition, much of the border lies east-west, while the dominant mountain ranges run north-south (Sierra Madre Occidental, California Coastal) which means that the fence bisects these ranges, disrupting pathways, decreasing access to food and water, and lowering biodiversity. The fence also has the potential to concentrate undocumented immigrant routes to locations that may be more susceptible to environmental impacts. Finally, the fence itself has already disrupted water flow. In the summer of 2013 and 2014, Eagle Pass experienced back-to-back 100-year flood events that inundated the downtown area with water. The fence was submerged in at least 5 feet of water. An ongoing hydrologic study is examining the impacts of the flooding throughout the downtown area. Many witnessed debris piling up against the fence as flood waters receded. The debris created dams and prevented the water from draining back into the Rio Grande.
The centuries old relationship between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras is not unique. Along the border, you will hear similar stories of a shared history and culture, and today, of the impact of the fence mirrored as one travels downstream the Rio Grande. Access to land has been cut off. Strong community ties have been questioned as a visual barrier separating the ‘other’ has appeared and yet, the fence has had little impact on undocumented immigration. Furthermore, economic ties are important in the area and far outweigh any short-term solution that is provided by a barrier. Instead, locals advocate for high tech solutions such as sensors and cameras that can help in border security while minimizing any environmental impact that might occur. Above all, residents want these community ties to be understood, and for community relationships to continue to grow.
Adriana E. Martinez is an assistant professor at SIUE studying human impacts on rivers and has conducted work examining the social impacts of the fence.