Big Bend Border Crossing To Reopen

The news from the Southwest border these days is usually about increased security: more fences, agents and unmanned aerial vehicles. But on Thursday, the federal government announced plans to reopen the Big Bend  border crossing between Texas and Mexico that was shut down after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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The news from our southwest border is usually about increased security, more fences, more agents, more unmanned aerial vehicles. Yesterday the federal government announced it plans to reopen a border crossing. It's between Texas and Mexico and it was shut down after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. NPR's John Burnett reports that local residents are elated.

JOHN BURNETT: Before 9/11, tourists to Big Bend National Park could pay a dollar to ride a rowboat across the Rio Grande to the village of Boquillas del Carmen. There they could have a beer and a plate of tacos, and maybe pick up a souvenir copper scorpion or a walking stick.

Fearing terrorists sneaking up from Mexico, the U.S, government shut down this informal crossing, and others like it, up and down the border. On Thursday, Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, Alan Bursin, stood in the national park and made a startling announcement.

Mr. ALAN BURSIN (Commissioner, Customs and Border Protection): Theres a great expression in Spanish: el futuro ya no es lo que era antes. The future is not what it used to be. And you never can go back, but you can go forward. This crossing which will mean so much to the local communities can be accomplished without, in any way at all, compromising the security of the American homeland.

BURNETT: At the mouth of the majestic Boquillas Canyon, the government is planning a small, hi-tech port-of-entry. U.S. passports will be scanned and Mexican nationals will have their identities biometrically confirmed, with the information verified by computers hundreds of miles away.

The actual crossing will be via ferry boat, the second one on the southwest border. A Border Patrol official says the leaky rowboat from Boquillas will be replaced by an approved river-worthy watercraft operated by a park concessionaire. Construction on a combination park visitor center and passport-control building will begin next summer. And they hope the first visitors can float across by April of 2012. Today, Boquillas del Carmen is nearly dead, depending, as it did, almost totally on the national park.

Ms. CYNTA DE NEVAREZ (Retired River Guide): When we shut it down, they had no way to get food, work, gas; I mean most of these towns are a good five, six hours from any other real village.

BURNETT: Thats Cynta de Narvaez, a retired river guide and crossborder activist who lives in nearby Terlingua. After the Border Patrol closed the crossing, she says she had to travel 12 hours, through Del Rio, to get to the families she was helping in Boquillas.

Ms. NAVAREZ: April of 2012, I think thats fantastic. Its beautiful over there, theres incredible mountains, and the people there are friendly and theyve been shut off for quite some time.

BURNETT: A Border Patrol official says the Interior Department and the Department of Homeland Security have been quietly working for the past two years to make this happen. Last year, President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon signed a joint statement pledging both countries interest to protect wild lands on opposite sides of the river. It's an idea thats been around for more than 70 years. Rick LoBello is education curator at the El Paso Zoo and a longtime advocate for a bi-national park.

Mr. RICK LOBELLO (Education Curator, El Paso Zoo): So I think its great news for the people of Mexico in that area, for Big Bend National Park, for ecotourism, and for the hopes of an international park some day.

BURNETT: Support for reopening the Boquillas crossing surely was aided by the fact that the Big Bend country is relatively quiet. Other stretches of the southwest border have much higher traffic in illegal drugs and immigrants. Nevertheless, the Border Patrol has been stationing additional agents inside the park, and the new border crossing itself will be bristling with federal agents.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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