Fence Affects Border Town Culture, Relationships

The fifth of a five-part series.

New Border Fence in Eagle Park, Texas i i

A new section of border fence in Eagle Pass, Texas, will bisect a park. Residents disagree about the effectiveness and necessity of the fence. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
New Border Fence in Eagle Park, Texas

A new section of border fence in Eagle Pass, Texas, will bisect a park. Residents disagree about the effectiveness and necessity of the fence.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

About The Series

The border emphasizes how much the U.S. and Mexico rely on each other, and, like siblings, it also illustrates the tension between them. As the U.S. builds new fences and heightens patrols, a drug war on the Mexican side has killed thousands of people this year alone. Meanwhile, trade across the border continues to grow.

Border fence in Coahuila i i

A section of fencing, east of Eagle Pass, Texas, in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
Border fence in Coahuila

A section of fencing, east of Eagle Pass, Texas, in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
Piedras Negras i i

Piedras Negras, an industrial city in Mexico across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas, shares culture and commerce with its across-the-border neighbor. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
Piedras Negras

Piedras Negras, an industrial city in Mexico across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas, shares culture and commerce with its across-the-border neighbor.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

The federal government is rushing to finish building 670 miles of fence along the southern border before President Bush leaves office — a project which the Department of Homeland Security says is on track to complete in the coming weeks.

Earlier this year, the city of Eagle Pass, Texas — which bills itself as the place where "Yeehaw! Meets Ole!"— was sued by DHS to allow construction of the fence to move forward.

Mayor Chad Foster, who has a sign in his office declaring, "Don't build walls between Amigos," has been one of the most vocal critics of the border fence in Texas.

Rather than building a fence, the mayor says the agency should clear all the overgrown vegetation so Border Patrol agents can see people crossing the river.

"There could be a 500-pound elephant on fire in here and we'd never see it," Foster says, driving his SUV through 30-foot-high stalks of bamboo.

The federal government is spending billions of dollars to install physical barriers along the southern frontier. The two-mile section that's going in at Eagle Pass is expected to cost $10 million. A report from the Congressional Research Service suggests that installing and maintaining the border wall could cost as much as $49 billion over the next 25 years.

Differing Views On The Fence

At one location, construction crews drive 15-foot-high, thick metal posts into the ground along the side of a city park. The new border fence will separate the park and the municipal golf course from the rest of the city. And the Border Patrol plans to put in gates so that people still have access to the park from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Several guys in a pickup who stopped to watch the construction joke that they'll need their passports now just to play golf, but Foster sees it as no joking matter. He insists the park should remain open 24 hours a day, and he says the whole feel of the waterfront is being hurt by the barrier.

"The ambiance is being affected," he says. "If your friends and neighbors from Mexico are coming across our international bridges, a fence or a wall is not an inviting structure."

Reaction to the fence in this small city of about 22,000 people is mixed.

"I think it's a protection for the people of Eagle Pass," says Carmen Hernandez, a lifelong resident of Eagle Pass.

She says that for too long, illegal immigrants and smugglers have been able to freely cross over from Mexico, though she acknowledges that the new fence isn't going to stop everybody.

"But it will help. Especially the ones that are carrying the drugs over, and I think it's a good protection for us," she says.

Refugio Ramirez, like Hernandez, has lived here all his life. He says Mexican migrants are just going to go around or under or over the new barrier.

"This fence will not do anything good," he says. "I'm against illegal immigration, but this is not going to stop them. No way. The coyotes are going to keep on doing their job. Yes, sir."

Just behind him, a black, 15-foot-high section of the new barrier slices between a kids' playground and the greens of the municipal golf course. Ramirez says all this project has done is make it harder to get to the golf course. He continues to prod Hernandez that the government is throwing money away on the fence.

"To me it's a waste of money," Ramirez says.

"A lot of things are a waste of money," Hernandez replies. "Not only the fence."

Border Fence Straining Relationships

Just across the river from Eagle Pass is the Mexican city of Piedras Negras. Piedras Negras has a population of about 150,000 and is a relatively quaint industrial city as far as border towns go.

There's a cobblestone square with a Spanish colonial cathedral just beyond the bridge. Once a week, there's a flea market in Eagle Pass, and people from Piedras cross the bridge on foot to look through the merchandise.

"We've lived together and intermarried between the two communities," says Guillermo Birchelmann, who has lived most of his life in Piedras Negras. He now works for the economic development department for the Mexican state of Coahuila. Birchelmann says people on his side of the border are a bit offended by the fence and don't think it's necessary.

"First of all, there's a river," he says. "But we just don't think that's nice between neighbors — especially neighbors that have seen themselves as family all their lives."

Birchelmann says the relationship between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras is also being strained by waits of up to an hour and a half at the U.S. customs posts.

It may be harder for people to cross between Piedras and Eagle Pass, but the volume of goods crossing in trucks and trains continues to grow and is expected to increase in the coming years even more.

Grupo Modelo, the Mexican beer company, is building what it claims will be the largest brewery in the world in Piedras. Once it's up and running in 2010, the plant will be able to ship 200 rail cars of Corona a day into the U.S.

From Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, the border meanders south into the lush Rio Grande Valley.

Much of the international boundary between the world's economic superpower and its far poorer neighbor is laden with tension — tension fueled by an unequal, unavoidable and unsettled relationship.

The border cuts through industrial cities, desert and farmland. Two thousand miles from the concertina wire of Tijuana, the border finally slips unmarked into the Gulf of Mexico at a quiet sandy beach. And this line that carries so much significance farther west is lost in the waves.

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