RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And in this country, the government is rushing to finish building 670 miles of fence along the border with Mexico before President Bush leaves office. The Department of Homeland Security says it's on track to complete the project in the coming weeks. In the final installment of our series on the U.S.-Mexico border, NPR's Jason Beaubien visits Eagle Pass, Texas. The Department of Homeland Security sued that city earlier this year to clear the way to build the fence.
JASON BEAUBIEN: Eagle Pass bills itself as the place where yeehaw meets ole. Mayor Chad Foster has a sign in his office declaring: Don't build walls between amigos. And he's been one of the most vocal critics of the border fence in Texas. Driving his white Chevy suburban along the bank of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, 30-foot-tall, bamboo-like cane stalks batter the top and sides of his SUV. Rather than building a fence, the mayor says, Homeland Security should clear all this overgrown vegetation so border patrol agents can see people crossing the river.
Mayor CHAD FOSTER (Eagle Pass) There could be a 500-pound elephant on fire in here, and we'd never see it.
BEAUBIEN: The federal government is spending billions of dollars to install physical barriers along the southern frontier. The two-mile section that's going in here at Eagle Pass is expected to cost $10 million. A report from the Congressional Research Service suggested installing and maintaining the border wall could cost as much as $49 billion over the next 25 years.
(Soundbite of a truck)
BEAUBIEN: Construction crews are driving 15-foot-high, thick metal posts into the ground alongside a city park. The new border fence will separate the park and the municipal golf course from the rest of the city. The border patrol plans to put in gates so that people will still have access to the park from 6 a.m. to 10 at night. Several guys in a pickup who've stopped to watch the construction joke that they'll need their passports now just to play golf. But Mayor 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.
Mayor FOSTER: The ambiance is going to be affected. If your friends and neighbors from Mexico are coming in across our international bridges, a fence or a wall is not an inviting structure.
BEAUBIEN: Reaction to the fence in this small city of about 22,000 people is mixed.
Ms. CARMEN HERNANDEZ (Resident, Eagle Pass): I feel that it's a protection for the people of Eagle Pass.
BEAUBIEN: Carmen Hernandez says for too long, illegal immigrants and smugglers have been able to freely cross over from Mexico. She acknowledges the new fence isn't going to stop everybody.
Ms. HERNANDEZ: But it will help, especially the ones that are carrying the drugs over, you know, and I feel it's a good protection for us.
Mr. REFUGIO RAMIREZ (Resident, Eagle Pass): This fence really is not going to do anything good.
BEAUBIEN: Refungio Ramirez(ph), 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.
Mr. RAMIREZ: I'm against illegal immigration, but what they doing, this is not going to stop them. No way. The coyotes are going to keep on doing the job. Yes, sir.
BEAUBIEN: Just behind him, a section of the new barrier slices between a kids' playground and the golf course. Ramirez says all this project has done is make it harder to get to the putting greens. And he continues to prod Hernandez that the government is throwing money away on the fence.
Mr. RAMIREZ: I think to me it's a waste of money.
Ms. HERNANDEZ: There are a lot of things that is a waste of money. A lot of things. Not only the fence.
Mr. RAMIREZ: Not only the fence.
BEAUBIEN: Just across the river from Eagle Pass is the Mexican city of Piedras Negras. Piedras Negras has a population of about 150,000. It's a relatively quaint industrial city as far as border towns go. There's a cobblestone square with a Spanish colonial cathedral just after you cross the bridge. Once a week, there's a flea market in Eagle Pass, and people from Piedras cross the bridge on foot to poke through the merchandise.
Mr. GUILLERMO BIRCHELMANN (Resident, Piedras Negras): We've lived together and intermarried between the two communities.
BEAUBIEN: Guillermo Birchelmann(ph) has lived most of his life in Piedras Negras. He now works for the economic development department of 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.
Mr. BIRCHELMANN: First of all, there's a river, but we just don't think that's nice between neighbors, especially neighbors that have seen each other as family all their lives.
BEAUBIEN: Birchelmann says the relationship between Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras is also being strained by waits at the U.S. customs posts of up to an hour and a half. 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 in the coming years, it's expected to increase even more.
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BEAUBIEN: Grupo Modelo is building what they claim 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 every day into the United States. From Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras, the border meanders south into the lush Rio Grande Valley. Much of this 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, 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. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: See what this big fence looks like, and learn about key towns on the changing border, from our interactive map at npr.org.