MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Good fences make for good neighbors. That's how the saying goes, but don't try telling that to the cities of McAllen, Brownsville, and Laredo, Texas. That's where the federal government is planning to build a wall that will stretch 135 miles along the Texas border. Seventy miles of the wall will be built through the Rio GrandeValley by the end of next year.
As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, opposition there is fierce and widespread.
WADE GOODWYN: Talk to the business community, farmers, and ranchers, or the politicians here in the Rio GrandeValley, and the first impression you get is one of intense indignation. Yes, they're angry that the federal government is about to begin building a wall - the full length down one side of their cities - but they're indignant because they believe Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security, purposely misled them.
Mr. J.D. SALINAS (Judge, Hildalgo County): On February 21st, we met with director Chertoff in Laredo, and we told him firsthand of what we thought of the fence and the wall, and we told him that it was not necessary to have one here in the southwest border of Texas. He then answered and said, you're right. We may need it in Arizona and New Mexico, but the Rio GrandeRiver is a structure that we need to work with.
GOODWYN: J.D. Salinas is the Hidalgo County judge and county administrator. Salinas says the business and political leaders of the Rio Grande left the meeting with Chertoff thrilled with his response that a virtual wall, consisting of cameras, sensors, and boots on the ground was a viable alternative to a real wall made of bricks and mortar.
Mr. SALINAS: So, we left Laredo, Kumbayaing and saying, you know, it's a good idea and no problem. Then, all of a sudden, 30 days later, we find an e-mail and a map saying we're going to do a wall and a fence 70 miles of the Rio Grande Valley. I don't mind them having plans, I just want them to be upfront.
GOODWYN: Salinas is standing on the McAllen-Reynosa International Bridge, a major border crossing in this county of 700,000 people. Decades of living here has given the locals a certain perspective about the determination of Mexicans who crossover illegally. Salinas points to a 16-foot fence that already runs along the border next to the bridge. That's where the McAllen port director used to park his car, on the American side of the fence next to his office.
Mr. SALINAS: And he had somebody at 1 o'clock in the afternoon jump that 16-foot fence and land on his vehicle. If people are willing to travel through the deserts of Arizona to come work in the United States of America, you think they're not going to be able to jump a fence? It does not make sense to spend this money this way.
GOODWYN: The Rio Grande Valley is more than 80 percent Hispanic, but if you think it's just Hispanics who are against the border wall, think again.
Mr. KEITH PATRIDGE (Executive Director, McAllen Economic Development Corporation): I'm white, I'm an Anglo, and from my standpoint, you know, I'm opposed to it. I think there are other ways to protect the country.
GOODWYN: Keith Patridge is the executive director of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation. The white power structure here, the Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, even the conservative Ranchers' Association are all against the border wall.
Mr. PATRIDGE: With the way we see our community of McAllen and Reynosa, Mexico, is that we're one city that happens to have a river running through it. Not that much different than any city in the world, for that matter, except our city - we have to go through Immigration and Customs every time we cross. Families are on both sides of the border. Business and commerce activities are going back and forth every day. How would Washington, D.C., react if we built a wall along the Potomac River?
GOODWYN: An editorial cartoon circulating around McAllen shows a 20-foot high border wall running through town. On the Mexican side of the 20-foot wall is a store and a sign that reads, Jose's 21-foot ladders. Nobody seems to have any idea how to quantify the potential economic impact a 70-mile long fence will have on the region, but economics are not the only concern.
Mr. NOEL BENAVIDEZ (Landowner, Rio Grande Valley): The biggest problem is the ecosystem. They're going to destroy an ecosystem that's been here for centuries.
GOODWYN: Noel Benavidez and his wife's family have owned land on the Rio Grande River near the town of Roma, Texas, since 1767. Remember the Alamo? After that war was over, many Hispanic landowners along the Rio Grande had their land taken from them by force, but that didn't happen in Roma, which is halfway between McAllen and Laredo. Hispanic landowners were granted large portiones — each one, 17,000 acres and they held on. But now, there could be a taking after all. The border fence has been drawn to go right through Benavidez's land.
Mr. BENAVIDEZ: I grew up around the river. I've been fishing here. I've been swimming, picnicking. And it's a beautiful, beautiful site. My granddaughter will never be able to do that if we have a wall. Is my son and daughter the last generation in the family that would be able to enjoy the river?
GOODWYN: Benavidez complains that the fence is not going to be contiguous. It will run dozens of miles through populated areas and then stop when it gets to open country. Then, it will pick up again in the next urban area. But out here, open country is not measured in miles but in hours, even at high speed, hours and hours of it. Noel Benavidez says it doesn't make sense to cut his land in two, to cut him off from the Rio Grande River. He points into the brush and at the path under his feet.
Mr. BENAVIDEZ: We have a wall right now. As we stand here, there's sensors all over this place, and they're welcome to do that. Probably, within the next four or five minutes, we're going to have a border patrolman walk in here because we've probably set off a sensor. That's the type of wall we need.
GOODWYN: But the Department of Homeland Security is committed to building a physical barrier.
Mr. RUSS KNOCKE (Spokesman, Department of Homeland Security): We are on track to have 370 miles of traditional primary fencing in place by the end of calendar year 2008.
GOODWYN: Russ Knocke is the spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. Knocke says he understands there are lots of concerns about the coming border wall and fence, but…
Mr. KNOCKE: We have a mandate from Congress and the American public to secure our borders, and we are going to be steadfast in fulfilling that mandate.
GOODWYN: Knocke asserts that walls do work to slow down illegal immigrants, especially in urban areas.
Mr. KNOCKE: We've learned through experience that fencing is more effective than technologies. Because that fencing helps to slow down someone who's crossing the border even if by a few seconds before they can find their way to a house, a business, or a car, or some transportation system and get away.
GOODWYN: Russ Knocke emphasizes that there is no final decision about exactly where the border wall and fence are going to be built. He says Homeland Security will listen to the locals' concerns, but Knocke is firm that walls and fencing are coming to South Texas.
(Soundbite of running water)
GOODWYN: That's a big concern to the biologists at the nearby National Wildlife Refuge.
Ms. NANCY BROWN (Public Outreach Specialist, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge): Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is a really special place. It is only 2,000 acres - it's 2,088 acres and it is considered the jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge system.
GOODWYN: Nancy Brown is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Ms. BROWN: You can get a 7-mile hike in, or you can do a half-mile and on either one, you can see birds at Santa Ana that you can't see anywhere else in the country. And Santa Ana makes that very easy.
GOODWYN: There are over 500 different species, and birdwatchers pump $125 million a year into the McAllen economy alone. Of course, it's not the birds that will be impeded by a wall or a fence, but the birdwatchers. Brown says the barrier is scheduled to go through two of the three National Wildlife Refuges down here.
Ms. BROWN: Well - let me think how to say this - we have 70 miles of riverfront and we are federally owned. And it has been stated that federal property will probably be designated as the first place to put fencing.
GOODWYN: And there is an endangered species of cat called the ocelot to contend with. The ocelots once roamed from Arkansas and Louisiana across to West Texas. Now, there are only 80 to 100 cats left, most of them right here. And the ocelots roam back and forth across the Rio Grande River. A fence might put an end to them. One way or the other, the border wall is going to test the adaptability of all kinds of creatures in South Texas.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.
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