MISSION, Texas – Jeff Reed offers outdoor dining on the Rio Grande at his restaurant, Pepe’s on the River. But with the U.S. government planning to build 700 miles of fence along the Mexican border, he has to wonder: Will his restaurant soon be “Pepe’s on the Fence”?
Downriver in Brownsville, where the jalapeno and lima bean fields run down to the water’s edge, farmer Fermin Leal is wondering whether the government intends to cut through his crops, run irrigation pipes under the fence, or buy him out.
“Most of our land goes up to what’s supposed to be the border, and yes, we need access to river water,” Leal said.
President Bush signed a law Thursday to erect more fences along the border to secure it against illegal immigrants, drug smugglers and terrorists. Republicans in Congress see it as their most significant accomplishment on immigration. The president called it “an important step in our nation’s efforts to secure our borders.”
But up and down Texas’ watery boundary with Mexico, farmers, ranchers and business owners are worried a fence will endanger their livelihoods and encroach on their property.
Texas landowners – sick of illegal immigrants cutting their fences, stealing and trespassing, and tired of worrying about smugglers of humans and drugs endangering their families – have been demanding for years that Congress tighten the border.
But not, some say, with a double-layer, $6 billion fence cutting through their land and keeping them and their livestock from the river.
“It’s not going to work in Texas,” said Michael Vickers, who owns a cattle ranch on the border. “Who wants to close off the river to Mexico? The river is the lifeblood for a lot of cities.”
Vickers said he worries that either his land will be cut off from the rest of the state and the country or he will lose access to 50 acres of water rights he has and can sell to area municipalities for up to $2,000 an acre.
“I’d be in a DMZ-type zone, in between two countries,” he said.
The exact route the fences will take is not yet clear. And it is not yet known how tall they will be or whether they will be solid walls or bars.
Much of the land along the Texas side of the river is privately owned. The government’s $1.2 billion “down payment” on the fences is only a fraction of the estimated cost, which will also include the expense of compensating property owners for any land taken through eminent domain.
Mayors of U.S. cities close to the river have spoken out against the economic and diplomatic effect of a fence in a region where Mexico and the United States interact fluidly.
“Here we are in the midst of an economic mega-boom and we’re building fences,” said Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas. “What ridiculous symbolism. Here we are tearing walls down around the world and we’re putting up walls.”