Why the border wall fences us in

A section of the border fence with a gate, bounded by smaller chain-link fence in Runn, Texas. The patchwork border fence along the Texas-Mexico border has created a nebulous and bizarre third space between countries.   Kelly West/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

From atop a dusty bluff on the U.S. Mexico border in deep South Texas, the mighty Rio Grande commands the panoramic vista below. Its waters a muted hue of green, the river courses wildly in every direction, zig-zagging here, straightening out there for about a mile due south before making an impossible hairpin turn due north, then zig-zagging again. With its bedeviling twists and turns, the Rio Grande is God’s work or Nature’s work, or both.

This is the border.

The border fence, however, is far from the river’s edge in many places, up to a mile in some spots, leaving many Texans and their way of life caught in something of a No Man’s Land, as reporter Jeremy Schwartz noted in last Sunday’s American-Statesman.

In communities up and down the Rio Grande Valley, people’s homes, their farmlands, nature trails and wildlife sanctuaries, cemeteries and soccer fields are caught in the space between. Intended to keep people out, the fence instead cuts off sizable pieces of Texas from the people who live there. Even some homeowners have been cut off from their own land.

Then there’s the case of Greg Garcia. To get to his classes at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, Garcia regularly passes through an opening in the 18-foot-high border fence. To get home, he drives south past the fence, where U.S. Border Patrol agents let him through.

Large numbers of people make similar every-day adjustments to get to school, to their jobs and to their homes. It’s an alternative universe not like the way of life people along the border knew for generations before, a carefree existence that allowed children to frolic in the river’s cool waters on scorching summer days.

Though I’ve lived in Austin most of my adult life, I grew up in the Valley and still consider myself a son of the border. When I was a kid, crossing the border meant a Sunday afternoon outing with your parents, strolling the plaza, getting your shoes shined, stocking up on cookies and candies and enjoying a Mexican coke before it was hip.

Not everyone thinks the fence upsets the way of life here, however. Arnold Lopez says he hardly sees the steel fence anymore, having crossed it so many times. “It’s not like it’s the Berlin Wall or anything,” he told Schwartz.

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Only about 10 percent of the border in Texas is currently fenced in, but President Trump has promised to build 1,250 miles of new border wall, most of it in Texas. A Department of Homeland Security report puts the price tag at a staggering $21.6 billion. If Trump fulfills his vow, it’s likely that much more of Texas will be caught in a no man’s land, because unlike many parts of other border states, in this state the Rio Grande hugs residents’ back yards and vast parcels of private land.

The madly winding shoreline made building a wall a maddening experience for federal officials a decade ago. They learned that fencing along the river’s banks would exacerbate flooding. And most riverfront land in Texas is in private hands, forcing the government to negotiate rights of way or claim eminent domain in the courts.

The prospect of extending the existing wall should lead Texans to ask if building more will expand the No Man’s Land beyond just South Texas.

A border wall is President Trump’s magic answer for solving illegal immigration. His campaign rhetoric stirred up fear, painting a portrait of a sievelike border overrun by criminals and rapists. Trump would have you believe that the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. all sneaked across. He would have you think they’re all from Mexico, and that illegal immigration is growing.

A new study by the Center for Migration Studies, however, separates hot rhetoric from cold reality. The report found that fully two-thirds of immigrants who joined the undocumented population in 2014 did not sneak across, but instead entered the country legally with a valid visa and then overstayed. No amount of border fencing will stop people from entering the U.S. legally.

And the current reality is that the number of Mexicans apprehended by the Border Patrol has plummeted from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to about 193,000 in 2016, a near-historic low. Pew also found that the number of Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. illegally has declined by more than 1 million since 2007. More recently, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly touted a 40 percent drop in the number of illegal border crossings through Mexico this year.

And then there’s this nugget from Pew: The number of unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. has not changed since 2009.

Facts can be inconvenient and I doubt politicians have those figures at their fingertips when they parachute in, donning body armor to ride speedboats down the Rio Grande, flanked by law enforcement officers brandishing high-powered rifles. Fleeting moments made for television campaign commercials.

The Texas border wall fences us in, corralling too a reality that’s as murky as the Rio Grande after a summer thundershower. For every Rio Grande Valley resident who has had it with illegal immigration  — and there are many — you can find at least one other who says a border fence doesn’t make them feel any safer. Some fear an expanded wall will destroy communities, and that money for it would be better spent on motion sensors and technology.

As we all question whether an expanded wall will be efficient and useful, we should glean what we can from life in the shadow of the patchwork border fence in South Texas, and we should ask, “Is a wall worth the cost?”