Posted on November 6, 2007

Fence’s Presence Felt

Dudley Althaus, Houston Chronicle, November 4, 2007

At this fabled border crossing [Palomas, Mexico], where the last armed conflict between the United States and Mexico flared, the rancorous debate over the new U.S. anti-immigrant fence has been resolved.

The fence works, residents north and south of it say. At least it works for now on this snippet of the line.

“You hear it all the time: Fences don’t work. Fences don’t work,” said Mark Winder, a transplanted New Englander and part-time deputy sheriff who lives on a small ranch outside Columbus, N.M., where a 3-mile stretch of wall was completed in August. “I live 21⁄2 miles from the border, and the fence is working.”

Many merchants agree in Palomas, once a sleepy farm town, now a booming haven for smugglers.

“The fence has destroyed the economy here,” said Fabiola Cuellar, a hardware-store clerk on the main street of Palomas who used to sell supplies to the throngs heading north from here. “Things are going back to the way they were before.”

Of course, with only about one-fifth of the fence complete, migrants from Mexico and other countries who had planned to cross the border illegally in places such as Palomas-Columbus can simply go elsewhere.

But U.S. officials have vowed to complete nearly 400 miles of the fence by the end of next year. Workers in August and September built 70 miles of it here, in Arizona and in parts of California. Thousands more Border Patrol agents, electronic monitors and other measures will tighten the squeeze.


Satisfaction, shrugs

Whether good fences make good neighbors is another, perhaps more crucial, debate entirely. This new wall has sparked political controversies in the U.S., and stoked a “been-here, done-this” rancor among many Mexicans. But here, where the rampart is now part of the landscape, it tends to elicit satisfied nods from Americans and resigned shrugs from Mexicans.


The fence, a 15-foot-high phalanx of girders tightly spaced and rooted deeply in the earth, is a jarring obstruction to the otherwise “for miles and miles” view of these parched high plains.

Rather than a solid wall, the barrier more closely resembles a vertical iron grate. It lets people on either side see across the border while preventing them from crossing it.

Its builders say the fence permits wildlife free passage. But the spaces between the posts seem tight enough to prevent even the wiliest coyote from slipping through.

The Border Patrol made about 36,000 apprehensions in New Mexico in the first 10 months of fiscal 2007, which ended Sept. 30. That’s a huge drop from fiscal 2006, when nearly 74,000 illegal crossers were caught on the state’s border, according to government records.


‘People are affected’

The newcomers were as much strangers here as they were in New Mexico. Crime increased. They left trash in their wake, kept people awake at night because their crossings set dogs barking. Locals who had often been able to slip north for a day of shopping or visiting family now found it harder because of the increased Border Patrol presence.

“There are families here who have family members over there, so people are affected,” said Villasana, the school principal, as he watched girls play a pick-up game of soccer in the shadow of the fence. “But the fence is felt more (by people) in the interior than here.”

Then Villasana told of a daydreaming young student who gazed out the window at the new wall during class last month.

Villasana asked the boy, What are you thinking about?

“They have built us a wall of shame, professor,” the student answered.

‘How is that?” Villasana asked.

“It’s shame because people have to leave our country to find work,” the boy responded.

Now it’s boring


A recent transplant from Erie, Pa., Robinson is a Minuteman, one of the volunteers who flocked to the border several years ago determined to stop illegal immigration. After a stint in Arizona, Robinson followed the migrant flow east to Columbus. Now, he’s contending with getting what he wished for.

“That fence, I love it,” Robinson said one recent afternoon after finishing a detailed explanation of the raid for a father and son visiting from Ohio.

But Robinson quickly added that “being a Minuteman in New Mexico is getting pretty boring.”

“There’s no illegals here to be found,” he said, wistfully.