Border Fence Would Cut Through Texas University

Christopher Sherman, AP, June 27, 2008

The steel fence that the U.S. government wants to build along the Mexican border would do more than slice through the University of Texas’ Brownsville campus and cut off the golf course from the rest of the school.

School officials say it would make a mockery of the very mission of the university: promoting close ties between the U.S. and Mexico.

The university—built close to the Rio Grande on land where the United States and Mexico traded cannon blasts during the Mexican-American War 160 years ago—recruits Mexican students, offers government and business classes in English and Spanish and turns out sorely needed bilingual teachers. It has a biological field station in Mexico and hosts educators at a Binational Conference every spring. About 400 of the 17,000 students are from Mexico, and more than half of them commute across the river to class.

The fence, if built as envisioned by the U.S. Border Patrol, would run a mile north of the Rio Grande, the international boundary, cutting off about 180 acres of the 465-acre campus. University officials say it would also thwart its hopes of expanding someday toward the river, and send the wrong message across the border.

“To slice off and fence off the ‘bi’ part of ‘binational’ violates the essence of this university,” said university President Juliet V. Garcia, whose office is situated in what was once the thick-walled, tan-brick hospital at Fort Brown, built shortly after the Civil War.

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People will still be able to reach the university from Mexico by way of the three international bridges that connect Brownsville to Matamoros, Mexico.

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The school’s architecture reflects the twin influences on the region: Its older buildings are 19th-century remnants of Fort Brown, with tan brick walls, galvanized steel roofs and shaded arcades. Other buildings are Spanish-influenced, with tile, towers and terra cotta roofs.

The land the golf course is on belongs to the International Boundary and Water Commission, but the university holds a 99-year lease on it. The government contends it can build parts of the fence on the property without the university’s consent.

The school, a part of the University of Texas system since 1991, said it cannot get a firm answer from the government on whether there will be a gate or some other opening that will enable students to reach the 165-acre course, which generates revenue for the university.

Also left in the no-man’s land south of the fence would be the ruins of old Fort Texas, which was built during the Mexican-American War in 1846 and now consists of little more than earthen mounds.

“Of course, we believe in protecting our borders,” the university president wrote in an open letter to students in January. “Of course, we believe in strong immigration policy. But we also understand that a fence, no matter how high or how wide, is no substitute for either.”

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Some students said they fear the fence will send the wrong message about them.

“You’re trying to divide the world,” said Omar Diaz, 20, a government major from Victoria, Mexico.

Allison Valles, an accounting major from Texas and a member of the golf team, said that the fence does more than pose a threat to her favorite activity.

“UTB is trying to portray an image of bringing everybody together, but we would have this wall between us,” Valles said.

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