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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Border Fencing - Congressmen debate merits of border fence in public hearing at UTB-TSC

By Kevin Sieff - The Brownsville Herald - April 29, 2008
Construction of the U.S.-Mexico border fence might only be a few weeks away, but in Washington, D.C., the barrier continues to be a hot button issue.

The fence's significance - and its divisiveness - became clear on Monday, when eight congressmen and a number of local, state and national officials met at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College for a congressional field hearing.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., introduced the hearing, titled "Walls and Waivers," as a forum on the expedited construction of the border fence and its affect on the environment along the border. During the five-hour hearing, the conversation shifted to a more general evaluation of the barrier's merits.

"To examine the history, culture, economics of the border and then to decide the only solution is a 700-mile fence," Grijalva said in opening remarks, "is simply a failure of leadership."

U.S. Reps. Tom Tancredo, R-Col., and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., both former 2008 presidential hopefuls, disagreed with Grijalva. Hunter referred to the success of a double fence in his district, on the border between San Diego and Tijuana.

"Our fence put the border gangs out of business because they lost their ability to move back and forth," said Hunter, who authored the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

Tancredo took issue with what he called "landowners' multi-culturalist views on the border."

"If you don't like the idea (of a fence), maybe you should consider building the fence around the northern part of your city," Tancredo said amid jeers from the audience.

The six other members of the congressional panel were outspoken in their opposition to the fence - and to the views of Hunter and Tancredo.

Perhaps the most substantial opposition to the barrier came from U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, a former Border Patrol chief, who called the fence a waste of the government's resources.

"For 10 percent of the border we need to consider the potential for fencing," he said. "I certainly don't think we need 700 miles of fencing."

Ronald Vitiello, chief Border Patrol agent in the Rio Grande Valley sector, said the barrier will decrease border crossings - but only if it is complemented with a boots-on-the-ground effort.

Reyes, who used to oversee the Valley's Border Patrol sector, said of Vitiello, "He's going to toe the party line - he's got to if he wants to maintain his job as chief of the sector."

To the dismay of the eight congressmen, the fence's architects at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security declined an invitation to the hearing. The absence of a DHS official left a number of questions unanswered.

"We'll seek out these answers in Washington," Grijalva said after the hearing.

The presence of 13 witnesses, many of whom live and work along the border, marked the convergence of a national political debate and a local dilemma.

"We need federal legislation that will protect borders in a humane and Christian way," said Bishop Raymundo J. Pena, of the Archdiocese of Brownsville.

"It isn't really a border to most of us who live down here," added Betty Perez, a local landowner and activist.

The articulation of local attitudes toward the fence was echoed by most of the congressmen in attendance, several of which were born along the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-California, is a native of Brownsville.

"Nothing is going to change until immigration policy is taken care of," Napolitano said on Monday. "The fence is ludicrous."
Read more in the Brownsville Herald Tribune

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