LM Otero, Associated Press
LOS EBANOS, Texas — If Congress agrees on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, it will probably include a requirement to erect fencing that would wrap more of the nation's nearly 2,000-mile Southwest border in tall steel columns.
But the mandate would essentially double down on a strategy that U.S. Customs and Border Protection isn't even sure works. And the prospect of the government seizing more land offends many property owners here in the southernmost tip of Texas, where hundreds of people already lost property during the last fence construction spree.
"I'm still totally against it," said Aleida Garcia, who was among the Los Ebanos residents whose land was taken back in 2008, when this hamlet surrounded on three sides by the Rio Grande was slated to get a U-shaped segment of fencing.
Given the choice, Garcia said, she would rather have more agents patrolling the area. At least that would create some jobs, she added.
The region's lawmakers appear to agree. Three Democratic congressmen from the Texas border who support immigration reform have announced that they would not support any bill conditioned on the construction of more border fence.
"It doesn't do what proponents think it does," said Rep. Filemon Vela, of Brownsville, who resigned from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in protest. "Building more fence makes no sense to me."
The fence's backers say it's a common-sense solution to keeping people from crossing the porous border.
The strip of land bisecting Garcia's La Paloma Ranch was eventually returned after the bi-national agency that monitors border treaties said the fence couldn't be built in a flood plain. But those objections were dropped last year, and the U.S. government has resumed planning for that fence.
The government is still in court with Texas landowners over the fencing built here last time. And yet, despite the existing barrier, the area leads the border in illegal-entry arrests.
Now the Senate's immigration bill calls for at least 700 miles of border fencing — half of which already exists.
But even as Congress debates the issue, Customs and Border Protection has frustrated fence proponents and critics by failing to come up with any measurement of the fence's effectiveness. The agency told Congress' investigative arm last year that it needed three to five years to make a "credible assessment."
Farmers and others who live near the fence report seeing immigrants scale the 18-foot steel columns in seconds. And since the fence stands in segments across miles of open farmland, there's always the option of just walking around the barrier.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said she supports the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate. But when asked about the fence, the agency said the barrier would be installed based on operational needs and that it was premature to discuss details.
David Aguilar, the Border Patrol's chief until he retired in February, said fencing is not appropriate everywhere or sufficient by itself.
"I'm afraid we do lose sight of last time. Everybody thought that the fence was the sole solution," Aguilar said.
Fencing, which costs on average of $3.9 million per mile, was part of the solution that helped the Border Patrol gain control of a stretch of border near San Diego.
Masses of people used to rush the border there, counting on agents' inability to catch everyone. Now the flow has slowed to a trickle.
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