Along the Border

Yes, there is a fence but it does more than keep people out

By Sandra Sanchez

On a wind swept plain overlooking the floodway near the tiny South Texas town of Granjeno, there is a four-foot high yellowing water line on an 18-foot tall concrete flood wall, marking where the rising Rio Grande waters came up to in 2010 during heavy rains.

It’s proof, says Raul Sesin, general manager of Hidalgo County Drainage District №1, that the combination of earthen levees and concrete levee walls — which the county began constructing in 2008 with federal funds as part of a joint project to help control flooding in this flat region and also doubles as a natural barrier against illegal immigration — is doing its job. Because just over the concrete barrier wall, about 30 feet away, is a small home, which Sesin points out could have been flooded had this structure not been here at that time.

Wild dogs bark in the distance. Jack rabbits run through the brush near where Sesin is standing at a spot called “Segment 05” in the expansive floodway system. It’s a triangular concrete easement where one is able to walk up at a vertical sloping grade to the top of the 18-foot high concrete wall. At the top is a low chain link fence that meets a dirt levee road, made of caliche rock, where U.S. Border Patrol agents in rugged sport utility vehicles regularly drive back and forth and are keen to stop and question anyone found in this vicinity as they patrol for illegal immigrants.

This particular vertical concrete slope was designed to handle and redirect “turbulent waters” in case of “diversion flooding” from the Rio Grande, Sesin said. But if President Donald Trump’s administration decides to put a solid border wall structure throughout the Southwest border with Mexico, as he repeatedly promised during his presidential campaign, then this particular easement likely would be torn down and replaced with a solid border fence or concrete border wall that one could not walk up. If that happens, however, it’s uncertain how such a structure would abate rising waters, protect local property and affect wildlife, say local activists, environmentalists and some municipal officials.

Currently, the almost $200 million “border fence” in Hidalgo County, in deep South Texas, serves a dual purpose: To stop flooding and halt immigration. It is a mixture of concrete 18-foot-high walls, 20-foot-high metal bollard gates and earthen-built natural levees that pop up from the prickly brush, mesquite trees and alligator-laden water inlets throughout these borderlands and is built along and with the bending of the Rio Grande.

The fence is in no way complete. There are large gaps, some big enough to drive a tractor through, and often the metal fence gates are located a mile apart. Landowners and farmers whose properties straddle this vast no-man’s land are the only ones with access to cross at these gates, which are watched by Border Patrol agents and frequently paired with Border Patrol special cameras and towers. In between the gates, the concrete walls drop many feet below and seem impassable.

But somehow people get across.

Every 10 minutes or so, Border Patrol agents often can be seen on the other side of the gate pulling tires behind their vehicles to “sweep” the caliche roads for footprints and other clues of coyotes (or guides) illegally crossing with immigrants. The coyotes, of course, are wise to the agents and often carry brooms or heavy branches to wipe clear the roads after their groups have crossed an area.

Not long ago, at one gate overlooking the town of Hidalgo — and near its famous flea market — sat a pile of wooden, hand-made ladders that were obviously put up to help immigrants get up and over the 20-foot high metal gate, and then promptly discarded in a heap on the other side.

It’s a cat-and-mouse game played hundreds of times here on the border every day. And it’s a situation being heavily debated thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., by some in Congress who believe a full wall structure would keep more immigrants out.

But how it would affect, help or hurt, potential flooding in South Texas is yet to be known.

The current expansive floodway system was never intended to be a full border wall. It was paid for mostly by federal funds through the Secure Fence Act of 2006 passed under President George W. Bush’s administration. From 2008 to 2011, Hidalgo County officials worked with federal officials and various local contractors, using giant earth movers and tons of steel and concrete to design, engineer and construct this floodway system that has for years acted not only to keep river waters at bay, but also has proven to be a successful deterrent for those trying to illegally cross into the United States.

The 20.72 miles of border walls and levees built in Hidalgo County during the last decade cost a total of $196.3 million to construct, with a total construction cost per mile of $9.5 million.

Building a 1,954-mile border throughout the Southwest border with Mexico could cost $21.6 billion, according to an internal memo by the Department of Homeland Security first reported by Reuters in February. Since then, Trump has backed off a bit from demanding a wall every foot of the border, and has indicated a mixture of technology, like cameras and Aerostats, and natural borders could help augment a man-made structure in some parts.

For now, however, the gaps in the border wall remain a part of the terrain in South Texas. And the discarded man-made ladders and other indicators of those who have crossed illegally continue to pile up along the border where it’s a stone’s throw across the Rio Grande to Mexico and where hundreds of people wait and hope daily to cross from at a chance for a better life in America.