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Local and Federal Resistance Grows Against Border Fence Construction Near El Paso Historic Site


by: Shelby Alexander

Tue Dec 03, 2013 at 11:00 AM CST



photo courtesy of Alberto Tomas Halpern/Newspaper Tree

Grassroots advocates, along with federal and local officials, have joined together to preserve a historical marker against continued development and forced division of the US/Mexico border. US Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection aimed to begin construction in mid-November to close a half-mile gap of the border fence in El Paso at the historic site of Don Juan de Oñate's Rio Grande crossing at Hart's Mill and Old Fort Bliss.

Congressman Beto O'Rourke has been working with other members of Congress who represent border communities and head Border Patrol officials to prevent the fence from being built. "Given that this is arguably the most historic part of the entire U.S.-Mexican border, I feel very strongly that we must do everything we can to ensure that we understand the consequences of any action we take here and explore alternatives to putting up a wall," said O'Rourke.

"This is our home and we don't believe a wall is accomplishing anything. We call it the 'muro de odio' -- the 'wall of hate,'" said Bill Addington, El Paso group representative of the Sierra Club.

Read more on the importance of this historical marker, and what's being done to preserve it below the jump.

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The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees US Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection (or CBP), was set on building a 17 foot tall fence to close this small, but very significant area. Designated under the National Register of Historic Places, the area is recognized for being the site in 1598 in which thousands of Spanish settlers, lead by explorer Juan de Oñate, crossed the Rio Grande River, which established the city of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Oñate's journey across the Rio Grande has been added to the National Trails System as El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail, which eventually ran from Mexico City all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is recognized for being the oldest route leading north out of Mexico.

O'Rourke has estimated that the project is estimated to cost tax payers up to five or six million dollars. In a less detailed, although surprisingly supportive letter, even Senator John Cornyn encouraged CBP to work with stakeholders in El Paso to preserve this sensitive area.

Forcing to close off more of the border not only continues to waste public money on painful symbols against families, friends, and interconnected communities, but perpetuates a division of people whose histories and cultures are not defined by physical barriers like the border wall. Whether or not this half-mile marker is preserved, the building and enforcement of the border wall presents itself as an ugly reminder, courtesy of predominantly white politicians, of the lack of regard for Hispanic communities in the El Paso del Norte region who have been impacted by the threat of the border wall, and not found any safety or comfort in it.

As of last Thursday, local El Paso media crews spoke with construction workers on the scene and said that thus far, the work being done in D.C. to halt this project has helped stall construction.

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 signed by President Bush authorized the construction of additional physical barriers, along with 700 miles of the double chain link and barbed wire fences with light and infrared camera poles on the El Paso/Juarez border. The bill amended a 1996 law, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which charged the Department of Homeland Security to construct physical barriers and reinforced fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. The amended 2006 law also gives authority to the DHS Secretary to waive any environmental laws that may slow down the building of the wall.

The only study done to determine whether or not cultural or historical resources would be disturbed by the fence was one CBP contracted themselves. The Texas Historical Commission then reviewed the archaeological, historical, and architectural divisions who agreed there would be no significant impacts. "That's the extent of our review," Mark Wolfe, the executive director and state historic preservation officer at the Texas Historical Commission said, noting that his agency did not conduct its own independent study. "We don't have the budget for that. Our decisions are based on the information provided [by CBP]."

In a letter sent by O'Rourke and Representatives Pete Gallego, Filemon Vela and Rubén Hinojosa of Texas, as well as Tony Cárdenas and Eric Swalwell of California, the House members urged the Border Patrol to delay construction.

Other statewide officials have also spoken out against continued building. "This portion of the wall will harm historical resources of national significance. It's extremely unfortunate that local concerns and even federal rules can be disregarded in order to impose this expensive and unnecessary wall on communities that don't want it," said Senator Jose Rodriguez.

While it has yet to be seen what action will be taken next, there is a common unity against additional closing of the border, showing that many officials, especially who represent the border, are eager to move away from this unnecessary fixation. The actions and rhetoric regarding these projects have nothing to do with security, and everything to do with obsessive xenophobia and often poorly disguised racism. Many misguided politicians and parts of the public have and never will set foot near the border, yet still feel justified to impose their narrow perceptions, making their zealotry hard to take seriously. That is, if it wasn't so devastating to the lives, history, and culture of border communities.

"But I think we all know that once a wall goes up, whether it's removable or permanent, it's very unlikely that it's going to be removed," said Congressman O'Rourke. "It just sets the stage for a more permanent structure and conditions the community to never expect to see something better in that location."  



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