From the other side of the border fence: Some along current barrier say Trump’s wall not needed

Local farmer Butch Amery examines the bank of the Rio Grande at the edge of his sugarcane fields on the south side of the border wall March 30, 2016, near Progreso. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

MITCHELL FERMAN AND KRISTIAN HERNANDEZ | STAFF WRITERS

PROGRESO — As Butch Emery’s truck kicked up dirt along the border fence, he waved at a Border Patrol SUV and turned right through an opening. He was checking out his sugar cane that sprawls across the f a m i l y ’s 130 acres between the fence and the Rio Grande, the actual boundary between the United States and Mexico.

The rest of his land is north of the fence, past Border Patrol and the onion fields. Since the fence was completed in 2009, he has farmed with less disruption — no more vandalism, no more theft by people sneaking across the river. At least not much.

There’s still a grass line stretching north from the winding river and a towel hangs in a tree as a marker for those who are crossing into the country illegally.

But Emery thinks the fence has helped. He likes the fence, and sometimes even calls it a wall.

“That sure looks like a wall to me,” Emery said from the south side of the fence.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump has proposed his own wall across the entire U.S.Mexico border. While Trump hasn’t gone into rich detail, he ultimately wants to secure the border with a big wall. And he wants Mexico to pay for it.

Some local landowners and officials are in favor of a wall, too. But many are unsure what that means.

The current “wall,” as Emery occasionally says, or fence, is made of 18-foot steel bars. The posts are even taller around the sporadic openings that allow Border Patrol and farmers to pass through.

In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, which mandated the construction of 670 miles of fence along the U.S.Mexico border. In Hidalgo County, the drainage district built 20.26 miles of fence combined with a concrete levee barrier, paid for by the county and U.S. Homeland Security.

A tractor cultivates the soil in a field on the north side of border wall March 30, 2016 near Progreso. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Under the levee fence plan, the county paid $44 million, or about 24 percent of the $114 million project. The steel and concrete fence was completed in January 2009 despite opposition from Hidalgo County officials citing social and economic issues, according to a December 2008 article.

“For us, it’s a levee project. It’s all we care about,” said Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas in that article. “Hidalgo County is not in the business of American immigration. We’re in the business of protecting our residents from floods and protecting our economic development.”

According to the same article, the county saved about $150 million in potential annual flood insurance premiums by agreeing to build the fence with the levees.

In Progreso, thousands of those 18-foot steel posts are encased in an imposing concrete barrier. The fence stretches about two miles on both sides of the Progreso-Nuevo Progreso International Bridge.

On Emery’s property, the fence only stands 900 feet from the river. But that’s not the case throughout the more than 250 acres south of the fence and north of the river.

The Rio Grande snakes for hundreds of miles between the two countries. And it constantly shifts course, so much so that landowners have lost acres over time.

Emery placed concrete squares along the edge of his land by the riverbank to eliminate erosion. In one spot between the squares of concrete is a grass line where migrants hike up about 20 feet from the river.

Near that path, a baby blue towel emblazoned with a horse hangs in a tree — a marker for future migrants to find one of the 20-foot gaps in the fence east of the bridge. That two-and-a-half mile stretch of fence has four openings.

These openings force illegal crossers to be funneled to areas where Border Patrol often guards. Those guarded openings are also where farmers cross through with equipment to work their crops.

Before the fence, people often came across and vandalized Emery’s land or stole his equipment. They’d take it back across the river to Mexico, but that hasn’t been much of an issue for Emery recently. He said local landowners have an open dialogue with Border Patrol and call whenever there’s any concern. Agents often monitor the fence and surrounding areas for any illegal crossers.

Trump said his proposed wall would stop those from crossing over. Initially, Trump said he would deport the estimated millions living illegally in America. Then, he would build his “great wall,” as he called it in the Aug. 23, 2015, episode of “CBS News Sunday Morning.”

He wants people to come over legally.

“And I don’t mind having a big, beautiful door in the wall,” Trump said at the Aug. 6 GOP debate.

Trump has talked about his wall and beautiful doors repeatedly throughout the campaign. But he hasn’t been specific, and that confused local landowners.

“He keeps saying bigger and better,” Emery said. “But bigger and better what?”

From the south side of the current fence there are about five feet of concrete under the steel bars. Driving back through the openings from the south side is a slope. So, as Border Patrol guards those openings, agents can see out over the south part of the fence.

That added height from the concrete on the south side is why Emery sees the fence as a type of wall.

“I’m not sure what a new wall would mean, not that I wouldn’t be in support of it,” Emery said. “But what is it?”

The head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, said last month at a conference in McAllen that he’s often asked about Trump’s statements. He added that, despite his organization’s attempts to avoid politics, this has been an issue they can’t ignore.

“Trying to build a wall in areas where you have the Rio Grande river, where you have a variety of agricultural work being done, trying, or attempting to build a wall would not be a particularly good or effective way of maintaining security,” Kerlikowske said. “We don’t see much of a future in building a wall.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said last week during his visit to the Rio Grande Valley that a virtual border seems to be the answer. “What the experts tell me is that we need some tactical infrastructure,” Cornyn said. “It’s more than just physical obstacles, it’s people — it’s boots on the ground, and it’s the technology.”

But some landowners in Progreso said officials are not representing their views on the building of a larger wall as proposed by Trump or the militarization of the border.

“Things are just going to get worse if everyone keeps voting for that onion-head Trump,” said Veronica Vela, who owns about 10 acres north of the fence near Progreso.

“The Border Patrol often asks me to call them if I see any illegal aliens on my land,” she added. “But I don’t call them. That’s their job — I’m not going to do their job.”

Vela said there’s a double standard in the current immigration policy that’s unfair to some Mexican nationals who are deported, despite their asylum claims of violence and political retaliation in their country. On the other hand, Cubans and Central Americans are allowed in and placed in legal proceedings.

However, Jim Wells, who represents about a dozen farmers as manager of the Progreso Co-op Gin Inc., said the problem is the Obama administration is not allowing Border Patrol agents to do their jobs.

“It’s like a boxer with a bandana over his eyes and one hand tied behind his back, and it’s all because of politics,” Wells said.

Wells praised the building of the current fence and has seen the benefits of its construction. But, like Emery, Wells questioned Trump’s specifics about a giant wall.

He also said officials like Kerlikowske and Cornyn, who fly down for a weekend, don’t always represent the views of the people living along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“People in the cities don’t really understand the concept of farming here along the river and what you are subjected to,” Wells said. “You have to mind your business and keep your mouth shut.”