Dee Torres sees history in the making in the West Texas borderlands. The elementary school teacher wants to be part of the history of the borderlands, and wants her grandchildren to remember these times.
Torres, a resident since a child of the border town of Ft. Hancock, is taking photos of the construction of the new border wall rising along the Rio Grande in this desolate stretch of West Texas. Construction crews are hurriedly completing the last major portion of the 690 miles of border fencing authorized by the Secure Fence Act of 2006.
"I am taking photos of the wall for my grandchildren," she says. "They will be able to say that they were here when this wall was built, and one day they will surely see it torn down—just like the Berlin Wall!"
Torres is an activist who participated last summer in a march which started in Ft. Hancock and threaded its way along the border for 60 miles to El Paso in protest of what area residents uniformly call the border wall. The wall, which runs through El Paso and extends east to the Ft. Hancock area and west to the New Mexico border town of Columbus, has not been well received.
Although relatively few inhabitants of this border region have actively protested the continuing construction of the wall, criticism of the "secure fence" is common and widespread. There is also an emerging movement that is demanding that the new wall be torn down.
"The wall will surely hurt American interests all across the Americas for a whole generation," wrote Senator Eliot Shapleigh, a Democrat and a fifth-generation El Pasoan, in a December Op-Ed in the Arizona Daily Star . "Is it too much too soon to ask that this wall come down or is it the right thing to do at the right time in history? If not now, when? If not under President-elect Barack Obama, then who?"
Activists have taken to labeling the fence "The Wall of Hate" or the "Wall of Shame" ("Muro de Odio," or "Muro de Verguenza"). But perhaps the most widespread criticism is that it is an enormous expenditure of money—$2.4 billion thus far for the construction of the first 690 miles—whose benefits are few and downsides are many.
"It’s a colossal waste of money," Torres says. "They are spending millions of dollars on this ugly wall dividing our community. It’s an insult."
Part of the insult is having the U.S. government construct a wall between cross-border communities, such as the one between Ft. Hancock and El Porvenir in Chihuahua, whose families and economies have been closely linked. Part of the insult is having their view of the river and mountains now scarred by a metal wall dividing the formerly wide-open landscape.
But it is the sheer extravaganza of spending that is perhaps most insulting to the poor communities that dot the Rio Grande flood plains that unite the United States and Mexico.
With 1,800 residents, Ft. Hancock is the largest of three towns found in the vast distances that separate the 3,500 people living within the 4,500 sq. miles of Hudspeth County. Most are poor, very poor, living in dilapidated houses and mobile homes.
Per capita income in the county is about $14,000, which in less than half of the state average. Hudspeth County competes with a few other border counties for being the poorest in the state. As a border town, Ft. Hancock is the poorest town in the county and its poverty rate is quadruple the national level. Most of the homes are substandard, and nearly 50% live in poverty—and that was before the new economic downturn.
The post-Sept. 11 focus on border security by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has meant an infusion of infrastructure spending and the creation of hundreds of new jobs. But the DHS’ "tactical infrastructure" spending for the wall, deployment of sensors, new port-of-entry, and new Border Patrol station hasn’t trickled down. The workers come from elsewhere, don’t make their homes in Ft. Hancock, and speed back and forth (taking advantage of the 80-mile an hour speed limit) along Interstate 10 to El Paso every day.
Seeing the federal government spend more than $3 million a mile to build a fence in West Texas doesn’t sit too well with local residents who live on unpaved roads, many without water lines. Ft. Hancock is getting plenty of DHS’ tactical infrastructure, but it lacks the basic infrastructure of community centers, parks, paved streets, and water services. In border terminology it is a "colonia" (literally colony, roughly settlement or neighborhood), one of the scores of unincorporated settlements along the Texas-New Mexico border with Mexico.
Ft. Hancock originated as an Army post from which it took its name. But more than ever before, the town has the feel of an occupied town—a homeland security colony. The outsiders here are not the foreigners—aliens in DHS terms—who live across the river in El Porvenir, but the ever-increasing number of Border Patrol agents and other DHS officials (roughly one for every 10 residents) and the contingents of construction workers that arrive in their trucks every morning from El Paso to fortify Ft. Hancock.
Meanwhile Ft. Hancock natives like Torres wonder about the government’s concept of homeland security. She tells of an El Porvenir woman who crossed the border three days a week for nearly 20 years to work as a housekeeper in the Torres home. The now-elderly lady still lives on the Mexico side of the river, but because of the new homeland security regime she can no longer easily cross and risks imprisonment if she tries.
Nobody along the border disputes the need for measures to control the rise of organized crime and drug smuggling, but they say that the billions spent on border security are wasteful and not well-targeted. Torres thinks there should be a better way to secure the border without occupying it and dividing communities.
About her family’s longtime housekeeper, she asks: "What harm did she do. Twenty years without fail. What harm?"