- Associated Press - Thursday, August 19, 2010

ACALA, Texas (AP) | On each side of a towering West Texas stretch of the $2.4 billion border fence designed to block people from illegally entering the country are two metal footbridges, clear paths into the United States from Mexico.

The footpaths that could easily guide illegal immigrants and smugglers across the Rio Grande without getting wet seem to be there because of what amounts to federal linguistics. While just about anyone would call them bridges, the U.S.-Mexico group that owns them calls them something else.

“Technically speaking, it’s not a bridge, it’s a grade-control structure,” said Sally Spener, spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission, which maintains the integrity of the 1,200-mile river border between the U.S. and Mexico. The structures under the spans help prevent the river - and therefore the international border - from shifting.

Ms. Spener said the river was straightened years ago to stabilize and prevent a shift during high river flow. Without the structures, which also help slow the flow of water in the river, she said it could erode its banks, wash out the riverbed and degrade natural habitats.


Whatever they’re called, there are fresh sneaker tracks on the structures - indicating they’re being used as passages into the country.

After a private meeting with Rio Grande Valley police chiefs Thursday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said news of the unsecured footbridges did not surprise him.

“This is a long border,” Mr. Perry said. “It’s been discouraging that there’s something as obvious [as the bridges] and the federal government hasn’t addressed it.”

The realization that a section of the border fence is sandwiched between two footbridges comes at a time of heightened alarm along the U.S.-Mexico border as the drug war in northern Mexico continues unabated. President Obama ordered thousands of National Guard troops to the border, but Mr. Perry has said the federal government isn’t doing enough to keep Americans safe and illegal immigrants out.

The footbridges were built in the 1930s as part of a treaty with Mexico, Ms. Spener said. It’s unclear how often the bridges are used, but it’s common to see people on the Mexican side lingering around the crossing or others playing in the river in the area.

In a border tour with the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office in March, Associated Press journalists happened upon one bridge moments after a man with a bicycle used it to cross the river from Mexico. The border crosser, who told authorities he was only trying to fish from the north side of the river, was promptly arrested.

“If he can do it, so can drug cartels with loads of narcotics of any kind,” Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Lt. Robert Wilson said. “Even a terrorist could pass here with weapons of mass destruction and be in the United States and up on the interstate and gone in a short time.”