- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Seven years after Congress demanded it, the federal government issued a notice Wednesday that it will begin construction to fill the last remaining gap in the 652-mile border fence between the U.S. and Mexico.

But, like much of the rest of the fence, this section in Texas — all six-tenths of a mile — is proving to be controversial. Even as the building commenced, lawmakers from the region were mounting a last-minute campaign to try to halt construction or at least to win special considerations.

Part of the problem is that the site, like many other parts of the nearly 2,000-mile-long southwestern border, is important in American history.

This particular spot is believed to be the place where conquistador Don Juan de Onate crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. in 1598, at El Paso del Norte — the spot that gives the city of El Paso its name.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat whose district includes the land, led a group of six House lawmakers this week asking for a delay in construction, comparing it to building a fence around Plymouth Rock and saying the border in El Paso is already secure.

“It seems that there is little need to construct additional fence from a safety perspective when taxpayer dollars could be used more effectively in other areas of the border,” the lawmakers wrote to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol.

But spokesman Bill Brooks said CBP has taken steps to protect the historic nature of the site, has trained contractors to be careful about the environment and is going ahead with the project.

“In order to protect cultural resources, CBP conducted intensive cultural resources surveys and consulted with the Texas State Historic Preservation Office, who concurred with CBP’s determination that no significant impacts to cultural resources would occur as a result of fence construction,” Mr. Brooks said.

El Paso’s experience encapsulates the larger border fence debate, which has raged for much of the past decade.

Building the fence was a key demand of the Minuteman protest movement, and it was politically popular.

As a senator, Barack Obama voted to build the fence, as did Joseph R. Biden and most of their colleagues. President Bush signed it into law on Oct. 26, 2006.

Groups that favor cracking down on illegal immigration wondered whether a 700-mile fence along a 2,000-mile border would be useful.

Meanwhile, Hispanic rights groups called the fence anti-immigrant. Mr. Obama in particular faced tough questions from immigrant rights activists back home in Chicago after the vote.

Congress quickly began to water down the bill.

As enacted, it called for 700 miles of two-tier fencing to be built along the border, but soon after Mr. Bush signed the legislation, officials at the Homeland Security Department said that was unnecessary. In 2007, Congress passed a spending bill weakening the requirements and letting the Homeland Security Department decide how much and what kind of fencing to build.

Story Continues →