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.
That has resulted in the current plan, which envisions barriers along 652 miles of the border. Of that, however, just 36 miles is double-tier fencing and 299 miles isn’t fencing at all — just barriers designed to prevent cars and trucks from crossing. Wildlife — and people — can cross easily.
Rep. Peter T. King, the New York Republican who sponsored the Secure Fence Act, said it’s been a mixed bag.
“The Secure Fence Act set the standard for border infrastructure. Progress has been disappointing and slow, especially over the last five years,” he said in a statement to The Washington Times. “That said, what is in place has made a difference. It is vital that the administration moves forward with a plan and sense of urgency to enhance security on the border.”
The fence retains its political charge to this day.
During the Senate immigration debate this year, Democrats had to agree to an amendment that would build an additional 350 miles of full pedestrian fencing along the border — a key condition to win enough Republican support for a bill legalizing illegal immigrants.
But Hispanic Democrats in the House balked. When House Democratic leaders wrote their own bill, they kept almost all of the Senate version but stripped out provisions for the new fencing and 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents.
Environmentalists have opposed most of the fencing and particularly dislike finishing the El Paso section.
“This half-mile section of border wall is totally unnecessary, especially when you consider the historic nature of the site and how easy it is to guard such a small area,” said Dan Millis, program organizer for the Sierra Club’s borderlands campaign.
“Border Patrol is perfectly capable of making sure that this section of border is secure and that the historic and archaeological resources are protected, without a damaging and costly border wall,” he said.
Chip Johns, the rancher who owns the property, said the whole situation is a mess for him and dealing with the federal government has been a pain. He said sometimes he has been given the runaround, and other times federal officials missed meetings they had scheduled with him. He said he would prefer to sell the historic property to the government for preservation purposes.
As for the fence, “I have mixed feelings ,” he told The Times. “I think this fence thing could be easily taken care of with electronics. But what do I know?”