BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) - On the dusty road into Sabal Palms Sanctuary, near the banks of the Rio Grande, a sign a mile from the entrance reassures visitors that despite the forbidding steel barricade ahead, no passport is required to enter the gates.
Confusion is understandable here. This once-thriving tourist destination was forced to close in 2009 amid uncertainty over the future of the 527-acre palm forest after the Department of Homeland Security raised a section of border fence north of the sanctuary.
Since the sanctuary reopened in 2011, the towering rust-colored bars intended to slow the stream of illegal traffic from Mexico has done as much to ward off visitors, fearful of what is lurking on the other side, the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/1frZKOD) reported.
“You hear lots of rumors,” Jeanne Bork, an 80-year-old Midwesterner who spends her winters in South Texas and recently visited the sanctuary. “I heard somebody was murdered back here.”
Due to the snaking course of the Rio Grande, which marks the international boundary with Mexico, the border fence was built on top of the levee, in some places a mile or more from the river, marooning thousands of acres of bucolic farmland, native habitat sanctuaries and private landowners on its southern flank.
Today, there are roughly 56 miles of border fence and wall in the Rio Grande Valley alone, none of which changed the underlying character of the land - what was farmland before remains farmland.
Yet, critics argue the fence not only disrupts communities and impedes residents’ ability to move freely the nearer they are to the fence, it has also created a “Constitution-free” region where Border Patrol enforcement faces less oversight.
“What they’ve essentially created is a no-go zone,” said Joseph Nevins, associate professor of geography and chairman of earth science and geography at Vassar College, who studies the U.S.-Mexico border region. “The very act of being in a particular place invites suspicion.”
At least three times in recent years, agents are believed to have killed people along the Texas-Mexico line - shootings that witnesses said were unwarranted. One man in Matamoros was fatally shot by an agent firing across the Rio Grande from Brownsville in July 2012.
On Friday, the Border Patrol directed agents to limit their use of force in certain situations after a recent report by independent law enforcement experts criticized a Border Patrol policy that led to the deaths of at least 19 people.
For its part, the agency says agents are authorized to search any vehicle between the fence and the river if the agents have “reasonable suspicion” that unauthorized immigrants are aboard.
According to Mitra Ebadolahi, border litigation attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, there is no legal principle that would suggest diminished constitutional protection when people are behind the fence.
“This idea that people are uniformly treated with suspicion just for being in a place that is technically U.S. soil is problematic from our point of view,” Ebadolahi said.
Before the fence went in the ground around the city of Hidalgo, the high school cross-country team used to train on the levee that borders the town of nearly 12,000. Bird-watching in the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge on the south side of the fence was also popular during winter months.
To be near the fence now, much less pass through one of its gates, begs attention from Border Patrol, which invariably has a sentinel stationed near gaps in the fence. Familiar faces barely warrant a second glance, others are subject to identification checks and vehicle searches. Just outside the refuge entrance, there is a stack of makeshift ladders used to illegally scale the 18-foot-high steel barrier.