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UT-Brownsville, Feds Compromise on Border Fence

Critics say proposed border fence was less about security than about the politics of illegal immigration.

For 82 years, college students have walked freely back and forth across the U.S.-Mexican border on the site of a 465-acre campus that once was an Army cavalry base on the extreme southeastern tip of Texas. The winding Rio Grande River provides a scenic backdrop for an 18-hole golf course and scattered academic halls.

But the idyllic atmosphere at the University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) and its related Texas Southmost College was almost shattered this summer by increasingly bitter politics over illegal immigration. A unit of the Department of Homeland Security, created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, planned to erect an 18-foot-high, solid border fence — including a 50-yard-wide “dead zone” where people are not permitted — right through the school. If opposed, the government threatened to use eminent domain powers to condemn the land.

Proposed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service, the prison-style barrier would have chopped up the golf course and, in practical terms, placed part of the campus on Mexican territory. Students would have had to bring passports and go through border checkpoints just to attend some classes.

The effort was part of the Bush administration’s pledge to build 370 miles of pedestrian fencing and 300 miles of vehicle barriers on the United States’ southern, 1,952-mile-long border this year. While proponents say tighter borders are needed to protect the United States from terrorist attacks, the measures are seen as ways to satisfy political critics who claim undocumented workers are overrunning the United States.

Locally, the proposed fence was seen as a direct affront to the 17,000-plus UTB student body; many of whom are of Mexican ancestry, and about 400 are Mexican citizens. UTB prides itself on its diversity and focus on cross-cultural issues such as improving health care in border areas.

“We called it the border wall. It sends a very negative message to our neighbors to the South,” says Crystal Carnales of the proposed fence. Carnales is a 20-year-old senior who is majoring in psychology and sociology.

University officials reached a compromise with the federal government this summer after filing suit. There will be no land condemnation or East German-style fence. Instead, the university will spend about $1 million to improve an existing 8-foot-tall fence on a levee north of the golf course and help provide for surveillance cameras for the Border Patrol. UTB President Juliet García, who declined to be interviewed, has said that flowers will be added to keep the fence from being an eyesore. Federal spokesmen did not return telephone calls.

The agreement has many on campus breathing a sigh of relief. “Not that it changed their minds, but we approached the issue through dialogue,” says Omar Perez, a 27-year-old senior who is majoring in communications. “The university gets the multicultural experience it wants, and the government gets the security it wants,” he adds.

Perez believes UTB’s negotiating skill could be a good example for other U.S. landowners embroiled in disputes with Homeland Security as it presses on with fence construction. There are at least 50 other lawsuits on file locally to block the government from seizing land for fencebuilding.

“This will cut off many, many homesteads,” says Bob Lucio, the head golf coach at UTB who also leases the golf course for business purposes. Lucio says the agreement prevents golfers from being disrupted as they play the links that are popular with students and many retirees from northern states who golf in the winter. Lucio says he never understood the urgency for the fence since illegal border crossings aren’t that significant. “They were back in the 1980s when you had a lot of refugees from conflicts in Central America, but not now,” he says.

Despite the successful resolution on campus, serious issues prevail, says Dr. Tony Knopp, Professor Emeritus at UTB. “This area is almost culturally dominant Mexican,” he says. “This turns the wrong face to Mexico.”

Many students note the irony that there’s not the same urgency to secure the U.S. border with Canada. National security on the Canadian border, however, has been a real security issue in the past. Knopp notes that, during World War II, Nazi spies regularly entered the United States via Canada. “There’s no great concern over ethnic Canadian threats,” he says.

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