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Cameron County’s wall: How border fence in Los Indios works, and doesn’t

January 12, 2019

LOS INDIOS — To wall or not to wall seems to be the question.

President Donald Trump’s visit to the Rio Grande Valley this week on a fact-finding mission was praised by some and condemned as a political stunt by others.

But many experienced border law enforcement officials are embracing at least one positive effect of the visit, which was shifting the immigration debate from its usual Washington-California-New York axis to the Rio Grande Valley.

“ The border wall is different in South Texas than the border wall in California, Arizona or New Mexico, where there is no river,” said Los Indios Mayor Rick Cavazos, who retired after 24 years with the Border Patrol, much of it spent policing Cameron County.

Where it occurs, the border wall in the far west is placed smack on the line defining what is the United States and what is Mexico, and there is no gray area.

But here in the Rio Grande Valley, the twisting and turnings of the Rio Grande’s channel which forms the international border, and the flood-control measures in place to keep it within the levee, have created a no man’s land which hugely complicates border enforcement.

This is why.

Crosser types matter

To explain the border situation along the Rio Grande, Cavazos says one has to make the distinction between the types of people seeking to cross — asylum-seekers or drug smugglers and other criminals.

Los Indios has about six miles of border wall, mostly steel girders sunk in concrete and placed side by side to a height of about 30 feet. These have been located on the inside, the U.S. side, of the flood-control levee system below the caliche road which runs along the top of the levee.

What that means, given the river’s centuries of meandering and flooding, is the actual border can be as close as 50 yards, or as far as a mile or two, from the actual fence.

Within that zone is where asylum-seekers find sanctuary. And they don’t have to pass a wall to do it.

“ For discussion purposes, let’s assume they already constructed the wall and it encompasses the entire Valley,” Cavazos said. “The asylum-seekers will still cross, and as long as they’re on the north side of the river, on the U.S. side of the river, and they’re coming up, Border Patrol will still have to pick them up, detain them, shuttle them over to the processing center and, more than likely the way things are right now, they’ll be given a court date and they’ll continue their journey to other parts of the interior of the United States.

“ The border wall essentially will not stop the asylum-seekers because of the fact that you have this gap, or this distance, between the border wall and the river,” he added. “By contrast, in California, Arizona and New Mexico, there is no question because the border wall is constructed on the international boundary line. If you are on the south side of the border wall, you’re in Mexico. If you’re on the north side, you’re in the United States.”

Wall stops criminals

Cavazos, who participated in the roundtable discussion Thursday with President Trump in McAllen, says a wall won’t solve all the border issues in the Rio Grande Valley and elsewhere.

At present there are walls — some new, some old and porous — along 654 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border which extends 1,954 miles, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

A wall is just one of the tools used by border enforcement agents in what he calls a “three-legged stool” — wall, adequate law enforcement personnel and video surveillance.

“ Now, let’s go to the group of the smugglers, the drug runners, the criminal aliens and the like,” Cavazos said. “Those individuals, probably it will stop that traffic. They don’t want to be caught in that containment area between a barrier and the river, because they know that Border Patrol will most likely be able to apprehend that traffic because they’re crossing that no man’s land in that containment area, and so Border Patrol will obviously be patrolling those areas.

“ The barriers are going to slow them down, and some may try to scale it, but it will give Border Patrol enough time with the technology, the video surveillance and what-not, to actually effect an arrest,” he added. “So for those individuals involved in the smuggling of drugs or even maybe the criminal aliens that do not obviously want to be caught by Border Patrol, then they will have to figure out other ways to get around this infrastructure, this barrier, whether it’s to somehow scale it quickly or try to go around in gaps where there is no border fencing.”

For criminals or smugglers, the sanctuary of being on U.S. soil even on the south side of the wall isn’t one of their concerns.

Their priority is not being caught.

On the front lines

The six miles of border wall or fencing in the Los Indios area was put in place about 10 or 12 years ago, Cavazos said.

In what surely seems an aberration, the decision on where to put the fences wasn’t made by bureaucrats in Washington, but the choice was left up to each individual Border Patrol Area of Responsibility, or AOR, which were told this is how many feet of wall you have, you decide where you need it most.

Librado Rodriguez lives in the El Ranchito community east of Los Indios. The border wall there towers above his backyard, and the Rio Grande is just 100 or so yards away.

He says he’s lived there for six years, and wall climbers — usually athletic young males, but sometimes women — commonly came over the top.

One criminal suspect was dragged out from the crawlspace under his home, he said, and arrested by Border Patrol agents.

Fewer climbers have come over the wall though in the past few months. Border Patrol installed climb-deterrent plates at the top of the fence for several hundred feet which prevents wall-climbers from hauling themselves over the top.

rkelley@valleystar.com

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