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Week of 8.15.08

Transcript: The Border Fence

BRANCACCIO: The NOW team has been in Texas taking a close look at that fence going up along the border with Mexico. Lots of Republicans and many Democrats in Congress voted for it and when the President signed the project into law in 2006, he called the fence quote "an important step in our nation's efforts to secure our border."

Well, in Texas we found an abundance of people who think the projected 49 billion dollar project is not going to work. Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Kathleen Hughes have our report.

HINOJOSA: We're in Brownsville Texas on lush farmland owned by the Loop family.., ..... nearly 1000 acres of golden sunflowers, robust citrus...

LEONARD LOOP: Best fruit in the world.

HINOJOSA: And lots and lots of watermelons. ....

HINOJOSA: Three generations of Loops work the farm...and the busy farm stand.

DEBBIE LOOP: Okay what do you need?

HINOJOSA: Leonard Loop and his wife Debbie are senior management.

DEBBIE LOOP: We work as a unit, all our families, four different families, and we all work together. And if one can't do something, the other one picks up the slack.

HINOJOSA: The Loops' farm runs alongside the Rio Grande river. In Texas the river forms the natural border between the U.S. and Mexico.

LEONARD LOOP: It's not even a stones' throw. It's about half stone's throw. That's Mexico.

HINOJOSA: Like most Americans who live along this border, the Loops routinely encounter people crossing illegally.

LEONARD LOOP: If you can look at the bank there you can see down the bank where they come up over the shore. The grass is all beat down. For some reason or another they left their clothes and things here

HINOJOSA: Leonard Loop says he's lost count of the number of times he's called border patrol reporting that immigrants were on his land, poaching his watermelons and other crops. So you'd think that the Loops would be among the loudest cheerleaders for the multi-billion dollar fence that homeland security is putting up ... they're not.

DEBBIE LOOP: Initially I thought that maybe a fence was a good idea, and the more I've learned the more I realize what a mistake it is to put this fence up.

HINOJOSA: Here in Texas where you don't mess with property rights, landowners all along the Rio Grande are up in arms. Their list of complaints is long, but chief among them: the border fence, in some areas, is being built 2 miles north of the border. That means thousands of acres of privately held land, will soon be walled off, south of the fence. Relegated to a stretch of no man's land between the Rio Grande and the government's 18 high foot steel fence.

PROTESTOR: We don't need no border wall!

HINOJOSA: For months students and faculty at the Universtiy of Texas, at Brownsville protested Homeland Security's plan to run the wall right through their campus. A coalition of mayors and officals from 19 border towns and cities, including Brownsville, say that in the rush to build the wall, Washington is ignoring their concerns...and trampling on property rights.

So from your understanding, where is the wall gonna be built? As you understand it now.

LEONARD LOOP: Well at the base of the, outer base of the levy.

HINOJOSA: Right.

The Loop family has been told that bulldozers could arrive any day.

LEONARD LOOP: Between the river. There's a...

HINOJOSA: Okay.

LEONARD LOOP: River over here.

HINOJOSA: So that means that this entire area here which you own a lot of...

LEONARD LOOP: Yeah.

HINOJOSA: This is gonna be behind.

LEONARD LOOP: The wall.

HINOJOSA: The wall.

LEONARD LOOP: Yes.

HINOJOSA: Most of the Loop family farm—over 800 acres, including the house where their son and grandchildren live—will be walled off...on the Mexican side. The Loops are not just angry about the government's demand that they sacrifice their property.......like many border residents, they believe the fence won't work.

LEONARD LOOP: We are being made to pay for the mistakes that our president, our congress and our senators have made. For 25 years these people have been coming over this border. And they have done nothing but let them keep coming.

HINOJOSA: Four times in recent years, major immigration reform legislation has died, as Congress and the White House gridlock over hot button issues like guest worker programs and amnesty... programs that would let people in.

DUNCAN HUNTER: We have to know who is coming across our border.

HINOJOSA: Back in 2006 anti-immigration hardliners like San Diego Republican Duncan Hunter managed to push through a law that was all about keeping people out.

DUNCAN HUNTER: The fence works. Let's replicate this fence across the southwest border so we know who is coming into the country and what they're bringing with them.

HINOJOSA: You might imagine that the fence, or wall as some call it, would be one continuous barrier running across the entire 2000 mile border...it's not . It's 700 miles worth of short fence sections. Fences that will stop and start, leaving huge gaps in between. The idea is that those gaps would be secured with a virtual fence: it's what president bush called 21st century technology.

PRESIDENT BUSH: The bill authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to increase the use of advanced technology, like cameras and satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles to reinforce our infrastructure at the border.

HINOJOSA: Just days before the 2006 general election —when no candidate wanted to be called soft on immigration —President Bush, signed the legislation.

But so far the technology for the virtual fence has failed key tests and no one can say for certain if and when it will be up and running.

In the meantime the physical fence is going up. Around 300 miles have been built in California, Arizona and New Mexico —mostly on public lands owned by the government.

But now, as the project moves into Texas, the fence is intruding on private property and meeting resistance from landowners like the Loops who just can't make any sense of it.

LEONARD LOOP: Straight across the way the crow flies you have about 12 miles of nothing. Do as you please.

HINOJOSA: Leonard Loop showed us a marker at end of his property where the fence will stop abruptly. It's one of those planned gaps: the government will leave this field right on the border, wide open. ...for more than 12 miles there will be no fence at all.

LOOP: Actually, people can come up to this fence and walk around it and be home free unless they got sensors or cameras or something here.

HINOJOSA: Congress put the fence project into the hands of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff.

Chertoff has repeatedly brushed off critics. Texans living along the border, he says, must sacrifice for the safety of Americans living further north.

SECRETARY CHERTOFF: I respect private property. But you cannot make border security and national security an individual choice for each individual landowner.

HINOJOSA: Congress gave Chertoff enormous power to build the wall. The kind of power no political appointee has ever had: the right to waive any federal law that gets in his way, without judicial review. So far Chertoff has waived 36 laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Farmland Protection Policy Act.

This aggressive approach to the fence is welcomed by most border patrol agents. Just here in the Brownsville region, thousands of people cross without papers each year. Agents say they are overwhelmed.

We caught up with Tom Rudd, who runs the Brownsville Border Patrol. Inside local headquarters sits a bank of screens where activity along the border can be monitored. Rudd says the fence, when it's built, will only help.

RUDD: Now, if this guy's here and someone just crossed and there's a fence here, well, he's—it's gonna be almost a 90 percent chance or 99 percent chance that he's gonna get him because the fence is there. So, you got the manpower. Then you have the technology. And you'll have the infrastructure.

HINOJOSA: Rudd is the patrol agent in charge of 23 miles of border in and around Brownsville. He's expecting a total of nine miles of fence segments. The segments, Rudd says, will act like funnels, pushing migrants into areas where his agents will be waiting to capture them.

RUDD: The fence is just a—like I said, is—it's gonna be that—it's gonna bring that balance.

HINOJOSA: Right. But the fence isn't the entire length? That means that they'll just say, "I need to move to a part where the fence is—"

RUDD: Sure. And—and we'll have our deployments in those areas. And we'll still have cameras in those areas.

HINOJOSA: The government's plan has upset a lot of people in Brownsville. Pamela Taylor is one of them. Taylor moved here more than 50 years ago. She left her native England right after world war two and married an American soldier from Brownsville .together she and her husband built this house and raised four children. Like all border residents, Taylor routinely encounters migrants. She even found one in her house.

TAYLOR: Sitting in my living room, in my rocking chair, watching the border patrol go by.

HINOJOSA: When she first heard about the wall, Taylor never imagined her house and her two acres of land would all sit behind it.

TAYLOR: We're standing in the United States. That bank, over there, that is Mexico. And right here is the Rio Grande.

HINOJOSA: And you thought that, when they said they were gonna build a wall, that the wall was gonna be right here? And what did you find out about where the wall is actually going to be built?

TAYLOR: There is a distance of, in some places, two miles from this river, until it hits the fence. Everybody this side will be, what refer to, as on the Mexican side.

HINOJOSA: This satellite map shows Taylor's house here...halfway between the river and the fence. The situation, Taylor says has turned her into an unlikely activist.

At 80 years old she's been holding news conferences and community meetings at her home with friends and neighbors who will also be affected.

WOMAN: This farm is not just a piece of land to us, it is our home it is our heritage...

HINOJOSA: People here want to know why the government can find billions to construct the fence, but little money to compensate local families who's property values will be destroyed.

This is your legacy. This is what you have to hand down to your children, this land.

TAYLOR: Correct.

HINOJOSA: When the wall is built, what is that gonna do to the value of your property?

TAYLOR: It's going to depreciate. And even if my kids wanted to sell, it wouldn't be worth what it's supposed to be worth.

HINOJOSA: 'Cause you'd actually have to find somebody who says, "I wanna buy a piece of property that's on the south side of the wall that the United States has put up."

TAYLOR: Correct. And the only people that we could sell it to would be people in Mexico.

HINOJOSA: Over at the Loop family farm, the government offered to pay market rate only for the narrow strip of land that the fence will run across. It adds up to about 1 and three quarters of an acre.

How much did they offer you for—for those acres?

LEONARD LOOP: Twenty-four seven?

DEBBIE LOOP: Something like that.

LEONARD LOOP: Twenty-four thousand seven hundred dollars.

When you first look at it you say, "that's not bad for an acre and three quarters." But then you sit back and you think, well, what about the rest of our land behind—the value is going down the tube once that fence goes up. And it will be as long as the fence is there.

HINOJOSA: When the loops refused to sell, the government condemned their strip of land for the border fence. They are among nearly 200 landowners in the Rio Grande valley who've had their property condemned.

On the Loop farm, the roughly 800 acres that will be locked behind the fence could be worthless....it's especially tough on the loop sons who recently took out loans to expand the farm.

FRANK LOOP: Here comes the government saying, well, we're going to fence you off, and we don't care what the value of your land is going to be, we need to do this, because it's for national security, security. Well, you know, if that's the case, then you know, buy, buy the whole, buy the whole farm at the, at the appraised value now and, and give us a fair chance to do something else then, don't just come in and say, we're putting a wall up and, and here's a few pennies for it, and uh, hope you make it on your own.

HINOJOSA: Melissa DelBosque is an investigative reporter for the Texas Observer.

Delbosque: Nobody down here knows along the border, none of the land owners know why my property is being destroyed and my neighbors' isn't, for instance.

HINOJOSA: She's spent the last eight months trying to get questions like that answered.

DEL BOSQUE: What I got was the runaround. I went from agency to agency within Homeland Security. Department of Justice. Customs and Border Protection.

HINOJOSA: Just who is in charge of the fence? Delbosque found that deep inside Homeland Security there is an agency called Secure Border Initiative. But what surprised her, the majority of people working inside those offices are not even government employees.

DEL BOSQUE: See I've highlighted it here. They've got, it says a hundred and forty-two government staffers and a hundred and sixty-three contractors.

HINOJOSA: Many work for the nation's second largest defense contractor, Boeing. Boeing has 1.1 billion dollars in contracts to build and maintain both the physical and the virtual fence.

CHAIRMAN WAXMAN: What we have learned is that there seems to be no task too important to be outsourced to private contractors.

HINOJOSA: In February 2007 Congressman Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee tried to figure out what was going on. He called in Secure Border Initiative chief Gregory Giddens to testify.

CHAIRMAN WAXMAN: Well, a majority of the people in your office are private contractors. You're relying on them to do the function that a Government ordinarily would do, yet it's contracted out and, in this case, contracted out with a company that may have a conflict of interest.

GIDDENS. We have currently 56 percent of the staff, the support contractors, working for the Government. Those staff have to sign non-disclosure agreements, so they do not share the information that they see in the program office.

DEL BOSQUE: they need to have overseers. They need to have government employees who are overseeing these billion dollar contracts. To make sure that taxpayers get what they're paying for.

HINOJOSA: But the problem goes further than whether the government is properly managing the contractors —are those contractors failing to deliver? Recently the government accountability office recently criticized Boeing's work on the virtual part of the fence. Turns out the company spent about 20 million dollars on a system that's full of glitches and is years behind schedule. The problem the GAO reported—the virtual fence was "designed and developed...with minimal input from the operators" in other words Boeing made a system for the Border Patrol without consulting the Border Patrol.

In spite of all the problems....Boeing and the other companies have been given millions more dollars to keep going.

And none of these corporations have to respond to any American taxpayer, as to what they're doing and why?

DEL BOSQUE: No. Unh-uh.

HINOJOSA: Because they're a private company?

DEL BOSQUE: Right. Right. And if you—and if I call them, or—or you call them and—and ask them a question, they'll refer you to Homeland Security.

HINOJOSA: And when you call Homeland Security?

DEL BOSQUE: They'll—they won't return your call.

HINOJOSA: We also reached out to key decision makers at Homeland Security and in Congress. No one was available for an interview.

Meanwhile, in Brownsville, the unanswered questions abound. Why is the construction of the fence being fast tracked for completion before the Bush administration leaves office? And another question: are the well- to-do getting their own special gaps in the fence? On the government's map, the River Bend Resort, a gated community where northerners keep their second homes, has no fence at all.

Border patrol chief Tom Rudd says allegations about favoritism for the well-to-do are simply not true. Take the River Bend Golf Resort: Rudd says he made the decision to stop the fence there...

RUDD: This area is not—is not—a hot area, if you will, of traffic. We have from time to time, people that come across. But it's not an area that's an organized area that we've seen over and over. If this would've been a trouble area—we definitely would've looked at that—to put a fence around it.

HINOJOSA: You don't need a fence there.

RUDD: Not at this particular time, no.

HINOJOSA: But later when we pressed Rudd for hard numbers proving that River Bend was not a hot spot he was unable to provide them.

DEL BOSQUE: You know, they don't say, "Well, we had so many narcotic seizures and so many—immigrant apprehensions here. This is why we need the fence here. And this is—and we didn't have it over here, that's why we don't need it." To all the landowners I've talked to down here, it seems very random.

WOMAN: I have not heard a straight answer to a single question.

HINOJOSA: Even at public hearings it's impossible to ask questions and get answers. Turns out that some of the public hearings were outsourced. A company called e2m had the contract for this hearing which took place last winter in west Texas.

WOMAN: No elected officials, no scientists. Consulting firm? Is that correct?

HINOJOSA: People were frustrated by a format that didn't allow for public dialogue.

MAN: This is not a public hearing it does not qualify as a public hearing.

HINOJOSA: Just a few weeks later, Pamela Taylor attended a similar meeting in Brownsville.

TAYLOR: They had people in front of computers. And we could either write our questions on a piece of paper or give them to the people on the computers. And they would hand them on to wherever they were supposed to go. But never any responses.

HINOJOSA: Residents here want responses to, what for many, are life and death questions. Pamela Taylor still isn't certain how she's going to get out from behind the wall.

So if your concern is that if you, as an elderly woman, needs help and an ambulance needs to get to you—

TAYLOR: They said the fence was gonna go right across the street. And as I said, my son-in-law asked, "Well, do you mind, how are we going to get out?" And the fellow from the Corps of Engineers said, "Well, you know, we hadn't really thought about that. I guess you're gonna have to follow the border patrol out."

HINOJOSA: So this is getting out just to go to the grocery store. This is getting out just to go to a hospital.

TAYLOR: Correct.

HINOJOSA: Doctor's appointment.

TAYLOR: Right.

HINOJOSA: I'm sure there are people who are gonna hear this, they're gonna say, "That can't be possible—"

TAYLOR: It is possible.

HINOJOSA: That an American citizen is going to be essentially locked out of the United States of America because of this wall.

TAYLOR: Yes. I—I mean, we're not the only ones.

HINOJOSA: Are they gonna be, like, doors? Are there gonna be fences? What—

RUDD: Gates.

HINOJOSA: Gates. Who's gonna open those gates?

RUDD: They will.

HINOJOSA: If you need to get—you know—

RUDD: We—we're still lookin' right now—at different—locking mechanisms of what's gonna work best in certain areas. So, that really hasn't been completely defined. What I—what—one approach that I'm lookin' at as a patrol agent in charge of the Brownsville area is—a push-key type, you know, the—the number system, a push pad. That might not be the greatest way. But enforced with a camera—so we can make sure that that number or that combination—doesn't get compromised, we can see if—basically work with the owner to find out who's gonna be in that area, what kinda vehicle they'd be driving.

TAYLOR: I don't think they know what they are going to do. First they are going to put up an electric doors, then they are going to have gates with keys, then it's not going to be closed at all. It's just....I don't think anybody knows what's going on.

HINOJOSA: Back at their farm stand, the Loops also wait and wonder about those gates. Will they be locked? Will they be large enough to accommodate farm equipment? What happens at night? What about their employees? Who lets them in an out?

DEBBIE LOOP: When you're farming you have to have entry—with—big equipment. How are they, you know, how are they gonna answer your questions? If they don't know, then how are we supposed to know. Don't put a fence up. If you don't know what you're doing, wait.

HINOJOSA: In 2006 both houses of Congress passed the fence bill by a wide. In fact both presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, voted in favor of it. But around Washington these days, the fence seems to have fallen off the radar.

DEL BOSQUE: This is the biggest land grab that we've had here in the United States since, probably, they built the system of national highways, you know, 60 years ago. I mean, this is just really unprecedented. I think—a lot more people would be paying attention if it were happening further north.

HINOJOSA: Just two weeks the University of Texas at Brownsville won a reprieve...after much legal wrangling, the government has agreed not to run a fence through campus.

WOMAN: DHS will not build a fence on the University campus.

HINOJOSA: Plans are being made for a virtual fence, instead. But days earlier construction of the wall started in a nearby Texas county... and in Brownsville, residents like Pamela Taylor have been told they're next.

There will be people who will say, "We'll we're sorry Pamela, but we're sorry that it's gonna affect your home and your property, but for the great good, so that this country solves the immigration problem, this is what needs to happen, and you just need to sacrifice."

TAYLOR: I'm gonna drop and roll on the ground and laugh. Because that fence is not going to solve the problem. People that live further into America, they don't understand this. They hear the word and fence and they, that the fence is going to solve that problem. It's not going to solve the problem the way they are putting it right now. There is absolutely no way it's going to solve the problem.

BRANCACCIO: Just think for a moment what it would be like if the government started to build a nice big metal fence in your front yard. Watch video of one man's frustration when that happened to him. It's all on our website.

Thank you very much for joining us. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.