Expeditious. With a single word, the literary sleeping pill of Section 102(c) of the Real ID Act has led to a civil-rights nightmare on the southern border.

Designed to mute laws that could hinder Secure Fence Act construction, Section 102 provides that “the Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the authority to waive, and shall waive, all laws such Secretary, in such Secretary’s sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction.”

In short, one unelected official can nullify any law that could prevent quick construction. To date, DHS has issued five such waivers for “expeditious” implementation of the Secure Fence Act, including last April Fool’s no-joke waiver of 36 federal acts — Clean Air, Clean Water, just name it — along with “all federal, state, or other laws, regulations and legal requirements of, deriving from, or related to the subject of” those laws, from California to Texas.

Where a fence of legal protections stood, border walls are rising. Never has such legislative power been handed so vaguely to our executive branch.

With construction of a 57-mile segment in the El Paso sector now under way, protestors met last Wednesday night in Fort Hancock to march for four days up the river to El Paso. Like town criers they spread news about wall construction. “Wake up, Fabens!” they called to residents of this small community. “The wall is at your doorstep!”

For their dissent against the Secure Fence Act, border residents are falsely described on talk radio and candy television as indifferent to security. In fact, border residents are especially interested in security. Their point is that barriers have not only failed since they were first built in 1978 — remember the Tortilla Curtain? — but that they create new problems, such as rising violence between drug cartels over constricted routes.

They are not alone in their critique. In my frequent travels along the river during the wall debate, I never miss a chance to ask Border Patrol agents what they think. With few exceptions they chuckle, or scoff, or roll their eyes. “The government’s gonna do what the government’s gonna do.” Or: “A wall won’t stop people. They’ll just go over or around.”

Some, fearing for their jobs, claim to have no opinion. Earlier this year at a Congressional Field Hearing on the issue, Congressman Silvestre Reyes — the former El Paso Border Patrol Sector Chief who supported mid-1990’s fence expansion, but opposes it now — warned not to “hang a fence” around the neck of Rio Grande Valley Chief Agent Ronald Vitiello. “He’s got to `agree` if he wants to remain chief of this sector,” insisted the Congressman.

“I do,” agreed Chief Vitiello.

On their route upstream, protesters stopped often to hear about the real issues: the Drug War is too simplistic; the cartel violence in Mexico is fueled by weapons supplied from within the United States; the billions paid to private contractors for barrier construction would be better spent on education, health care, and economic development; border militarization intimidates. Walls further isolate people from their river, and divide extended families older than Massachusetts.

Said one 80-year-old man with Teutonic blue eyes, “This wall makes me think of Nazi Germany, and that’s a bad thing.” He paused before asking: “Is President Bush a part of this?”

As if in a made-for-TV detective movie, agents in unmarked government vehicles followed conspicuously, trying but failing to hide on side streets and behind gas stations.

A riverfront farmer lamented the scant attention paid by DHS to the removal of non-native salt cedar, though this would help to restore the river’s flow as a natural fence. One marcher, a Wisconsin native, remembered his late wife where the couple used to picnic beneath a giant cottonwood. “When I’m depressed, I come out here,” he said. “I just can’t imagine walling this.” The camaraderie of his fellow marchers, he told me, “renews my conviction to fight it.”

“If I don’t protest,” said one to another as they passed a field of blooming cotton, “I’m complicit.”

They camped by the road. They slept in churches. They were blessed by priests and by the honking of car horns.

A dozen had started out from Fort Hancock last Thursday morning, but their cause and spirit proved contagious. A high-school freshman joined at San Elizario, and during a downpour said casually, “I hope it rains again tomorrow so they’ll see how determined we are.”

There were 60 at Ysleta, and more than a hundred at Anapra, where the new wall extends from an old fence segment westward across desert toward Arizona. Fifty more arrived on the Mexican side. Fingers shook fingers through the wire mesh. Apples and bottles of water were lobbed southward, and a priest led a bi-national prayer.

One marcher, seeing the wall for the first time, fought back her tears. “It looks like a barrier in a refugee camp in a war-torn country very far from here.”

A Border Patrol unit on horseback watched from a respectful distance. I asked them what they thought about the wall. “You’d have to refer that question to our local PIO” came the reply, steering me to a Public Information Officer.

“But the government claims that Border Patrol field agents have asked for these barriers,” I say. Expressing surprise at one of the key arguments for the Secure Fence Act, the agent shrugged, admitting, “I haven’t heard anything about that.” •


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