Congress may be doubling up on Border Wall

Greg Harman

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If a wall going up in southern Cameron County north of the Rio Grande is going to negatively impact the endangered ocelots that still call this thornscrub home, just imagine what a second wall would bring.

No, Mexico hasn't fallen victim to tit-for-tat mentality, throwing up their own wall to fend off American gun-runners and stray cattle. A rowdy band of Senators last week approved an amendment to a Homeland Security appropriations bill that requires the agency go back to the Congressionally mandated double-fencing of the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

That would mean the more than 600 miles of border wall already completed will see more construction in the months ahead.

Both Texas Senators Kay Bailey “I Wanna Guv Ya” Hutchison and John “I'm With Sonia” Cornyn voted for the amendment.

Though deep into site preparation, construction hasn't begun in Cameron County, where one of the last sections of the mandated 700 miles of border wall will soon cut through much of the U.S. Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge â?? 90,000 acres of some of the most ecologically diverse habitat in the United States.

Officials with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service expect the border wall as planned will negatively impact up to 75 percent of refuge lands, either directly or indirectly.

The prospect of a second wall was not met with enthusiasm.

“Walls and fences in general are pretty tough on wildlife,” said Nancy Brown, public outreach specialist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “Two walls, you're asking a lot at that point.”

Since the Senate amendment carried by South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint did not have a House counterpart, it will have to be hashed out in conference committee. A date for that debate, however, has not yet been set.

Of the more than 650 miles of border fence completed, only 34 miles was double-fenced, as the 2006 Secure Fence Act originally required, according to DeMint.

While plans for the impending Cameron County section call for 8-by-11-inch gaps to be cut every 500 feet through the refuge, no one knows if the ocelots will use them.

“We can't say with absolute certainty whether or not an ocelot would use that,” Brown said. “That's what really challenging about this, there's nothing comparable, there's no precedent. We don't know for certain if wildlife will or won't use that.”

Federal biologists working with the highway department to have wildlife crossings installed on local highways, however, call for culverts that an animal could see through, she said. “Our studies have indicated that ocelots need to be able to see clear through them. They need more space.”

Already, folks from The Nature Conservancy and National Audubon Society have already been hard at work trying to save the sabal palms that happen to be in the way of the Cameron section. Along with lowering a steel curtain on the ocelots, the Feds will soon be fencing the last remaining sabal palm forests south of the wall.

“These four counties are considered one of the most biologically diverse regions in north America. And this is based on five percent existing habitat,” Brown said. “Ninety-five percent of the brush, 95 percent of the habitat is gone. Not altered. Not manipulated. Gone. Off the landscape. So if five percent of the habitat supports one â?? if not the â?? most biologically diverse region in North America, what could we do with 10 percent?”

Our current political climate suggests we won't be finding out anytime soon.

With the DeMint-Cornyn-Hutchison amendment (don't forget the Texas bloc!) it becomes doubly difficult to jibe federal actions with reality.

Our border is supposedly on fire, and yet El Paso, Texas, is named the third safest large city in the country â?? just behind Honolulu and New York City. For you out-of-towners reading this: not only is El Paso on the border, but it shares riverfront views with bloody Juarez.

Six-hundred-thousand pop El Paso clocked only 17 murders last year, according to preliminary stats from the FBI's Uniform Crime Statistics. Compare that to smaller Oklahoma City with 57 murders, or Baltimore's 234.

What gives?

An expert in serial killers thinks he knows.

Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Massachusetts, told Reason Magazine last week that immigrants equal security.

“If you want to find a safe city, first determine the size of the immigrant population,” Levin said. “If the immigrant community represents a large proportion of the population, you're likely in one of the country's safer cities. San Diego, Laredo, El Pasoâ??these cities are teeming with immigrants, and they're some of the safest places in the country.”

That keeps San Antonio looking good, according to the CQ Press rankings (pdf).

Though we saw 122 killings in 2008 (up from 2007's 116 homicides) we're still ranked as the ninth safest large city in the nation.

Personally, I like the way Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies, thinks about borders.

“I cannot think of a balkanization that has provided both security and facilitated legitimate flows the way that it should,” Van Schoik told the Current.

The only exception to the rule being airports. Now if we could come up with a way to make our border more like an airport â?? all 2,000 miles of it â?? then we could be safe.

Food prices, however. That would be another story.

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