Border fence OK, but not in my house
BROWNSVILLE – Dorothy Irwin is one of the Border Patrol's staunchest local supporters and was a fan of the proposed border fence – until she found out it would run right through her house.
But on Friday, the federal government made a major concession to help Irwin save her land.
It has been an awkward situation for Irwin, 68, as she balances her belief that a fence is needed to secure the U.S.-Mexico border with her need to protect the 19th-century plantation that her grandparents moved onto more than 80 years ago.
She says the government is right to build the fence, but wrong to seize private property as much as two miles inland from the Rio Grande, destroying the homes of the very people it set out to protect.
The case of the Old Nye Plantation has been discussed at levels as high as Washington, D.C., among U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, but is now back in the hands of U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville.
"This is the first situation we've had where someone said, ‘Hey, this fence is coming through my house,"' Hanen said two weeks ago when he ordered Irwin and the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a compromise.
On Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Hu told Hanen they might have a plan.
In a major concession to a single landowner, the federal government has proposed building a massive concrete retaining wall into the river side of the levee that skirts the south side of Irwin's singlestory white wooden house and several brick buildings that date back to 1885 on the 600-acre farm. The design will allow Irwin to still see the distant tree lines and the hundreds of acres that run down to the Rio Grande.
Without the compromise, an 18-foot fence would have been built on the north side of the levee, nearly abutting Irwin's house, and the patrol road would have run right through the middle of Irwin's home. Two-thirds of her farm will be behind the fence, accessible only through locked gates from the United States, but open to those crossing the river from Mexico.
"Obviously we don't want a fence there at all," said Irwin's attorney Kimberli Loessin, but she conceded the government was accommodating her client's primary concern.
While the cost has not been set for the compromise plan, similar barriers under construction in neighboring Hidalgo County have run upward of $8 million per mile, or about four times the cost of regular fence sections.
Cameron County, whose leaders have vocally opposed the fence, has sought a similar concession unsuccessfully for months. After Friday's hearing, Irwin hugged three Border Patrol agents.
"It's important for residents and the Border Patrol to work together," Irwin said later. "If Border Patrol has to fight the residents and the bad guys all the time, how's it going to protect us?"
At a gathering of similarly affected neighbors earlier this summer, Irwin began her prepared remarks by stating her strong support for Border Patrol and its mission.
"We have done our best to work with the Border Patrol, we think very highly of all our agents and our continual desire is to fully support to the best of our ability these men and women who protect our front line and the communities along the border," Irwin said.
But while saying she believed in the need for the fence – a structure widely opposed along the 1,900-mile Texas-Mexico border – she questioned the need to build it as far as two miles from the border. Irwin said the federal government was "thoughtlessly handing land from the levee to the river over to Mexico, illegals and/or wildlife."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is overseeing the project, had said the fence had to be built on the north side of the levee to avoid diverting the flow of floodwaters and breaking international treaties with Mexico. The agency has stuck to this argument in many cases, but in others, has made concessions like a removable fence in the floodplain.
Some details remain for Irwin to hammer out with the government on their compromise, but Hu said the International Boundary and Water Commission has given an expedited technical approval for the plan.
Both sides are scheduled to return to court Nov. 20.
As of Oct. 22, the government had built 216 miles of pedestrian fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and 154 miles of vehicle barriers. Congress had called for 670 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border to be completed by the end of the year. More recently Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said having all the fence sections under contract by the end of the year is more likely.
Of the 110 miles of fence planned for Texas, only 3.3 miles are complete, according to Customs and Border Protection.