Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Government takes testimony on border fence as hundreds protest

Dec. 12, 2007, 12:27AM
Government takes testimony on border fence as hundreds protest
by ELIZABETH WHITE Associated Press Writer
© 2007 The Associated Press

McALLEN, Texas — Gloria Garza doesn't know whether submitting her comments to the government about a plan to construct 70 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border will help stop it. But she said it's the best thing she can think of to do.

Garza was among hundreds of people who protested the fence Tuesday at a rally that coincided with a federally sponsored open house to gather public comment on a draft study of the fence plans for the Rio Grande Valley.

"I'm here to protest against this wall because it's going to destroy homes," said Garza, 25, a McAllen resident. "There's a better solution."

After attending the rally, Garza said she planned to wait in line to put her opinion about the fence on the federal record.

Tuesday's open house was the first of three meant to gather public input on the draft Environmental Impact Statement assessing the potential effects of proposed fencing that would span 21 different sections of the Valley and total about 70 miles.

At the event, four stations were set up with poster-sized maps and bullet points, with officials from agencies like the U.S. Border Patrol on hand to answer questions.

In another area, people could submit handwritten or typewritten comments or get their comments transcribed.

"We're here to listen, that's what it's all about," said Barry Morrissey, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is an agency of the Department of Homeland Security.

Morrissey noted that the open house was to take comment on the impact statement. Still, he said all comments were welcomed and expected many to be on whether a fence should be constructed at all.

While much of the rally was about opposition to the fence as a whole, some people had worries about possible impacts in specific areas.

Carmen Perez Garcia, 60, of McAllen, said she's worried about wildlife.

"We're going to destroy precious habitat," she said. "I think our environment would be horribly damaged."

Other open houses were set for Wednesday in Brownsville and Thursday in Rio Grande City, Morrissey said.

Pat Ahumada, mayor of Brownsville, said city leaders were scheduled to meet with Homeland Security officials at noon Wednesday to discuss the border fence. Ahumada plans to submit an alternative plan for a "virtual fence" that he says would be more effective.

A protest against the border fence is planned for later in the day.

Early during Tuesday's open house, several of the ralliers interrupted, yelling over a short presentation being given about the impact statement and opportunity to comment.

"I'm making my comment," yelled Ruben Solis, who held a "No Border Wall" sign, when told he could make his remarks another way.

A few of the others who were there to give their opinions on the fence clapped. Others shouted back.

"I live here and I want a wall," said Alton Moore. "I believe we should be a nation of laws. I think he (Solis) should follow normal channels."

After several minutes, the protesters left.

Greg Gephart, deputy program manager for tactical infrastructure for Customs and Border Protection, said a final impact statement will be released in February.

"Will it (fence placement) change? It may, it may not," Gephart said. "These are not final locations."

McAllen Chamber of Commerce President Steve Ahlenius said he didn't think the federal government was taking the open houses seriously.

"From our perspective they're just going through the motions," Ahlenius said.

Morrissey said that by holding three open houses instead of just one, the government was going beyond its responsibility to gather public comment.

Ahlenius said the idea was for the protesters to show up for the rally and then stay to testify to "lay a foundation" that residents oppose the fence in case residents or city officials decide to sue the government later.

The government will take public comment until Dec. 31, Morrissey said.

The heavily populated Rio Grande Valley has been the center of opposition to the planned fence, a combination of steel fence and "virtual fencing" designed to stop illegal immigration and smuggling. But landowners and government officials complain the fence will cut them off from the Rio Grande, a historically significant waterway to Texas and the only source of fresh water in the region for livestock and crops. They also say it will do little to stop illegal immigration and smuggling and essentially cede miles of riverfront land to Mexico.

Federal officials, however, say that without immigration reform legislation, the fence is the only acceptable way to secure the border.

Some senators are questioning a decision by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to conduct an environmental impact statement for Texas, but skip one for Arizona, where the fence will traverse the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area.

In October, Chertoff invoked power given to him by Congress to waive 19 environmental laws after a court blocked construction of the 2-mile fence in the Arizona conservation area.

About a month earlier, the Homeland Security Department announced it was preparing an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, to study possible effects of fence construction along 70 miles of the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley. An EIS requires public hearings and is a more thorough study.

Environmental assessments have been ordered for fencing planned on other parts of the Texas-Mexico border.

The Homeland Security Department did an environmental assessment for Arizona, a study that does not require as much public input and is not as in-depth.

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Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report.

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On the Net:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection: http://www.cbp.gov

Rio Grande Valley EIS: http://www.borderfencenepa.com

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