SUNLAND PARK – The U.S. Border Patrol is erecting an 18-foot-tall steel fence in the last stretch of unwalled, urban borderline in New Mexico.
The new fencing will create a more secure and imposing barrier in a location that is deeply symbolic to immigration activists and often problematic for U.S. border enforcers.
Residents on the Mexican side say the new fence will push migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. illegally into more desolate – and dangerous – desert territory. Border Patrol hopes the tougher fencing will deter illegal crossings, or at least buy agents more time to detect and pursue a migrant or smuggler crossing unlawfully.
Right now, a dilapidated chain-link fence is in place, easy to see through, about 10 feet high. It runs a mile or so from the bottom of a mesa to the base of Mount Cristo Rey, a bald mountain crowned with a white cross, that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.
The new rust-colored steel columns – an $11 million project authorized by the Secure Fence Act of 2006 – will replace the chain link and be reinforced 5 feet underground with steel panels to prevent tunneling. Construction is expected to finish early next year.
“In our opinion, the fencing has not necessarily been a good deterrence for immigration,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Border Network for Human Rights. “But it does represent a symbolic response, a very aggressive response, to immigrants and the border community.”
“It’s a fence that is replacing another fence,” said Border Patrol spokesman Ramiro Cordero, underscoring the damaged condition of the current fence, first erected in the 1980s. “It doesn’t hold anymore.”
Day of the Dead Mass
This stretch of border has been the site for the past 17 years of a binational Mass celebrating Mexico’s Day of the Dead, Nov. 2, to honor the thousands of migrants who have lost their lives on their journey north.
According to Border Patrol statistics, 6,571 migrants have died on the Southwest border since 1998, including 225 deaths in West Texas and New Mexico. Last week, Border Patrol agents found the body of a man, decomposed to bone, on Mount Cristo Rey; Sunland Park Police are investigating.
Activists hold rallies here and reunions where undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. can meet, however briefly, with family in Mexico. Sometimes, loved ones haven’t seen one another in years.
They hold hands and exchange kisses through the fence, under the watchful eye of border agents who keep their distance – unless there is a breach, as last year, when agents apprehended three people who cut across the border illegally during Communion.
It will be possible to see through the thick columns of the new fence, but not with the ease of the chain link.
“I wondered when the day was going to be that they complete the fence,” said Marco Raposo, director of the El Paso Diocese Peace and Justice Ministry. “The day has arrived. For us, it’s important that we express our voice. We don’t believe the fence solves anything for the reality of people migrating.”
But Border Patrol says this location is a problem area for agents tasked with holding the line.
There are neighborhoods on both sides of the border divided by only the fence and elevated railroad tracks: trailer parks and modest homes in Sunland Park; homes built of reclaimed plywood, pallets, mattress springs and concrete block in Anapra on the Mexican side.
The short distance from Anapra to hiding places in the urban grid of Sunland Park makes this spot a special temptation for would-be border crossers and a special challenge for the agents who have very little time to give chase in the desert between the neighborhoods.
And the chain link is dangerously wrecked: patched and welded dozens of times, thanks to the holes cut by smugglers. It’s toppling over in places, held aloft by steel cables where the ground has washed out. On the Mexican side, sand and trash have built up so high that the fence rises only to a man’s midsection.
“They breach it every day,” Border Patrol Agent Giovanni Cisneros said.
As he gave the Journal a tour of the area, a Border Patrol helicopter whirred overhead, tracking three border crossers. Within minutes, Cisneros confirmed that agents had caught them.
Border Patrol apprehended 11,216 undocumented immigrants in New Mexico in fiscal 2015, up from 8,677 the prior year.
The agency does not break apprehensions down to the city level, but Cisneros said, “We’re the busiest in the sector right now with the apprehension of migrants,” referring to the border from Sunland Park to Santa Teresa. “It’s still busy but not as busy as before.”
The tougher pedestrian fence is going up at a time when Mexican illegal immigration is at its lowest level in 15 years, indicated by trends of border arrests. In fiscal 2015, Border Patrol apprehended 186,017 Mexican nationals who crossed the border unlawfully – a fraction of the 1.6 million Mexicans apprehended in fiscal 2000.
Although the flow of illegal drugs continues, this particular corridor is most often breached by economic migrants, according to Cisneros. And, increasingly, it is Central American migrants who cross the border and turn themselves in, knowing they will most likely receive a notice to appear in court and not immediately be deported, he said – one of the reasons that the backlog in U.S. immigration courts is at record highs.
The Secure Fence Act of 2006 directed the Department of Homeland Security to achieve “operational control” on the border, defined as “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States.” To that end, it authorized the construction of fencing and security improvements, including other barriers, cameras and sensors on the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
Since then, about 72 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers have gone up in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico. That includes about six miles of 18-foot steel columns at Columbus and Palomas and nine miles of tall fencing between Santa Teresa and Sunland Park. But much of the sparsely populated New Mexico desert remains unwalled.
Beatriz attended last year’s border Mass in Sunland Park. Ten years ago, she fled the drug violence in northern Mexico with her husband and three daughters and settled in West Texas.
Beatriz had not returned home, and she saw her father-in-law through the chain link at the Mass. He had recently lost a leg to diabetes. Her own parents died two years ago, she said, choking up on the phone.
“It was such a beautiful feeling,” she said, about seeing her family at the borderline. “There was only a thin fence separating us. We thought we’d never see my father-in-law again, because of his illness. I only wish it could have happened when my parents were still alive.”
Residents in Anapra are watching the construction with a wary eye.
“It’s not humane,” said Julia Hernandez as she hosed down the dirt backyard of her aunt’s Anapra home. “Many people who try to cross are going to have to struggle more. They’re going to have to risk their lives. The needs on one side force them to look for a living on the other side.”