Officials No Longer Ignoring Unofficial Ports

Officials no longer ignoring unofficial ports
Long taken for granted, casual crossings close
By Brady McCombs
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 09.25.2006

Visitors to Big Bend National Park used to look forward to trips across the Rio Grande into Mexico on rowboats or by burro.

They'd pay a few dollars to visit the tiny Mexican villages of Boquillas and Santa Elena. There, they'd buy handmade souvenirs, have a cold soda or beer and experience a trip many say made them feel as though they'd stepped back in time.

In 2002, reeling from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and looking to shore up its borders, the federal government demanded U.S. Border Patrol officials put an end to dozens of informal crossings along the border such as the one in Big Bend.

Even though the government technically had closed the Class B ports on the southern border in the mid-1980s, the Border Patrol didn't have the staff to enforce the closures, says Bill Brooks, a spokesman for the agency's Marfa Sector, which includes Big Bend.

“We needed to make a statement that we were going to enforce the law,” he says. “People were taking advantage of us, I suppose, because we can't be all places all the time.”

Boquillas was one of at least four such crossings in the Marfa Sector, Brooks says. There were dozens of others along the border, including Redford, Texas, and Jacumba, Calif., says Roger Maier, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The crossings that were official Class B ports were staffed part time by customs agents before the closure in the mid-1980s, Brooks says. Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor immigration analysts know exactly how many ports existed, though.

Today, Big Bend visitors who want to cross into Mexico must travel 100 miles upriver to Presidio or 200 miles downriver to Del Rio.
The closing took time for visitors and residents in the Mexican villages to accept, says David Elkowitz, Big Bend's chief of interpretation.

Their economic lifeline had been cut. After the closing, the people of Boquillas still came across and tried to sell their goods to tourists. Sympathetic to their needs but required to enforce the law, the rangers forced them back and warned them not to cross again.

The Big Bend Natural History Association and Forever Resorts Inc. now make arrangements to travel to the villages and bring back the goods legally to be sold in the park gift stores.

“The park service in some ways created a false economy, or created an economy for those villages with our visitors,” says Mark Spier, head ranger at Big Bend. “They came to rely heavily on our influence. Once we pulled that away from them, they had some real hard years and still do.”

The closures haven't hurt visitor numbers in Big Bend, which features picturesque mountains, steep canyons and an abundance of hiking trails. In 2005, a record 401,000 people visited.

But return visitors still ask why they can't go over.

“There is a generational factor,” Elkowitz says. “If Grandpa and Dad went over to see the small rural village, they'd like their kids to have that experience.”

Those traditions take a back seat to border security, though.
“People who liked using those liked calling those unofficial ports, but, basically, they were illegal crossing points,” Maier says. “It was no different than crossing in the desert of Arizona.”