Texas Mayors Want Wider Rio Grande
Published: November 13, 2007
BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Reuters) – Texan mayors opposed to a planned border fence with Mexico want to widen and deepen the Rio Grande river instead, and say it will be more effective in keeping out illegal immigrants.
The U.S. government aims to build 700 miles of new fencing along the frontier with Mexico to boost security and try to stem the tide of immigration from the south.
But the Texas stretch of the fence, which would be built on the Rio Grande's desert flood plain, would cut off some ranchers' access to the river, the main source of fresh water in the arid region. Mayors say it would also damage trade and centuries-old ties with Mexico.
The calm brown waters of the Rio Grande, famed in Western movies and cowboy ballads, have marked the Texan border with Mexico since the 19th century.
Known in Spanish as the Rio Bravo, or “Rough River,” it is nevertheless shallow enough to wade across in parts.
Undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans try to swim it or cross over with tire inner tubes, earning the slur “wetbacks.”
Six mayors in mainly Hispanic south Texas on the Mexico border call the fence a wall of shame and have vowed to take the federal government to court to block its construction.
They say a wider, deeper waterway along the lower Rio Grande would create a more formidable barrier than a fence that immigrants can cut, climb over and tunnel under.
“We already have a virtual fence and we should work with that,” said Brownsville's mayor, Pat Ahumada, who has proposed 42 miles of river widening at a cost of $40 million.
“A widened river would be a bigger deterrent to illegal immigration and the project doesn't send the wrong message to Mexico that the wall does,” he added.
The city of Laredo is also pushing to widen a stretch of its river front and the other four mayors along the Mexico-Texas line say they are evaluating similar plans.
The Brownsville and Laredo projects involve digging out the river bank on the U.S. side to triple the river's width to up to 500 feet and deepening the river from 2 feet
to about 10 feet at its shallowest, and up to 24 feet in the deepest sections.
By constructing a series of low dams, or weirs, at different parts of the river, water would gradually back up behind them and fill the widened river channel, engineers say.
A wider river would increase the time it takes to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico to up to four or five minutes, making it easier to spot would-be immigrants and allow Border Patrol speed boats to monitor the river and make arrests more easily.
But a government official who requested anonymity said Washington was concerned a bigger river may cost more lives.
“A wider, deeper river means more people may drown,” the official said.
Texan mayors reject that claim and are lobbying hard to convince the government that the project is safe and feasible, holding a series of meetings this month with Department of Homeland Security officials.
“A wider river is a huge disincentive to cross and is no more dangerous than a wall that people will risk their lives to get over,” said Horacio de Leon, who heads the Laredo project.
President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act last year, requiring the construction of the border fence as part of a plan to have “operational control” of the U.S.-Mexico border by 2013.
“The big question is whether the plan falls within the language of that law. We believe it does,” said Chad Foster, the mayor of Eagle Pass.
Mexico, which must also approve the project because the river is a binational waterway, has shown support for the plans, although Brownsville and its Mexican sister city Matamoros have yet to agree on the position of the weir.
Some Border Patrol officials are also warming to it.
“We can further exploit the natural barrier that is the Rio Grande,” said Carlos Carrillo, the head of the Border Patrol in the border city of Laredo.
(Editing by Kieran Murray)