BROWNSVILLE, Texas -- The Rio Grande once ran wide and deep behind the four-room house that Pamela Taylor and her husband hammered together more than half a century ago. Migrant workers had to take a ferry upriver to get across from Mexico, and a flood once inundated the family's citrus groves.
Over time, the waters receded, the river narrowed and Mexico got closer. Thieves led by a one-legged man stole Taylor's horses from the barn and beans off the stove. Drug smugglers hid marijuana in her bushes. Migrant workers would camp in her front yard and bring her fresh tortillas in the morning.
The once-swift river now could be crossed with little more than a leaky inner tube. Still, there was some comfort in knowing that, on the map anyway, the Rio Grande marked the international boundary. Nowadays, Taylor isn't so sure.
The Homeland Security Department last year put up a tall steel barrier across the fields from Taylor's home. The government calls it the border fence, but it was erected about a quarter-mile north of the Rio Grande, leaving Taylor's home between the fence and the river. Her two acres now lie on a strip of land that isn't Mexico but doesn't really seem like the United States either.
The government doesn't keep count, but Taylor and other residents think there are about eight houses stranded on the other side of the fence.
"It's a no man's land," Taylor said. "They said they were going to build a fence to protect all the people. We were just lost in the draw."
When the Homeland Security Department began its Southwest border buildup four years ago, erecting barriers seemed a straightforward enough proposition. The international boundary is ruler-straight for hundreds of miles from California to New Mexico, and planners laid the fencing down right on the border, traversing deserts, mountains and valleys.
But here, where the border's eastern edge meets the Gulf of Mexico, the urgency of national security met headlong with geographical reality. The Rio Grande twists through Brownsville and surrounding areas, and planners had to avoid building on the flood plain. So the barriers in some places went up more than a mile from the river.
While the border fence almost everywhere else divides Mexico and the U.S., here it divides parts of the city.
Authorities defend the barrier, saying it helps control illegal immigration and drug trafficking. The fencing doesn't stop immigrants, but they say it slows people down and funnels them to areas where U.S. Border Patrol agents can respond quickly.
In and around Brownsville, the fence slices through two-lane roads, backyards, agricultural fields, citrus groves and pastures for more than 21 miles, trapping tens of thousands of acres, according to some property owners' estimates. (The Homeland Security Department did not keep track of the total.) Narrow gaps allow back-and-forth access for cars and tractors, pedestrians and Border Patrol agents, but they are as much as a mile apart.
"My son-in-law tells people we live in a gated community," joked Taylor, 82, who shares her modest home with her daughter's family.
Originally from England, she married her Mexican-American husband during World War II, and picked tomatoes and cotton to scrape enough money together in 1948 to build a modest home and raise four adopted children.
She never learned to speak much Spanish and struggled with Mexican food. "My father-in-law told me I was the only person he knew that made square tortillas," Taylor said. Hers has been a life defined by adapting, but she said nothing prepared her for America's new border barrier.
"We feel abandoned here," she said. "That's why we refer to it as the Mexican side of the fence."
Planning challenges and fierce opposition held off construction crews for several years, making Brownsville the last border city to get barriers under the Secure Fence Act of 2006.
Tensions escalated in this mostly Latino, working-class city of 172,000 when people realized that large segments of the fence would not sit anywhere near the international boundary.
Some residents got the word by studying maps of the project at public hearings. Others answered knocks on their front doors to find Border Patrol agents bearing clipboards: Would they sign a waiver allowing the government to begin surveying their land?
Landowners were offered compensation, but many were outraged. They protested at public hearings, lobbied politicians in Washington and fought court battles. The government had to start condemnation proceedings against more than 100 residents, some of them poor farmers or senior citizens with centuries-old ties to the community.
Construction crews bulldozed orchards, drained lakes and graded over driveways and roads. The fence towers 18 feet and its steel posts, a few inches apart, whistle like a freight train when northern winds blow.
Eloisa Tamez, 75, who lives on land granted to her ancestors by the king of Spain in 1767, rejected the government's offer of $13,500 for a 50-foot-wide strip across her three acres west of Brownsville. The government seized the land and built the fence anyway. Now, three-quarters of the fallow acreage where her family grew tomatoes, squash and okra is south of the barrier.
"It represents my heritage. This land here is what gave me life. I didn't have riches or luxuries, but we had food that was good for us," said Tamez, who is in a legal battle with the federal government over the seizure of her land. "I didn't want to let the government have it to build this monstrosity."
Rancher Alberto "Beto" Garza and his father have been cut off from their cattle. Ninfa Young, 56, said she can't stroll over to her neighbor's farm to pick watermelons. Nature Conservancy manager Maxwell B. Pons said the 6,000 feet of fencing on the Southmost Preserve severs an important corridor for coyotes and Texas tortoises.
At the Loop farm on the outskirts of Brownsville, dozens of citrus trees were bulldozed to make way for the fence, which splits the family's 900 acres. On the Brownsville side, Debbie and Leonard Loop tend groves of oranges and grapefruit; on the "Mexican" side, their son, Ray Loop, cultivates soybeans, sunflowers and watermelons.
Things could get more complicated. With the government planning this year to install gates at 40 of the gaps, the family wonders about access. Residents will be provided with access codes, according to border authorities. But they've also heard that the gates would be locked during a high national security alert. Debbie Loop, 69, wonders how her young granddaughters would get through to the Brownsville side of the fence under that scenario.
"It's an eerie feeling crossing that," Loop said, as she drove with her husband through the fence line onto her son's farmland. "In the past, if you needed to get out in a hurry, you could. Now you have to find a gap."
Duncan L. Hunter, the former congressman from San Diego County who co-wrote the fencing legislation before leaving office in 2009, visited Brownsville in 2008 to explain how barriers helped reduce the numbers of undocumented immigrants flooding into California border cities.
Though the Brownsville fence placement sounds "illogical," it is probably necessary if it means cutting off illegal crossings, said Hunter, who expressed surprise that the barrier here was placed so far from the river. Asked about the location, border officials said in a statement that a number of factors were considered, including the flood plain and "historic illegal crossing patterns."
"From time immemorial, the way that you keep people from going into a restricted area is a fence," Hunter said, citing a significant drop in crime in San Diego after the fence there was built in the 1990s. "It brought calm to both sides of the border."
Longtime resident Taylor, however, said the no man's land where her property ended up hardly qualifies as tranquil.
The fence funnels more illegal immigrants than ever through her property, she said, because it is close to an easily breached gap. Taylor is all for bolstering national security, but adding agents, cameras and lighting would have been more effective, she said.
She still opens her house to patrol agents on Thanksgiving and Christmas for turkey dinner. It's the politicians and senior officials who earn her wrath. She attended hearings and sent letters and e-mails to numerous officials, and got few responses.
"It was like talking to a brick wall," she said.
These days, immigrants walk across a small dam that serves as a footbridge, traversing the Rio Grande in minutes. Crossings trigger the immediate appearance of Border Patrol agents on the river side of the fence, but Taylor fears that U.S. Customs and Border Protection could someday reposition its agents behind the barrier, leaving her family more vulnerable.
Heightened U.S. enforcement efforts, Taylor said, have bred a meaner, more desperate class of illegal immigrants. Some banged on her doors and windows last week, possibly seeking help. She can hear the "booms and bangs" from the drug wars in Matamoros, and Mexican military helicopters have strayed over her house, she said.
"We're not afraid, but we do realize that Matamoros could spill over here," said Taylor, who keeps three assault rifles loaded. The guns give her a sense of safety, she said, unlike the fence: "It's not providing security for us, and it's actually shutting us out of America."
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