James Osborne, The Monitor
December 11, 2007 - 9:36PM
McALLEN — College students mixed with politicians; environmental activists applauded businessmen. Hundreds of people turned out at the McAllen Convention Center on Tuesday night to protest the proposed border fence, just as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was staging a public forum down the hall.
“America needs real solutions. We don’t need a false sense of security from a non-continuous, 700-mile fence,” McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez told the crowd of about 500 protesters. “They say it’ll slow (illegal border crossers) down by three to four minutes. I heard someone say that’s like building a multi-billion dollar speed bump.”
After the protest a number of the demonstrators made their way over to the forum — which addressed Homeland Security’s environmental impact study for the fence — to file their official objections. More than 200 people filed written or oral comments with the government, according to Don Beckham, a consultant to Homeland Security. An unknown number of people filed their comments electronically on computers provided by the government.
“We shouldn’t be building fences through our beautiful refuges,” said Javier Gonzalez, 21, a student at the University of Texas-Pan American who filed a protest with Homeland Security. “I go hiking there with my friends,” he said of the wildlife refuges along the Rio Grande. “Now we’re going to have to go through these little checkpoints just to enjoy nature.”
The forum, which started half an hour before the anti-fence rally, got off to a rocky start when protesters stormed into the room and started chanting, “No border wall,” as Homeland Security project manager Greg Gephardt was addressing the crowd. “We knew there were protesters here tonight. We prepare for the contingencies, and this gentleman was simply expressing his point of view, just not in the preferred way,” Gephardt said. “I know it sounds like lip service, but we are committed to hearing the public comments.”
The protesters were allowed to speak and left the room of their own accord about 20 minutes later. Last week Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that Rio Grande Valley landowners had 30 days to let federal surveyors on their land or he would get a court order to compel them to do so. The announcement increased an already growing sense of inevitability over the border fence. But at the rally Tuesday, leaders were still urging residents to voice their protests with the government.
“Whatever a people have the power to do, they also have the power to undo,” Cortez said. “I think the turnout tonight was good. It’s a tough time of day, when people are still working.” The rally, which was organized by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, had been expected to draw 2,000 people.
Not everyone in attendance was opposed to the idea of a security fence along the U.S. border with Mexico. Dave Kaltenbach, 58, stood at the exit to the convention center with a sign that read, “border fence, yes, yes.” “No, nobody’s bothered me,” he said. “I’m for it because of illegal aliens, drugs and terrorists.”
With the deadline for landowners growing closer, tensions between local residents and the government are only expected to increase in the weeks to come.
“There’s going to be trouble,” said Ruben Solis, an organizer with the Southwest Workers Union who stormed the Homeland Security forum during Gephardt’s speech. “Somebody might shoot them out,” he said. “It happened with Cortina in 1852.”
Juan Cortina, a wealthy Mexican cattle rancher with land holdings in the Valley, fought the U.S. government after officials claimed ownership of his land following the Mexican-American War.
Asked what Homeland Security would do if landowners resorted to force to keep government workers off their land, Gephardt said he didn’t know. “We’ll cross that bridge when it happens,” he said.