Protesters heatedly oppose planned border wall
By Cindy Perry
Fiery comments and impassioned pleas ranged from "This is a wakeup call for property owners" to "This can be undone" to "The carpetbaggers are back, but this time they've got shovels." And from "We don't want to be divided" to "This is an assault on private property rights," and from "This Wall of Death will cost billions" and "It's a racist wall ... it's not humane ... we don't want no wall!"
A handful of speakers, drawn from among 150 or more protesters gathered Wednesday evening outside Marfa's Hotel Paisano, hammered home the point they want to make to the federal government -specifically, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
And that point is: Residents in the Big Bend area don't want any border wall/fence between Texas and Mexico. Many of the speakers emphasized their close ties with neighbors, friends and relatives who live on the other side of the Rio Grande. Others voiced concern about a wall's impact on the river, crops, livestock and wildlife.
The demonstration preceded an open house inside the Paisano held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on the draft environmental assessment for 11 miles of walls proposed for sites in Presidio and Hudspeth counties.
Among the protesters were Bill Guerra Addington of Sierra Blanca, who - with the Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund and other partners - successfully defeated a plan to put a nuclear waste disposal facility on a ranch near the small Hudspeth County town.
In an impassioned but brief talk, Addington told the crowd, "We're not going to allow the government to take our land. ... This can be undone as was the Sierra Blanca nuclear waste dump. We can stop it!"
More than one demonstrator likened the proposed border barrier to the Berlin Wall.
Another protester said, "First thing, get angry and turn that into positive action. Go to your friends and neighbors, but you can't stop there. Start writing letters to your elected officials to cut off funding - that's all that this is about. It's money!"
And yet another warned, "Homeland Security doesn't know what it's in for."
Robert Halpern, publisher of the Big Bend Sentinel, said, "We've lived here all our lives, and we're aghast at what the government is trying to do," calling it a "fear-mongering" government that sees enemies of the state across the border, "but the rest of us see friends, family, a beautiful culture." Halpern challenged local governments in the Big Bend to oppose the wall, adding, "We can beat this thing."
It wasn't just Big Bend residents speaking out. People from Del Rio, El Paso, San Antonio - among other towns and cities - came to rally with their fellow border residents. There were representatives of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in the Rio Grande Valley and of Southwest Workers Union in San Antonio.
The demonstration took on the air of an anti-Vietnam War protest when Chavel Lopez of Southwest Workers Union asked the crowd, "What do we want?" The group responded, "Justice!" Lopez asked, "When do we want it?" The resounding yell came back, "Now!"
At the open house, protesters and others packed a room to hear Loren Flossman, program manger for what is called the Marfa Tactical Infrastructure. Flossman stated that he and others from the Border Patrol were there "to listen to your comments." But a couple of people responded, "This is not a public hearing by law."
One man asked, "Has a decision been made to build the wall?" Flossman responded, "This isn't about a wall or no wall; the purpose of tonight's meeting is to determine have we identified all the impacts for where this wall [will go]. ... The draft EA [environmental assessment] is to look along the 11 miles of border."
Flossman later added, "We have a federal mandate to [protect] the border and that's what we're here to do."
A number of attendees asked how the proposed wall would affect archeological sites, toxic waste in soil, plants, animals, wildlife and McDonald Observatory - the latter because the planned wall would be heavily lighted.
One woman asked Flossman, "Will you [develop] water holes for animals that will no longer have access to river water?"
"We will work with [Texas] Parks & Wildlife [Department] on that," he responded.
She retorted, "I don't have much faith in TP&W because - how many wild burros did they shoot," a reference to the recent slaughter of at least 70 feral burros at Big Bend Ranch State Park by two TP&W officials.
Flossman emphasized the need to secure America's borders, but one man asked whether a wall was going to go up all around the country, adding, "It's better to spend the money on enforcing the laws rather than building a wall."
At the end of the open house, Flossman was asked whether he loved the Big Bend, because those protesting the wall do love the region. After pausing a couple of beats, he admitted this was his first time to visit the area.