With the Texas Democratic primary and caucus less than a week away, the Bush administration’s plan to build a wall along part of the southern border has suddenly become a campaign issue. After many landowners refused to give over their land for the eighteen-foot-high wall, the Department of Homeland Security began filing lawsuits against some homeowners. At the same time, the government is leaving large gaps to avoid building the wall on the property of wealthy residents, including those with ties to President Bush. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the border. With the Texas Democratic primary and caucus less than a week away, the Bush administration’s plan to build a wall along part of the southern border has suddenly become a campaign issue. In 2006, both Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton joined Republicans in passing the Secure Fence Act, but now the candidates are raising questions over whether the fence should be built in South Texas.
After many landowners refused to give over their land for the eighteen-foot-high wall, the Department of Homeland Security began filing lawsuits against some homeowners. At the same time, the government is leaving large gaps to avoid building the wall on the property of wealthy residents, including those with ties to President Bush. Even the University of Texas is in the middle of the dispute, because the proposed wall passes through the school’s Brownsville campus.
Part of the controversy also centers on the role being played by the arms manufacturer Boeing. Boeing leads a consortium of private contractors known as SBInet, which was hired by the government to carry out the project.
Two guests join me now from Texas. Melissa del Bosque is a reporter in Austin. She has been covering the story of the border wall for the Texas Observer. Jay Johnson-Castro is a border activist and coordinator of the group Border Ambassadors. He is currently leading a sixty-three-mile weeklong march in opposition to the wall. The walk is scheduled to end on March 4th, the day of the Texas primary and caucus. He joins us on the phone from Brownsville on the Texas-Mexico border.
Melissa del Bosque, let’s begin with you. Lay out where the wall is planned for construction, whose homes are expected to be destroyed, whose property will be saved.
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Sure. We’re going to have about twenty-one different segments of fence built along the Texas-Mexico border, and some of those segments are under a mile long, some are as long as thirteen miles. And what I did was I started traveling up and down the border and speaking to various landowners and mayors and county judges about the fence. And they started putting my attention towards, you know, well, the wall is going to go through here — it’s a mile-long segment — but it’s not going to go through this resort and golf course, you know, a mile down the road. And then the fence starts up on the other side of the golf course and resort. So I started seeing these patterns. Another landowner would tell me, “The fence is going to go through my home and my son’s home, but it’s going to stop right at the edge of my property, and on the other side is 6,000 acres that belongs to a wealthy billionaire from Dallas.” So I started asking the question of, you know, what sort of methodology is Homeland Security using to determine where they’re going to place these segments of fence?
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you find?
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Well, they didn’t answer me. I called them several times, emails. At one point, I did get a gentleman on the phone who’s in charge of building the fence, but he told me that the information was classified, because they didn’t want the methodology getting out to the people who are going to be crossing illegally, is what he told me.
AMY GOODMAN: You begin your piece, “Holes in the Wall: Homeland Security Won’t Say Why the Border Wall is Bypassing the Wealthy and Politically Connected” by telling the story of Eloisa Tamez. I want to turn to an interview with her. She lives in Brownsville. She’s suing the Department of Homeland Security over the Department’s plan to build the wall on part of her property. The interview was conducted by your paper, the Texas Observer.
ELOISA TAMEZ: The reason that I speak out about hanging on to our land is because the people here, we’re all humble people, we respect the government, and we are facing quite a challenge. And it is important for my people here to know that it is alright to stand up for our rights.
This three acres that I have here is the remnant of the San Pedro de Carricitos Land Grant that was awarded to my family back in 1767. And I remember my father and my grandfather used to farm this part of this area, plus what’s over on the other side of the levee, as well as lands that my grandmother had that went all the way up to the river’s edge. So there is no dollar value for this land in comparison to those memories of how hard it was for my father and my grandfather to carve a life for us.
I think that it was a hasty decision to pass that bill. It was a political move. And no thought was given to who would be harmed by this. They have had many, many years to think about what to do about illegal immigration. However, this bill, supposedly, was enacted for the purpose of keeping America safe from terrorists. To my knowledge, no terrorists have come through the southern border.
AMY GOODMAN: Brownsville resident, Eloisa Tamez, interviewed by our guest today, joining us from Austin, Melissa del Bosque. Can you tell us more about her, one of the last of the Spanish land grant heirs in the county? And then tell us about other residents you talked to.
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Sure. We have a pretty unique culture here in Texas, because many of the landowners — well, I won’t say “many,” but some of the landowners, such as Dr. Tamez, has had that property in her family for since the eighteenth century. Her family was given that land by the King of Spain. So for them to give up their remaining acreage to build a mile-long fence that’s going to stop at the edge of a golf course and resort is a pretty hard thing for them to take.
Another family that I spoke to in Granjeno, a little town near McAllen in Hidalgo County, which is just west of where Dr. Tamez lives, there are also Spanish land grant families, and they’ve had that land for, you know, 265 years. So they feel like they’re especially being targeted, because they had already given up so much of their land to build the levee system down there. There’s a large flood plain in that area, and the federal government had asked for that land and didn’t compensate them, so they feel again that they’re being asked to give up what land remains to them to build the border fence.
And I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that the fence is actually being built about a mile to two miles in from the river. It’s not being built along the bank of the Rio Grande, which is, I think, how —-
AMY GOODMAN: Why is that?
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Because of the levee system. It takes up about a mile north of the river, and it is a bi-national levee system. Mexico and the United States operate it. So if they were to build in that area, they would need the permission of Mexico, and then they would also probably lose the fence if they had a large flood event. It would just wash it away. So they need to build it north, above that.
AMY GOODMAN: Is the resident you’re talking about in Granjeno Daniel Garza, who’s seventy-six years old, who you write about facing this similar situation?
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And you describe his situation, pointing to a field across the street where a segment of the proposed eighteen-foot-high border wall would abruptly end. Talk about his neighbor.
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Well, his neighbor is Ray L. Hunt. He’s a Dallas billionaire. He comes from a very well-known oil family here in Texas. And Mr. Hunt is a good friend of President George W. Bush’s. He recently donated $35 million to build the President Bush’s library at Southern Methodist University. And so, he’s a fairly wealthy and powerful person here in Texas.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2001, you point out that Bush made him a member of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, where he received a security clearance -— Ray L. Hunt did — and access to classified intelligence.
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Right, yeah. He has been on that Foreign Advisory Committee, yeah, for several years. He recently just brokered a deal with the Kurds, a large oil deal, which has caught some attention. So he has 6,000 acres just north and east of Mr. Garza. And, you know, it’s literally across the street from Mr. Garza’s property, and the wall, you know, stops right there at the edge of Mr. Garza’s property. It doesn’t go through —-
AMY GOODMAN: So he’s turned this plantation that he had from acres of onions and vegetables, you write, into an exclusive gated community, where the homes sell, well, for around $1 million each.
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Yeah, the northern portion of the property has been turned into a high-end gated community. And then, the southern end is going to be a business corridor. They have an international bridge that’s being built there on land that he donated that crosses into Mexico, so they’re going to have -— and then he’s also partnered with businessmen on the Mexican side, and they’re also building over there on the Mexican side, as well. So it’s — when it’s finished, it will be about the size of Manhattan. It’s going to be a large business corridor, international business corridor.
AMY GOODMAN: And the wall stops there. The wall doesn’t go through there.
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Right, correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do the weapons manufacturers come into this story? Where does Boeing fit in, Melissa del Bosque?
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Well, Boeing secured a contract in 2006, and it’s called SBInet. And it’s under the SBI, Secure Border Initiative, office under Customs and Border Protection, and it’s a consortium of private contractors. And they won an indefinite contract with — it has no maximum value on how much they can spend. There’s not a limit on how much they can spend. And it’s a three-year contract with three-year optional advance. And their task is to do whatever it takes to secure the northern and the southern borders. And, you know, in terms of whether we know exactly what that’s going to take or entail, I’m not sure that it’s really ever been completely laid out. So, I mean, they’re — you know, they’re building fences, they’re doing video surveillance, all kinds of things.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you talk about this, what seems like a limitless amount of money that’s going into the border wall. And who is overseeing this in Washington? Who is overseeing how much Boeing gets?
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Well, I mean, Secretary Chertoff and Homeland Security have to go to Congress to ask for the appropriation and explain, you know, what it is that they’re doing. But several congressional leaders have sent letters and mentioned in hearings, you know, we’d like to know more about exactly what’s going on, and I’m not sure that they’ve really received the kind of answers that, you know, that they’d like to hear in detail: exactly how much we’re spending, are we getting what we’re paying for, and is this really going to secure our borders?
AMY GOODMAN: You write that Congressman Henry Waxman, the California Democrat in charge of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had scathing remarks for the SBInet project. “As of December, the Department of Homeland Security had hired a staff of ninety-eight to oversee the new SBInet contract,” he said. “This may seem like progress until you ask who these overseers are.” He says, “More than half are private contractors. Some of these private contractors even work for companies that are business partners of Boeing, the company they are supposed to be overseeing. And from what we are now learning from the Department, this may be just the tip of the iceberg,” says Congressman Waxman.
MELISSA DEL BOSQUE: Yes. I mean, what I’ve been hearing in transcripts from hearings such as that one, which Congressman Waxman heard, is that there’s a real concern that the office that’s overseeing the Boeing contract has a majority of private contractors actually staffing the office. So it’s unclear as to who exactly is overseeing the contract and whether there is any conflict of interest. I think they’re trying to recruit more federal employees, but as of last year, I think they were still — they still had, I think, a 60 percent of the employees were private contractors.
AMY GOODMAN: Melissa del Bosque is with us from Austin. She’s a reporter with the Texas Observer. We’re also joined by Jay Johnson-Castro, who is a border activist and coordinator of the Border Ambassadors, on a long march until the Texas primary. Jay Johnson-Castro, where are you?
JAY JOHNSON-CASTRO: Well, I happen to be — and good morning, by the way. I happen to be on Eloisa Tamez’s land, staying in a little house here with a distant nephew of hers.
AMY GOODMAN: Brownsville area.
JAY JOHNSON-CASTRO: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what about this march? What are you trying to accomplish?
JAY JOHNSON-CASTRO: Well, we had two objectives, and we feel we accomplished the first one. The first objective was to impact the Texas debate that they had and get on the agenda the fact that Homeland Security had sued University of Texas, Brownsville to get access to take 166 acres of their land, which would cut right through the campus in Brownsville; illuminate the fact that they’re taking land by eminent domain; illuminate the fact that they were — that they are suing like, for instance, the city of Eagle Pass to take a couple hundred acres of their land, which would include some public park land and golf course, so they could build this wall and cut — basically cut the public off from being able to enjoy the river.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you —-
JAY JOHNSON-CASTRO: That was objective number one. We got that on -— we got that on the debate. And the objective number two is to impact the March 4 primaries. We’re calling this the March for March 4. We end on March 2nd, which is Sunday.
AMY GOODMAN: Jay Johnson-Castro, I wanted to play for you part of the debate, last week’s Democratic debate in Austin. CNN’s John King asked both Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama about the border wall.
JOHN KING: Senator, back in 2006 you voted for the construction of that fence. As you know, progress has been slow. As president of the United States, would you commit tonight that you will finish the fence and speed up the construction? Or, do you think it’s time for a president of the United States to raise his or her hand and say, “You know what? Wait a minute, let’s think about this again. Do we really want to do this?”
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I think when both of us voted for this, we were voting for the possibility that where it was appropriate and made sense it would be considered, but as with so much, the Bush administration has gone off the deep end, and they are unfortunately coming up with a plan that I think is counterproductive.
JOHN KING: But does that mean that you think your vote was wrong or the implementation of it was wrong?
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I think that the way that the Bush administration is going about this, filing eminent domain actions against landowners and municipalities, makes no sense. So what I have said is, yes, there are places when, after a careful review — again, listening to the people who live along the border — there may be limited places where it would work. But let’s deploy more technology and personnel instead of the physical barrier.
CAMPBELL BROWN: Senator Obama, go ahead, please.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, this is an area where Senator Clinton and I almost entirely agree. I think that the key is to consult with local communities, whether it’s on the commercial interests or the environmental stakes of creating any kind of barrier. And the Bush administration is not real good at listening. That’s not what they do well. And so, I will reverse that policy. As Senator Clinton indicated, there may be areas where it makes sense to have some fencing. But for the most part, having Border Patrol, surveillance, deploying effective technology, that’s going to be the better approach.
AMY GOODMAN: That was both Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debating in Austin. Jay Johnson-Castro, your quick response?
JAY JOHNSON-CASTRO: Well, we appreciate the fact that they are reversing their position. We would have appreciated it much more had they been more informed before they voted for something as sinister as an iron curtain on the Texas side of the Rio Grande.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are going to leave it there. I want to thank you both for being with us, Jay Johnson-Castro, border activist, coordinator of Border Ambassadors, and Melissa del Bosque, who is a reporter with the Texas Observer, author of the new article, "Holes in the Wall." We’ll link to it at democracynow.org, and you can also see the images of the wall at our website at democracynow.org.