Texas county weighing border fence alternatives

Published 25 September 2008

Cameron County, Texas, must decide which option is more beneficial to it: DHS’s fence plan which the county does not like, but which will see $37 million in contracts go to local businesses, or resubmitting the county’s alternative fence plan, which DHS had already rejected, exploiting the fact that DHS has postponed the 31 December fence deadline

Here is an example of the classic “beat ‘em or join ‘em” conundrum (well, we just added “classic” for flair): Part of the U.S.-Mexico fence meanders through Cameron County, Texas. The county was unhappy with DHS’s proposed fence design, and offered an alternative. DHS rejected the county’s proposal, and decided to stick with the department’s original plan. What is more, it gave local contractors $37 million worth of contracts to build the fence. Now DHS says that the 31 December deadline for completion of the fence will not be met — and the county faces a question; should it go along with DHS’s plan and enjoy the benefits of the money coming to local businesses — or use the window opened by the delayed deadline to resubmit its alternative proposal, thus risking these contracts? The Cameron County authorities appear ready again to pursue its proposed alternative to the border fence now that DHS officials say the agency might not meet its 31 December deadline. With three contracts worth a total of $37 million already awarded in Cameron County, prospects for the alternative look increasingly bleak.

County Judge Carlos Cascos has asked his staff to contact DHS to determine if the county can resubmit its proposal, even though bids on the fence have already been awarded. “I think the biggest obstacle was the time frame. They’ve already awarded the contracts, but maybe they can amend the contracts to include the levees,” Cascos said. “Until that first slab of concrete is laid, I’m going to have hope that they will look at our project.”

DHS, though, has moved ahead with its plans to construct 37-miles of fencing in Cameron County, most of which will take the form of a 15- to 18-foot-tall steel barrier. “We already have contracts, and these contracts are for a very specific kind of fence,” DHS spokeswoman Angela de Rocha said.

Three contracts for construction of some 7.6 miles of fencing in Bluetown, Los Indios, El Calaboz, and La Paloma were awarded earlier this week. DHS has not yet announced when construction will begin in the county. Last month, DHS rejected the county’s border fence/levee project and stated the county’s proposal was not feasible and would be much more costly than anticipated.

A letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to Cascos said the “key factors” in reaching the conclusion pertain to the cost and coordination with the International Boundary and Water Commission, which is working on levee improvements in the Cameron County area.

Cameron County had hoped a memorandum of understanding between the county and IBWC signed in August would steer the county closer to getting federal approval on its proposed border fence/levee project. Now that the alternative’s future appears doubtful, the more pressing question is how DHS will reconcile its current legal holdups with its ambitious construction plans.

Nearly 100 Rio Grande Valley residents are refusing to sell their property to the federal government. To circumvent the current stalemate, officials say, DHS could begin construction on the properties it owns while waiting for contested cases to be resolved.