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Standoff Near the Border

January 23, 2008

Over the past year, leaders of the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College have responded critically to a proposal by the Department of Homeland Security to build a fence that would split up the campus of the jointly managed institutions in the name of border security.

In recent months, it's become increasingly clear just how adamant the leadership is to fight for its position. Expressions of concern have now turned to formal opposition.

Juliet V. Garcia, Brownsville's president, sent to alumni a statement defending the university's decision not to sign a letter that would allow government officials to survey the campus to determine whether the fence project is feasible and, if so, how to proceed. The Texas Southmost College Board of Trustees also passed a resolution that praised the federal government's efforts to improve border security but rejected the idea of constructing a fence in the region.

Both the university and government officials say they are continuing talks about the right of entry to the campus. But Brownsville and Southmost could be looking at a legal battle with the federal government if it continues to keep the assessments from taking place.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which sought the right of entry onto university property, has not yet filed a court petition seeking access to the campus, which sits on the edge of the United States-Mexico border. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is handling the real estate discussions, has notified the college that it could seek a court order to allow its personnel on campus if nothing changes.

"What is being demanded, under threat of legal action, is unimpeded access by military and civilian agencies to a UT System campus and its state and locally financed buildings for an extended period of time for purposes of determining if land and buildings will be condemned and seized," Garcia wrote in her letter to alumni. "I believe this is sufficient cause for serious concern."

Garcia, who did not wish to comment for the story, reiterated in the letter that a Homeland Security plan to build an 18-foot fence on top of a levee north of its campus is unacceptable. Doing so would, in essence, place the college's International Technology, Education and Commerce Campus, which is a mile west of the main campus and is the hub for technology training, on the Mexican side, despite it being on U.S. soil in Brownsville, Texas. Plans to build a fence on top of a levee just south of an athletics field and parking lot also puts an entire golf course on the Mexican side, Garcia said.

Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security spokesman, told Inside Higher Ed in June that the fencing would be built as part of the Secure Border Initiative, a multi-faceted immigration control strategy that involves increasing the number of enforcement agents, installing traditional fencing, and using “virtual fencing” technologies, based on the use of ground-based radar and sensors, along with unmanned aerial vehicles.

In her letter, Garcia said the government's request for access to the area between the levees and the college's buildings would be disruptive to campus activities and inhibit the movement of students, faculty and staff.

"But the right of entry was also refused because it was meant to support preparations for the building of a fence that would jeopardize our campus security," Garcia wrote, adding that "having an opening in an 18-foot high fence for the purpose of channeling illegal entrants alongside our golf teams and adjacent to the baseball park, the new soccer field and the REK Center would greatly endanger our students."

The fence, Garcia wrote, also runs counter to the college's mission, "which is in part to convene the cultures of its community, foster an appreciation of the unique heritage of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, encourage the development and application of bilingual abilities in its students and provide academic leadership to the intellectual, cultural, social and economic life of the bi-national urban region it serves."

The letter ends with this statement: "Of course, we believe in protecting our borders. Of course, we believe in strong immigration policy. But we also understand that a fence, no matter how high or how wide is no substitute for either."

 

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