A Fence Could Run Through It

June 8, 2007

With the main campus adjacent to the Rio Grande and between two international bridges, the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College sit at an intersection in the intransigent immigration tug-of-wars. But never before did officials worry that the institution itself, an integrated community college and university that share a physical plant, could literally be tugged apart, one campus separated from another by new border fencing planned for the valley.

The federal government's plans, as shared with university officials, show the fence tracking the levee, said President Juliet V. Garcia. And under those plans, the institution's International Technology, Education and Commerce Campus (ITEC), a mile west of main campus, would fall on the levee's, and the fence's, Mexican side -- despite being on U.S. soil in Brownsville, Texas (albeit on Mexico Boulevard).

"It's silly to imagine that you would disenfranchise a whole part of the university or the community by an arbitrary decision," Garcia said. "I think it needs to be thought through with more precision."

In addition to housing undergraduate classes, the ITEC campus, based in a former mall the university purchased and converted in 2002, serves as a center for technology training and business development -- and, ironically, houses an office for the Mexican consulate. "When we say that we are on the southernmost tip of the U.S., we really are," said Garcia. "We've always seen that as very advantageous."

"To us, the idea of a fence is kind of aberrant behavior, and against what we have established ourselves to be: a place where we convene discussion and economic systems and languages and people, not separate them." The fence, Garcia said, would conflict with the university's mission regardless of whether it splits one campus from another -- but when asked what would happen if that possibility were to be realized, she could only laugh at the ridiculousness so as not to get upset. The institution has not yet received a response to their concerns from Border Control, she said.

“To the extent that we can get input from local officials …and incorporate that input into our planning process, we’re willing to do that," said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. "However, input from local officials cannot usurp the expertise and the experience of our Border Patrol."

The fencing would be constructed as part of the Secure Border Initiative, a multi-pronged immigration control strategy that consists of increasing the number of enforcement agents, installing traditional fencing, and using “virtual fencing” technologies, based upon the use of ground-based radar and sensors, along with unmanned aerial vehicles, Knocke said.

In recent meetings with South Texas officials, Customs and Border Control personnel did share a map that outlined plans for the proposed (old-fashioned) fence, Knocke said -- but he stressed that the final decision for its location has not been made. “That process of making a final decision about where we would rely on traditional fencing as compared to virtual technologies or vehicular barriers is ongoing, but it’s something that we’re very much committed to, and it’s something that we’re going to move quickly in developing,” he said.

About 85 miles of traditional fencing have been built this year, Knocke said, with 370 miles to be built by the end of 2008. The fencing plans have come under fire not just from college officials, but also environmentalists and landowners.

Meanwhile, on the faculty level, no formal action regarding the fencing plan has been taken or considered at this time, said Karen Fuss-Sommer, president of the Academic Senate and director of the vocational nursing program at UT Brownsville and Texas Southmost. "We’re quite used to living proximal to the river, but we haven’t heard anything formal as to how that could impact us.”

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