BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Plans to build a massive border fence along the Texas-Mexico border sparked complaints for months from environmental activists, farmers and local elected officials, but their pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears.
With Texas suddenly a potential kingmaker in the 2008 Democratic presidential race, the issue has been thrust back into the national spotlight, bringing a rare feeling of optimism that the controversial project could be scaled back, many border-area officials say.
"There is a sense of hope that the next administration will be more border-centric,'' said state Rep. Aaron Pena. He said that many believe that even Republican John McCain, criticized for his moderate immigration views, would scale back the project. McCain recently has said he backs "virtual walls" in some spots along the border.
"One last remaining hope is that, because of the dynamics in the presidential election, with Texas being at the center point of the debate, we might leverage more acceptable options,'' Pena said.
For many who live and work along the border, change can hardly come soon enough.
Farmer Leonard Loop, 70, was born and raised on the banks of the Rio Grande, back when you could swim in the river and play on the other side without worrying about getting shot. The son of tenant farmers never could scrape together enough money to buy the soil they tilled, but his boys finally did.
Now, just when it seemed worth the effort, Loop says that plans for the massive border fence could make the 5,000-acre family farm a worthless and dangerous "no-man's land" between a U.S.-patrolled barrier and Mexico. Almost all of the land his sons own would be on the south side of the barrier, which could make them targets for drug traffickers and human smugglers.
Loop said he agrees the border needs to be secured but said he doesn't understand why authorities don't use helicopters, dogs, electronic surveillance, boat patrols and other methods that don't require citizens to give up their land and possibly their way of life.
"Every time I think of this stupid fence going up out there and ruining this place, it just makes me sick,'' Loop said.
The University of Texas at Brownsville also would have part of its property on the south side of the fence. Officials are preparing for a legal fight against Uncle Sam.
Stephen Mumme, a political science professor at Colorado State University, said that most Americans don't know or understand the complexities of the border — "couldn't even draw it on a map" — and are unaware that so many private interests are being asked or forced to give up their land for a fence.
"There's such widespread opposition — what's coming out of this is a very gradual education process,'' Mumme said. "That has begun to force, in the context of a presidential campaign, a somewhat more enriched understanding of where the border is, who is affected and even some greater consideration of alternative solutions.''
All three of the top presidential candidates, each of them in the U.S. Senate, voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which called for some 700 miles of fencing along the border. As a result, the Department of Homeland Security has said it plans to build more than 150 miles in Texas by the end of 2008, though legal wrangling and logistical hurdles could make that difficult to achieve.
Though popular among immigration activists and many Americans, the fence project is almost universally loathed in communities along the border, where most riverfront land is held by private parties and trade with Mexico fuels the economy.
Locally, it's the hottest controversy. What's different now is that the presidential candidates can't ignore it.
When Democrat Hillary Clinton visited South Texas last week, supporters shouted "No border wall!" at her rally in McAllen, and the former first lady offered some of her most critical remarks to date about the project.
She said she was "very distressed" to learn about federal condemnation powers being used to obtain land from private interests in order to erect the fence and said many of the border security measures that the Bush administration promoted are "hard to justify.''
"I would have a complete review about how we intend to do this,'' she told reporters. "I want to have a secure border with smart security, and that means let's look more at technology, more at personnel.''
Democrat Barack Obama, who's fighting hard to keep Clinton from reviving her campaign with a big win in Texas, also is being drawn into the fence debate.
In an interview with the "Ron Whitlock Reports" show on KRGV-TV in the valley, Obama said that physical barriers "in some cases" made sense. But he said technology could be used to build "virtual" walls in some areas, and he stressed the importance of cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and working with Mexico to create jobs there.
"Ultimately we are not going to be able build a wall across the entire Texas-Mexico border. It impinges not only on landowners there, but it's not going to be effective,'' Obama told Whitlock.
Republican McCain said during a Texas fundraising swing last year that fences "would do a great deal to prevent" illegal immigration. But in an interview with the Houston Chronicle this week, he said that less obtrusive "virtual barriers" make more sense in rural areas.
At the Loop farm near Brownsville, Leonard Loop's son Ray put the debate in personal terms: He said he faces financial ruin and physical danger.
Recently, he said officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of building the fence, told him they were "not in the market to purchase" his land on the wrong side of the barrier.
But Loop, who has three young daughters, said there's no way he'll live in the dangerous new world between the fence and the river if the fence goes up as planned.
"I'm not going to live there. It's not going to happen,'' he said. "That's just not a risk I'm willing to take.''
(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)