PEÑITAS -- For more than a half-century, Leonardo and Anita Ramirez could look out the back of their small frame home at the sloping landscape leading down to the Rio Grande.
That changed about two years ago, when the federal government stretched a massive $6.2 million-a-mile barrier through the rural land where they have made their home since 1950. Their backyard view now consists of aesthetically challenged square metal poles that reach at least 18 feet high and impair their once-easy access to the river.
The towering barrier that divides the Ramirezes' land near the small community of Peñitas, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, is part of nearly 650 miles of fencing that Congress authorized in 2006 in response to a public outcry over illegal immigration and potential violence from Mexico. Of that total, 112 miles are in Texas, stretching from Brownsville through the populous metropolitan region that includes Edinburg, McAllen and Mission.
Construction of the fencing followed contentious public debate that included lawsuits, environmental challenges and homeowner protests. Now, presidential politics is kindling a new showdown over the worthiness of border barriers.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has pledged to push for construction of a fence along the entire length of the border. By contrast, Gov. Rick Perry has described a full-length fence as "idiocy," though he embraces limited fencing in strategic locations.
The issue is part of a larger dispute over illegal immigration that could resurface in tonight's Republican debate in Las Vegas. Perry has been put on the defensive by opponents who charge that he is soft on illegal immigration because of his support of a 2007 Texas law that permitted in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.
He has responded to the criticism by pointing to the state's five-year, $400 million-plus law enforcement effort on the border, portraying himself as the toughest candidate in the race when it comes to border security.
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