Thursday, January 30, 2014

Border fence is musician's wall of sounds

Los Angeles Times
January 30, 2014
by Cindy Carcamo

SASABE, Ariz. -- On a windy day in southern Arizona's remote borderlands, Glenn Weyant had everything he needed to make music — a cello bow, a mallet and the miles-long fence dividing the United States and Mexico.

His method, like his music, was improvisational and low-tech: He inserted electronic equipment into an Altoids tin, turning it into a microphone. Weyant filled the tin with magnets and pressed it against the fence a few inches off the ground. Wires attached to the tin led to an amp and several effects pedals — the kind electric guitarists use — which allow him to manipulate sounds.

Desert scrub, mesquite and sun-bleached rocks would serve as his audience; sometimes they do double duty as instruments.
"Nobody thought of the border wall as possibly anything other than something to separate people," he said. "I transform it. I play it."

For eight years, Weyant has tapped, banged and stroked the fence to produce haunting, sometimes ethereal, sounds in a region he has called the "de facto militarized zone." Compositions can last a minute — or more than half an hour.

"I'm a border deconstructionist," said Weyant, a 50-year-old Tucson resident. "I want to deconstruct preconceived notions. What I'm saying is you don't need to be afraid of the wall. You have nothing to fear."

Weyant moved to Tucson 19 years ago when much of the border fence in southern Arizona was barbed wire. It seemed forbidden. He didn't know whether he could even touch it.

"Am I allowed?" Weyant recalled wondering.

Though people tend to stay away from the fence — at least on the northern side — it's not against the law to touch it.

The New Jersey native had been drawn to unusual sounds his whole life — as a boy he enjoyed listening to the hypnotic pattern of his grandfather's electric fan. One day in 2005 — a time of growing concern about illegal immigration and terrorism — he decided that he wanted to hear what sounds the fence could make.

"It was a symbol of fear and loathing. I wanted to transform it into something else … an instrument so that people on both sides can have open dialogue and communication," Weyant said.

He experimented with drumsticks, mallets, violin bows and cello bows. Sometimes he'd use sticks found on the ground.

In Nogales, he played a fence made of re-purposed helicopter landing pads, sometimes creating a staccato sound. He'd capture the noise from birds landing on top of the fence, and the sounds of cars and people passing through the port of entry.

In Sasabe, he created a delicate raspy sound when he put a violin or cello bow on rusty mattress wires ranchers had stretched between fence posts to keep their cattle from straying into Mexico.

The results, he said, were beautiful.

Weyant is more interested in creating effects than melodies. His recordings can sound like wind chimes or have the flute-like breathiness created by blowing across a bottle top. Other sounds resemble moans, whistles and clicks and suggest whale songs or the ambient noise on a New Age relaxation tape.

"Some people describe it as nails on a chalkboard," he said. "It can elicit a repulsion, fear, eeriness. It can be ethereal. It's something that can be expansive."

People who have stumbled across Weyant sometimes looked on from afar, unsure of what he's doing. Others have approached him and stayed for a private concert.

"Making the inhumane, humane and human," one person commented on a YouTube video of Weyant making music. "Bravo. Beautiful. Inspiring." In this recording, Weyant rarely touched the wall and mostly amplified the sound the wind created blowing across rocks and through the fence.

At one point, Weyant augmented the sound by playing a cello while wearing a zebra-head mask. His methods often defy explanation. He once employed a moose call, blowing into the whistle-like contraption while standing next to the fence.

For the most part, Border Patrol agents have left him alone.

"I'm a white male playing the border wall," Weyant said. "I'm aware of my privileged status."

Some agents have greeted him with friendly curiosity.

"Why are you playing a wall?" one asked.

Another radioed his superiors: "There's a guy playing the wall. Is he allowed to do that?"

A few agents have warned him about people on the southern side of the fence.

"Hey, you know they throw rocks," one told him.

"Usually," Weyant said, "when you play in a venue, you don't have people with guns watching you and one guy telling you that people on the other side want to hurt you." Still, he's never had any dangerous run-ins with people on either side of the fence.

Weyant, a former professor of journalism who is now a stay-at-home dad, said he gets to the border wall as much as he can, often once a month. He has given lectures about his music at various universities. He's collaborated with musicians who have incorporated his border sounds into their works. He sells his compositions for 99 cents to $500 but has given away some to humanitarian aid associations. He makes them available on his website, SonicAnta, or posts videos of himself on YouTube.

On the recent blustery afternoon, Weyant went to the border fence near the small town of Sasabe, about 70 miles southwest of Tucson. Behind him, long, parched grasses danced in the wind. Snarled mesquite poked from the sandy earth. Baboquivari Peak towered above. The rock formation sometimes serves as a compass for migrants who make the illegal trek north.

Crumpled water bottles, cans and plastic packages littered the desert — some of it detritus left by immigrants crossing from Mexico. Weyant has played some of the castoffs too, stroking them or tapping them against the fence or other objects.

Weyant said the border wall was an appropriate place to make music because it's haunted with stories.

"This section is where hundreds of people die," he said. "Did they come from Guatemala?"

Dusty handprints stood out against the rusty patina of the fence. "Was it just a kid who jumped the fence? So many stories," Weyant said. "There's a lot of mojo here."

In recent years, people throughout southern Arizona have seen the buildup of border security. They've seen sections of the fence morph from flimsy barriers into tall, fortified structures that tattoo the Sonoran Desert.

But few have heard the border change.

Weyant has. The sounds, like the fence itself, are often harsher than before.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, crews installed a fence near Sasabe made of industrialized steel columns set a few inches apart. Weyant slapped a rust-peppered bollard — one of hundreds poking out of the desert in military formation. The columns are full of slurry and aren't as interesting to play, he said.

He slapped the fence again. A dull thud followed.

"This stuff sounds dead," Weyant said.

He walked along the fence, past seemingly identical columns, until he came to one he had played many times before. He tapped it up and down with his hand, searching for a spot that resonated. He theorizes that the slurry deteriorates, creating air pockets that allow more refined sounds to echo.
He stuck on the Altoids tin with the amp wires. He found a discarded portion of the old barbed wire fencing and drew the cello bow across it.

The wind continued to blow and Weyant stopped playing as the gusts passed through the fence. It sounded like a howling coyote.,0,3650473.htmlstory#axzz2ru37xhZV

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Deaths will continue with or without immigration reform

Cronkite News
December 6, 2013
Brittany Hargrave

For nine years, Steve Johnston has toted gallons of water, food packages, clothing and blankets up and down Arizona’s rugged border terrain, leaving the provisions on immigrant trails into the U.S. in the name of saving lives.

While bipartisan supporters say that the U.S. Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, S 744, will solve the nation’s illegal immigration problems if passed by the House of Representatives, Johnston offers a stark, contrasting view.

“I’m convinced S 744 will kill more people,” he says.

Johnston, 68, is a volunteer for the Tucson-based humanitarian-aid group No More Deaths, which is among several humanitarian and immigrant-advocacy groups that oppose the immigration bill, in part, for what they call its lack of foresight.

Johnston says the bill will “stress (volunteer) capabilities” by increasing border-enforcement efforts in Arizona and further funneling migrants into the most dangerous routes in the mountainous terrain of the Sonoran Desert.

He bases his prediction on trends from the past. Border enforcement strategies have been linked to a migrant-death rate in Arizona that has dramatically increased since the state became the most common entry point for illegal immigration into the U.S. in 1998.

Johnston’s prediction is plausible but not inevitable, says Doris Meissner, director of the Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute and former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton.

“A straight-line analysis is that deaths have remained high in Arizona and the bill is unlikely to lower those numbers and may even increase them,” she says. “However, the whole premise of comprehensive immigration reform is to create a system whereby people come into the U.S. to meet labor market demands and would be able to do so in a safe and orderly fashion. That should reduce reasons why people try to cross the southwest border illegally and thus decrease the number of deaths.”

There are several components of the bill that could impact migrant deaths and humanitarian work.
Primarily, S 744 calls for spending tens of billions of dollars on greater border-enforcement measures. This includes doubling the number of Border Patrol agents at the southern border to more than 38,000; constructing 700 additional miles of border fencing; deploying aircraft; building watch towers; and mandating area-specific technology such as camera systems, ground sensors and drones.

Much of those resources would be targeted toward high-risk zones like the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which in the 2012 fiscal year made one- third of the arrests of undocumented immigrants and one-half of marijuana seizures nationwide. Arizona already has 318 miles of some kind of border fencing, according to the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson and Yuma sectors. The remaining 70 miles have environmental obstacles that act as natural barriers.

Arizona became the focal point for illegal immigration as the result of a concentrated border-enforcement strategy that began in 1993 when “Operation Hold the Line” beefed up security with manpower and technology in busy illegal immigrant corridors into Texas. The Clinton administration followed with “Operation Gatekeeper” in 1994, increasing enforcement in the busiest illegalimmigration entry point – San Diego, Calif.

The strategy was aimed at forcing those who hoped to cross into the U.S. illegally into mountainous terrain with weather that fluctuates from blistering hot in the summer to frigid cold and snow in the winter acting as a deterrent. But it didn’t.

Migrant crossings and apprehensions plummeted in California and Texas following those policy changes, but they dramatically increased in Arizona. In 1992, there were just more than 95,000 apprehensions in the Tucson and Yuma sectors combined. By 2000, that number jumped to more than 700,000.

The apprehension numbers have now dropped to pre-1994 levels, the product of increased enforcement, fewer jobs available in the U.S. and an improving economy in Mexico. Deaths have not.

According to the U.S. Border Patrol, death counts have fluctuated between 170 per year and 250 per year since 2005. During that same period, apprehensions in the Tucson sector have decreased by 73 percent. The bottom line: The death rate is rising compared to reported apprehensions.

Those numbers alarm people like Gene Lefebvre, who was active in the 1980s Sanctuary Movement and who co-founded No More Deaths.

“Whether enforcement is high or low, people will try to come across if they believe they have more opportunities here,” Lefebvre says. “Over the years, numbers (of apprehensions) have been driven by the U.S. economy and jobs, as well as poverty on the other side.”

He says an improving U.S. economy will lead to more illegal immigration and more deaths in the desert.

“(The government) projected that people would die, but what they didn’t project, what they didn’t count on, was the desperation of people,” he says. “People came anyway.”

Data indicate fewer people are trying to cross illegally through Arizona, but the desperation of the people who do come over explains why the death count remains high, says Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, a professor at the University of Arizona and program coordinator for the Binational Migration Institute. Those who make the trip take more dangerous routes as enforcement blocks easier access points, she says.

“We’re talking about people who are looking at the risk in a very different way than you or I would,” she says. “You and I wouldn’t want to go through the desert. Being with family is an incredible push factor for people. Overriding the deterrents of going through the desert are factors people face in their hometowns – they can’t make enough money to buy food or medicine for their family. They’re willing to take that chance.”

The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has found more than 2,000 bodies of suspected migrants in its jurisdiction since January 2001. It handles more unidentified remains than any other medical-examiner office in the country.

Humane Borders, another humanitarian-aid group based in Tucson, has worked with the Pima medical examiner office to put together a map plotting coordinates of migrant remains using geographic information system (GIS) software. The map also provides information concerning common demographics of migrants who die while crossing the border.

Because of advanced levels of decomposition, not all bodies can be identified when found. Still, the bodies that are identifiable by age, gender and cause of death offer a picture of who the migrants are: Eighty percent are male. Exposure is the cause of death in nearly 75 percent of cases. More than 40 percent of bodies are found on the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation. Most of the dead were between the ages of 20 and 49.

According to Gregory Hess, the office’s chief medical examiner, the biggest problem working with hundreds of unidentified bodies per year is storage.

“The unidentified bodies don’t go anywhere fast,” he says.

After the investigation is complete and there is no positive identification, the office generally calls to have the bodies buried in the Pima County plot or cremated, Hess says. That can add up to thousands of dollars in costs per year to the county.

It’s tragedies like those that another component of S. 744 hopes to cut down. In addition to its focus on enforcement, the bill calls for construction of 1,000 distress beacons along nearly 2,000 mile-long U.S. – Mexico border.

Currently, there are 22 distress beacons in the Tucson sector and 24 distress beacons in the Yuma sector. Factors on where the distress beacons are placed include how remote an area is, how many agents are deployed in the area, number of immigrant deaths in the area and what technology is available to help patrol, says Nicole Ballistrea, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector.

Distress beacons were first installed in Arizona in 2002 and consist of tall red posts equipped with buttons that can be pushed in emergencies to call for help. The towers are solar powered and lighted at night. Instructions for pressing the button and sending a distress signal appear in multiple languages. The instructions do not say the beacon is connected to Border Patrol. After being treated medically, border crossers without appropriate documentation are deported.

The Tucson sector beacons have been activated about 180 times “over the last few years,” Ballistrea says. Other than that estimate, there is little information on how effective distress beacons are.
Johnston, of No More Deaths, approves of the distress-beacon component of S 744, but says he believes it could be improved if the beacons were equipped with cell-phone towers, so migrants in distress could use their cell phones in areas with poor reception.

“That’s the thing that will save the most lives,” he says. “Right now, migrants have to climb to the top of the highest mountain to get reception, and that’s very difficult. If the beacons have a cell-phone tower and use that ability, I’ll be in favor. Otherwise, it’s just a PR thing.”

The U.S. Border Patrol and local Arizona humanitarian groups have a checkered history. In the past, Border Patrol agents have ticketed humanitarian volunteers for littering after volunteers left water bottles and food out for migrants. Videos also exist of Border Patrol agents destroying the water and other provisions left out by the humanitarian groups.

Right now, relationships between the aid groups and the Border Patrol seem better, Johnston says. He attributes the improvement to Manuel Padilla Jr., who became the Tucson sector Border Patrol chief earlier this year.

“At the moment, the sector chief is sympathetic to our cause,” Johnston says. “Still, water is being destroyed. Blankets are still being taken away.”

Rubio-Goldsmith, who has studied the interaction between U.S. Border Patrol agents and border communities, says the Border Patrol has the difficult task of balancing justice and mercy.

“Border Patrol doesn’t like people going through their land, yet Border Patrol is there and they are supposed to help,” she says. “How they respond is kind of a mixed bag.”

Ballistrea says the Tucson sector Border Patrol maintains an “ongoing dialogue with multiple humanitarian groups.”

In instances where migrants coming into the country illegally become distressed, Border Patrol agents must “first and foremost act as humanitarians,” she says.

“Employees who disregard (their oath) and instead choose to violate the trust of the citizens they swore to protect will be held accountable,” she says. “Although (Border Patrol and humanitarian groups) may originate from different backgrounds, we share a common goal in saving lives. Agents are often called upon to shift from law enforcement to rescue mode in a moment’s notice.”

The best way to reform immigration policy is to work on economic policies affecting migrant workers and focus on the root motivator for why so many Mexican immigrants come to the U.S., Lefebvre says.

“There has always been a flow between the U.S. and Mexico,” he says. “People accepted that as a fact of life. Until 1994, (policies) were loose most of the time. When there was a tough economy, there were restrictions. When we needed workers, we encouraged them to come.”

In the past, workers would come from Mexico to work in the agriculture, construction or hotel industries. They would work for six months to a year, send money home and then go home themselves, Lefebvre says. Some came back and some didn’t.

“They preferred to live in Mexico, but came to the U.S. to save money for their families and for farmland,” he says.

S 744 would reform worker visas, and that change in system could stem the flow of illegal immigration, says Meissner, of the Migration Policy Institute. The bill, if passed, could also lead to more migrant rescues by increasing air surveillance, she says. It could lead to more humanitarian efforts from BorStar. If enforcement continues to increase in Arizona, the bill could shift primary migration patterns to Texas. And yes, she says, it could lead to more migrant deaths in the Arizona desert.

“It’s probably some of all of the above,” she says. “But, Border Patrol is quite successful at this point. Adding more policy on border enforcement doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, because border enforcement alone is not a viable enough strategy.”

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Vale of Terror, Transcended: Artists Explore Immigration, Border Issues and the Drug War

The New York Times
January 2, 2014
by Laura Tillman

MATAMOROS, Mexico — The artist Patricia Ruiz-Bayón recently met with three migrants in a shelter in this ravaged border city and invited them to take part in one of her performance works. The piece, “70+2...,” commemorated an act of extreme brutality that continues to traumatize the region: a 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in nearby San Fernando that the Mexican authorities say was carried out by the Zetas criminal gang.

Like the slain migrants, who were pulled from buses and shot, Ms. Ruiz-Bayón’s art volunteers were on a treacherous journey north toward the United States. On the day of the performance, barefoot and dressed in white, the participants, two men and a woman, walked slowly through soil that Ms. Ruiz-Bayón had transported from a San Fernando cornfield, evoking a mass grave but also hope and renewal. Then they walked along an infinity symbol that had been carved into the dirt, signifying the eternal path of migration.
The performance was the first in a series called “Todos Somos Victimas y Culpables, We Are All Victims and Culpable,” a deeply serious message in a part of Mexico that continues to be rattled by clashes between rival gangs and the police.
Ms. Ruiz-Bayón’s work is part of a growing art movement in the Rio Grande Valley exploring immigration politics and a rise in drug violence in the region over the past four years. Although the artists’ circumstances and their audiences vary, depending on where they live, they see themselves as part of a transnational community that is artificially divided.
The 18-foot-high border fence, ever-present in the artists’ work, is a ready symbol for the dissonance between the local understanding of the region as a unified one with strong cultural and economic ties, and policy prescriptions from Washington aimed at controlling the area and dividing it into discrete parts. As a new immigration bill presents the likelihood of new fencing and increased surveillance, the artists are determined to highlight the discord and societal hierarchy that the fence represents to many here. In their work, they also conjure an alternative situation. 
For Mexican artists in Matamoros and Reynosa, where the local news media has been largely silenced, their artwork, often urgent and somber, fills a void.
Artists on the American side of the border tend to take a more ironic approach. David Freeman of McAllen, Tex., designs piñatas in the shape of border guards, presumably waiting to be thrashed to bits, and meticulously made “trophies” for gang leaders composed of tiny machine guns, marijuana leaves and other objects covered in gold spray paint. He also integrates found objects into his work, like the wood-plank ladders the migrants used to climb the multibillion-dollar security fence and clothing and ID cards that they leave by the river.
Mr. Freeman moved to the region nine years ago, just as McAllen was beginning to pump civic funds into the arts. Since then, new galleries have sprung up on Main Street along with a monthly “art walk” and low-cost studio space. Not long ago, his studio was packed with work for a solo show at Texas A&M University at Commerce. Photographs of the border fence shared space with paintings in which he had daintily etched the fence into foreign landscapes. Mr. Freeman said he hopes his work will gain exposure beyond Texas and have a greater impact. Most galleries and museums in the Rio Grande Valley favor more conventional abstract and landscape paintings over political work.
The classically trained painter Rigoberto Alonso Gonzalez relies on an altogether different strategy to pierce what he says is the indifference of some Americans to the region’s drug war, painting Baroque-style scenes of violence in a dark palette. Some of his paintings show decapitated heads; other, larger tableaus depict gang members torturing victims or families discovering the bodies of their dead loved ones after shootouts.
Mr. Gonzalez, who was born in Reynosa, Mexico, and now lives across the river in Harlingen, Tex., left the Rio Grande Valley to study at the New York Academy of Art in 2002. When he returned, he quickly recognized the parallels between the gang narratives and historical paintings about biblical violence, like Caravaggio’s “Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.” He calls attention to the demand for drugs and cheap labor in the United States, which contributes to the drug war, by recreating real events in a style of painting that viewers are more accustomed to seeing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art than on CNN.
“If you depict it in a way that’s too raw, people are going to be turned off by it,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “You have to do it in a way that they’re drawn in, and then slowly they realize what it is that they’re looking at.”
His paintings have been collected and exhibited by museums in Texas and New Mexico, although some museums in the Rio Grande Valley are reluctant to show more graphic violence, he said. “It really doesn’t compare to what’s actually happening,” Mr. Gonzalez said of his stylized work.
While artists like Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Freeman have the freedom to speak out about politics in their work, the risks are higher for artists across the border.
After Reynosa was taken over by violence, the artist Tochiro Gallegos abandoned street photography, mindful that taking a picture of someone who didn’t want to be photographed could cost him his life. He moved into the studio and now makes portraits that speak metaphorically about the violence. Some of his subjects are shown with belts of bullets across their mouths — “a way to express everything we see, the way that we have to be quiet,” Mr. Gallegos said.
Ms. Ruiz-Bayón’s work, which extends beyond performance to sculpture and mixed media, also relies on metaphor to talk about migration, gender and violence.
In 2010, the same year as the massacre in San Fernando, a wave of gang violence pushed into Matamoros. Traumatized, Ms. Ruiz-Bayón said, she could not bring herself to make any artwork for an entire year.
In “70+2...,” she sought catharsis. “I’m so sick of guns, I’m so sick of blood,“ she said. “I wanted to make something that would make people think deeper and ask: ‘O.K., this is happening to me. How can I feel a little relief?’ ”
She visited San Fernando and tracked down on the Internet videos of the family members of the murdered migrants and a survivor. She spent time with migrants from Honduras and Guatemala, who also participated in her piece, and learned about the poverty they fled, the families they left behind and their journeys north.
“I had urgency to heal myself,” Ms. Ruiz-Bayón said. “And hopefully, in the process, it was a healing piece for the people.”
The prospect of performing in Matamoros last August initially made her anxious. Few murders are solved there, and she was concerned about the safety of the volunteers in the work. But the pieces finally fell into place, and she scheduled the performance at a secure private building, her concerns allayed. “I thought, if the migrants are brave enough to take this long, long, dangerous journey, why shouldn’t I?” she said.
The victims of the 2010 massacre have also been memorialized by journalists and novelists who created a website,, with profiles and photographs evoking each of the dead.  
George Flaherty, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in Latin American art, said terror is a major theme for artists who set out to document scores of anonymous deaths. “It’s about creating alternative archives and alternate ways of recognizing that which has been forgotten or willfully ignored,” he said.
The art is also about rectifying the way the border region is perceived from afar. The photographer Stefan Falke has been documenting artists in the region since 2008 in an project titled “La Frontera: Artists Along the U.S.-Mexico Border.” Having grown up in a divided Germany, Mr. Falke said, he was suspicious about the mainstream portrayal of the border area as a dangerous place without much to offer. He said he wanted to convey that the border is not a space of absence, but one of creativity and life.
To that end, he has photographed 180 artists from Brownsville to Tijuana. An exhibition of works from “La Frontera” is to open at the International Museum of Art and Science in McAllen on Jan. 23.
“You hear about tens of thousands of killings, and it’s natural to think, ‘Why would people want to live there?’ ” he said. “Then you go there, and you find everyone you meet doesn’t want to leave. They just love their city.”
Ms. Ruiz-Bayón, who has lived and worked in both the United States and Mexico, declined to identify her birthplace, saying she does not believe she belongs to one country or the other. “For me, the border is like a parentheses that is neither Mexico nor the United States,” she said. “It’s a place of its own.”
While such sentiments are common along the border, they are a striking counterpoint to discussions of immigration reform in Congress that take the necessity of enforced border security and hundreds of miles of hard fencing for granted.
Some artists have used the fence itself as an exhibition site. After construction crews built a new section less than a block from Galeria 409 in Brownsville, its owner, the artist Mark Clark, asked artists to bring their work to the fence and hang it on its metal beams. Included in the show, “Art Against the Wall,” was Mr. Clark’s painting of a voluptuous woman in a bikini floating down the Rio Grande in an inner tube, extending “Saludos desde el otro lado,” or “Greetings from the other side.”
Mr. Flaherty said that artists who seek to upend the way the border is usually viewed are trying to inspire a broader international conversation.
“They’re very much challenging the understanding of the border as a checkpoint and geopolitical boundary or zone,” he said, “and bringing to our attention that the border is malleable, it’s figurative, it’s poetic.”

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Cornyn's border wall shift

Rio Grande Guardian
December 28, 2013
by Steve Taylor

MISSION, December 28 - One of the more remarkable stories of 2013 along the border was U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s shift in stance towards the border wall.
Cornyn voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The legislation called for 700 miles of physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border. Cornyn defended that vote vociferously for many years afterwards. However, over the past year the senior senator from Texas changed his tone on the issue and many put this down to input from groups like the Border Trade Alliance and the Texas Border Coalition. In June, the U.S. Senate passed the Hoeven-Corker border security amendment, which called for an additional 350 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border. Cornyn opposed the measure and made clear his opposition at a “Smart Border” roundtable he and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar held Sept. 5 at a warehouse in Mission belonging to CiL Group, a major exporter/importer of Texas and Mexican agricultural goods. Dozens of business and economic development leaders from the Rio Grande Valley were present for the roundtable. They applauded Cornyn’s stance on the border wall and on legislation he and Cuellar authored to allow public-private partnerships to fund infrastructure projects at border ports of entry. After the roundtable discussion, Cornyn and Cuellar held a news conference. At the conference, Cornyn went further than ever before in distancing himself from those who believe a border wall will deter illegal immigration and drug smuggling. Asked about his stance on the border wall, Cornyn told a reporter: “The problem is that there are some people who do not understand the border. When they think about border security they think, let's build a fence. Well, we know the Border Patrol has told us that that is useful in some urban areas but it is not something you are going to do across the entire border. It really is laughable because, as we have said at different times, if you build a 50-foot fence along the border there would be a boom in the sale of 51-foot ladders. Or there would be tunnels or something else. It makes no sense. “What we need is a smart border approach. We need technology, we need boots on the ground, we do need some infrastructure but the part that we are here today to emphasis is that if you can isolate the bad actors by facilitating the flow of legitimate commerce and people who want to come here and spend money then that actually helps the law enforcement agencies focus their efforts on the people that they need to focus on; not everybody because as you know it is just a very small, very tiny percentage of the people who come across the border who want to do us harm or commit crime.” Some of the elected officials at the roundtable could not believe the man making those remarks was Sen. John Cornyn. He had, after all, been such a big supporter of the border wall in previous years. At the news conference, Rep. Cuellar was full of praise for Cornyn. But, the Laredo Democrat appeared to take a swipe at U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. “Senator Cornyn gets it. He understands the border. I appreciate the good work the Senator has done for our state and especially the dynamic border we call home, the Rio Grande,” Cuellar said. “We have got to have sensible, smart, border security. When we think about border security, when we think about the border, this is what we ought to be looking at,” said Cuellar, pointing to bundles of Texas cotton in the Mission warehouse that CiL Group exports to Mexico. “This is the trade that we ought to focus on,” Cuellar continued. “We have got to support people like Senator Cornyn that understand the border because there are other people that just come in, they have a press conference, they say they are going to take care of the border and they just do not get it. They ought to come up here, spend time like the Senator did here today with business people and say this is what the border is all about.” Cuellar pointed out that when one considers FBI statistics, the border crime rate is lower than the national crime rate. He said where he and Cornyn work, in Washington, D.C., it is much more violent than the border region, with far more murders and rapes reported. “When people come here to the border, they come in and say they are going to do this and this. This is what they need to look at,” Cuellar said, referring again to the bundles of cotton that acted as a backdrop for the news conference. "Yes, we need to do border security but let us think about the trade, the business, the retail that is so important to our area,” Cuellar said. Cornyn said the legislation he and Cuellar filed to boost infrastructure development at border ports of entry shows that Congress can, sometimes, work in a bipartisan fashion. “We need what I like to call a smart border, that is one that strikes the right balance between security and one that respects the important role of binational trade and commerce and tourism and what that means to our economy,” Cornyn said. “Six million jobs in the United States depend upon that binational trade. And, as Mexico continues to grow its economy, which it is, and we continue to see infrastructure improvements like transportation put more pressure on our Texas borders and our ports of entry it is important we have not only the infrastructure but also the staffing. And while we know the federal government has neglected those for a long time we are introducing legislation that will provide an opportunity for more investment in terms of staffing and infrastructure here in the form of public-private partnerships in particular.” Marc A. Rodriguez, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was present for the “Smart Border” roundtable. At the news conference, Rodriguez said he was “totally impressed” with the regional approach taken by border leaders and the spirit of cooperation that existed between Cornyn and Cuellar. “As goes Texas, so goes the nation,” he said. Postscript: On Dec. 19 in Washington, D.C., Customs and Border Protection signed five public-private partnerships that will allow local entities to pay for additional CBP staff at ports of entry. The agreements are permitted under the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013. The idea is to allow CBP to set up a reimbursable fee agreement program to increase the department's ability to provide new or enhanced services on a reimbursable basis to support growth in cross-border trade and travel. The five entities selected for these partnerships are Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport; The City of El Paso, Texas; South Texas Assets Consortium (STAC); The City of Houston Airport System; and Miami-Dade County. STAC consists of the cities of Laredo, McAllen and Pharr, Starr-Camargo Bridge Co., and Cameron County. “The utilization of public-private partnerships is an important component of CBP’s strategy to optimize resources,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Thomas S. Winkowski. “Together with our private sector partners, we can better facilitate trade and travel to continue to grow our local and national economies.” Winkowski said the reimbursable services proposals were reviewed and ranked based on criteria including: impact on current CBP operations, health and safety issues, community and economic benefits, and the feasibility of instituting the agreements in a timely manner. He said these agreements will not replace existing services, and new services can include all customs and immigration inspection-related matters. “We congratulate the STAC partners for signing their annex agreement today, which will reflect the unique needs of port communities from Laredo to Brownsville,” Border Trade Alliance President Noe Garcia said. “We look forward to these pilots demonstrating that CBP and partners at the local level can craft innovative solutions for facilitating legitimate trade and travel through improved staffing levels.” Sam F. Vale, president of Starr-Camargo Bridge Co., said his bridge is ready to begin implementing the agreements. “These agreements take an innovative, regional approach to port management. Now bridge owners and operators have a greater voice in how needed resources will be deployed to the ports of entry. On behalf of all the STAC participants, we look forward to working with CBP in implementing these pilot projects, which we believe will greatly enhance our region’s economy and international trade competitiveness," said Vale, who is also president of STAC.