POSTED: Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 11:45pm
UPDATED: Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 4:13pm
EL PASO (KTSM) — For years, there’s only been one gap in the border fence separating the city of El Paso from Mexico and that gap has been a source of controversy. But it's about to be closed.
Crews were building a fence at the Hart's Mill Crossing, a decision made by Customs and Border Protection eight years ago.
“It's kind of a rough situation and it's a scary situation. Safety issues are involved here. I'm quite concerned," said Dorine Brown.
Brown owns Baca Brown Cabinets on Paisano. It backs up to the Rio Grande and a half-mile gap in the border fence.
“He ran in, sat right there in that chair, his pants were wet to about his knees and I was sitting right here. I asked him what he wanted and he said he was looking for work and I said, ‘We're not hiring, so please leave,'" said Brown. "I just started praying I said, ‘Lord, help me.' “I just learned over, opened the drawer, and pulled the pellet gun just high enough where he could see it. He didn't know what it was. He didn't know if it was a real gun or not and at that point, he got up and ran out."
She and her husband opened their business in 2001. Dorine has seen many other illegal immigrants passing through, despite her surveillance cameras and barbed wire fence.
"They’ve cut the fence in the back four, five times, and every time I’d fix it," she said.
Dorine said it's not the way to run a business.
"We have to keep our doors locked and it's bad. If a customer comes, they have to ring the doorbell to come in," said Brown.
Her neighbor, Allyn Echaniz, at Bomanite Artistic Concrete, felt the same way.
"My son opened the door and there was a man standing there bleeding," said Echaniz. "It's like leaving your front door open and locking everything else so anyone can come in."
But now after years of fighting for help, Dorine and her neighbors can feel a sense of relief as crews work to build a real fence, and bridge the gap, even though one lawmaker said it's completely unnecessary.
"We don't need this. It's a waste of money. It's a waste of resources and it degrades a very important historical point," said Congressman Beto O'Rourke.
O’Rourke tried to reverse the decision made in 2006. He wants to preserve the gap's historical importance.
Historians said it was where explorer Juan de Onate crossed the Rio Grande in the 16th century.
It's also home to the region's first mill, and the first highway system linking Mexico City to Santa Fe and old Fort Bliss.
"It would be like putting a fence through Plymouth Rock on the east coast for everything that means to those who emigrated from Europe,” said O’Rourke. “El Paso has been the Ellis Island for Latin America."
All that's left are a few historical markers and a couple of army buildings, mixed with abandoned buildings and an empty park.
"It's not a site that any of us go to visit, it's not something that we tell tourists about so we need to do a better job ourselves of capitalizing on that," said O’Rourke.
O’Rourke said the area has seen record low illegal crossing in the last four years and he believes the money for the fence should instead go toward enforcement.
"Let's spend it supporting existing Border Patrol agents, hiring more Customs and Border Protection officers at our ports and crossing more of the legitimate trade and travel," he said.
The 18 foot tall fence will match the existing fence. Some sections will be removable to allow maintenance of the canal.
But, Dorine, who has been thinking about moving her business, said she wants the fence to go up, and stay up.
"Even historical districts need to be protected and my employees need to be protected and my property needs to be protected," said Brown. "There's a safety issue here and that's my main concern."
A CBP assistant commissioner sent O’Rourke a letter saying the agency was working with an archaeologist and an environmental specialist to ensure the project does not adversely impact the historical site during construction.
The fence should be complete in June.
It will cost $5.5 million and taxpayers will get the bill.