Border Fence Would Cut Through Texas University

The steel fence that the U.S. government wants to build along the Mexican border would do more than slice through the University of Texas' Brownsville campus and cut off the golf course from the rest of the school.

School officials say it would make a mockery of the very mission of the university: promoting close ties between the U.S. and Mexico.

The university — built close to the Rio Grande on land where the United States and Mexico traded cannon blasts during the Mexican-American War 160 years ago — recruits Mexican students, offers government and business classes in English and Spanish and turns out sorely needed bilingual teachers. It has a biological field station in Mexico and hosts educators at a Binational Conference every spring. About 400 of the 17,000 students are from Mexico, and more than half of them commute across the river to class.

The fence, if built as envisioned by the U.S. Border Patrol, would run a mile north of the Rio Grande, the international boundary, cutting off about 180 acres of the 465-acre campus. University officials say it would also thwart its hopes of expanding someday toward the river, and send the wrong message across the border.

"To slice off and fence off the `bi' part of `binational' violates the essence of this university," said university President Juliet V. Garcia, whose office is situated in what was once the thick-walled, tan-brick hospital at Fort Brown, built shortly after the Civil War.

On Monday, university officials will ask a federal judge to force government officials to work with the school on alternatives to the fence, continuing a long-running legal fight that began when the Department of Homeland Security sued the school for refusing to allow surveyors onto its property.

In March, a federal judge ordered Homeland Security to consider the school's "unique status as an institution of higher learning" in minimizing the impact on the "environment, culture, commerce and quality of life" at the university. But the two sides have been unable to agree on some kind of alternative to a fence.

In a May 27 letter to the university, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that in place of a fence, it would have to station Border Patrol agents every 50 yards along the 3.4 mile-stretch around campus, and the salaries alone would amount to $71 million.

A Border Patrol spokesman said the matter would be addressed in court and refused further comment.

The fence is being erected away from the Rio Grande for fear it could alter the flow of floodwaters and illegally change the international border.

People will still be able to reach the university from Mexico by way of the three international bridges that connect Brownsville to Matamoros, Mexico.

The Bush administration is hurrying to build 670 miles of the border fence by the end of the year.

The school's architecture reflects the twin influences on the region: Its older buildings are 19th-century remnants of Fort Brown, with tan brick walls, galvanized steel roofs and shaded arcades. Other buildings are Spanish-influenced, with tile, towers and terra cotta roofs.

The land the golf course is on belongs to the International Boundary and Water Commission, but the university holds a 99-year lease on it. The government contends it can build parts of the fence on the property without the university's consent.

The school, a part of the University of Texas system since 1991, said it cannot get a firm answer from the government on whether there will be a gate or some other opening that will enable students to reach the 165-acre course, which generates revenue for the university.

Also left in the no-man's land south of the fence would be the ruins of old Fort Texas, which was built during the Mexican-American War in 1846 and now consists of little more than earthen mounds.

"Of course, we believe in protecting our borders," the university president wrote in an open letter to students in January. "Of course, we believe in strong immigration policy. But we also understand that a fence, no matter how high or how wide, is no substitute for either."

In court papers, the university said that at a meeting earlier this month between Border Patrol Sector Chief Ron Vitiello and school officials, a conversation about alternatives ended abruptly when Vitiello told them their efforts were a "waste of time."

"He wanted to stop the conversation instantly," said Michael Putegnat, a consultant hired by the university.

Post-Sept. 11 border security measures have already reduced the number of Mexicans who legally cross the border for English classes at the campus, said John Robey, a political science professor. The fence, he said, just adds insult to inconvenience.

"They think that it's xenophobia run amok," he said.

Some students said they fear the fence will send the wrong message about them.

"You're trying to divide the world," said Omar Diaz, 20, a government major from Victoria, Mexico.

Allison Valles, an accounting major from Texas and a member of the golf team, said that the fence does more than pose a threat to her favorite activity.

"UTB is trying to portray an image of bringing everybody together, but we would have this wall between us," Valles said.