BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Max Pons is already anticipating the anxiety he'll feel when the heavy steel gate shuts behind him, leaving his home isolated on a strip of land between America's border fence and the violence raging across the Rio Grande in Mexico.
For the past year, the manager of a sprawling preserve on the southern tip of Texas has been comforted by a gap in the rust-colored fence that gave him a quick escape route north in case of emergency. Now the U.S. government is installing the first gates to fill in this part of the fence along the Southwest border, and Pons admits he's pondering drastic scenarios.
"I think in my head I'm going to feel trapped," said Pons, who lives on the 1,000-acre property of sabal palms, oxbow lakes and citrus groves he manages for the Nature Conservancy's Southmost Preserve. "I need to have something that is much easier for me to have to ram to get through" if necessary.
Pons' concerns illustrate one of the complications in the government's 5-year-old effort to build a secure barrier along the border that would keep out illegal activity from Mexico without causing worse problems for the people living in the region.
In this lush area, the Rio Grande's wide floodplain precluded building the fence right on the border so it was set back more than a mile in places, running behind the levees. The result is a no-man's-land of hundreds of properties, and the people who work on them, on the wrong side of the divide.
The arrival of the gates will reveal whether the government's solution for this border fence problem will work. Can sliding panels in the fence controlled by passcodes allow isolated workers to cross when they need to while keeping intruders out?
Pons hopes the gates will open fast. "Because when is reinforcement going to show up?"
Some landowners also worry they'll become kidnapping targets for smugglers seeking passage through the 18-foot-tall metal fence.
Violence has surged in Tamaulipas, the Mexican state bordering this part of Texas, in the past two years. This week the State Department issued a new travel warning urging U.S. citizens again to avoid traveling there.
Residents in this rural area often see groups of illegal immigrants passing through or smugglers toting bundles. In October, the Border Patrol caught a high-ranking member of the Gulf cartel's Matamoros operations who had crossed about a half-hour upriver.
Gates will roll open on a metal track after a passcode is punched into a panel on or near the fence. Landowners would have permanent codes and could request temporary ones for visitors. Customs and Border Protection has begun testing its first two gates and plans to install 42 more in South Texas this year at a cost of $10 million.
For more than a year the tall steel bars and panels erected in segments on this stretch of the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico border created an effect that was more gap-toothed grin than impenetrable obstacle.
When the gates are closed, the Texans on the other side won't be completely isolated, agency officials say. Border Patrol agents will continue to work both sides of the fence and can assist property owners. Many of the areas also are monitored by cameras and sensors.
But farmers point out that there is a lot the agents can't stop. They point out dusty footprints scaling the columns and say illegal immigrants can climb the barrier in seconds flat.
"It's the biggest waste of taxpayer money," said Leonard Loop at his produce stand east of Brownsville, where his family farms and some relatives' homes are in an area between the fence and the river.
Loop's nephew Paul said he was not looking forward to the delay the gates will add to the countless trips he and his brother make between fields and the barn with their equipment. He also worried about becoming a target for smugglers eager to use the gates for large shipments. They are wide enough for farm equipment.
"Any drug dealer is going to know anyone on this side has a way out," Paul Loop said, while crews harvested cabbage in a nearby field.
Othal Brand Jr., chairman and general manager of the Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3, said he welcomes the completion of the fence even though the district's headquarters is between the barrier and the river.
He said he's optimistic it will help deflect illegal crossings and other illegal activity as intended.
"It's like building a car and only putting three tires on it," he said. "Finish it. Get it done."