US proposes unmanned border crossing with Mexico

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas - December 12, 2011

This hardly seems a time the U.S. would be willing to allow people to cross the border legally from Mexico without a customs officer in sight. But in this rugged, remote West Texas terrain where wading across the shallow Rio Grande undetected is all too easy, federal authorities are touting a proposal to open an unmanned port of entry as a security upgrade.

By the spring, kiosks could open up in Big Bend National Park allowing people from the tiny Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen to scan their identity documents and talk to a customs officer in another location, at least 100 miles away.

The crossing, which would be the nation's first such port of entry with Mexico, has sparked opposition from some who see it as counterintuitive in these days of heightened border security. Supporters say the crossing would give the isolated Mexican town long-awaited access to U.S. commerce, improve conservation efforts and be an unlikely target for criminal operations.

"People that want to be engaged in illegal activities along the border, ones that are engaged in those activities now, they're still going to do it," said William Wellman, Big Bend National Park's superintendent. "But you'd have to be a real idiot to pick the only place with security in 300 miles of the border to try to sneak across."

The proposed crossing from Boquillas del Carmen leads to a vast expanse of rolling scrub, cut by sandy-floored canyons and violent volcanic rock outcroppings. The Chihuahuan desert wilderness is home to mountain lions, black bears and roadrunners, sparsely populated by an occasional camper and others visiting the 800,000-acre national park.

Customs and Border Protection, which would run the port of entry, says the proposal is a safe way to allow access to the town's residents, who currently must travel 240 road miles to the nearest legal entry point. It also would allow park visitors to visit the town.

If the crossing is approved, Border Patrol would have eight agents living in the park in addition to the park's 23 law enforcement rangers.

"I think it's actually going to end up making security better," CBP spokesman William Brooks said.

"Once you've crossed you're still not anywhere. You've got a long ways to go and we've got agents who are in the area. We have agents who patrol. We have checkpoints on the paved roads leading away from the park."

A public comment period runs through Dec. 27 on the estimated $2.3 million project, which has support at the highest levels of government from both countries.

But U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican member of the House Homeland Security committee, questioned the wisdom of using resources to make it easier to cross the border.

"We need to use our resources to secure the border rather than making it easier to enter in locations where we already have problems with illegal crossings," McCaul said in an email. "There is more to the oversight of legal entry than checking documents. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) needs to be physically present at every point of entry in order to inspect for contraband, detect suspicious behavior and, if necessary, act on what they encounter."

While CBP will run the port of entry, the National Park Service is the driver behind the project, which it hopes will help conservation efforts on both sides of the border. Even as the National Park Service has increased cooperation with its Mexican counterpart, joint conservation has been limited by the inability of personnel to cross the border without making a circuitous 16-hour drive, Wellman said.

So the National Park Service is building the contact station just above the Rio Grande. It will house CBP kiosks where crossers will scan in their documents and talk to a customs officer in Presidio, the nearest port of entry, or another remote location. Park service employees will staff the station, offering information about the park and guiding people through the process.

Similar ports of entry are already in operation on remote parts of the border with Canada.

"We think we can do this without doing any damage to national security and possibly enhance security along the border by having better intelligence, better communication with people in Mexico," Wellman said.

The crossing would also restore a long-running relationship between the park, its visitors and the residents of Boquillas del Carmen, the town of adobe dwellings set a short distance from the river in Mexico.

For years, U.S. tourists added an international dimension to their park visit by wading or ferrying in a rowboat across the shallow Rio Grande to the town. There they bought handicrafts and tacos, providing much-needed cash in the isolated community.

But US officials discouraged such informal crossings in 2002 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks prompted calls for tighter border security. Without access to tourists or supplies on the U.S. side, the town of just more than 100 people has seen a 42 percent drop in population from 2000 to 2010.

Gary Martin, who manages the Rio Grande Village store at a nearby park campground, recalls many Mexican residents crossing the river to pick up groceries and other necessities.

"We're their supply," Martin said. "They don't have any electricity over there. So they would come here and buy frozen chicken, cake mixes and things that they couldn't get over there."

Martin tried to stock food items Boquillas del Carmen residents wanted, such as eggs and big sacks of beans.

"After the border closed, well, I got rid of most of my food and went back to gifts because I wasn't making any money," Martin said. He estimated about 40 percent of the store's revenue came from Boquillas residents.

Few have risked crossing to the store since. "If they get caught over here they get shipped off," he said. "They get deported all the way to Ojinaga and then they've got to find their way home. It's not really worth it."

Still, most days some Boquillas del Carmen residents wade across the river a short distance downstream of the old crossing and scramble up to a paved overlook perched high above the river.

On boulders near the parking spots they lay out painted walking sticks, scorpions and roadrunners crafted from copper wire and colorful beads. Each craftsman's work occupies a different rock and operates on the honor system with the hope tourists will drop four or five dollars in their jar.

"Sometimes we don't sell anything," said Boquillas del Carmen resident Guillermo Gonzalez Diaz. "Sometimes we sell one." And other times authorities confiscate everything.

Gonzalez, a 34-year-old father of three, described his town as "very sad, very hard" and said there was no work. Without access to the Rio Grande Village store, residents depend on a bus that runs once a week to Melchor Muzquiz, a larger town about 150 miles away, for supplies.

A small military presence protects the town from the drug-related violence that has engulfed other Mexican border towns. Now with news of the port of entry, residents are already making plans for restaurants and shops, he said.

"When it closed nobody crossed and everything went downhill. People began to leave," he said. "Now people are going to return."

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