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Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down That Wall; Mr. Bush, Tear Down That Wall

Rio Grande Valley cities and citizens are joining with Mexican citizens to protest the wall being built through their territory. As we write, an event called Hands Across El Rio is taking place all along the border (August 27 to) September 9). Texas activists, environmen-talists, the religious community, the University of Texas at Brownsville, Latina beauty queens, business owners, politicians, and local law enforcement are uniting with people and politicians from the Mexican side to oppose Bush’s and Texas Senator Cornyn’s plans for a border fence in their back yard.

It is hard for people in the Valley, where some counties are the poorest in the United States, to understand that $6 million each mile will be spent on a wall in their territory. As one of the organizers of Hands Across el Rio put it, “It was something that caught Chertoff and the department of Homeland Security off guard, the White House, Congress, and even the average American citizen who lives miles away from the border in question—Texans, who actually live along that portion of the border, don’t want it.

“It’s a concept that is hard for the rest of the country to grasp. After all, aren’t border residents living in fear for their lives by living on the frontlines with what conservative extremists like to term “the invasion” of illegal immigrants?

“Well, according to border residents, the only invasion they’re feeling is the one from Washington that is dictating that a fence be built through, along, and around their communities.”

The detailed information about the new wall between countries is rather amazing. If the 153 mile portion of the fence between Mexico and Texas were constructed today, students at the University of Texas–Brownsville might have to carry passports. Part of the planned fence would slice through the campus, leaving a part of it on the Mexican side, according to a map provided by the U. S. Border Patrol at a recent community hearing. The fence would also put the Fort Brown landmark, the district office of Democratic Texas State Rep. Ryan Guillen and the bridge that links Brownsville to Matamoros, Mexico, on the Mexican side.

The problems don’t end there. The fence would carve into the region’s 90,000-acre Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, with economic consequences. Residents, among region’s poorest, rely on an ecotourism industry.

It is hard to imagine that at this point in history a wall is being built between two countries. Ronald Reagan became a hero overnight when he demanded that Gorbachev tear down the wall between East and West Germany: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” It is hard to see our country doing the same thing, constructing a wall between peoples, especially when we reflect on the realities around that German wall, meant to keep peoples apart. A recent report from Der Spiegel Online has published the discovery of orders for East German soldiers to shoot people trying to flee across the border to the West. The orders read as follows: “It is your duty to use your combat skills in such a way as to overcome the cunning of the border breacher, to challenge or liquidate him in order to thwart the planned border breach…”

“Don’t hesitate to use your weapon even when border breaches happen with women and children, which traitors have often exploited in the past.”

A recent article in Catholic Life by Olive Sharkey was accompanied by information on the Berlin Wall. “The Death Strip, or No Man’s Land, between East and west was manned by 300 watchtowers, and had 22 bunkers, 5m deep anti-tank obstacles, as well as anti-vehicle trenches. The wall dissected 193 major and minor roads, which suddenly found themselves going nowhere, eight train lines and 4 underground lines, leaving so-called ‘ghost stations’ in the east the trains travelled through from the west to certain destinations, but did not stop at these stations.

“The side facing the west was always referred to as the side facing the ‘enemy.’ The wall cost the East German government almost 870 million marks to erect and maintain, and 10 million more for each crossing point erected. The residents of these areas faced permanent controls by police border troops, and any unauthorized entry into the areas could be interpreted as ‘preparation to escape.’ A man carrying something as mundane as a ladder or rope could be arrested and put in prison.

“Inevitably, east Berliners did attempt to escape, with varying degrees of success. The first to die was Rudolf Urban on 19 August 1961, days after the wall went up. He tried to abseil himself out of a house in Bernauerstrasse onto the pavement in West Berlin. The windows on the west side of all of the apartment buildings on Bernauerstrasse were sub-sequently bricked up. The last two victims were Chris Gueffroy, who was shot in Treptow on 6 February 2989, and Winifred Fraudenburg, who tried to escape using a balloon on 8 March of that year, just months before the wall was breached. Around 180 individuals, possibly more (various accounts exist), were killed in their attempts to escape, whilst others wee injured and arrested.)

The fear is that with the building of a wall and the militarization of the United States/Mexican border, this type of attitude would naturally follow.

The Rio Grande Guardian quoted the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission, Texas along the border, the Rev. Roy Snipes, regarding the wall: “It’s an assault on the American Spirit, we don’t need to hide behind walls. We are horrified by the idea of a wall. Symbolically it’s sick, and a tomb for the spirit of the area.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVII, No. 5, September-October 2007.