PENITAS, Texas â€” For more than a half-century, Leonardo and Anita Ramirez could look out the back of their small frame home at the sloping landscape leading down to the Rio Grande.
That changed about two years ago, when the federal government stretched a massive $6.2 million-a-mile barrier through the rural land where they have made their home since 1950. Their backyard view now consists of aesthetically challenged square metal poles that reach at least 18 feet high and impair their once-easy access to the river.
The towering barrier that divides the Ramirezesâ€™ land near the small community of Penitas, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, is part of nearly 650 miles of fencing that Congress authorized in 2006 in response to a public outcry over illegal immigration and potential violence from Mexico. Of that total, 112 miles are in Texas, stretching from Brownsville through the populous metropolitan region that includes Edinburg, McAllen and Mission.
Construction of the fencing followed contentious public debate that included lawsuits, environmental challenges and homeowner protests. Now, presidential politics is kindling a new showdown over the worthiness of border barriers.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has pledged to push for construction of a fence along the entire length of the border. By contrast, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has described a full-length fence as â€œidiocy,â€ though he embraces limited fencing in strategic locations.
The issue is part of a larger dispute over illegal immigration among the Republican presidential candidates. Perry has been put on the defensive by opponents who charge that he is soft on illegal immigration because of his support of a 2007 Texas law that permitted in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.
He has responded to the criticism by pointing to the stateâ€™s five-year, $400 million-plus law enforcement effort on the border, portraying himself as the toughest candidate in the race when it comes to border security.
Bachmann is the first candidate to sign a pledge circulated by a newly formed group calling for completion of a double fence along the full length of the border before the end of 2013. The group, Americans for Securing the Border, is led by Van D. Hipp Jr., a former Republican Party chairman in South Carolina who served as deputy assistant Army secretary under President George H.W. Bush.
Hipp said his group has been up and running for only about three weeks but is generating strong support from voters demanding tough measures to support the border.
â€œItâ€™s one of the most important national security issues of our time,â€ Hipp said. His organization is calling on all candidates for president as well as the House and Senate to sign the pledge.
Ryan Williams, press secretary for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, said Monday that the campaign has not seen the pledge but â€œwould certainly be open to reviewing it.â€ He said Romney, who is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, â€œsupports a border fenceâ€ to crack down on illegal immigration.
Allison Castle, communications director in the Texas governorâ€™s office, said Perry â€œsupports fencing in strategic areas such as those with high population density, but for the hundreds of miles of remote land in between, the most effective border security strategy is to increase the patrol presence on the ground, in the air, and in the water with personnel and advanced technology.â€
Perry has repeatedly opposed the concept of a full-length barrier. During a trade visit to Mexico City in 2007, according to The Associated Press, he said a border-length wall is â€œidiocyâ€ and â€œabsolutely would not work.â€
The 649 miles of fencing in four U.S. border states was authorized by the Secure Fence Act, which then-President George W. Bush signed into law in October 2006. The barriers, according to the Border Patrol, include 350 miles of fencing to stop pedestrians, constructed at a cost of $6.5 million per mile, and 299 miles of fencing to repel vehicles, which cost $1.8 million per mile.
The designs include wire mesh, chain link, metal posts and upright metal landing mats. The Hidalgo County segment that bisects Leonardo and Anita Ramirezâ€™s property includes metal poles atop concrete as part of a Rio Grande levee.
â€œWe tried to stop it from being built,â€ said Feliberto Ramirez of Houston, the Ramirezâ€™s 54-year-old son. â€œItâ€™s not doing the job.â€
Critics say the barriers constitute an elongated eyesore, particularly in populous areas, and come nowhere close to plugging the border.
Access roads that allow passage for U.S. residents are easily exploited by illegal intruders, many residents say. And then thereâ€™s the now-timeworn joke that the wall has caused a boom in the Mexican ladder industry.
Cuban â€œRustyâ€ Monsees, who lives near Brownsville, says illegal crossers can â€œshinny upâ€ the 18-foot poles on his property and often come up to his house at night. â€œThey ask for food, they ask for use of the cell phone, they ask for a ride into town,â€ he said.