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Boom Times on the Border as Homeland Security State Grows

Residents are alternately bemused and angry at the border security buildup.

The river runs slow and shallow through the Chihuahuan desert as it flows 1,200 miles from El Paso/Juarez to the Gulf of Mexico. Bearing two names, the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo forms the natural divide between the United States and Mexico.

Now, another divide -- a decidedly unnatural one -- is marching west from El Paso, tearing through the farms and riparian zones that turn the desert green.

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) border fence already marks most of the national boundary from San Diego to El Paso. But -- armed with federal waivers to bypass the opposition of borderland communities, farmers, and environmentalists -- DHS and its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency have expedited the construction of an 18-ft. steel barrier along the Rio Grande.

Ft. Hancock, an impoverished U.S. border town about 60 miles downriver from El Paso, is bustling lately from all the new attention to border security. The town's center -- such as it is -- lies slightly east of the old U.S. Army's frontier outpost, which in 1886 was named after Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was wounded in Gettysburg and later commanded the 5th Military Department in the Texas territory.

But as the Indians were removed and the area settled by prospective farmers, the fort was abandoned and the town developed to serve the riverfront farmers, mostly Anglos, who depended -- and still do -- on Mexican farm-workers. Today, Ft. Hancock remains largely a town -- really only a "census designated place" (CDP) -- of white farmers and Mexican-American laborers.

Until recently, Ft. Hancock was a twin city of El Porvenir, a slightly larger Mexican town of 3,000 inhabitants on the other side of the river. Today, the twins have grown apart as Ft. Hancock has again become fortified with a large contingent of 146 Border Patrol (BP) agents and with what the BP officers call "Tactical Infrastructure" (TI).

This TI (in BP jargon) includes a formidable fence that is now rising on either side of the port-of-entry bridge and the network of sensors deployed along the river. Reinforcing the town's name, there is a newly fortified port-of-entry station and an adjoining BP district headquarters building that is under construction.

On both sides of the river, longtime residents are alternately bemused and angry at the border security buildup.

Ft. Hancock is not a typical boom town. Despite being the largest town in Hudspeth County, it isn't incorporated, doesn't have a community hall or plaza, or even a grocery store. Ft. Hancock Merchandise, like many of the town's old stores, lies shuttered and forgotten. According to the census office, 47% of the 1,800 Ft. Hancock residents live in poverty.

But the ghost-town pallor of the town's main intersection -- where Texas 20 meets Knox Avenue -- contrasts with the bustle seen at the other end of Knox Avenue, where it meets Interstate 10. At the Ft. Hancock exit off of I-10, about 50 miles from El Paso, the boom times are evident. While a few of the cars parked at Angie's Restaurant (which proclaims itself world-famous for its chicken fried steak) and at the adjacent convenience store are locals and interstate travelers, most now are construction workers stopping on their way back and forth from El Paso.

Ft. Hancock is booming today because of its border location. But it's hardly cross-border trade and travel that is sparking the increasing activity. Rather, it's all about the business of stopping cross-border traffic.

While the border bridge that connects Ft. Hancock and El Porvenir, Chihuahua hasn't been improved or widened (not broad enough for two cars) since it was constructed in 1936, the other border infrastructure on the U.S. side is undergoing a major upgrade.

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