Texas Observer

The Faces of Trump’s Immigration Crackdown in 2017

Five days into his presidency, Donald Trump issued a pair of executive orders that put America’s entire undocumented population on the table for deportation. The cold, bureaucratic language read: “We will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.”

Keep reading... Show less

Texas’ Other Death Penalty

Author's Note: I have received permission to share my patients’ stories, and changed or omitted some names. This is a personal essay; the views are my own and do not reflect those of St. Vincent’s House or St. Vincent’s Student-Run Free Clinic.

Keep reading... Show less

Inside the Total Catastrophe That Ensued After an Elected Libertarian Mayor Promised the 'Freest Little City in Texas'

The abandoned cop cars sat in Trina Reyes’ yard for eight months. She wanted them gone, but there were no police to come get them. Last September, the police department in Von Ormy — a town of 1,300 people just southwest of San Antonio — lost its accreditation after it failed to meet basic standards. Reyes was mayor at the time, so the three patrol cars, as well as the squad’s police radios and its computers, ended up at her home. It was just another low point in a two-year saga that she now counts as one of the most difficult experiences of her life.

Keep reading... Show less

The Hard Reality of Poverty in Texas - a Large Proportion Are Single Mothers Trying to Get by

My 5-year-old daughter sits at the table, rocking back and forth in a rickety chair I should have replaced years ago. Peas and other discarded vegetables collect on the floor below her dangling bare feet.“OK, three bites of peas and you can have dessert,” I say.

Keep reading... Show less

Texas Senate Votes to License ‘Baby Jails’ as Child Care Facilities

The Texas Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would license immigrant family detention centers, which critics call “baby jails,” as child care facilities. Democrats railed against Senate Bill 1018, which would allow prison firms to skip all the burdensome regulations that other child care facilities must follow.

Keep reading... Show less

What Happens If Mom and Dad Get Deported?

At 6:30 a.m., three and a half hours before a free legal clinic was set to start at the Mexican Consulate in Austin, a dozen people were already camped outside. They huddled in blankets, gripping hot cups of McDonald’s coffee. By 10 a.m., more than 50 had arrived.

Keep reading... Show less

Locked in Limbo: Ankle Monitors Hinder Immigrant Families Success

Gladys was sitting down to a plate of turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing at her first Thanksgiving dinner in America when a loud masculine voice cried out, “La batería está descargada; cárgala por favor.” (“The battery is dead; charge it please.”)

Keep reading... Show less

GOP Legislators Take Aim at Church-State Separation

While many of us have been absorbed in the media spectacle surrounding all things Trump, the religious right in Texas has been busy laying out its agenda for the 2017 legislative session — redoubling its efforts to breach Thomas Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state.

Keep reading... Show less

Medical Abortion Becomes More Accessible in Texas (Again)

Finally, some good news for pro-choicers: after decades of diminishing abortion rights, access is on the rise again. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ draconian 2013 anti-abortion law — the one that gave rise to Wendy Davis’ filibuster — ruling it an unconstitutional “undue burden” on women. The decision paves the way for at least some of the 22 shuttered Texas clinics to reopen. That could take years, and some may remain closed, but another trend, the resurgence of the legal medical abortion, suggests that getting an abortion is becoming easier.

Keep reading... Show less

How a Mayor's Campaign to Keep a Jesus Sign Brought Discord to a God-Fearing East Texas Town

If it hadn’t been for Will Rogers, the East Texas town of Hawkins might still be best known for its annual “Good Ol’ Days Celebration” or the 1995 legislative proclamation that named it the Pancake Capital of Texas. (Lillian Richard, who spent decades portraying Aunt Jemima in Quaker Oats ads, was born here in 1891). Those and other modest distinctions are listed in the town’s promotional brochures that promise “Tranquility… In East Texas.” But in the past few years, since Rogers arrived, tranquility isn’t what has put Hawkins on the map.

Keep reading... Show less

I Watched My Patients Die of Treatable Diseases Because They Were Poor

The following story first appeared in the Texas Observer. Check out their website for more great stories. 

Keep reading... Show less

How a Texas Cop Who Killed a Double Amputee Holding a Ballpoint Pen Got Away With It

The following article was originally published in the Texas ObserverTo read more Texas Observer articles click here.

Keep reading... Show less

Thanks to NAFTA, Conditions for Mexican Factory Workers Like Rosa Moreno Are Getting Worse

It was Saturday night, and, as usual, Rosa Moreno was getting ready to work the night shift at the factory.

Keep reading... Show less

Texas Could Face a Grave Water Crisis Because of a Little Known Law

Water and where to get it has been an obsession ever since humans arrived in the American West. People have searched, begged, lied, stolen, cheated, killed and been killed for it. Land has been seized, plundered and rendered useless because of it. Riverbeds, lakes and communities have been drained and abused and trivialized into detritus, remnants left behind in the pursuit of progress.

Keep reading... Show less

Texas Sends Mentally Retarded Prisoners to Death Row Using Junk Science

Floresbinda Plata hadn't seen a doctor during her entire pregnancy in the desolate village of Angoa in Michoacan, Mexico. But after four hours of painful labor, she sought help at the nearest clinic, an hour away by dirt road. After Plata arrived, Dr. Luis Zapien recalls, "We pulled [the baby] out and he was born completely flaccid and purple."

Keep reading... Show less

Texas Governor Rick Perry Is Trying to Cover Up the Execution of an Innocent Man

The exercise of raw power is truly stunning to behold.

Keep reading... Show less

Why the Democrats Are Winning Back the South

Ed. Note: With the latest wave of Democratic House and Senate victories and Obama's wins in the South, this excerpt from Bob Moser's book gives vital background on the new climate in a formerly Republican stronghold.

This article is excerpted from the first chapter of Texas Observer editor Bob Moser's Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority (Times Books, 2008).


There is a party for Caesar, a party for Pompey, but no party for Rome."
-- TOM WATSON, Georgia populist & Democratic senator




The tale of how Republicans "won" the South, and why Democrats gave it up, has been ironed out into a quintessentially American fable of good and evil and reduced to its satisfying essence for retelling every four years, when Democratic strategists and media pundits begin their ritual debate about whether, and how, Democrats should try to reclaim a slice of Dixie with a Southern strategy of their own.



The legend goes like this: The Democratic Party became the unity party of white Southerners -- a political extension of the Confederate States of America -- after the Civil War. (True enough.) From Appomattox through the civil rights movement, the national Democratic Party was really two parties, with an enlightened Northern wing and a Southern wing wallowing in the muck of benighted traditionalism. (The exaggerations begin.) The "good Democrats" of the North swallowed hard and accommodated their Dixie cousins for the very practical reason that without their "solid South" vote in nearly every presidential contest, they would not have been contests. (Right.) Even Franklin D. Roosevelt put up with the racist demagogues of the Southern leadership, the Bilbos and Vardamans and Talmadges, because of political expediency. (Right again.) And even though white Southerners didn't have a liberal bone in their bodies, they kept making an X in the boxes next to Democratic presidential candidates' names. (Well …)

But "with a stroke of the pen," as the saying always goes, the first Southern president since Andrew Johnson, Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, intrepidly signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and brought a sudden and irrevocable end to the Democrats' solid South. Why, even LBJ himself said so; in a quote that has become an inextricable part of the fable, the president worried out loud to one of his aides, the future journalist Bill Moyers, that he had "delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come."



By doing the right thing, we are told, the Democratic Party sacrificed Dixie and purified its sullied soul at last. And as soon as Johnson's pen did its work, the legend continues, Republicans were ready to pounce. With the brilliant Southern strategy brewed to wicked perfection by Richard Nixon and his henchmen, the die was cast. After a quick post-Watergate blip, with Jimmy Carter's election in 1976, the popular presidency of Ronald Reagan and the ascendance of religious right politics cemented the Republicans' new solid South. While the region continued to grow in prosperity -- thanks, of course, to its supposedly militant anti-unionism and the resulting abundance of cheap labor that big business loves -- the South remained what it had always been: backward, xenophobic, racist, and ignorantly susceptible to the rankest emotional appeals to Jesus, miscegenation, and militarism. The only difference was that the parties had switched places, with the Democrats laid as low as the sad old Southern Republicans once were. If anybody needed fresh proof of that, it came along in the 2000 election, when even a Tennessee Democrat, Al Gore, could not break through the brick wall of Caucasian conservatism to win a single state in Dixie. "The South is no longer the swing region," proclaimed political science professor and pundit Thomas Schaller, author of a "non-Southern" manifesto published in 2006 called Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. "It has swung."

That's the story, and a sweet one it is for both Republicans and -- in a perverse way -- blue state Democrats. For Republicans, this neat little fiction confirms their superior command of political strategy -- the canny ruthlessness with which they appropriated white backlash against '60s liberalism, then rode the angry tide of evangelical politics in the '80s. It also offers them the charming promise of starting every presidential election with one-third (and climbing) of the country's electoral votes already sewn up. Meanwhile, Democrats outside the South -- those who actually believe this Disneyesque version of political history -- can recount the legend and view themselves, and their party, as martyrs for racial justice. The party's sad record in national politics, post-LBJ, has indeed been a cross to bear. But such is the price of righteousness.

But nobody told Southerners they weren't supposed to be Democrats anymore. During the 2006 midterm elections, Gallup pollsters discovered that more folks still said they were Democrats than Republicans in all but three Southern states -- Texas, South Carolina, and Mississippi. In half of the South, it wasn't even close: Democrats led by more than 10 percentage points in six Southern states. It's not just the partisan leanings of Southerners that confound the solid South myths. Southerners are more conservative only if you winnow down American politics to cultural or "moral" issues alone. Southerners still tack the furthest right on gay marriage and abortion and still lead the nation in churchgoing. They also back withdrawal from Iraq and strongly favor progressive populist economic policies -- more spending on social welfare, stronger environmental and business regulations, universal health care -- that are anathema to the GOP and, in many cases, markedly to the left of the national Democratic leadership.

But you'd never know that by listening to the conventional wisdom. The South has, in the popular mind, always been "solid" -- solidly white, solidly conservative, solidly fundamentalist, and of course, solidly racist. But never solidly populist -- and that is where the Democrats made their mistake.


The Republicans' Southern surge has been picked apart and celebrated by scores of political scientists and pundits. But just as much as the GOP won the region with its appeals to suburbanites and cultural traditionalists, the Democratic Party lost it by failing to build on its new black base. The story of how, and why, the Democrats surrendered Dixie is well worth chewing over. Segregationist whites did, unquestionably, begin defecting in large numbers to the formerly hated "cocktail party" in the wake of the civil rights movement. But they were outnumbered by the massive infusion of Southern blacks into the Democratic Party. Between the midterm elections of 1966 and 1970, more than 1.7 million African Americans registered to vote, spiking the region-wide percentage of registered blacks to nearly 60 percent. At the same time, white Southerners' racial attitudes were, in historian Matthew Lassiter's terms, undergoing one of the "most pronounced shifts in the history of opinion polling." In a May 1970 Gallup Poll, for example, only 16 percent of white parents in the South opposed sending their children to schools with a small number of black students -- compared to 61 percent in 1963. In the North, meanwhile, white support for a federal role in school integration dropped from 47 percent in 1966 to 21 percent in 1976.

Liberals had long nourished the hope that integration would spawn a new Democratic coalition of blacks, Latinos, and moderate and progressive whites. Even as Nixon swept Dixie in 1972, there were encouraging signs. While Harry Dent, the archsegregationist and Strom Thurmond crony who helped mastermind Nixon's Southern strategy, was roostering about the new "Solid Republican South," the eleven former Confederate states had already elected 665 blacks to local and state offices. (Nowadays, more than two-thirds of the nation's black elected officials are Southern.) Even more strikingly, every Southern state but Texas ("conservative Democrat" Preston Smith) and Alabama (stuck with George Wallace) had elected a moderate-to-progressive governor calling for racial reconciliation and "lift-all-boats" economic reforms.

In Florida, young governor Reubin Askew was hailing the emergence of a "humanistic South, which has always been there, just below the surface of racism and despair, struggling for a chance to emerge." In Arkansas, Democratic governor Dale Bumpers was promoting a "future … shaped and shared by all Arkansans -- old and young, black and white, rich and poor." South Carolina's new-breed Democratic governor, John C. West, pledged a "color-blind" administration and followed through by immediately appointing a black adviser to a top staff position, a first in that state.

"The era of defiance is behind us," announced Virginia's new governor, Linwood Holton -- a moderate Republican, no less. Even Wallace, re-elected in 1970, was whistling a new tune -- postelection, of course -- that was most certainly not "Dixie." Eight years after his "segregation forever" address, Wallace delivered a startlingly different inaugural message: "Our state government is for all, so let us join together, for Alabama belongs to all of us -- black and white, young and old, rich and poor alike."

"We in the South have an exciting opportunity," wrote Atlanta's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1972, "to prove that, ultimately, black and white have only one enemy: not each other, but those economic, social, educational, and political conditions which cause and maintain hunger, neglect, bigotry, and disease." One of the giddiest signs of progress had come in Georgia two years earlier, when voters had replaced Democratic governor Lester Maddox, a clownish Wallace wannabe who had gained statewide fame by chasing blacks away from his fried-chicken restaurant with an axe, with the relatively liberal Jimmy Carter.

Carter had run a classic populist campaign, trying his damnedest to shake every hand in the state. In a precursor to his 1976 grassroots presidential campaign, he tallied some 1,800 speeches to small-town civic groups, schools, and agriculture associations, inveighing against Georgia's entrenched power brokers and big-money interests. Carter made one campaign gesture to the old-line white Democrats, coming out against "forced busing" to integrate schools. But he steered clear of demagoguing on race. And on his inaugural day in 1971, surrounded by monuments to both Confederate soldiers and legendary bigots like Eugene Talmadge ("The Negro belongs to an inferior race"), Carter sounded a matter-of-fact clarion call that echoed across Dixie: "I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over."

When a near-solid South -- all but Virginia -- propelled Carter to the presidency in 1976, it looked as though the Democratic dream could, just maybe, become a reality. After Carter accepted the nomination, the strains of "We Shall Overcome" echoed around New York's Madison Square Garden as an unlikely smorgasbord of Democratic luminaries crowded the stage, singing and swaying. Up there with Carter were Coretta Scott King, Ted Kennedy, congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas, and -- could it be? Yep, singing right along -- a wheelchair-bound George Wallace. Old wounds were binding. Tears were flowing, especially among the Southern delegations. As Time magazine had declared earlier in that first post-Jim Crow decade, "the region is abandoning the fateful uniqueness that has retarded its development and estranged its people." A progressive, post-Jim Crow South, at long last, was announcing its arrival.

But Carter's star-crossed presidency, hampered by stagflation and doomed by Iranian hostage taking, failed to live up to its promise on nearly every count. Carter's economic policies strayed far from the progressive populism he had championed back home. Rather than reinvigorating -- or reinventing -- the New Deal spirit that had brought together blacks and whites in the South (however partially and tenuously), Carter's term in office signaled the start of the Democratic Party's slide toward a feckless, defensive posture of "moderation."

Meanwhile, a right-wing political revival among evangelical Christians was delivering another chunk of traditional Southern Democrats into the Republican camp. There was more than a touch of irony in this, of course, since Carter had been America's first "born-again" president, a Sunday school teacher throughout his adult life. But the Deep South Baptist lost evangelical votes in droves in 1980 to the Moral Majority's new hero: Hollywood actor, divorc, former union president, and faithful non-churchgoer Ronald Reagan.

The Republicans' Southern populism -- with its exclusive focus on cultural wedges and distractions -- had left the Democrats an opening: Translate the South's economic populist tradition into a forward-looking, class-based politics with broad appeal across the races. And run, as Southern Democrats have continued to do on the state and local levels, on progressive "good-government" issues -- better schools, better roads, better jobs. While Republicans had latched on to the fearmongering, "watch-out-for-Washington" style of traditional Southern populism, the Democrats had a chance to adapt the equally appealing, vote-getting substance of economic populism. Instead, they ran from it.

"The party abandoned its New Deal legacy as a positive force for change and hunkered down behind a defensive shield," lamented journalist John Egerton, author of The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America. "The leaders failed to comprehend that Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson died for their sins, and in so doing freed the Democrats to reclaim their heritage as the fountainhead of egalitarian opportunity."


Keep reading... Show less

Could McCain Have Come Up with a More Ill-Suited Economic Advisor Than Phil Gramm?

In the early evening of Friday, December 15, 2000, with Christmas break only hours away, the U.S. Senate rushed to pass an essential, 11,000-page government reauthorization bill. In what one legal textbook would later call "a stunning departure from normal legislative practice," the Senate tacked on a complex, 262-page amendment at the urging of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.

There was little debate on the floor. According to the Congressional Record, Gramm promised that the amendment -- also known as the Commodity Futures Modernization Act -- along with other landmark legislation he had authored, would usher in a new era for the U.S. financial services industry.

"The work of this Congress will be seen as a watershed where we turned away from an outmoded Depression-era approach to financial regulation and adopted a framework that will position our financial services industry to be world leaders into the new century," Gramm said.

Watershed indeed. With the U.S. economy now battered by a tsunami of mortgage foreclosures, the $30-billion Bear Stearns Companies bailout and spiking food and energy prices, many congressional leaders and Wall Street analysts are questioning the wisdom of the radical deregulation launched by Gramm's legislative package. Financial wizard Warren Buffett has labeled the risky new investment instruments Gramm unleashed "financial weapons of mass destruction." They have fed the subprime mortgage crisis like an accelerant. While his distracted peers probably finalized their Christmas gift lists, Gramm created what Wall Street analysts now refer to as the "shadow banking system," an industry that operates outside any government oversight, but, as witnessed by the Bear Stearns debacle, requiring rescue by taxpayers to avert a national economic catastrophe.

While the nation's investment bankers are paying a heavy price for their unbridled greed (in billions of dollars of write-offs), Gramm has fared quite nicely. He currently serves as a vice president at UBS AG, a colossal, Swiss-owned investment bank, the post, no doubt, a thank you for assiduously looking out for Wall Street interests during his 23 years in public office. Now, with the aid of his longtime friend Arizona Sen. John McCain, Gramm may be looking at a quantum leap in power and influence.

Gramm serves as co-chair of the McCain 2008 presidential campaign. As one of the candidate's chief economic advisers, he is mentioned as a possible secretary of the treasury in a McCain administration. Their friendship was forged in the Senate as they worked against the Clinton health care proposal, and cemented when McCain served as national chairman of Gramm's own (ill-fated) 1996 presidential bid.

During McCain's rocky road to the nomination, it was Gramm as much as anyone who helped smooth the way. Last July, when it looked as though McCain's campaign would go bankrupt, Gramm, who once called money "the mother's milk of politics," advised him to slash his costs and assisted him with fundraising. Throughout the marathon primary season, Gramm has made numerous appearances with McCain and served as an ambassador to conservative groups. This spring, when conservative commentators attacked McCain as too liberal, McCain shored up his conservative bona fides by (according to The Huffington Post) bringing Gramm to a meeting with the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.

But ask Gramm about his influence with McCain and it's clear that the former senator has not lost his talent for political spin. "My position [with the campaign] is, I am the senator's friend," he aw-shuckses in a telephone interview. "It would be a mistake to call me an economic adviser." Calling himself "a private citizen," Gramm claims ignorance of McCain's appearance two days earlier on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.

"I'm so out of it, I don't even know who Jon Stewart is," he says in his trademark Georgia drawl.

It's hard to imagine that anyone remotely connected to politics is unaware of Stewart, but the remark fits well with the homespun persona that Gramm has carefully crafted for public consumption. Despite his false modesty, Phil Gramm remains a powerful force in Republican politics. Here in Texas, his many protgs -- most notably Gov. Rick Perry, the beneficiary of a whopping $612,000 in campaign donations from Gramm's Senate campaign reserves -- give him significant reach in Lone Star public policy.

Gramm might be interested in downplaying his role with the McCain campaign because, while the alliance might help with conservatives, it's at odds with the maverick image McCain has worked so hard to project. Gramm is more closely aligned with the kind of influence-peddling represented by the Keating Five scandal, in which McCain intervened with federal regulators on behalf of a campaign contributor with a failing savings and loan. The scandal shredded McCain's reputation and convinced him of the efficacy of reform.

In Gramm, McCain has chosen for a campaign adviser a former senator who espouses free market, conservative principles, but whose actions in public office served wealthy contributors and even himself. Exhibit A: Gramm's cozy Enron Corp. connections. Not only did CEO Ken Lay chair Gramm's 1992 re-election campaign, but Gramm's wife, Wendy, earned $50,000 a year as an Enron director from 1993 to 2001 (not counting perks that included stock options). Meanwhile Gramm pushed the company's aggressive -- and ultimately self-defeating -- political agenda to escape government scrutiny.

That Gramm is now advising the Republican nominee for president on economic matters "shouldn't give people a lot of comfort," says University of Maryland law professor Michael Greenberger, a senior official at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in the late 1990s. "Gramm has been a central player in two major economic crises -- the credit crisis and the incredibly high price of energy. … He's got his fingerprints all over legislative efforts that led to this."

Nonetheless, Gramm holds fast to his ideology. "I've never seen any evidence that opening up competition among banks and insurance companies in any way contributed to this," he says with the patience of the college prof he once was. "You've got a lot of people trying to rewrite history. You've got people with an ax to grind. They always wanted more government regulation, and when you have a problem, they want the government to regulate more."

His critics say that Gramm's anti-regulatory rhetoric failed the bulk of his constituents -- which included thousands of hapless Enron employees who lost their life savings -- but lavishly rewarded a few wealthy pals, like Ken Lay. University of Texas economist James Galbraith says Gramm is "not against government at all. His career has been finding ways to make money for his friends. It's a predator relationship. [Government] is his food supply."

When Gramm retired from the U.S. Senate in 2002, Texas Democrats celebrated that a powerful nemesis would no longer be a force on the national scene. Wrote Molly Ivins: "Gramm both looks like a snapping turtle and has the personality of one. When he ran for president in 1996 and finished fifth in Iowa, all the profiles written of him included the line 'Even his friends don't like him.'" She concluded: "We'll sure miss that sweet style." Clearly Molly's jubilation was premature.

It's easy to understand why Democrats were so eager to say goodbye to Gramm, who began his political career when he was elected to Congress in 1978 as a Democrat -- and then quickly broke ranks with his party.

Gramm often jokes that he "didn't go to Washington to be loved, and was not disappointed." In his telling, his lack of popularity stemmed from his uncompromising stand on issues. Democrats who served with him, however, felt deeply betrayed by his actions as co-author of Ronald Reagan's austere first budget.

Former House Speaker Jim Wright recalls in his memoir, Balance of Power, that he learned to his "chagrin and sorrow" that Reagan sought counsel from a fellow Democrat who "was the beneficiary of my help and recipient of my nave faith. His name was Phil Gramm."

In 1981, Gramm pleaded with fellow Texan Wright to help him win a seat on the powerful House Budget Committee, a privilege he had been denied by his Democratic peers, who found him unreliable. "Phil Gramm promised me ... that if he were favored by a Budget Committee assignment, he would make his arguments within the committee and then would close ranks and back whatever budget resolution the committee majority approved," the former speaker wrote. "That sounded fair enough." Later, Wright would be "flabbergasted" to learn that Gramm met clandestinely with Reagan budget guru David Stockman to strategize and defeat a Democratic budget plan. Reagan's "Gramm-Latta" budget would prevail.

Having led the charge for a Republican president's budget plan that, among many other things, drastically cut Social Security benefits, Gramm resigned in 1983 and forced an election for his House seat, which he won as a Republican. In a 1984 special election hastily called by then-Gov. Bill Clements, he waltzed to victory in the contest for longtime Republican John Tower's seat in the U.S. Senate.

When his new party won control of the Senate, Gramm rose to chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, where he was able to put his anti-regulation views into law. The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 repealed laws put in place after the Great Depression setting up protective barriers between commercial banks, investment banking firms, and insurance companies.

Consumer groups strenuously opposed the landmark legislation. "It was strongly deregulatory and ... did not address safety and soundness," says lobbyist Ed Mierzwinski of the public interest group U.S. PIRG.

But more powerful interests were pushing for the law, and they had a deadline. In 1998, Citicorp Inc. purchased Traveler's Insurance Group. Under the old law, the new company had a two-year grace period to divest either its insurance or banking functions. Instead, it went to Washington, D.C., and got the law changed -- with Gramm's help.

"Some people jokingly refer to it as the Citigroup Relief Act," says University of North Carolina law professor Lisa Broome. "Normally, they would have had to spin off their insurance activities."

Another beneficiary: Gramm's future employer, UBS, which was able to absorb the brokerage house Paine Webber. (As of March 31, UBS employees and company-related PACs have given the McCain campaign $82,865, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)

Banks had been chipping away at the barriers through Federal Reserve rules for decades. But Gramm's sweeping deregulation "stripped away restraint," says Broome.

While Gramm denies any link between the current subprime mortgage crisis and his legislative efforts, Mierzwinski, Broome, and even some Wall Street analysts trace a direct connection.

Michael Panzner, a Wall Street veteran and author of Financial Armageddon, says the massive deregulation encouraged "aggressive, swashbuckling, high-risk practices that might have been frowned upon in the banking industry, but which were viewed as typical, say, on Wall Street." Eventually, those practices "became the modus operandi throughout the financial services industry."

Panzner also believes that Gramm-Leach-Bliley "may have even set the stage for both the collapse and the subsequent 'rescue' of Bear Stearns by the Federal Reserve." The deregulated financial services industries were "encouraged to push the envelope in terms of risk-taking, and were not entirely dissuaded from thinking that the public purse would be available if things went horribly wrong."

Still others blame Gramm's Commodity Futures Modernization Act. Prior to its passage, they say, banks underwrote mortgages and were responsible for the risks involved. Now, through the use of credit default swaps -- which in theory insure the banks against bad debts -- those risks are passed along to insurance companies and other investors.

Maryland law professor Greenberger believes credit default swaps "were a key factor in encouraging lenders to feel they could make loans without knowing the risks or whether the loan would be paid back. The Commodity Futures Modernization Act freed them of federal oversight."

Before passage of the modernization act, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission was attempting to regulate the swaps market through rule-making. The modernization act, Gramm noted in his remarks on the Senate floor, provided "legal certainty" for the growing swaps market. That was necessary, Greenberger says, because at the time, "banks were doing these trades in direct violation of federal law."

Greenberger has also been critical of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who supported Gramm's banking deregulation. But Greenberger insists that it was Gramm's slick legislative move that prevented government regulators from halting the spread of the risky financial instruments.

"Without Phil Gramm adding that 262-page bill onto an 11,000 page appropriations bill in 2000, it never would have seen the light of day," Greenberger says. "It was a lame duck Congress ... racing off to Christmas recess. It was not an orderly process."

A more notorious feature of the modernization act was the "Enron loophole," which allowed energy trading to escape federal oversight. It was Enron's electronic trading that led to the California electricity crisis of 2000 and 2001, as well as Enron's own demise.

The issue of regulating electronically traded energy futures had been a pitched battle at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission throughout the '90s. One chairman advocated so passionately for deregulating energy futures that she persuaded her fellow commissioners to agree to a rule exempting them from oversight. Who was that? Wendy Gramm, the senator's wife, who served on the commission from 1988 to 1993. Shortly after her resignation, she was welcomed onto the Enron board of directors, where she would ensconce herself on the happily deaf-blind-and-mute audit committee.

The exemption received broad criticism from an array of sources -- including the President's Working Group on Futures Markets, and then-chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, who believed it contributed to market volatility.

Efforts to reverse the policy became moot when Gramm's amendment on that December evening gave the exemption the force of law -- at a time when his wife served on the board of the one company that would ultimately most abuse it.

The impact of the "Enron loophole" has been enormous. Since its passage, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has concluded that the loophole contributed to inflated energy prices for American consumers. In 2006, its report found credible expert estimates that the loophole -- by encouraging speculation -- accounted for $20 of the price of a barrel of oil, then at $70. In 2007, the same committee blamed the loophole for price manipulation of the natural gas market by a single hedge fund, Amaranth Advisors.

After Enron's demise, Wendy Gramm ultimately participated in a $13-million settlement personally paid by Enron directors for insider trading, when they collectively sold some $276,000 worth of stock early in the company's decline. Consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has reported that Enron paid Wendy Gramm between $915,000 and $1.85 million from 1993 to 2001 in salary, attendance fees, and stock options.

Last September, Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin introduced legislation to close the loophole, citing two congressional reports blaming it for excessive speculation that has "unfairly increased the cost of energy in the United States."

In announcing his legislation on the Senate floor, Levin noted that the Enron loophole was "inserted at the last minute, without any opportunity for debate, into commodity legislation that was attached to an omnibus appropriations bill ... in the waning hours of the 106th Congress.

"The loophole has helped foster the explosive growth of trading on unregulated electronic energy exchanges," Levin said. "It also rendered the U.S. energy markets more vulnerable to price manipulation and excessive speculation with resulting price distortions."

Asked about Levin's legislation, Phil Gramm expresses ignorance. "I don't know what provision in the law he's talking about."

Gramm apparently has long been touchy about the subject. When Enron collapsed, law professor Greenberger remarked to an interviewer that "all that [unregulated electronic energy trading] was made permissible by Gramm." A few days later, the phone rang.

"He called me up at my home to tell me I was wrong," Greenberger says. "I was sitting in my study preparing for classes. He started arguing with me that I was wrong. I said, if you insist on believing that, then you don't know what your own legislation did. I had to terminate the call because he would have kept me on the phone forever."

Similarly, Gramm today denies any linkage between the subprime crisis and his deregulatory legislation. "I wouldn't blame [swaps] for the problem. You could make the argument that without them, things would have been worse," he says. Congress should "look at the lessons of the subprime problem and learn what we can learn -- loan generators and how they are compensated, what banks ought to be required to find to lend a variable rate," he says. "I'd be open to look at those things."

Says Greenberger, "I am quite confident Phil Gramm didn't understand what his legislation did. It was written by the banks and hedge funds."

Increasingly, many Wall Street titans agree that Gramm's efforts should be reversed. In May, Richard C. Griffin, founder of the $20 billion hedge fund Citadel Investment Group, told The New York Times that "fixing" Wall Street would require more regulation.

"Investment banks should either choose to be regulated as banks or should arrange to conduct their affairs to not require the stopgap support of the Federal Reserve," Griffin said. He also told the Times he sees a need for "new government oversight of the arcane world of credit default swaps, a business with a notional value and risk of $50 trillion."

Said the Times: "It was the interlocking relationships between thousands of investors and banks over credit default swaps that pushed the Fed to help rescue Bear Stearns."

Gramm isn't one to engage in mea culpas, regardless of the evidence against him. Take for example, his reaction when California was plunged into an energy crisis in 2001 by Enron traders manipulating the energy markets. Mimi Swartz recounts in her book, Power Failure, that Gramm exploded to the Los Angeles Times: "As [Californians] suffer the consequences of their own feckless policies, political leaders in California blame the power companies, deregulation and everyone but themselves, the inevitable call is now being heard for a federal bailout. I intend to do everything in my power to require those who valued environmental extremism and interstate protectionism more than common sense and market freedom to solve their electricity crisis without short circuiting taxpayers in other states."

Greenberger predicts that the fallout from Gramm's legislation will continue to grow, with capital drying up for all kinds of borrowing, including student loans. Meanwhile, Wall Street firms have begun considering a voluntary clearinghouse system for swaps and derivatives, an acknowledgement, Greenberger says, that some sort of policing is lacking.

Ironically, one of the big losers in the subprime mortgage crisis has been UBS, Gramm's new employer, which has announced losses of $19 billion and acknowledged that number could grow.

Gramm was recently quoted in The Washington Post as saying he was unaware that the company had invested in subprime mortgage instruments. "That's like Claude Rains [in Casablanca] saying he was 'shocked, shocked' to find out gambling was occurring in his establishment," says UT's Galbraith.

Perhaps Gramm has been distracted by politics. Since last July, of course, he has been investing considerable time in another enterprise -- the McCain campaign.

Crony capitalism is not the only arena in which Gramm's record might tarnish McCain's campaign. While McCain has promised to end congressional earmarks, Gramm, the legislator, once bragged, "I'm carrying so much pork, I'm beginning to get trichinosis." And there's the question of whether McCain, who wants to appeal to moderates and independents, needs political coaching from a man who once told The Dallas Morning News, "I know a political zealot when I see one. I am one."

Yet ideologically the two largely agree, whether it's on free trade or slashing government services. Given Gramm's free market philosophy, in a McCain administration he can be expected to continue his push for privatization of important government functions, particularly Social Security. McCain now says he would favor "maybe giving people the option" of personal retirement accounts, opting out of the Social Security system.

If a federal appointment fails to materialize for Gramm, there is always Texas. Much like the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Gramm has nurtured a "farm team" of younger Republican elected officials with whom he confers frequently.

Says Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson, who served as state director of Gramm's Senate office, "Gramm in many ways really built the Republican Party in this state. He would actively recruit candidates to run. He would go to a fundraiser for anybody who would ask. He would do endorsements for people who were elected officials or who wanted to be elected officials, from county commissioner to state rep. to state senator."

More importantly, he showed them how to raise money. "By being there to help them raise the money, that spoke in volumes about credibility, because you can't run an effective campaign without being able to do television advertising," Wilson notes. Republican U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Athens is another former Gramm staffer, as is Republican nominee for Congress Pete Olson, who is challenging Rep. Nick Lampson for Tom DeLay's old seat.

Still, Gramm's first foray into lobbying at the state level bombed: His efforts to sell so-called "dead peasants" insurance to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas went nowhere. Under the dead peasants scheme, UBS would have sold TRS annuities and life insurance policies on retired teachers and kept the proceeds when teachers died.

His company's proposal to sell the Texas Lottery is still alive. His protg Perry (Aggies Gramm and Perry became close when both bolted the Democratic Party in the early 1980s) startled legislative leaders in 2007 when the governor proposed selling the lottery to private investors for between $14 billion and $20 billion. By investing that money, UBS argues, the state could earn hundreds of millions more in interest than the $1 billion earned annually now.

Perry first learned of the idea from Wilson, who, according to The Dallas Morning News, passed along Gramm's interest in the subject. There are other UBS connections as well: The investment bank employs Perry's son, Griffin, and retains former Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan as a lobbyist.

In 2007, lawmakers ignored the lottery sale idea. But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst gave interim charges to both the State Affairs and Finance committees to study the proposal. And Texas House Appropriations Chair Warren Chisum, a Republican from Pampa, has told reporters "[proponents of the sale] are already here visiting with folks to lay out their case." Senate State Affairs Chairman Robert Duncan, the Lubbock Republican who plans to hold hearings in August, confirmed this, saying lobbyists are "circling their wagons since the issue is in play."

A huge obstacle will be making the numbers work -- which, according to a recent report by campaign watchdog Texans for Public Justice -- would require a huge expansion of gambling operations.

UBS estimated that the Texas Lottery could be worth between $10 billion and $16 billion if per capita sales increased 2 percent a year; a 7 percent annual growth would make the lottery's value as high as $24 billion. But the group's report noted, "These projections assume that Texas could match the per capita sales rates of lotteries in Maryland, Georgia, and Virginia. Yet part of what drives higher sales in those states are games now prohibited in Texas. … The UBS proposal also suggests the Texas Lottery could boost sales by moving into interactive television and the Internet." In short, the Wall Street consensus is that maximizing the value of the Texas Lottery requires an expansion of gambling into new games and new venues, and even into cyberspace.

While convincing the Legislature to expand gambling is an enormous crapshoot, if anyone is connected enough to do it, it's Gramm. No one can tout a free market ideology that happens to benefit friends and family better than he.

On January 10, Gramm introduced Perry at the annual banquet of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

At first blush, Gramm's homage might seem to be the obligatory appearance of a dutiful husband (Gramm's wife, Wendy, serves as the foundation's board chair), or a loyal Perry friend.

Gramm's remarks at Austin's Sheraton Hotel to a friendly crowd of 500 loyal conservatives revealed just how deeply involved and powerful the former senator remains in the Perry administration and the Republican Party, both in Texas and nationwide. Pronouncing Perry the "greatest governor" of his lifetime, Gramm ticked off a list of reasons that spoke volumes about not only his subject, but himself.

Predictably, he praised Perry for no new taxes and passage of the Republican redistricting bill.

More revealing was his praise of Perry for seeking "private sector solutions" to government problems. Translation: cha-ching.

Perry was equally effusive about Gramm when he responded to his old friend's introduction. "Americans made a huge mistake in 1996," he declared. "I can't fathom where we would be ... had Phil Gramm led this country for eight years."

When it comes to the economy, a McCain victory in November might make that dream come true.

The Border Fence Will Wreck the Environment and Destroy Families

On hot summer days I would sit atop the water tank on the west side of the stone cabin ... watching turkey vultures climb invisible thermals, listening to the soft cooing of white-tipped doves, and gazing at the mosaic of greens that rippled into the distance. Something told me that I should swallow every angstrom of this beauty, commit it to memory, and hold it firmly in my heart.
-- Arturo Longoria, Adios to the Brushlands


Exhausted, a party of birders slips down the last few feet of a dry arroyo and collapses onto flat, cool stones near the spot where the water begins. Three sleek kayaks and a lumbering canoe sit beached just beyond reach of the licks of a lazy stream, near the tiny town of Salimeño. "We could secede again," says one of the birders in a tone that sounds only half-joking. He doesn't need to explain, because all present know the history of the short-lived, combative Republic of the Rio Grande (1839 to 1840). On the floor of the limestone arroyo, giant, fossilized oyster shells shine bright and curvy-edged in the sun. When a song comes from the brush, one of the birders automatically identifies it as "green jay," and the others assent without missing a beat in a conversation threaded with anger and frustration.

Up and down the Lower Rio Grande Valley, rebellion is in the air. Residents like the birders, and civic officials, are receiving top-down orders from Washington to accept a border fence many do not want, walling off their river. It will reverse new economic ebullience, opponents say, change their border culture, and bring down the curtain on rare critters of which they are stewards, including some found nowhere else in the world.

In Washington, anti-terror legislation is invoked to convince locals they have no choice.

McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez doesn't buy it. "The law gives them a lot of power, but not total power," he says. Relations with the Border Patrol, historically friendly, are strained because residents feel deliberately left in the dark about fence plans. The secrecy rankles. "We're fencing with ghosts now," says landowner John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association. "Farmers are opposed because we irrigate almost entirely with water pumped from the river, and need access 24-7."

If you are envisioning the fence as a high but simple chain-link affair, think again. First, anyone on the river will tell you a "permeable" fence becomes solid in hours as it catches windblown flotsam and detritus. The law says the Department of Homeland Security must install "at least 2 layers of reinforced fencing," which means clearing a swath some 150 feet wide, locals reckon, to make room for fences, access and maintenance roads. "Think of bulldozing your house," says Sierra Club representative Scott Nicol, who teaches art at South Texas College in McAllen. "Then bulldoze the ones on either side, too, to get an idea of the width needed for the barrier. Then extend that for 700 miles." Nicol and others who live along the border know the fence won't work. They see the undocumented workers who have already braved deserts and jungles and bandits to get this far. "We could have a wall from sea to shining sea, and it wouldn't make a difference," he says. Even DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told Fox News in July that the border "is a much more complicated problem than putting up a fence, which someone can climb over with a ladder or tunnel under with a shovel."

Tensions grew in May when a government map of the proposed fence emerged at a community meeting. The map shows the wall cutting through a protected wildlife corridor, national refuges, and the University of Texas Brownsville-Texas Southmost College campus (leaving part on the "Mexican" side). The fence slices off public access to historic sites and runs along flood-control levees already in need of repair for lack of funds. (Funds are available, one landowner offers dryly, "at $3 million a mile to build a fence.") There is no way now to calculate exactly how much U.S. territory will become inaccessible because of the fence. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley alone, the course of the river is one of infinite curves, loops and omegas. A physical barrier that runs for miles must be relatively straight, so in the end significant acreage will be left on the far side of any "border" wall. Is that land effectively ceded to Mexico? Will it become a no-man's-land? A wall on just one levee in Mission would throw to the far side two restaurants and at least two homes. "I wouldn't know what country I lived in," one owner says. The wall would cut off boat docks, a boys' summer camp, and a small park with picnic tables. It would block access to the La Lomita Mission, after which the town is named. The 19th century wooden chapel was a stop on the historic Oblate Fathers Trail, a small jewel of a place where the faithful leave burning candles at a white altar and the local community is known to pray for rain when it does not come.

With other mayors, Cortez has met with Chertoff in Washington and Laredo, to no avail. The mayors are not indifferent to national security, but believe a fence is not a solution. Texas border congressmen are united against the fence, but Texas' two Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, supported it. Gov. Rick Perry called it "divisive" but has yet to lodge a formal protest to Washington as opponents want. As Cortez puts it, after months of traveling and talking to all the right people, feeling ignored and isolated, border leaders sense the political path is petering out.

DHS defends itself. "We are actively consulting with state and local officials and landowners to decide where it should be," says spokesperson Laura Heehner in Washington. Local officials say no consultation has taken place. Heehner repeats Chertoff's caution that communities would have "no veto," that the "safety and security of the homeland is our primary mission." The leaked map is only "a first iteration based on Border Patrol assessment of where (the wall) should be," says spokesperson Brad Benson at Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Washington. Other versions will follow, he says, in consultation with the public, probably after the fiscal year ends in September.

In the Valley, residents are not waiting. "The worst thing we can do is nothing," Cortez says. Lawyers are being consulted. Environmental activists are enlisting help from national organizations like Defenders of Wildlife, which has said it will join legal action if locals undertake it. Imaginative public demonstrations -- 100 canoes and kayaks appeared in one protest flotilla -- draw crowds. The Texas Border Coalition, an influential group founded in 1998 to give border mayors, county judges, and communities a collective voice, has hired ViaNovo, an Austin consultancy, to "get out the story of our community about the wall, but also about the need for comprehensive immigration reform," says TBC member Mike Allen. "If Saudi Arabia and Israel can hire consulting groups to tell their story, so can we -- it hasn't been fairly heard in middle America or in Congress." ViaNovo's partners include Matthew Dowd, chief campaign strategist for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, when he was responsible for targeting and placing $150 million in ads. Tucker Eskew, Bush's spokesman in Palm Beach during the 2000 election recount and later the president's Director of Global Communications, is also a partner.

Unlike San Diego and Yuma, where failed resistance to the wall was carried on by a small group of environmental organizations, for an environmental purpose only, here it's in the hands of a broad spectrum that includes ranchers, civic and business figures, a network of local environmental activists, and long-time cross-border families who consider the fence an insult to relatives and friends. "We're coming at them from various directions, each in our own way," says McClung, who is also an avid birder. Efforts are complementary, but not necessarily coordinated.

What's happening in the Valley is about more than just a fence. By resisting, residents are challenging the kind of post-9/11 federal behavior that is marked by fear, and occasionally is devoid of common sense.

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 mandates physical barriers along 700 miles of the 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico border to stop terrorists and illegal immigrants. Three hundred seventy miles are set to be completed by December 2008, including 125 to 150 miles in Texas. An extraordinary aspect of another federal law that has gone largely unnoted lets Chertoff, in the name of national security, override any other statute to carry out this mandate. No judicial review of Chertoff's decisions is permitted, though a claimant may allege a constitutional violation, a route lawyers say has yet to be tried.

This phenomenal power, granted in the emotional fog generated by the specter of terrorism, is contained in the Real ID Act, a rider to an Iraq war funding bill passed in 2005. The Congressional Research Service has said the law appears to be unprecedented: It gives a political appointee -- Chertoff -- "sole discretion" to ignore requirements of other federal laws. This section of Real ID passed quietly, as if Congress were unaware of its consequences, or cowering. When a coalition of environmental groups attempted to stop the fence in a delicate estuary near San Diego, Chertoff waived not only the National Environmental Policy Act, sometimes called the nation's environmental Magna Carta, but the National Historic Preservation Act, the Clean Water Act, National Wildlife Refuge Act, the Federal Water Pollution Act, and other statutes. Near San Diego, a wall made of surplus World War II metal landing mats now reaches through the wetland into the Pacific like a giant cleaver.

Floor debate around Real ID implied the secretary's special power would be used only in San Diego. But the letter of the law does not restrict its application to San Diego, and there is no time limit on it. After San Diego, Chertoff waived laws near Yuma, too.

Lower Rio Grande Valley leaders argue that the river, a natural barrier, makes a fence less necessary. They may have another argument as well: Under treaties between Mexico and the United States, the river is an international boundary under the aegis of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which holds the right of way on nearby levees where the fence is likely to go. Without the commission's permission, neither side may erect an obstruction that changes the flow or floodway of the river, or causes erosion, because that in effect is changing a national boundary. Mexico, on record against the wall, is an equal partner in the commission with the United States. Noted Houston environmental lawyer and educator Jim Blackburn recently told a McAllen meeting called by the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that while Chertoff can waive national laws, he may not waive treaty obligations.

Blackburn also said accords in the North American Free Trade Agreement obligate the United States, Canada, and Mexico to observe environmental laws and strengthen their enforcement. Ironically, these NAFTA provisions were initially aimed at Mexico, not the United States, which is the one now suspending environmental laws to build the fence. Should Chertoff waive national laws again, notice will appear in the Federal Register, and objections must be filed within 60 days. Individuals in the Valley and allies in Washington are watching the register closely. A Customs and Border Protection spokesman says progress on the Valley fence is likely to accelerate after October 1, when fencing elsewhere is required to be complete. Many border tracts belong to private ranchers and farmers, who must grant permission for any physical barrier on their property, but landowners are among the most vocal opponents of the fence. Recently, Chertoff said DHS "can't rule out" invoking eminent domain, a process in which the government may seize private land after providing compensation, even if the owner is unwilling to sell. The political cost of doing so could be high. In these parts, says McClung, eminent domain is a "profoundly offensive" concept. His voice is fuming, but McClung speaks carefully. "There's an abhorrence of condemnation, an emotional problem with it," he says.

"It's a whole lot bigger than the fence," says Texas Border Coalition member Allen. "This has become the United States of paranoia. And the fence is just a symbol of Congress' failure to put anything together for comprehensive immigration reform, which is the only way to stop illegal immigration, not a fence that stops someone for two or three minutes until they use wire cutters or a ladder."

Allen, who helped shepherd McAllen's growth as CEO of the McAllen Development Corp. for 19 years, remains a leader among those who say the fence is bad for business. This area is one of the most deeply integrated with Mexico and has boomed since NAFTA became law. Since 1996, the McAllen economy has grown at an average of 6 to 7 percent annually. McAllen -- not Houston, New York, or Los Angeles -- is the No. 1 shopping destination for Mexicans, according to Visa receipts. These Lower Rio Grande counties still register among the poorest in the nation, but McAllen is pulling nearby communities along. A fence in the midst of this effervescence would be like suddenly stationing tanks on the border, says Steve Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. "It messes up the system by doing things like proposing a wall."

Ninety percent of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is Hispanic, often from families who settled here long before Anglos. Fifty-four per cent of McAllen's population has relatives on the other side of the river. A local saying goes: "The Valley's population is 3 million. One million on this side." Virtually everyone is bilingual. Stand on the bluff in Roma, or on the landing of the hand-cranked ferry at Los Ebanos, or on the lawn of the UT Brownsville-Texas Southmost campus, and look over at what rises like a physical and cultural mirror on the Mexican side of la linea. The river could be a stream running through a single town.

This is hard to explain to the rest of the country, and to Congress. Texas, Ahlenius notes, is already a majority-minority state, but in parts of middle America the number of Hispanics is beginning to grow and change communities. "There's a mentality of scarcity in the rest of the country, but an attitude of abundance here," he says. "Opportunities, job growth. Here you can gain market share without having to take it from someone else." Ahlenius sits at a wide desk with miniature Civil War soldiers deployed behind him -- gifts from staff. He pauses.

"I hope deep down it's not a race issue," he says. "But it is. We're scared of America becoming brown."

Across the hall, Nancy Millar, director of the McAllen Convention and Visitors Bureau, says, "These are quasi-members of our community. People here look the same as those from across the border, and everyone speaks Spanish. Erecting a wall is as good as erecting a 'not welcome' billboard." Millar's research shows the average visiting Mexican family stays four nights in the Valley and spends $5,300.

She grabs a pair of binoculars from a desk drawer and trains it out the third-floor window. "Look, a peregrine falcon," Millar says with excitement. Like many residents of this neotropical flood plain, where 513 of the continental United States' 730 bird species are found and 330 of some 500 kinds of butterflies, she keeps binoculars at hand. The large falcon is nesting in the cozy curve of a giant "C" on an upper floor of a Citibank building a few blocks away.

It's not just civic leaders, landowners, and nature lovers who oppose the fence. Nineteen-year old Sally Hart grew up among the tables of Mission's Riverside Club, a place of weekend barbecues, dancing, community birthday parties, live-music Friday nights, and "home cooking" on the river. Her father, Captain Johnny, has a 38-passenger sightseeing pontoon boat moored outside. Mother Jennifer says they built the place themselves over 25 years of "blood, sweat, and tears." Sally has her own reasons for not wanting a fence.

"It's personal to me," she says, looking over the wooden tables and hanging plants in the patio. "I want this to be a family thing forever." A junior at Texas A&M, she plans to help her folks run the place and eventually take it over. A fence would run between the club (they live on the lot, too) and the road. Not good for business. "I don't like to think of it," she says, looking confused. Memories of a safe and joyous lifetime on the river don't match perceptions of the place as a front line in the anti-terror war. A few days earlier, a Border Patrol slide show about the fence in Weslaco began with the disturbing, iconic image of the twin towers in flames. Take-home leaflets bear the same picture. Sally recently asked her mother to explain the concept of eminent domain.

"To think it could be taken away, by the government …" Sally says.

Experts like Martin Hagne, a nationally renowned birder and Executive Director of the Nature Valley Center in Weslaco, say the fence will decimate species in a biological area unique in the country. And disappearing wildlife tends to have a ripple effect. "When something is taken out of the equation other things are affected, habitat changes, other things will disappear and we don't know what," says Hagne. "Things are connected."

Down on the arroyo, late in the day, the birders push their boats onto still water that leads quickly into the foaming rio where the river's limestone skeleton emerges just enough above the surface to be a hazard, forcing the rowers to keep their eyes on the water. The Rio Grande twists wild and clear from Falcon Dam, shared by the United States and Mexico. Cliffs tower, and the water goes calm again. Almost hidden, an elongated Altamira oriole nest sways suspended from a branch in a sugar hackberry tree. The nest is weathered, dark and limp from last season. Lifting gently in the breeze, it looks like an oriental lantern whose flame has gone out. From the right bank, a great blue heron breaks across the water, impressive in size and volume. A white heron stands unmindful in the reeds. On the edge of a midstream island, a spotted sandpiper pecks staccato-like, feeding on insects. Then, a surprise: A bronzed cowbird, fat and feathery, is propelling its body straight up and down, over and over, a mating dance in a mesquite tree for a lady bird who sits quietly on the same branch. Montezuma bald cypress, with multiple spreading roots, ebony, and other trees crowd the shore, making it look dark and cool.

Eleven distinct biotic communities are found along the 170 miles of Valley from Falcon Dam to the mouth of the river. The variety of habitats means a variety of plants (1,200 species) and animal life, making this the most diverse biological locale in the United States. The Atlantic, Central and Eastern bird migration routes converge here, which means you can see birds from remote corners of the continent on their way north or south. And this is the northernmost point reached by some southern birds. Add to that birds found here and nowhere else, and you have one of the most productive bird-watching places in the world.

The tall, riparian forest along the river is where birds like the groove-billed ani, which have flown hundreds of miles, land and rest. Local chambers of commerce jointly produce brochures aimed at international travelers ("Drive on the right") and support festivals and observation centers that draw thousands in the autumn and spring. Wildlife tourism brings $150 million annually, and jobs, to the Valley. A fence could empty the goldmine.

Without the forest, the gray hawk, for instance, will disappear from here. The wide clearing for a physical barrier means certain migratory birds that stop to rest and gain strength will find no food. Many will weaken and die, or fly off and drop as they try to continue their journeys without nourishment.

By the 1970s, 95 percent of original Valley brushland and forest had been cut down, a process local author Arturo Longoria traces feelingly. In refuges established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, what's left is protected, and more wild space is slowly growing back as land is committed to butterfly parks and birding centers in Valley towns, painstakingly revegetated, often by volunteers. A protected corridor is being created for animals so they can thrive and reproduce. Millions of acres are protected on the Mexican side, and the wildlife department makes plans jointly with the Mexicans, because plants and animals don't recognize borders. The corridor is seen as one, binational.

Spotted ocelots, the Valley's sleek, emblematic, furtive animals, which once roamed over Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama, are now endangered. In the United States they are found only here. There are probably fewer than 100 left. Females make dens for their kittens -- one or two a year -- in brush like wild hackberry and Texas persimmon; when they are about a year old, the young cats disperse, especially the males, who must roam contiguous wild land for food and protection, claiming their own territory to survive. Naturalists like Hagne say fragmenting the Valley habitat with a fence would doom any comeback of the ocelots, and cripple, probably fatally, the long, slender jaguarundi, too, along with 20 other endangered species.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife has spent $100 million in the last 20 years to acquire refuge land and now protects 90,000 acres, much of it open to visitors. Local residents are deeply invested; they have raised money for land acquisition, too. The aim is a corridor of 134,000 acres. At the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge near Alamo, Public Outreach Specialist Nancy Brown says, "For 20 years this has been billed as a wildlife corridor, a place where animals might be unencumbered." With a fence, she says, "You go counter to the very reason for which it was established."

This is the way Joel Hernandez, a biologist with Pro-Natura, a non-governmental organization that oversees protected areas on the Mexican side of the river, sees the coming of a fence: "Within six months or a year, you'll begin to see animal life diminishing. You'll see more corpses on the roads. In three years, the big animals will be fairly gone. If they don't die because they can't eat, don't have their own territory, they'll die from people who shoot them in the open. You'll just stop seeing them, seeing certain things. Birds. The place will be more quiet."

On the river, the birding party -- a rancher, two naturalists, and a local DHS employee -- spot a red-billed pigeon on a high branch. For two of them, this is a "life bird" event, the term for the first time a particular bird is sighted. In all of the United States, the red-billed pigeon, Muscovy duck, and brown jay are found only within this couple of miles. These birds would not die because of a fence, but you would have to go to another country -- the Mexican side -- to see them.

A Journey into the Redneck State of Mind

On a remote East Texas ranch, surrounded by thousands of rowdy Southern whites, many drinking heavily and driving all-terrain vehicles at eye-popping speeds, the young German confronted images of mayhem and depravity. Flula Borg, a tall, curly haired musician, was an accidental visitor to the Texas Redneck Games outside Athens in early August. He came as part of a Los Angeles film crew keen on recording a bit of the backwoods revelry.

The 26-year-old Borg's only preparation for the resulting cultural collision had come in Germany, first from watching popular American shows like the "The Dukes of Hazzard" as a child, later from grown-up movies that cast rural Southern whites in a far harsher light.

With a goodly number of Confederate flags flying, crude signs asking women to disrobe, and the occasional "White Pride" tattoo on a sallow chest, the event's early signs were unsettling. "They seem friendly. I was a little scared. You see movies. You think they'll be loud, throwing people around," Borg said shortly after arriving, still feeling conspicuous as a foreigner. Having a tall, black cameraman with flowing dreadlocks in his group only added to Borg's anxiety.

"I was worried they'd be racist. I'm worried because I don't have tattoos and everyone else is wearing wife-beaters," he confided early that Saturday morning. Hours later, after viewing various gross and silly contests, including some that resemble ancient rites of public humiliation, and competing in the mattress chunk (taking third place), Borg had relaxed.

"Wow, it's crazy. It feels a little like a movie. I don't know anything like this in Germany," he said with open amazement.

As midnight approached that roasting Saturday, the fourth annual edition of the games staggered toward a rowdy, wasted crescendo. Half-clothed women screamed and threw panties at Kevin Fowler and his band on stage while sunburned, mud-flecked men, buoyed on beer and carnal impulses, bellowed out indelicate propositions.

Lost in the roiling, fetid scrum were the guys in black T-shirts from "Girls Gone Wild," who had spent much of the day recording half-drunk blondes in unclothed poses.

"It was a mob. Lots of beer-drinking. Lots of hell-raising. Girls on guy's shoulders, lots of them without shirts. I saw a couple of naked women driving ATVs. It was better than a titty bar," laughed Patrick Holt, 40, a Fort Worth computer programmer with deep redneck roots.

With his head wrapped in a Confederate-flag bandana and wearing a shirt that read, "Loud Pipes, Longnecks and Loose Women. Everything Else is Just Bullshit," Holt could have written the game's dress code. While many of the thousands at the four-day event on a sprawling 3,000-acre ranch came to race ATVs on the backwoods trails, others wanted the chance to turn loose their inner redneck animal.

"As long as we're out of harm's way, we're not hurting anyone, and we're having fun. Life is short," Holt said later. "I didn't see too much bad stuff. There was one guy who got way too drunk, fell off his ATV, and gashed his head open. When people tried to help him, he freaked out and started swinging. When security came, he ran, and they had to tackle him."

Beyond the gimme caps, heavy drinking, and blue-collar rowdiness, exactly what makes a redneck in this enlightened age?

"It's hard to explain. It's like the opposite of an Aggie," said Mike Maxwell, a welder from Longview who spent the lost weekend in Athens throwing strings of cheap beads at passing women.

While the etymology of the word redneck is not clear--it stems either from the sunburned necks of hardworking Southern whites or, more remotely, from red scarves worn centuries ago by rebel Scots unwilling to accept the Anglican Church--until recently it held little ambiguity. Redneck meant lowdown, poor, shifty, ignorant, bigoted, and hopelessly sorry.

In 1974, Larry L. King wrote a lengthy piece for Texas Monthly reliving his harsh, redneck upbringing in rural Texas and disabusing anyone of the notion there was anything remotely attractive or glamorous about any of it.

"Of late, the Redneck has been wildly romanticized; somehow he threatens to become a cultural hero," wrote King, who grew up hard-working poor in Eastland County and then moved to Midland to continue as working poor.

"Perhaps this is because heroes are in short supply in these Watergate years, or maybe it's a manifestation of our urge to return to simpler times," he mused, harking back to a bygone time free of computers, crooked politicians, and urban tangle. Then he rejected the popular concept.

"Attempts to deify the Redneck, to represent his lifestyle as close to that of the noble savage, are, at best, unreal and naïve," he wrote, going on to analyze the redneck as a hapless creature worthy only of pity and avoidance.

A decade and a half later, the unsavory image held, as songwriter Randy Newman sold a bunch of copies of an album titled "Good Old Boys." It included the song "Rednecks," which had memorable verses, including:

"We talk real funny down here. / We drink too much and we laugh too loud. / We're too dumb to make it in no Northern town. / Keepin' the niggers down."

For many Northerners and liberals, at least, that pretty much captured it. But time works cultural miracles. Somehow, menacing Bull Connor of Birmingham has become lovable Larry the Cable Guy.

As one certified redneckologist explained it, the term that was once a crushing insult is now worn by many as a badge of cultural pride.

"It used to be America's most respectable ethnic slur. You could say anything about Southern whites, and it was resented only by Southern whites," said James Cobb, author, college professor, and self-pronounced redneck.

"It's gone through this metamorphosis to where it's become more acceptable for Southern whites to call themselves rednecks. It's an aspect of the growing assimilation of the South into the rest of the country and the greater confidence of the Southern white male," said Cobb, who teaches history at the University of Georgia and writes books about Southern culture.

Nowadays, he said, redneck also implies certain attractive countercultural qualities, including self-reliance and a willingness to buck mainstream convention. "In a way, the rednecks are the hippies of the 1990s and early 21st century, sort of the dropouts from conventional society without a lot of the ideological trappings," he said. "A redneck does his own thing, regardless of what any bluenose, middle-class person thinks about it, living in his mobile home, with cars that don't run anymore up on blocks."

Pretenders are quick to latch onto a lifestyle once it becomes faddish, Cobb agreed. Some of today's rednecks, with their cubicle jobs and 401(k)s, would never have rated the slur decades ago. "Of course most people are playing games. It's a fairly convenient and cheap additional identity you can take on, and Jeff Foxworthy has made millions doing it," he said.

It was a bit over a decade ago that the original Redneck Games appeared as a spoof in Georgia during the same year the Olympics came to Atlanta. The Texas games started in 2003. Now even Canada has its own, somewhat misplaced version. All three summer events poke harmless fun at the stereotype of the lower-class, rural, white male who muddles through modern life, making do as best he can.

Being a redneck has become so popular there is even a Redneck World Magazine, published in Jacksonville, Florida, and claiming to sell about 220,000 issues a quarter. A recent edition featured the usual lame jokes about drunk rednecks, an article by Earl Pitts titled "White Trash and Rednecks Ain't the Same," and a lengthy rant against illegal immigrants.

Another Southern academic, Lana Wachniak, an associate dean at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said the growing popularity of the games illustrates how the once-negative redneck stereotype has lifted.

"These games are more a caricature of the Southern Buffoon, if you will. They are analogous to St. Patrick's Day festivities, when we all become Irish. We can all reinvent ourselves. If you want to become Bubba, its OK," she said. "By donning this redneck hat, you can get out there and talk to people, have a good time, and feel you are connecting."

As a promoter, Oscar Still knows that redneck sells. With such crowd-pleasing gross-outs as the competitive Spam and jalapeno eating contest and the redneck fear factor, in which contestants dip for animal parts in a trough of red soup, the Texas games were geared toward R-rated entertainment.

"The wet T-shirt contest is probably the biggest redneck game of all," said Still, 54, of Kilgore, and the man responsible for bringing the games to Athens. "Of course I take advantage of it. People like to be called redneck. I've got a doctor and a lawyer friend who will tell you in a minute they are rednecks. It's a heritage, cultural thing."

The games offered a "Daisy Dukes Showoff" featuring women strutting around onstage in cutoff shorts, as well as a coeducational butt-crack contest, not for the faint of heart. It all added up to a large, private adult party in the woods, with something for just about everyone. For the women, outnumbered 10-to-1, a lifetime worth of male attention was available in one weekend.

Not just white people attended, Still pointed out. "A lot of people used to associate the name redneck with racism, but that's not true. You can be a redneck and be a different color. You don't have to be a white boy to be a redneck, and your neck doesn't have to be red," he said.

A handful of African-Americans and at least one guy of color who spoke English with a mild Spanish accent were spotted at the Athens games. While most of the blacks were part of an Austin sound crew, a couple of others attended for the same reasons as everyone else: Beer, girls, and ATVs.

"The Confederate Flag doesn't bother me at all. There's no feelings to it. I'm just here to have a good time, to see some women," said Nolan Jackson, a skinny, 23-year-old black kid from nearby Canton. "I'll tell you what's redneck--a stripper pole on a trailer. They had one last night down by the pond."

Until the redneck games came along, Athens was best known as the "Black Eyed Pea Capital of the World," a tribute to J.B. Henry, the local farmer who a century ago figured out how to process the peas for human consumption. From its birth, city fathers have tried to promote a respectable image. History books tell us that it was not by chance it bears the same name as the seat of ancient Greek culture.

A neat and industrious, blue-collar town of about 13,000 people, it has a beautifully maintained courthouse on the square, a nice downtown business district, and some two dozen churches. There are no bars or package sales of alcohol, and the only drinks served come with food in restaurants.

When Still brought his ocean of beer, bare-chested women, and legions of crude-mouthed drunks to Athens, it did not go down well with everyone. In particular, the other local branch of the so-called redneck family, the one that goes to church, keeps its clothes on and speaks civilly to unattended females, was somewhat frosted.

"There was a lot of nudity, rowdiness, intoxication, people running wild on four-wheelers, underage drinking, and there was some assaults and fighting and serious injuries," said Lt. Pat McWilliams of the Henderson County Sheriff's Department.

"I'm from East Texas, and I know rednecks. Personally, I'm having trouble distinguishing the rednecks from the white trash," he said.

Part of the law's beef with Still was the size of the crowd, which was three to four times what Still had promised. It caused a crushing gridlock on the grounds, creating difficulties for police and medical personnel. By state law, any organized public gathering of over 2,500 people must have a permit that includes county oversight.

"We feel he lied to us. We know he did. He assured us there would be no more than 2,000, possibly 2,500 people there, and we realized quite soon that wasn't the case," McWilliams said.

So while the band dodged undergarments on stage that Saturday night, a far different scene was unfolding just outside the ranch gates as troopers and sheriff's deputies threw up a dragnet. Inside the festival grounds, state alcoholic beverage agents trolled for underage drinkers.

By weekend's end, more than 300 warnings were handed out, and nearly 100 people had been arrested or given citations for offenses ranging from driving while intoxicated to possession of marijuana to driving without insurance. Two people were ticketed for illegal dumping.

Sunday morning, as a paralyzing hangover gripped the ranch grounds, deputies with a search warrant seized Still's attendance records. "We're ready to go to court, showing 6,000, and we're still counting. It could go as high as 8,000," McWilliams said of festival attendance.

Dismissing the wholesale traffic stops and citations as "major overkill," by police, Still also took issue with the remark about "white trash."

"That's definitely an insult to the rednecks. White trash is basically the criminal and drug aspect," he said.

Still said he might try to hold the games again in Athens next year, despite a pending misdeamenor criminal charge against him and rumors that a civil suit will soon be filed to block him.

Legal issues aside, it's clear that being a redneck ain't hardly what it used to be, and that the Texas games are here to stay. After all, this year, around 7,000 self-described rednecks were willing to travel and spend a lot of money for the experience.

"If I stop drinking, this shoulder is gonna start killing me," said Stuart Fulton, 36, an offshore oil-field worker from New Orleans who earlier had nailed a stout tree with his Honda ATV.

"It's the freedom. A lot of these people work 60 hours a week, and all they have off is the weekend," he said. "You've got thousands of people out here. There's no fighting. There's no littering. There's just a bunch of people having a good time."

Fight Looms over Construction of Huge Texas-Mexico Freeway

The talk in West Texas this summer is La Entrada al Pacífico, and it's either a great opportunity to develop an international trade route, or it's a wretched plan that would ruin the pristine and unique qualities of the Big Bend region on the Rio Grande border with Mexico. There's not much sentiment in between.

Both sides hope a study by the Texas Department of Transportation will clarify La Entrada's short- and long-term impacts. At the crux of the issue are three questions: Are the trucks coming, and if they are, how many, and when?

La Entrada's pitch goes like this. Cargo ships from Asia and overflow ship traffic from Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Seattle will put in at a deepwater port in Topolobampo, Sinaloa, on Mexico's Sea of Cortez. From there, merchandise will be loaded onto trucks and railcars and transported across the vertiginous Sierra Nevada and Copper Canyon, through Chihuahua City eastward until it crosses into the U.S. at Presidio. Then the trucks will rumble up U.S. Highway 67, through Shafter ghost town and by Chinati Peak. Past Donald Judd's concrete boxes outside Marfa, the trucks will hang a right at the town's single, blinking red light and head for Alpine, where they'll duck under a low train overpass and chug straight through downtown. A few miles out of town, it's a left turn to Fort Stockton, then on to McCamey before turning onto U.S. 385 to Midland and Odessa.

The Midland-Odessa area is known for oil rather than commercial shipping or distribution. La Entrada promoters have set out to change that. The notion of the Entrada corridor was born in the mid-1990s, when the price of crude was generally less than $20 a barrel and the Permian Basin's oil-driven economy wasn't as bullish as today. Launched by a group called the Midland-Odessa Transportation Alliance, or MOTRAN, and members of Chihuahua state's economic development department, La Entrada promised to lift northern Mexico and the Permian Basin out of economic doldrums, and diversify business and job opportunities.

Midland-Odessa may be 800 miles from the Pacific Ocean, but folks from the Permian Basin dream big. "We originally started looking at an extension of I-27 from Lubbock to Midland-Odessa," says Charles Perry, MOTRAN's founder and a current director. "It helped to anchor it with a route on into Mexico, because at that time, NAFTA had just passed, and there was a push for better connections to Mexico. The more we looked at it, the more it really made good sense."

Over the years, MOTRAN has successfully lobbied for state and federal funding to improve highway infrastructure around the basin; some of the roads are linked to Entrada's route for commercial traffic. And they're proud of the support they've had at home: MOTRAN's website prominently features a photo of then-governor George W. Bush, a Midlander, signing legislation naming La Entrada an official state corridor back in 1997. Bush was in office -- this time in the White House -- when La Entrada won its 2005 federal designation as a "high priority corridor" on the national highway system. The group helped push for federal designation of the route. Little green signs that read "La Entrada al Pacífico" dot sections of the highway.

Big Bend residents have kept a collective eye on La Entrada for years, especially because of Mexico's progress with its road upgrades. Mexico, it seemed, was eager to advance. A new bypass was engineered and built around the steep, winding Peguis mountain range between Chihuahua City and the border town of Ojinaga. Economic development and transportation officials from Sinaloa and Chihuahua told Texas transportation officials about specific plans for the Entrada route through their states. Many of those improvements still have a long, long way to go before they're completed, but dire predictions started appearing in West Texas about the anticipated increase in truck traffic on La Entrada. Freight traffic at the Presidio port of entry has risen in the last decade from 2,897 crossings in 1996 to 6,616 last year. Those numbers don't offer an accurate window into how future traffic may evolve. Traffic projections for Entrada so far are wildly variable.

"There have been published figures that go from 25 trucks a day both ways to 4,000 a day," says Don Dowdey, president of the very active Big Bend chapter of the Sierra Club. "People tell me they've seen 5,000 a day published."

A 2006 report by Texas Transportation Institute researcher William Frawley strikes Dowdey as more accurate than others he's seen. Frawley calculates that 35 to 292 trucks going both ways per day would be diverted to the Presidio port within about five years.

"He went to Chihuahua and talked to shippers there about what they'd be shipping," Dowdey says. "It's the only study I've seen based on real data. And that's still a very large gap."

The route's multiple logistical problems make it hard to answer the "if, how many, and when" questions. The port at Topolobampo needs significant improvement -- maybe two years of work that hasn't yet begun, says a Chihuahua official. It must be deepened to handle really large commercial ships, and no port management firm has signed on to oversee the facility. There's no highway built yet that could sustain semitrucks carrying goods across the Sierra Nevada. The tunnels for rail traffic through Copper Canyon are too low to double-stack container cars, and the grade is too steep in places for long trains. Commercial traffic is processed by customs and border-protection personnel from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., weekdays only, at Presidio's international bridge. A plan to allow Mexican trucks and drivers into the U.S. -- and U.S. drivers into Mexico -- is still pending. La Entrada's original proposal calls for a four-lane highway through communities now served only by two lanes. Those little towns, like Marfa and Alpine, are ill-equipped for a tremendous increase in traffic volume, and construction of more lanes or bypasses would be years away.

That's what makes the current TxDOT study, the first comprehensive look at the route, so important. MOTRAN lobbied for the $1 million in federal funds that were eventually set aside for the study; the state kicked in another $600,000.

"What we're looking at is determining the feasibility of a four-lane, divided highway between Midland-Odessa and Presidio," says Peggy Thurin, statewide planning coordinator for TxDOT. "We'll be looking at the nationally designated La Entrada route and also other potential routes that the public has identified and our data have identified."

Then there's the awfulness factor. The Big Bend is wide and empty and isolated and severe, and that's why people like it. The city of Presidio could use the economic boost additional truck trade could bring, but locals in the rest of the area worry that traffic from a four-lane highway would spoil the country, blacken the air, and thwart tourists who come by the thousands. There's more state parkland in Brewster and Presidio counties than in all the rest of the state, say conservationists. Big Bend National Park alone is 801,000 acres.

"We're a place you can come to and get away," says Fran Sage, a Sierra Club member from Brewster County. "For us, La Entrada would be the destruction of one of the last places you can go to live or visit and have a satisfying experience with other people and the land. Once you run trucks through this area, it will never be the same again. Once it's gone, it's gone."

Dowdey adds: "To say this is a special area and needs saving is not a radical idea at all."

The TxDOT study began last fall, and by this spring, it was time to hold public meetings. The audience at Alpine's meeting on March 13 was 400-strong. The school auditorium was too small to hold everyone, and the crowd spilled onto the sidewalk. Asked for a show of those in favor of La Entrada, one soul, a trucking operator from Presidio, raised his hand. There were passionate speeches and strong feelings. About 40 people spoke, bringing up concerns that ranged from health issues to the safety of Mexican trucks to the desire for peace and quiet. Some thought the route benefited Midland-Odessa at the expense of the Big Bend.

"It grieves me that our state leaders would sacrifice this region for a few people in Midland," says Bill Addington, an activist and Sierra Blanca resident.

Many at the Alpine meeting also attended similar gatherings in Fort Stockton and Midland.

"I was a little surprised at the number of people who were at the Alpine meeting," Thurin says. "I think it's great. What the whole process is about is to talk to folks -- and they were willing to talk."

To tackle issues involved in the trade route, the consulting firm working on the study with TxDOT is meeting this summer with small groups of stakeholders to focus on La Entrada. A second round of public meetings will be held in late August or early September. A third round occurs around the first of next year. The research involves traffic models, current traffic, and a forecast of traffic in 20 to 30 years, information gleaned in part from discussions with the Mexican side of the Entrada equation. The study will be complete in spring 2008.

"Generally, at the end of the feasibility study, the results are turned over to district engineers," Thurin says. "If we find a four-lane, divided highway isn't feasible, but that we may see quite a bit of traffic, say around Marfa, one of our recommendations may be to look at a relief route. From that point, the districts would still need route-location studies to pinpoint exactly where the route would go and find funding. It's not like at the end of the study we'd be throwing down pavement immediately."

She assured the Alpine crowd this spring that the study would have no foregone conclusions.

"This is not a done deal," she says. "A lot of people assume that because there's a designated corridor, that we're going through the motions. That's not what we're doing, I promise. We're giving a good, unbiased eye to the corridor and seeing what we find."

Thurin had never visited the Big Bend before the Entrada study. "It's beautiful out there," she says. "I can appreciate people wanting to protect it. But if you have a lot of trucks that are really coming, it's better to prepare to address those should that be the case."

But are they coming? Big Bend residents aren't waiting for solid numbers and traffic forecasts to tell TxDOT what they think of the Entrada corridor. They've responded to the study and its call for public comment with zeal. A blog called Stopthetrucks.org is now online. The group Stewards of the Big Bend has organized. Letter-writing campaigns have been carried out. Café workers wear "Stop La Entrada" shirts. Petitions about La Entrada circulate at Marfa's weekly farmer's market. Homemade "Stop La Entrada" signs have popped up.

Despite the percolating anti-Entrada vibe in the Big Bend, Perry remains a staunch booster. Commercial traffic, he says, is like water -- it will seek the path of least resistance. He believes truckers will look to Presidio to escape the snarled port at El Paso.

"Some locals don't want it," he says. "I try to tell them, whether this traffic comes is not my decision. Realistically, this route is easier than going through El Paso. We should get ready for what we think is coming in the future and not wait until someone is strangling with traffic. Let's get the bypasses built first so we don't disrupt the local communities. A truck is not going to be diverted by a T-shirt or a sign in the yard."

Alternate routes have been floated at area commissioners' court meetings, though some don't seem too viable. One follows the Rio Grande through Candelaria and then up to Van Horn. Parts of it are difficult without a high-clearance vehicle, but the trucks would skip Marfa and Alpine entirely that way. Another would send trucks west from Marfa to Jeff Davis County, where they'd be shunted toward Interstate 10 at Kent on a section of a lovely, winding road known as the "Scenic Loop." The absolute shortest route from Presidio to I-10 goes through downtown Marfa and Fort Davis. It doesn't seem like there's a good alternative out there.

Unless you start thinking rail. It's possible that hundreds of trucks could be taken off the roads if their cargo containers were put on rail at Presidio. TxDOT owns the South Orient rail line from Presidio to San Angelo, and it's leased to a Mexican company called Texas-Pacífico. Here, too, are multiple problems: The track is decrepit in many places, and the speed on much of the line tops out at 10 mph. It would take many millions to get rail running, but according to one Chihuahua state official, rail is how the cargo will come -- if it comes.

"The road is not complete; there's still 250 kilometers to do on the road," says Armando Correa, an engineer for the Chihuahua state office of industrial development. "The highway at this moment is not possible because the Mexican government has no money to finance it. It's all mountain, it's too expensive, and we need the money for more uses than that road. The plan is to do it by rail. The railroad can only pull 20 cars; the most it can run is two runs per day, 40 cars. And we still have problems because the port has to be redone. We have a long way to go."

Correa points out that for Chihuahua, the goal of the Entrada corridor isn't simply to funnel goods to the U.S. "That's not the purpose of the corridor," he says. "If that were to be the case, there'd be no gain; we'd only see a train go by, and that would not give us any work. The purpose is to improve the conditions of the mountain region, which is very poor."

Once the shipping trade from Topolobampo gets going, he says, much of the merchandise would stay with Chihuahuan maquiladoras or be carried on to Juarez.

"Later on, maybe three, four, or five years, then some of the merchandise will go to Dallas," Correa adds.

While the Entrada corridor is being parsed here, some lively port planning is going on elsewhere. Government officials in Baja, California, this summer announced plans to open bids later this year for construction and development of a $9 billion "megaport" at Punta Colonet, south of Ensenada. The 6,200-acre megaport, which includes a rail component, will be adjacent to Baja's modern, transpeninsular highway that zips straight to San Diego two hours to the north. Promoters say it will be larger than the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports combined, handling 6 million to 8 million container units annually. Other Pacific port developments are ongoing at Lázaro Cárdenas and Manzanillo.

Perry is undaunted by the specter of competition. He maintains there's room for everyone.

"Topolobampo is a long-term deal," he says. "The ports at Long Beach and L.A. are going to continue to handle the traffic they can. With Topolobampo, we're talking years in the future, when they can no longer handle the traffic."

Still, the improvements needed at Topolobampo, the other ports in development, building the transmountain highway, constructing extra lanes or bypasses around Marfa and Alpine, pouring money into rail upgrades to the South Orient -- taken piece by piece, the logistics and cost of La Entrada seem nearly insurmountable, like maybe it won't happen.

"It will," Perry says. "When we started this, I said it would not happen in my lifetime. I'm 77, and it's not going to happen in my lifetime. We felt like this is a 40-year project, and it probably is. Over the next several years, we'll see steadily increasing traffic counts. As the congestion increases in the major areas like El Paso, then everybody is going to look for alternate routes to avoid that congestion. How do you stop it?"

The Immigrant Graveyards of South Texas

At the Side Door Café in Falfurrias, Texas, body counts enter conversations as naturally as the price of feed, or the cost of repairing torn fences. "I removed 11 bodies last year from my ranch, 12 the year before," said prominent local landowner Presnall Cage. "I found four so far this year." Sometimes, Cage said, he has taken survivors to a hospital; mostly, however, time and the sun have done their jobs, and it is too late.

As increased U.S. border security closes certain routes, undocumented migrants continue to come but squeeze onto fewer, more dangerous and isolated pathways to America's interior. One of these is the network of trails that bypasses the last Border Patrol checkpoint traveling north on Hwy. 281, in Brooks County. That change is having a dramatic ripple effect on the county (total pop: 7,685), and on people who have lived here for generations.

For one thing, the dead are breaking the budget. County officials earmarked $16,000 in fiscal 2007 for handling deceased indigents. That category includes the remains of undocumented Mexicans and other would-be migrants found within county lines. But by May, Brooks County had already spent $34,195 on autopsies and burials, "and we're just heading into the hot months now," said County Judge Raul Ramirez. It's also rattlesnake mating season, noted the judge, who grew up on the King Ranch. It's the time when the serpents move around most, biting the unwary and those who walk in grass and sand without high boots.

"Don't get me wrong. I'm glad to do this. I'd spend $120,000 if I had to because it's the right thing to do," Ramirez said in his modest office on Allen Street in Falfurrias (population 5,020), the county seat. "But we could be helping more of our own." About a third of Brooks residents live below the poverty line; average household income is $21,000; jobs are just plain scarce.

Pictures of the dead are kept discreetly in certain places in this town, a collective album that tells an important part of what Brooks County -- which used to be better known for oil, watermelon, and a Halliburton facility -- has become in the last couple of years: a grave for the weak or unlucky. The local Minuteman-type militia, for instance, has a collection of matted 11x14's. Some are artful: a skull amid crawling vines, a kind of meditation; a young man's figure with legs softly bent, his head thrown back against a bush with the arc of a ballet dancer's neck -- only an accompanying close-up of the winsome face, mouth open and vacant eyes, speaks death. Some remains are partially clothed. There is a condition that comes with too much sun: judgment wanes, and the affected person mistakenly believes stripping will assuage the heat inside. Many fallen dead from dehydration are found with jugs of water lying nearby; the inexperienced trekker -- especially when lost -- will save water instead of sipping it periodically, until a line is crossed in the brain and the person no longer feels thirst even as he is expiring from it. Among the pictures are corpses bloated so grievously they look ready to pop. The body of one young woman is not badly swollen, lying with face and torso intact, but her legs have been gnawed down to the long bones by a feral pig.

Luis M. Lopez Moreno, Mexico's consul in McAllen, said there are other changes that may add to the death toll. Since the border has become so difficult to cross, working men who moved back and forth annually are now stuck in the north, and family members unaccustomed to the trek are "trying to reunite" by traveling to the States. Women, arguably less able to withstand the journey, sometimes caring for children, are represented more in the migrant stream. Young migrants, the majority of those who come, are likely to be better educated and more urban now, less aware of how to manage themselves under extreme conditions.

"Hank," a guide for high-end hunters who doesn't want his real name used, thinks he saves lives. Unobtrusively, he turns hunters' blinds away from nearby trails so the "illegals" don't get shot by accident. This is also an attempt "to protect the psychological state of the hunters." They may be men fearless in high finance and politics -- Washington figures including both Bush presidents have hunted here, with Air Force One parked incongruously on the county airstrip. And the gentlemen may have the confidence big wallets can bring, paying well over $1,000 a day to stalk deer, spring turkey, quail (reportedly Bush One's favorite), wild pig, and imported exotic animals, and to stay at lodges with gourmet meals, bars, and wireless. Surprised in the wild by local human traffic, however, they can quake.

"Hunters, they get scared and panic, especially if it's something like a group of 30 coming through," Hank explained. "The illegals got so bad last year we had to buy two-way radios." Hunters can use the radios to call their guides for help. Hank's job has changed in other ways, too. "Before there was downtime to be in the truck, kick back, park in a pasture, and wait for the hunters." No more. "We stay within 100 yards."

Hank once discovered a man lying on his back, one hand on his forehead, knee up, as if he were resting. He had been cooked in place. Another body fallen in the middle of a trail had a path worn around it, where migrants stepped to avoid the corpse. Last Thanksgiving, he found one with "still a little meat on the head, but the arms and legs were detached, pretty much just bones, lying nearby."

At home, Hank reaches into the bed of his pick-up and pulls out a black backpack like the ones he finds "most every day." Inside are dirty clothes, a comb, deodorant, a razor, mirror, a pair of tweezers. It's typical of a pack left behind as a migrant emerges at a highway pick-up point, ready to blend in to America. Inside the house with his wife and two small children, Hank displays a silver-handled .380, which he started carrying only recently for protection, after 14 years on a job he used to love. Coyotes, those who guide the migrants for high fees, are vicious, he says. That's a good reason for not wanting to use his real name. They're not just from Mexico but are homegrown too, some from right here in town. But that's nothing compared to gang members he began to see two years ago. MS-13, he said, tattooed from head to toe and skinheads. Unlike other illegals, "they never talk to you." Hank never expected to see the kinds of things he sees now, and reluctantly plans to move on to another job someday, although he would like to spend a few more years at this one. "If I can last," he said.

Brooks County is some 70 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The checkpoint here tallies more interceptions and drug confiscations than any other in the nation. Migrants are either dumped just south of the checkpoint by coyotes, or they reach Brooks after walking all the way from la linea, which takes about 60 hours. They enter the ranches and desert stretches, avoiding the checkpoint until hours later - ideally for them - they reach highway pick-up spots around the town of Falfurrias or nearby ranches. The local Minuteman-type group calls one path west of 281 the Ho Chi Minh Trail because it's so heavily traveled. Other trails traverse hot sands, or in winter are mercilessly cold and wet. (One man found dead in a barn on Christmas Eve had tried to use feed sacks to keep warm.) The unfit, those held back by children, the old, and anyone else who can't keep up the brisk pace, are at risk. Coyotes don't wait. A kind of frontier law forbids those lost and left behind from attaching themselves to another coyote's group. This stark and stunning landscape, this once-welcoming town far from where immigration laws are made, is where the reality of U.S. immigration policy, or lack of policy, plays out darkly, in a way almost invisible to the outside world.

"We haven't got any input in policy," said Judge Ramirez. "The problem is here but you don't look here. How many politicians come here?"

"Washington, D.C., and even Austin don't have any idea what goes on," said Brooks County Sheriff Balde Lozano. "Worst is the deaths. We get there and sometimes they've been dead minutes, sometimes months. Some I'm sure are never found."

Lozano's office adjoins a parking lot where hundreds of confiscated cars from smugglers wait to be sold at auction. There are flashy sports models, family sedans, beat-up vans, new pick-ups. Some are painted with phony company logos. "It's gotten worse, that's for sure," said the sheriff. "There were always people walking. Now more vehicles are carrying people. There's more money in aliens than drugs now." The seized vehicles are Sheriff Lozano's source of funds to pay for night vision binoculars ($4,000 a pair) and a new jail. They also buy patrol cars that chase coyotes after "bailouts," the drop-offs and pick-ups that become frenzied and perilous when drivers realize they've been spotted, and migrants jump and scatter. But Lozano says the band of counties like Brooks well north of the border is "a haven for illegals" and deserves attention from those in Austin doling out funds for border enforcement.

"They don't know what we do here, how many vehicles we seize," said the sheriff. He refers indirectly to Operation Linebacker, Gov. Rick Perry's border security program created by the Texas Border Sheriffs' Coalition, which last year distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to each of the coalition's 16 member departments. But nothing came to counties like Brooks. "It's out of hand. They may be the linebacker but we're the receiver," said Lozano. "What about the border 100 miles inside?"

Police Chief Eden Garcia put it this way: "We should be included because the brunt of the force is coming through our communities. They're being housed in our communities and you better bet the chases are dangerous." (Both police and sheriff's departments have a policy of no pursuit. Spooked coyotes speed anyway.) The Falfurrias Police Department has its own lot for seized vehicles; last year they brought in $125,746. "Backpackers" is the name for small-time runners who go around the checkpoint carrying dope, "marijuana and coke, nickel and dime stuff," said Chief Garcia. But for the police too the big issue has become human traffic, because more who want to make a buck are turning to it. "We're not talking about drugs any more. Every car we stop is immigrants. It just pays more."

Lourdes Treviño-Cantu still calls them "travelers." Treviño is a descendant of Ramon de la Garza himself, one of the county's earliest settlers, who came in the day when tracts here were still granted by Mexico and Spain. Customarily, when passing migrants asked for food, Treviño's mother would slip inside the house, make a stack of tortillas, and take them out to the hungry travelers. But things have recently changed. "If it was the immigrants of old there'd be no fear; you'd live and let live. If they wanted to improve their lives that's fine. Before, the travelers came alone or with one or two of their family, and they were humble, polite. Now they come in packs. They're desperate, bold. A lot of them are pretty well dressed, and everyone seems to want to go to Houston. It's a completely different element."

Analysts and townspeople agree the vast majority of migrants are Mexicans who are very poor, or slightly less than poor and looking for a better job, or attempting to reach family. According to Sheriff Lozano, however, the first identified MS-13 gang member among the migrants was caught in Brooks County. Coyotes often have criminal records. Lourdes Treviño's extended family is more cautious now on the homestead, she said. A sister is constructing a fence around her house perimeter, a first for them.

Small habits, the kind that make up the comforting weave of a life one knows, are changing. Corina Molina, the county auditor, used to come out to the driveway in the mornings and start her engine while she returned inside to gather up a child, or exchanged pleasantries with neighbors doing the same thing. Since an undocumented migrant under pursuit grabbed one of the running cars and took off, the women of the neighborhood dropped the custom. Another county employee, Katy Garza, said she had witnessed a police action that very morning at one of the safe houses used by smugglers to keep migrants overnight. "I guess I'll be having to lock doors now," said Garza. "I have a granddaughter who plays out front - maybe that will have to change too."

Two women professionals in their fifties did not want their names used because -- like "Hank" -- they feared retribution from local coyotes if they spoke to a reporter. Locals who collaborate with the trafficking network are few, but "it's a small town," neighbors say, and some do not want to cross others they grew up with, or recognize on the street. "I thought with the National Guard on the border it would be okay, but the number [of migrants] is growing, and now I won't stay home alone," said one, an accountant whose home is in a rural area. She had her refrigerator raided, and shampoo swiped, but no jewelry or money. A few weeks back young women emerged from the brush and approached her husband, a backhoe operator, begging rides to Houston. Returning late from a party with office companions, all women, the accountant said she "realized something else new."

"Nobody wanted to go out and open the gate alone," she said.

The other woman said she recently answered the call of a man standing outside with a Bible, asking for food. "When I turned around 20 people with him came out of the woods," she said. "My life's changed. I don't want to get raped. I'm afraid."

Ninety-two percent of Brooks County's population is Hispanic, and even most blue-eyed Anglos are bilingual from the time they are toddlers. It's a culture that used to feel more connected to the immigrants coming through, documented or not, or at least not feel alien to them, because as Police Chief Garcia put it, "A lot of our families came the same route." But the greater number traversing the county now and the mischief this does to property, and a suspected criminal element that has slipped in among them, is straining that culture.

Presnall Cage grew up on the family ranch, 46,000 acres of it. "We had them come through for years, agricultural workers, only men," he said. "They hailed you and asked, 'Do you have work or food?' They walked, all the way from Mexico, singly, or maybe in twos, and they knew where the cowboy camps were, where they could pick up some coffee or a meal. Six months later we'd see them walking back, going home to join their families." Today big groups pass through the ranch, he said, and the guide has a cell phone and GPS. Cage spends more than $50,000 a year to repair property damage caused by the migrants, who bend or cut fences, break pipelines to get water, and leave gates open, which means cattle stray or get mixed up. His cowboys -- and this isn't the job they signed up for -- go out Fridays on litter patrol, collecting hundreds of pounds of plastic bags, jugs, backpacks, and other detritus. Cage thinks back to the old days, before the recent immigrant surge, and looks thoughtful. "We never had a body, all those years."

One bright afternoon Dr. Michael Vickers, veterinarian by profession and founder of the four-year-old Texas Border Volunteers, a civilian group, tears across two lanes of oncoming traffic and skids into the sandy drag just short of a ranch fence. He had spotted a black Suburban with darkened windows pulling away, the kind a coyote might drive. "There's 12 sets of tracks here," Vickers said with the eye of a lifelong outdoorsman. We're a mile south of the tower that marks the Falfurrias checkpoint. He calls some Volunteers to watch for "the perps" at the other end of the fence line, miles away. It's full sunlight. "They're brazen," Vickers said. He blames unscrupulous employers, the U.S. and Mexican governments, and the vile coyotes most for the mess, but he doesn't tolerate migrants who came to America illegally.

Along the highway, ranch fences bend where migrants climbed over them or crept underneath. T-posts slant at crazy angles, markers for human traffic. At one spot a 10-foot stretch of fence curves to the ground, clearly not a crossing for only one or two people. "That's a horde," Vickers says. We turn onto a caliche road, beach buff in the glare and throat-scratching powdery, traveling deep into Vickers's own ranch. Four whitetail does raise their heads. We travel the petroleum pipeline, one likely path. He says to keep an eye on the bush line too, because the aliens hug it. "Once they get into that heavy canopy it's hard to see them." Like some other ranchers, Vickers has installed a faucet near a windmill and painted it blue to make it easier for trespassers to find and drink from easily. Partly it's a humanitarian gesture, partly an economic one. Thirsty people break the floats and water runs out, burning a holding tank's submersible pump. Repair cost: $2,500.

The Texas Border Volunteers, most of them armed, track and surround migrants and coyotes. They're better equipped than local lawmen, and partly funded by ranchers, they say. Their stated aim is to communicate the location of illegals for authorities, "to report intel to the Border Patrol." They reckon 1,000 people come through daily, a number used by other sources, and only some are captured by the undermanned agents. "What gets me is their total disregard for our property, for state and federal laws," Vickers said of the "aliens." "I don't blame them for wanting to come, but do it legally. I'm mad. They're stealing our country."

Mike Vickers is well regarded locally, with a clinic and membership on a statewide animal health commission. He has some national fame, too: It was Vickers who originally isolated the "Ames" strain of Bacillus anthracis used in the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001. His 200 Volunteers come from across Texas and beyond, and include former law enforcement and military personnel. Especially at night, and particularly during a full moon, they fan out on horses, in white trucks and camouflage-painted ATVs, to operate on private property with landowners' permission. His Falfurrias ranch is in the "pick-up zone," off Hwy. 281 north of the Border Patrol station. In September an unclothed woman was found dead on his fence line. Some women leave groups to avoid assault, he said, and just don't make it to safety. Vickers' wife Linda once whipped out her Browning .380 to pin down a Brazilian migrant following her from the cabana to her house. "You're hosed if they have bad intentions," she said. "So you've got to make a decision about who they are within 20 feet even if you're armed." Once, said the couple, their dog appeared carrying a human skull.

Sheriff Lozano said that for civilians to surround migrants might be detaining them against their will, which could be against the law, "but no one has complained about it." Vickers admits the Volunteers dressed in camouflage appear like enforcement authorities, and the presence of the dogs they take with them is intimidating. But the aliens are technically free to keep walking, and if they don't know that, well, too bad. The Border Patrol says it doesn't encourage private citizens to do its job, which is dangerous.

But the Volunteers claim they disrupt coyotes' deliveries of human beings, save lives by finding the lost and straggling, and are on the spot to receive anyone who wants to "surrender" because they can't go any farther. Most of all, the Volunteers want the feeling they are doing something about uninvited newcomers.

Near 9 p.m. the operation begins. Cell phones off. Earpieces fixed. Radios clipped to belts. Scouts leave. Others deploy. The equipment in the vehicle in which I ride is hand-held. Night vision goggles make the panorama green and bright; every object is clear, but green. We overhear communications between Volunteers with handles "Cap" and "Rocky," and the driver reports our own concealed position to base. The Volunteers have 500 GPS points in the area as references; response can be quick. The thermal imaging equipment sees through the dark too, the tree line clear, mesquite feathery. It's a matter of looking for movement -- people lying flat can't be picked out among warm stones. Standing flush against a trunk, they're invisible. Thermal tracking makes the surrounding world not green but black and white -- whatever holds heat gives off a glow, so you can follow the very roots of trees, gnarled and continuous in the cool ground. Far off a Border Patrol helicopter drops a spotlight on the ground, the shaft faint at this distance. Close by, tree trunks look eerie because they are white. They look like winter, or like birches instead of oak, or dead. It takes time to tell the difference between a rabbit and a hunched figure that might be a man. It's magical in a way, the new eyes, the tangle of glowing lines and curves that transform themselves into deer with antlers looking soft, lolling in the sage. Catching moonlight.

But that's not what the Volunteers come for. Once you make out what you are seeing, and it's not a migrant moving toward his destination, unaware he's being watched, the idea is to keep scanning, keep looking....

In McAllen, Consul Lopez Moreno says the Mexican government supports a temporary worker program of some kind because it revives a system that worked well until the big U.S. immigration reforms of 1986 and 1996. "This was a revolving door. The United States opened or closed it as it needed," said Lopez. "Breaking the cycle is what has caused the problem." That "circularity" -- when workers went back and forth more easily between labor in the States and family in Mexico -- worked for both countries, he said. The United States needs workers. Mexicans need work. "But this way they're candidates for death," he said.

One-third of the consul's staff works in the Protection Department, which handles searches for those reported missing by families in Mexico, and repatriation of the deceased. It's a job that takes a daily toll, and McAllen is classified for diplomatic staff as a hardship post. José Luís Diaz Mirón Hinojosa, who goes to the field when remains are found, now attends 40 to 50 cases a year. "I can give certainty to people," Diaz says, returning the bodies of the missing. At least the dead from Brooks County are easier to identify than some -- about 80 percent can be sent home; around the Rio Grande the percentage is fewer, because remains deteriorate faster in the river.

The operation for matching data about the missing with data about the unidentified dead takes place in a small room at the consulate. One afternoon a dedicated HP computer has the words "mujer Falfurrias" fixed on the screen. It refers to identifiers of a dead woman: where she was found, the shape of her face, her mouth, her eyes. It's a public access system. Mexicans can check it, and perhaps match it to someone whose phone calls have stopped, or who have otherwise disappeared. A family can also initiate a search by filling out a form online and sending pictures, often a school or party photo.

Staff in McAllen photograph clothes of the unidentified deceased, faces, belongings, and the body itself, to help the family. "We try to be sensitive to the people," said Vice-Consul Sandra Mendoza. She may call a community telephone in a village, for instance, to contact a family of someone found dead, whose characteristics match someone who has been reported missing. She will instruct a family member to go to the Foreign Affairs Secretariat's computer in a nearby city to view the information or picture. Don't send a father or mother, she will caution. Mendoza shows me a photo of a cadaver just taken from the river. Young male. Green eyelids. Blackened lips. A mouth held open to show teeth, teeth that never saw braces. "We won't show them this kind of picture," Mendoza says quietly. "We'll show them first the pink comb he was carrying, and the label on his shirt." Identified, the body is placed in a pine coffin nailed shut "so relatives remember him as he was." Mexico City covers expenses for travel, and the family returns with the coffin to its village or town, in a truck or by bus or in a van, all together.

Hair, if available, is taken from remains that cannot be identified and stored in a repository at Baylor University for future DNA analysis, in hopes the deceased may someday have a name. "We can't leave Mexicans dead, without care," said Lopez. "If an American dies in Afghanistan the U.S. government is going to make sure they get back. We do the same thing with our own."

Often it's coyotes that lead lawmen to the dead. They call the sheriff or police. Once a coyote provided a map to the consul. Why coyotes? Before the mid-1980s, said Lopez, for migrants without documents "coyotes were not a ubiquitous factor, but now you need an organization." Paths have become less direct, trickier, sometimes requiring alternatives, things smugglers would know. If a coyote arrives at a destination without his human delivery, however, relatives or whoever else paid for the trip (about $3,000 for Mexicans, up to $25,000 for Chinese) demand to know why. By communicating with the lawmen the body is likely to be found, which saves the coyote from reprisals.

When Falfurrias Justice of the Peace Loretta G. Cabrera answers the office phone and hears "Code 500," she leaves for home, where a field set of boots, jeans, and raincoat are "always ready." At the site she methodically notes the time and distance from the highway. Clothing. If the body is intact, paramedics and the Mexican Consulate are called. The funeral home field director helps collect remains if they are scattered. "Sometimes identification is not difficult," says Cabrera. "When there are two ladies traveling together, one stays when the other dies; when an uncle dies a nephew stays; when one brother dies the other stays." Sometimes, according to the consulate, phone numbers have been written on an arm, or even tattooed, either a premonition or as preparation for a journey whose risks are understood. The body goes to Corpus Christi, where the coroner performs an autopsy, and fills out a death certificate that invariably lists the cause of death as exposure. Then it goes to the funeral home. The mortuary charges the county a low flat fee, a little extra if the work requires a disaster bag (thick, black, with a firmly closing zipper, used when remains are not intact). "You walk out at the end of the day and don't think about it," said Cabrera, a small woman. "The Lord gives you strength. Someone has to do it."

This routine of logging the dead repeated itself 56 times in Brooks County last year. (Only 20 persons died in the county apart from migrants, for a county total of 76.) In total, the Border Patrol recorded 453 border deaths including 187 in Texas and New Mexico. (New Mexico is included in the Border Patrol's El Paso sector.) A General Accounting Office report last summer said recorded border deaths have doubled since 1995. It also said the Border Patrol initiative to collect data may be resulting in an undercount. No one knows, of course, how many die without leaving recoverable remains.

There is a small logistics problem emerging with regard to the unidentified dead in Falfurrias: Their section in the cemetery is running out of room. "We didn't see this before," says the mortuary's field director, Angel Rangel, who has worked there 27 years. "Not a month goes by now we don't find cadavers." Once the funeral home kept just two disaster bags in stock; today it orders cases of six to 12 at a time. The mortuary is purchasing a 4-wheel drive truck because its van meant for paved streets is a ruin. "It might not sound like you want a loved one in the back of a truck but it's the best way to take them out," Rangel explains. He uses the term "loved one" for migrants, not "aliens," "illegals," or even, when they're dead, "deceased."

"Well, they're someone's loved ones," he says. Like other locals, Rangel opines that as long as Mexicans need work and families want to be together, people will continue to risk the journey. "And the smugglers will keep telling them it's not that hard. People have no idea they have to walk. We find housewives and the overweight. If you're already sick, you won't make it. The sand gives way as you walk so your feet start to burn. We find them with blisters all over their feet."

Rangel seems affected by what he has seen, maybe because he makes the first call to the family for those who are easily identified. He wants me to know, however, that any relative who happens to be traveling with the dying person sticks around, even though it means both will fail at the enormous task they began. "They walk out there, father and son as a unit, a loved one slowly deteriorating. Here all those dreams just die, in the middle of nowhere."

On an early spring morning, mist hangs among trees in the Sacred Heart Burial Park. About two dozen graves lie in a section by themselves, each topped with a small aluminum marker scratched with a pen knife. Names: "Unknown," "Skeletal Remains," "Remains, Male." One says, "Unknown Female, d. Feb. 22, 2007." They are graced with a motley collection of plastic flowers, some nearly overgrown by tufts of grass, others dusty, but adding color and linking the section somehow to the better-kept graves in the rest of the cemetery. Each aluminum marker names the ranch where remains were found: El Tule, Cage, King, Vickers, Laboretto Creek... A single bird sings in short bursts up in a tree somewhere, unseen. No one attended these burials. Where do all the plastic flowers come from? A caretaker passes. He shrugs. "Gente de buena voluntad," he says, as if the answer were obvious. "People of good will."

The Accidental Coyote

The seduction of easy money, $1,500 for a quick trip to Houston with an undocumented passenger, and no checkpoints to cross - has been too tempting for some residents of Falfurrias. "Bill," 43, a heavy equipment operator with a wife and daughter, became a criminal two years ago, an accidental coyote. Someone offered him big money to take an illegal immigrant who had just made it through the desert for a no-risk ride - he'd start from north of the last Border Patrol checkpoint - and the extra cash became a habit. Recently he's started working with a more serious, deliberate coyote, now running him down to Mission twice a week for $700 each time - again no risk, since Border Patrol isn't likely to stop a car traveling south. There are probably fewer than a dozen such local coyotes, authorities and Bill say, and probably half of them would be doing something illegal anyway, running small amounts of dope, for instance. But Bill had never been in jail in his life, except for a few hours in high school for speeding. He's not one of the despicable coyotes who lie and would just as soon leave someone to die when he's squeezed off schedule. "I was trying to start a septic tank business. If I do it seven more months I think I can start."

But the extra cash has helped Bill revive an old cocaine habit. And when a cop stopped him for an out-of-date tag and found an undocumented person in the car, Bill was warned and released but it went on his record, so he lost his good regular job and has settled for one that pays less. Starting the septic tank business may take more time than he thought.

He should quit or be extra careful; if he's caught again he goes to jail. But now he's a little afraid, just like some townspeople are cautious about local coyotes, lest they be connected to mean ones. "They should be afraid," suggests Bill. Not of him, he insists, of others. "We each work with a chain and if you steal someone off another one's chain or do something else they don't like they say, 'The mafia will take care of you.' That's the Mexican mafia."

Bill doesn't think he'd make it in prison. "I'm not the prison type," he said.

Note: Images of the Dead -- There is a human toll to illegal immigration. The corpses of men, women, and children who perished trying to enter the country are routinely found in Brooks County. They are photographed by law enforcement officials and private citizens. Police use the photos to investigate the deaths. Private citizens bring them to their elected officials and urge action. The Texas Observer has made available a photo gallery of some of these photos which illustrate the human cost of immigration policy. Warning: The images are very graphic and disturbing.

A Baffling Texas Supreme Court Ruling Could Make Juries Irrelevant

The soft drink business in East Texas was a relatively friendly affair when Jerry Dudley started out 40 years ago. Family-owned companies bottled colas and fruit drinks, and sold them to local grocers or mom-and-pop convenience stores. There was competition, but it wasn't cutthroat. There weren't international conglomerates trying to muscle you out of the market, and maybe drive you out of business.

But in the early 1990s, that all began to change. Dudley, president and general manager of Harmar Bottling Co. in Paris, Texas, began seeing his soft drinks nudged from prime shelf space -- even out of stores entirely -- to make way for a competitor's products. He watched local bottlers disappear one by one, losing the struggle to stay in business.

It got so bad that Harmar and some of his fellow independent bottlers banded together and sued the heavyweights of carbonated beverages -- Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. and Coca-Cola Inc., Pepsico Inc. and Pepsi's bottler, Delta Beverage Group -- claiming that in their zeal to dominate the region's soft drink market, the corporate titans had broken Texas law by engaging in predatory, anticompetitive business practices.

Pepsi settled before trial. Coke -- with its never-say-die litigation strategy -- fought the suit. In 2000, after a six-week trial, a jury in Daingerfield, Texas, found Coca-Cola Enterprises -- a bottling company 40 percent-owned by Coca-Cola -- guilty of breaking state antitrust laws. Although a far cry from the $100 million they were hoping for, Harmar and the other regional bottlers won a $15.6 million judgment. Almost seven years later, they have yet to see a dime.

In late 2006, after sitting on the case for nearly two years, the Texas Supreme Court finally ruled on Coke's appeal of the suit. By a 5-4 vote, the state's highest civil court threw out the verdict.

Reversing a multimillion dollar judgment is not out of character for a court packed with conservative judges, six of them appointed by Gov. Rick Perry before winning pro forma elections. But the legal reasoning that the slim majority used to justify its ruling was so alarming -- and sets such an unappetizing precedent -- that it has spawned incredulity in Texas legal circles.

In effect, the court reviewed the evidence and decided the jury was wrong. It was a remarkable reach beyond the court's usual exercise of power.

Ordinarily, appeals courts give great deference to a jury's conclusions. Jurors, after all, are the ones who hear the witnesses, review evidence, and deliberate the case. A court usually has a compelling reason when it decides to disregard the jury's conclusions.

What that reason might be is not clear in this case. More than a few scholars argue that the state Supreme Court doesn't have a sound legal principle with which to justify its decision. Worse, they fear it opens the door for other Texas courts to begin arbitrarily tossing aside jury verdicts with which they disagree. If the high court continues on this course, they say, the constitutional right to a civil jury trial could be in jeopardy.

Dudley and the bottlers have asked the court to reconsider its decision, because they'd still like to get their money. Law professors from across the state have joined that request, arguing there is now much more at stake then who sells the most diet sodas in East Texas.

"It's elitism versus egalitarianism," says Nelson Roach, who represented Harmar Bottling during trial. "It's whether or not you believe that ordinary people have the capability to collectively judge the facts of the case. There is a movement that has been very hostile to the rights of juries to make decisions, and this case is part and parcel of it."

It started in the early 1990s, Dudley recalls. At the time, local bottling companies competed to sell soft drinks to retailers in Northeast Texas and neighboring swaths of Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

Then the big boys -- Coca-Cola and Pepsi -- arrived and began taking over the market.

In Dudley's Northeast Texas territory, Coca-Cola Enterprises snapped up local bottlers to distribute Coke and Dr Pepper until it accounted for 75 to 80 percent of the total carbonated beverage sales in the region. From its position of market dominance, Coke started putting the screws to Harmar and other small beverage companies.

As Coke moved in, Dudley says, it kept getting harder and harder for the dwindling number of independent bottlers to make a go of it. Coke cut deals with retailers -- called calendar marketing agreements -- that gave preferential treatment to Coke products. Soda companies compete fiercely for the best shelf space and promotions in stores, particularly convenience stores, where they make most of their profits. Harmar products, such as Royal Crown Cola and 7 UP, were being consigned to the bottom shelf in refrigerators and aisles, with little way to announce their presence.

Entire product lines -- such as A&W Root Beer, Orange Crush and Country Time Lemonade -- were prohibited by name from some stores. In other instances, shops were required to price Coca-Cola products lower than their competitors, in effect forcing retailers to increase the price of Harmar's drinks, even when their wholesale cost was lower. And, Dudley notes, in stores where his drinks were forced out entirely, the price of Coke would go up, sometimes by as much as a dime.

"Ten cents doesn't sound like much," Dudley says, "but there's 24 bottles in a case. That's $2.24 per case, and they do millions of cases -- so we're talking about a huge amount of money."

In 1994, Harmar and the other bottlers filed their lawsuit against Coca-Cola and Coca-Cola Enterprises, alleging violations of the Texas Free Enterprise and Antitrust Act, which outlaws companies from engaging in predatory, anticompetitive business practices. (Pepsi and its bottler sent an expert to be a witness for the plaintiffs.)

When the suit came to trial in 2000, the case turned on whether Coca-Cola's actions constituted a harm to competition, which is forbidden under Texas antitrust law, or harm to competitors, which occurs every day in a free market.

"Part of what goes on in business world is taking business away from competitors," says Jerry Beane, a lawyer for Coca-Cola Enterprises. "When you do that, your competitor suffers some sort of harm as a result. It's no more complicated than Toyota selling a lot of cars or trucks to people who otherwise would have purchased Ford or GM vehicles. That's the process of competition."

Roach, who represented Harmar, counters that by limiting a company's ability to reach consumers in retail outlets, Coca-Cola harmed competition. Moreover, in the soft drink business, harm to competitors raised red flags as well.

"The cola market is a mature, highly concentrated market with high barriers to entry," Roach says. "That means if you get rid of somebody, nobody is going to re-enter the market and compete against you."

On June 21, 2000, a jury found Coca-Cola guilty of antitrust violations. Although the judge refused to order Coke to sell its Dr Pepper distribution rights as the plaintiffs had requested, he awarded the bottlers $15.6 million in damages.

Coke appealed the decision. In 2003, a unanimous state court of appeals affirmed the trial court's finding that Coke's marketing agreements "could be read to restrict trade and impact competition" in violation of antitrust laws.

If the story ended there, it likely would be a footnote in the modern struggle between big corporations and independent businesses, and a mere skirmish in the global cola wars. But Coca-Cola challenged the appellate court decision, and the Texas Supreme Court took the case. A year later, it heard oral arguments. After letting the case languish on its docket for another two years, the court reversed the jury's decision.

The right to a jury trial is enshrined in both the Texas and U.S. constitutions. Whether it's a 12-person trial for criminal cases or seven for civil proceedings, jurors are entrusted to consider the facts and render judgment. Judges provide the jury with guidance on points of law, but in the end, it's the jury that weighs the competing claims and arguments of both sides and determines where the truth lies.

"The judiciary is the only branch of government where the ordinary citizen has the authority to decide civil and criminal issues, and juries have unlimited authority under the Constitution with regard to their findings of fact," says U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin. "It's really an amazing system, and it's worked for well over 200 years."

Jury verdicts are often appealed by the losing party, but usually those appeals turn on a point of law -- whether evidence was admissible or not, or the jury received improper instructions from the judge, or there was some other sort of procedural mistake. Rarely will a court -- even the U.S. Supreme Court -- delve into the validity of a jury's findings of fact.

According to Texas legal precedent, an appeals court will reverse a jury's ruling only if there is no more than a "mere scintilla" of evidence to prove some essential fact that the jury relied on to reach its verdict. But lack of evidence was one of the key pegs on which the Texas Supreme Court hung its decision to overturn -- despite what many who have reviewed the case believe to be an abundance of evidence to support the jury's decision.

Writing for the majority, Justice Nathan Hecht based his ruling on two factors: First, he adopted an argument made in a friend-of-the-court brief by the attorney general of Alabama by holding that Texas courts have no jurisdiction over antitrust violations in other states. Second, Hecht struck down the jury verdict as applied to antitrust violations in Texas, writing that the plaintiffs had presented no evidence that the market as a whole was harmed by Coca-Cola's actions. There was no evidence that a substantial amount of competition was adversely affected, he wrote, and no evidence that prices were generally higher. Any proof of market harm was in "relatively isolated instances." The jury came to its conclusion without a basis in fact, Hecht argued: Coke's conduct surely harmed its competitors, but it didn't harm competition.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Scott Brister -- never mistaken for a friend of the trial lawyers -- vehemently disagreed. Hecht's holding that Texas courts did not have out-of-state jurisdiction, he wrote, was "unprecedented." While Texas law could not be applied to out-of-state actors, state courts were not barred from applying similar out-of-state laws. "Unless our sister states define monopolies or restraints on trade differently than we do, it makes no difference whether the jury's findings were based on Texas law or some other," Brister said.

As for Hecht's ruling that there was no support for the jury's verdict, Brister countered that Coca-Cola's demand for lowest pricing in a store, its prohibition of certain competitors' products, and its ban on competitors' signs in stores were all that was necessary to prove an antitrust violation, regardless of whether actual injury to competition was shown. "Agreements expressly intended to raise prices and reduce consumer choices harm competition," Brister wrote. "Jurors were entitled to conclude that Coke's agreements were, in several respects, intended to accomplish just that."

Three of the four newest justices on the all-Republican court -- Paul Green, Phil Johnson, and Don Willett (the latter two Perry appointees)--joined Hecht's opinion along with Dale Wainwright. Three of them -- Green, Johnson, and Willett -- weren't on the court when the case was argued in late 2004. Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Justices Harriet O'Neill and David Medina joined Brister's dissent.

Dudley was shocked when the decision came down on Oct. 20, 2006. His 12-year legal battle, complete with victories at the trial and on first appeal, were rendered meaningless.

"I don't understand the legal system where good people in Daingerfield, Texas, sat on a jury for six weeks, heard mounds of evidence, testimony from retailers and parent company people and everyone, make a decision in our favor, and that decision could go to the appeals court and get a unanimous decision in our favor, then all of a sudden the Supreme Court just null-and-voids everything these people saw and heard, and what they said," Dudley says. "It seems like there's something wrong with it."

Dudley wasn't the only one to see something wrong with the decision. If Hecht and his colleagues had been members of the Daingerfield jury, their opinion as to the facts of the case would have been unremarkable. But when a bare majority of state Supreme Court justices second-guess a jury's verdict, it turns some heads.

When Harmar petitioned the court for a rehearing, a number of prominent law professors from around the state lined up to file friend-of-the-court briefs condemning the court's decision. While one Texas Tech professor (and a brief by the attorney general of Oklahoma) focused on interstate jurisdictional issues raised by the court's decision, the primary source of concern was the overruling of the jury verdict on factual grounds. On this, Lonny Hoffman of the University of Houston Law Center was one of those leading the charge.

"I was pleased that so many of my colleagues that I reached out to had a common view," Hoffman says. "[The original jury's conclusions] looked like a pretty good verdict -- and a whole lot of other people thought that, too."

Hoffman wrote a brief joined by professors from Texas Tech, the University of Texas and SMU. Although he admits he's not familiar with some of the specifics of the case, he says if reasonable people seem to disagree on whether the Daingerfield jury reached the right verdict, that's reason enough for the Texas Supreme Court to keep its hands off. If the decision were to stand, he said, it would set a disturbing precedent for the sanctity of future jury verdicts and tilt the legal playing field in Texas even more steeply toward well-heeled defendants.

"My concern is a nightmare scenario where the plaintiff is an individual who has a lawyer on contingency and nobody's getting paid until the thing finally gets finished on all appeals," Hoffman says. "And what Harmar does is incentivize defendants to drag out litigation even after they've lost. It is a pretty strong signal to defendants that it ain't over till it's over."

Coca-Cola's lawyer sees it differently. "It disappoints me that law professors would argue that a jury verdict should not be overturned while at the same time saying that they have not studied the details," says Jerry Beane. "One of the functions of the judges of the Texas Supreme Court is to study details."

But according to Judge Sparks, when the state Supreme Court delves into fact-finding, it shows a profound disrespect for the jury system.

"I feel that sometimes the appellate courts think they can better solve the case than the jury did," Sparks says. "But they didn't hear the witnesses, they didn't test their credibility--they're just looking at a blank record. It's probably with the best intentions; they just think they can make a better resolve than the jury. And if they're going to do that, they ought to get a constitutional amendment."

Sparks, who often writes and speaks on the importance of juries, says he sees the Texas Supreme Court's decision as further evidence of a growing distrust of the trial-by-jury system throughout the country. When combined with a greater reliance on mandatory arbitration and plea-bargaining, it has meant that fewer and fewer cases appear before juries. What was once an enshrined right that the Founding Fathers fought for is in danger of falling into disuse. In the current session of the state Legislature, there are even proposals circulating that would prevent more complicated cases from appearing before juries such as the one that decided the Harmar case in Daingerfield.

According to Sparks, however, time and again juries have proven to him that they are capable of understanding and passing judgment in even the most complicated cases. "Every case I try here, I talk with the jury afterwards, and it just amazes me," Sparks says. "And when I was a defense lawyer, sometimes a jury wouldn't do what I wanted them to do, but I never saw a jury do anything without a reason."

Sparks insists that if the trend away from jury trials is going to be stopped, it will have to come from public outcry -- and not just from the objection of law professors and judges. "People need to start becoming more aware of the problem," he says. "A jury trial is a right that everyone has, and nowadays we don't have all these rights anymore. This is one we want to keep."

The Texas Supreme Court must now decide if it will second-guess its decision to second-guess a jury. Given the high-profile criticism of its decision, as well as the close nature of the verdict, Roach has hope that the court will grant the motion to reconsider and revisit the case. If the court doesn't act before the end of May, under administrative procedure the motion to rehear will be denied.

"I feel they're not quite sure what to do with this hot potato," Roach says. "Do they think they can skirt by public disapproval and disapproval by their peers by just not acting on it?"

Back in Northeast Texas, Dudley and Harmar Bottling continue their uphill fight. While a final winner has yet to be determined in the courtroom, out in the real world the verdict is a little clearer. Although Coca-Cola has backed off from some of the more aggressive provisions in its marketing agreements, such as bans on certain brands and lowest-price guarantees, independent bottlers are still struggling. In fact, Harmar is the only one of the original plaintiffs still in the soft drink business. And according to Dudley, his company's future is shaky.

"We're constantly facing cash-flow issues," Dudley says. "We've had to cut costs wherever we can. We've had to cut back on services and cut back on personnel. It's not as much fun as it used to be."

Anthony Zurcher is a freelance writer and editor living in Austin.

What the War on Terror Has Done to Texas

Under the night sky an armored skybox lifts its sleek head from the sand and rises into the air on hydraulic legs, jerking into place like some monstrous desert insect. At the controls, a 21-year-old Texas National Guard soldier packing a 9 mm semiautomatic sidearm watches a gray-toned screen, where figures tracked by a night-vision camera appear from behind a mesquite bush, duck behind it again, then materialize once more, moving north toward the Rio Grande. The soldier, recently returned from Iraq near the Kuwait border, watches alone in the air-conditioned box. He's looking for illegal border-crossers, just as he searched out "the enemy" -- the object of military reconnaissance -- in the other desert. From this height, an irrigation canal winds slender and graceful as a rivulet below, under a half-moon that gives just enough light to confuse the naked eye about what it might be seeing in the distance. People? Animals? Iraq prepared him for this mission, the soldier says, with experience in "staying vigilant, alert."

Later, on the ground, the soldier's partner emerges from a white vehicle parked on the canal road, packing his own Beretta, wearing a couple of ropes of extra ammunition around his neck. Will he have to use the weapon? The soldier, dressed in camouflage, stands in the dark with a million stars behind him. "I doubt it, but if I have to, I'm prepared," he says.

Five years after the events of 9/11, this is what the war on terror looks like on the West Texas border. During a rare, prime-time television address to the nation in May, President Bush announced Operation Jump Start: the deployment of 6,000 Guard troops from San Diego to Brownsville, an increase in Border Patrol personnel from its current strength of 12,000 to 18,000, and "bringing the most advanced technology" to the border line, including the kind used in Afghanistan and Iraq: more infrared cameras, motion sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles. Because of rotations, the number of National Guard expected to serve on the border in the next two years will reach into the tens of thousands. Yet Bush insists, "The United States is not going to militarize the southern border."

But the terror war here is not just marked by the coming of soldiers. It's a campaign marked by elements of low-intensity conflict, or LIC. That is the same doctrine, codified during the Reagan administration, which shaped U.S. assistance to Central American countries in the 1980s. Areas were militarized to control local populations while insurgencies flared. There's no insurgency here, but there are drug runners and unlawful immigrants. LIC includes military deployment, such as that of the Guard, and paramilitary presence, like the Minutemen, but it's more. It's a doctrine that blurs the lines between civilian and military, and between local and federal authorities. It's a doctrine that calls for militarization in the name of national security, turns civilians into suspects, puts rights at risk, changes the air, uses fear as a tool of control.

In San Elizario, a town near the skybox, neighbors often come over to Ray Carrillo's on afternoons when they want to drink a beer and shoot the breeze, and lately to talk over the change in atmosphere, a feeling like the coming of war. They call Ray Camaron, either because he was red as a shrimp when he was born "or because I'm real short." It's not just the soldiers they talk about. Citizen militias like the Minutemen-a local one is called the Border Regulators-have appeared. And they talk about the sheriff. From January to June, the El Paso County Sheriff's Department jumped the firewall between local and federal authority, setting up Operation Linebacker blockades in colonias and towns like this one, asking even U.S. citizens who looked Mexican to present papers.

Late in 2005, Gov. Rick Perry initiated Operation Linebacker "to increase both public safety and national security," distributing $10 million to date to 16 border sheriffs' departments. Perry's Linebacker is a politically mindful, "get-tough" stand, taken while immigration is exploding as a national issue. It plays well to voters who can be convinced that we have "lost control" of the border. But the cost can be high. El Paso deputies detained 860 undocumented persons under Linebacker in the first half of 2006, many with deep roots in local communities, and turned them over to the Border Patrol. Rights monitors claim public safety is being undermined because residents have become more afraid to call law enforcement for any reason, out of concern they will be asked for documents. Arguably, the air of mistrust also crimps any search for bona fide terrorists, work that depends greatly on community policing and intelligence. Not every sheriff's office in the coalition uses Linebacker funds the way El Paso does. Local enforcement chooses how grants are spent. Yet Linebacker's motivator statewide is national security, central to its drawing power for funds, and it's the kind of sanction that gives a green light to local law enforcers to become de facto federal law enforcers.

One day Carrillo, a U.S. Navy veteran, stood in his welding yard, amid machinery and tankers under repair and barking dogs. He pulled out his cell phone and called the Spanish language TV station in El Paso as neighbors and his workmen were being picked off at the roadblocks. It was a cry for help, or at least for some attention from the wider world. "I've lived here 24 years, and there's been nothing like this before," says Carrillo, a 36-year-old father of two.

"That's the Torres house, that's Martinez, that's Garcia-he's in the service-and that's Telles, the one they named the street over there for," says Carrillo on a ride through town. He waves at the driver of a passing truck. "And there goes my brother." This part of San Elizario began as a rough colonia, unimproved lots where families have seen water come to houses only in the last few years, although many, like Carrillo's mother, don't have gas yet, and sewage systems are still a dream. That means part of Camaron's business is modifying the trucks that go around cleaning septic tanks. He sweeps an arm to take in concrete brick houses rising among the nopales and pink tunas, and a developer's sign that announces: Coming Soon - Mission Style, 31 Lots. Progress in making colonias a decent place to live has come hard, but now people are scared. Households have always been a mix of citizens, legal residents, and undocumented relatives, but the war on terror is changing lives. Take a ride around other colonias east of El Paso -- Agua Dulce, Sparks, around Horizon and Montana Vista -- and you hear more. For weeks during the Linebacker stops, neighbors brought food and diapers to houses where fathers had been taken by authorities and mothers didn't dare go into the streets. Priests reported churches vacant. A clinic usually bursting with the uninsured stood empty of families, the sick unattended. Today those who are undocumented, and relatives, remain uneasy. Around San Elizario the occasional Lazy Boy or old sofa in a yard sits empty. "People used to walk around more, used to walk down along the edge of the cotton field over there along the river for exercise, late in the day," says mechanic Jessie Rubio, 46, a friend of Camaron's.

On a July morning, as Rubio spoke under a shade tree outside the family's trailer home, his 11-year-old son, Jose Luis, tinkered with a car engine, and a lone, white egret was the only other creature visible in the expanse between Rubio's yard and the line that marks the border. "What if a Minuteman mistakes me and shoots me?" he asks. Then there's the Guard. "They can make a mistake with somebody taking a stroll, because now there's too many guns and too many people. Somebody will say, 'I'm an American, you can't tell me what to do,' and there'll be trouble. Sometimes you get mad when you get asked so much for papers. You feel racism starting to climb. You can feel the tension." Being asked for papers to go to the store "felt like those countries you hear about where soldiers and police are taking over and can search you," says Rubio, whose parents immigrated from Chihuahua when he was six. He votes, and like other residents, is pleased when he reads the Border Patrol has busted drug runners. "They could hurt my son," he says. But Rubio feels less ownership of his neighborhood now, questions why it's feeling like a front line, and senses danger. "In a war situation you're looking at people and asking, 'Friend or foe?' Well, now you're getting people coming in from different parts, the Guard and Minutemen, and here we all look the same. In a war zone they don't know who is who."

Guard spokesmen reiterate that soldiers have authority only to call in the Border Patrol, not to arrest suspicious persons. Yet on the ground, fear of running into a soldier and being challenged is far greater than running into a Border Patrol agent. Partly this is because agents are familiar, but the soldiers are not. Partly it's because residents see soldiers at war on TV every day, pictured amid explosions and in combat, then, disconcertingly, see them behind their back yards. And partly fear rises because residents know soldiers who are trained for war, or recently returned from war, may have a mind-set that doesn't belong in the neighborhood. It's not an outlandish concern: Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson told The Washington Post in October 2005 that 12 percent of returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan seen at Veterans Administration facilities suffered from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. But Suzanne Dennis, an Air Force veteran of Desert Storm who returned six months ago from Baghdad deployment as a public affairs specialist with the Texas National Guard, dismissed anxiety about stressed-out soldiers on the line. "They just switch gears," Dennis says, from the battlefield to assisting the Border Patrol. "If you can't switch, you don't belong there."

Nevertheless, for those in houses near the line, living in the zone now brings a sensation of the ground shifting under their feet. For Ray Carrillo, it also comes with a hunch his role in life is changing, because what is experienced as repression demands a response. "It just clicked," says Carrillo about the moment when the Linebacker roadblocks were in full swing and the Guard was beginning to arrive. "It's illegal to ask somebody for papers without suspicion of a crime. It's not right for people to be afraid to come out of their houses." His wife wants to move a few miles east to Fabens, but now Carrillo is deciding to stick around, staying in touch with rights groups, monitoring, listening, "protecting my rights, my kids, my neighbors."

"I didn't just throw a rock and run," says Camaron about the roadblocks. "I stood my ground, in the light."

President Bush, the Border Patrol and the military declare the border is not militarized, but it is. Experts say it began years ago. In 1986, President Reagan issued a directive designating illegal drug traffic as a threat to U.S. "national security," which permitted the Department of Defense to enter a range of "anti-drug" activity, including on the border. Even before that, in 1981 Congress passed amendments that diluted the strength of the 100-year-old Posse Comitatus Act, which had strictly prohibited deputizing military to carry out domestic law enforcement. The Pentagon's Center for the Study of Low Intensity Conflict helped design the Border Patrol's "Strategic Plan: 1994 and Beyond," devoted almost entirely to immigration control.

The rhetoric of violence has taken over in a new way since September 11, 2001, replacing the language of immigration enforcement, border policy, or even drug interdiction with the language of fighting terrorism. When Gov. Perry's Border Security Plan announced support for Operation Linebacker, its overview began with these words: "Al-Qaeda leadership plans to use criminal alien smuggling organizations to bring terrorist operatives across the border into the U.S." Douglas T. Mosier, Border Patrol spokesman in El Paso, says, "Our primary objective now is preventing terrorists and instruments of terrorism from entering." Rick Glancey, spokesman for the El Paso County Sheriff's Department, says its job is the "same as the Border Patrol, preventing terrorism."

"Every day you have drugs coming in duffel bags," says Glancey, who is also interim executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition and helped develop Linebacker. "Today narcotics, tomorrow weapons of mass destruction. Since September 11 we've seen the border is perfect for someone to take advantage of the United States. We will not let this happen on our watch, Mr. and Mrs. America, you can be sure of that."

In his downtown office, where a side table is spread with baseball hats from other lawmen's offices, Sheriff Leo Samaniego looks like a courtly grandfather, tall, 70-ish, smiling, at ease with his reputation as master of one of the best-regarded departments in the country. A civil-rights lawyer who has sparred with him legally says, "His roadblocks were a bad call, but this guy's a great sheriff." Samaniego is unrepentant about his "traffic stops" and insists they "will start again." He halted them only temporarily, he says, to "cool off" the rights groups and citizens like Camaron, who had begun receiving attention with their complaining. The fact is that 9/11 has "definitely" changed his job, the sheriff says, and there's no going back. "I'd rather be accused of overstepping my authority than sitting on my butt and doing nothing while we're in war," he says.

If the lines between local and federal authorities are blurring, so are lines between civilian and military operations. This landscape looks like Iraq. Units have arrived to assist the Border Patrol before going to the Middle East. "You can bet it can be beneficial to them," says Mosier. "They're getting used to a desert environment you can't get at a base in the East or the Midwest." Troops bring advanced military technology, different and better than what the Border Patrol has, and which only the military has the training to run. "Equipment such as that tried and tested in the Middle East can be beneficial in this kind of topography," Mosier says. "If that technology is applicable and feasible (there is) no reason to think it won't be considered for future use."

For Mosier, having soldiers on the border is not militarization, but "homeland security in support of a very real and vital mission." From the Border Patrol to the National Guard, the word is consistent: Soldiers in Operation Jump Start, President Bush's initiative, have no direct law enforcement duties. They are here to provide force protection, free up Border Patrol agents until more can be trained, bring technology, to be "more eyes and ears." But the reality is that soldiers are trained to kill and deal with an "enemy." Local residents understand this. When the nearby city of Sunland Park, New Mexico, received a request from the Border Patrol's El Paso sector to station National Guard soldiers on the city's hill of Cristo Rey, a pilgrimage site topped by a monumental white cross visible from Mexico and frequented mostly by faithful from Texas, residents rebelled. The City Council voted to deny the right-of-entry permit. "Militarily trained is not Border Patrol trained," says a 35-year-old El Paso native who picnics on the hill. "The Border Patrol doesn't walk up to you with a weapon pulled-people are afraid of others running around there with M-16s."

There is another reason more military personnel will be coming to El Paso: Fort Bliss is set to receive 20,000 new soldiers in the next five years (present number: 13,000). Spokesmen say the influx is not part of a strategy to strengthen military presence on the border, but due instead to re-stationing of units from overseas and from installations closed in the armed forces' Base Realignment and Closure process. Did the strategic border location of Fort Bliss affect the BRAC decision not to close it, when the process eliminated so many others? "Not to my knowledge," says Public Affairs Officer Jean Offut. Furthermore, the base "has nothing to do" with National Guard stationed in and around El Paso, or with their assignments.

No matter what the reason for supersizing Fort Bliss, the effect is a sensation of further militarization of the community, says Timothy Dunn, a border scholar (The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border 1978-1992) and sociologist at Salisbury University in Maryland. "Also, that means there's a much bigger pool to draw upon for border duty by JTF North." Originally called JTF-6, in 1997 Marines in the anti-drug joint task force, supporting the Border Patrol, shot and killed an 18-year-old American named Esequiel Hernandez as he tended family goats in rural Redford, Texas. The Marines were never charged. JTF-6 morphed into JTF North, based at Fort Bliss, now charged with supporting law enforcers such as the Border Patrol with "interdiction of suspected transnational threats." That's fence and road building, but it's also training, and that's "not innocuous," says Dunn. "It's militaristic stuff including interrogation techniques, booby traps and weapons. A large part of low-intensity conflict doctrine always has been U.S. military units training local forces. What happens is that military thinking comes to have a role in civilian enforcement."

Nearly half the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States entered legally and overstayed visas. Most illegal drugs enter in otherwise legitimate cargo and traffic. Operations Jump Start and Linebacker don't affect them. Meanwhile, the poor of Mexico and Central America continue to regard work in the United States as a lifeline, even if they must come illegally to grab it. Absent coherent domestic and multilateral policy, the war on the border, like the war on terror, is endless, and increasingly dangerous. "It's like two tsunamis, one coming up from the south, and increased militarization coming from the north, set to clash at the border," says University of Texas at El Paso political scientist and border researcher Tony Payan. "There is a need for a way to accommodate the flow."

In a new study, The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration, and Homeland Security, Payan suggests that the "real failure" of 9/11 was the lack of intelligence coordination to detect and apprehend potential terrorists entering anywhere. Mexican border security became a special focus, with law enforcement redefined as a matter of national security. The focus carries hostility not only to crossers but those who live in the area, "an escalation that has not paid off" because workers and drugs are coming at the same rate as five years ago. What has changed toward undocumented workers since 9/11, as Payan puts it, is "the perception of intentionality," that "this is not someone coming to take a job, but someone who will harm America."

Under a midday sun, the skeleton of a big river crab lies intact on the flat, baked earth. Which of the twigs coming out of the ground are motion sensors? Which are bare plants? A green and white Border Patrol car appears out of nowhere. The agent asks a few questions and seems in no hurry to drive away. He's been on the job 16 years, he says. Sure, it's fine that the Guard are here, but he doesn't figure it will change his job much, endlessly patrolling this line. Has he ever been in danger? Well, the drug runners have taken to throwing big rocks at the patrol cars, which is dangerous if one hits while he's driving fast. Sometimes the rocks smash right through the windshield, which cuts off the chase because it's all you can do to keep the car from flipping. He wants to make sure I'm not confused, not thinking it's the migrants trying to sneak into the country who throw the stones. "It's the drug ones, you know, not the ones coming to work." Later, on another part of the line where bushes grow, where it's possible to climb down to the cool river, where a Mexican family on the other side has spread its cloth to eat lunch, another agent drives up, this one brusque. "Be careful around here, like if you go down to the river, because if we see you coming up, we don't know who you are," he says.

On another day, as light fades in the August sky, Texas National Guardsmen inside a windowless camera room are intent on a bank of full-light screens and pink-toned night vision screens, working joysticks to pan the views, watching "bodies," as they call them, figures on the Mexican side of the river. "I was doing basically the same thing in Iraq, entry points, vehicles, looking for suspicious activity," says a 33-year-old from El Paso back from Tikrit. "There they were penetrating the wall around our base. This is like they're penetrating our home. We don't want terrorists to come in." Another soldier watches for "massing," a gathering of several figures who might come across in a group and overwhelm a single agent. But El Paso has been flooded with rains, and the same river that was low just a few days before runs full and treacherous now. "You'd have to be crazy to try that river tonight," says a 20-year-old Specialist 4. "Or desperate."

Nevertheless, hours after sunset Senior Border Patrol Agent Rogelio Garcia is driving the levee roads, amid tumbleweeds that blow up in the dark, catching jackrabbits in the headlight beams, his radio crackling with traffic from soldiers in the camera room and agents on the borderline who are spotting the crazy, or desperate, crossers. Visual on six to eight subjects... Changing clothes... Bodies up on the levee now... Those bodies are running back now... Garcia throws the SUV into four-wheel drive, driving expertly, ready for sinkholes on flats near the marsh. Another radio voice. Five to six subjects. Goin' up. Running north from Duty exit. "Well, night is the busiest time," says Garcia, who joined the Border Patrol six years ago. Two spotters... Four guys crouching... Agents respond. Outside San Elizario, Garcia rolls to a stop. From the levee an agent in a patrol car is "cutting" north across the sand with his flashlight beam, looking for tracks. Dogs are barking; other agents search a yard with flashlights. Garcia peers into a ditch. For now, they get away. Watching these agents, it's clear that they are well trained, ready for anything. Some have specialized degrees, many served in the armed forces themselves. Deterrence through ubiquity and obvious surveillance is the policy, but if someone breaches the line, they know the pathways. It seems tonight that only the sheer number of those who try to cross the border illegally means some get through.

Garcia drives more miles along the borderline, until he pulls up alongside a white pickup. Inside, an agent is behind the wheel, watching a small, green screen divided into quadrants mounted on his dashboard. Standing high in the truck bed is a FLIR, or forward looking infrared camera, trained south. Only days before, a lone patroller nearby captured a group of 10 migrants, and two drug runners with 90 pounds of marijuana in duffels. Without the FLIR, says the agent at the dashboard screen, that lone patroller would have caught the escaping drug runners, but missed the drugs they jettisoned, which the FLIR's eye saw. Garcia is thoughtful. "Every day what we're doing out here is a war against terror-after 9/11 that became number one," he says. And "you can't say it's militarizing the border" to have the soldiers here. "You don't see military vehicles running up and down the line, and again, the Guard has no direct power to arrest." The desert is silent except for the cry of cicadas. The FLIR agent never takes his eyes off the screen, and suddenly he is sending a message. One spotter trying to get on the river... Should pop out any minute...

The Immigrant Gold Rush

For the savvy investor looking for a growth industry, South Texas offers a sure thing. The business calculus is simple: More immigrants than ever are being apprehended. That means the federal government needs more detention centers and more people to run them. No matter how the national debate on immigration plays out in Congress, the corporations that have moved into the business of building and operating detention centers are likely to see a steady stream of revenue for years to come.

The United States Marshals Service, for example, is now soliciting bids from private companies to build, own, and operate a 2,800-bed detention facility near Laredo. The "superjail," as it has come to be called, will serve the federal criminal court in downtown Laredo, which is loaded up with immigration-related cases in what the Marshals Service calls an "emergency [detention] situation." The $100-million superjail is expected to be one of the largest private detention centers in the nation, and will join a growing chain of county and local jails and private detention facilities all over Texas that coordinate with federal agencies to hold immigrants -- some destined for trials or hearings, others for deportation.

From downtown San Antonio to the banks of the Rio Grande in South Texas, for-profit companies run seven detention facilities for the Marshals Service and for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) holds noncitizen detainees waiting for a hearing in the civil immigration courts, or facing immediate deportation. The Marshals Service is responsible for housing both citizens and noncitizens awaiting trial or sentencing in federal criminal court.

"It's the immigrant gold rush in South Texas," says Bob Libal, co-director of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based nonprofit that monitors the private prison industry. "In Texas, almost all of the current prison expansion is occurring to house immigrant detainees, and that's primarily located in South Texas along the border." There are at least 7,000 newly built or proposed ICE and Marshals Service beds in Texas for immigrant detainees, according to Corrections Professional, an industry journal. In the early 1980s, ICE (then INS) operated zero beds in Texas; the Marshals Service, no more than 3,000 in the entire country.

Nationwide, the number of ICE detainees went from 7,444 in 1994 to about 23,000 now; during the same period, the Marshals Service's population more than doubled to an estimated 63,000. Just in the last two years, Congress has authorized 40,000 new ICE beds over the next five years and given the Marshals Service funding for another 4,000 to 5,000. And the President's proposed 2007 budget calls for a $452 million increase in ICE funding, including money for another 6,700 beds. One of the companies to benefit from the government's building -- and privatizing -- binge is KBR, a Halliburton Co. subsidiary, which in January was awarded a contract worth up to $385 million to build temporary immigrant detention facilities for the Homeland Security Department in case of an "emergency influx of immigrants," according to a KBR press release. The top companies running South Texas detention centers are the Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), GEO Group Inc., and Emerald Correctional Management.

Libal says a "perfect storm" explains the growth in the detention industry. "First, you have this kind of anti-immigrant sentiment coming out of Washington at the federal level; second, you have increased zealotry from the U.S. Attorney's office to prosecute people criminally for extremely minor immigration crimes; and third, you have these private prison companies that are cashing in on the immigration incarceration boom."

The origins of the modern immigrant detention complex can be traced to the mid-1990s, when Silvestre Reyes, then-head of the El Paso Border Patrol Sector (now a Democratic congressman from El Paso), initiated "Operation Blockade" -- a strategy of concentrating enforcement agents to snag immigrants once they cross the border. This drove up the number of apprehensions and set in motion a militarization of the southwestern border. The budget for border enforcement went from $1.2 billion in 1995 to $4.7 billion in 2006, and the number of Border Patrol agents doubled. In addition, sweeping immigration reform laws passed in 1996 by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton allowed the deportation of any noncitizen convicted of such crimes as drunk driving, hot-check writing, and shoplifting -- even if the crime occurred before the law went into effect. The 1996 legislation also required mandatory detention of any illegal immigrant deemed a "criminal alien," a noncitizen convicted or even suspected of illegal activity.

But in recent years, the Homeland Security Department has forged into new territory. With its Secure Border Initiative, the agency seeks to find and deport certain noncitizens, whether they are seized at the border or are living within the United States. One feature of the initiative is the elimination -- by this October -- of the so-called "catch-and-release" policy, in which undocumented immigrants are released on their own recognizance and given a notice to appear in immigration court at a later date. (About 40 percent failed to make an appearance in 2005, according to the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review.)

The Office of Detention and Removal, a sub-agency of ICE, calls its 10-year plan "Endgame," the goal of which is to "remove all removable aliens" by 2012, including the 590,000 people who have ignored deportation orders and the 630,000 "criminal aliens" serving sentences in jail or prison at any given time. The 6,700 new ICE detention beds requested in the 2007 budget represent a much greater number of potential deportees -- that's enough to allow an additional 134,000 people per year to be moved through the system. John Ferguson, CEO of Corrections Corp., spoke to analysts during a conference call on company earnings in February about the "significant opportunities" the Secure Border Initiative would bring: "ICE bed needs under the Secured Border Initiative [sic] potentially could be all private. ICE does not build their own facilities." Libal, the private prison critic, says companies like CCA "are right to be optimistic. They have the potential to get a whole slew of new contracts."

The Secure Border Initiative also puts into place another controversial enforcement strategy: "expedited removal," which requires mandatory detention and rapid deportation of certain undocumented border-crossers. Originally authorized under the 1996 law, expedited removal was set up in the McAllen and Laredo sectors as a pilot project called "Texas Hold 'Em" in August 2004. It has recently expanded to the full lengths of the Mexican and Canadian borders. The Homeland Security Department initially targeted Texas because the state receives the vast majority of non-Mexican immigrants. (Unlike Mexicans -- 92 percent of which are rapidly returned after apprehension -- "other than Mexicans" cannot be quickly sent home and are often released for lack of detention space.) Under expedited removal, undocumented non-Mexicans captured within 100 miles of the border who have been in the country for less than 14 days are held in detention facilities until they can be shipped back to their nation of birth, a process that can take a few days to a few months.

These detainees have no right to an attorney and are barred from returning to the United States for at least five years. Each person subject to expedited removal is supposed to be evaluated by an immigration-enforcement agent to ensure that they do not fall into a protected category, such as a bona fide asylum-seeker or a lawful permanent resident. Immigration advocates and attorneys worry that these agents lack the training or incentives to properly evaluate an immigrant's rights.

"It's a very summary procedure, lacking in the fundamental due process rights," says Meredith Linsky, director of South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation, a Harlingen-based organization. She argues that many individuals with a legal right to enter or remain in the United States are swept up by expedited removal and whisked out of the country. "Everything has changed" since she first arrived in Harlingen in 1989, Linsky says. "In 1989, everyone that was apprehended was given a bond, given the opportunity to go in front of an impartial judge. ...Today people are apprehended, and for the most part they are arrested, judged, tried, and removed in one fell swoop by the [Border Patrol] officer at the border with no legal representation."

Nina Pruneda, an ICE spokeswoman, hotly disputes Linsky's portrayal of the process. "First off, they're not low-level officers," she says. "Second of all, they are trained professionals in the expertise of customs and enforcement law; third, everyone is afforded the due process of law -- they can go up before an immigration judge; fourth, a lot of people do not necessarily interpret themselves as who they are." At present, Pruneda says, the San Antonio district, which covers 54 counties in Texas, is removing 500 to 600 people per week under the deportation program.

Pruneda argues that expedited removal, if run efficiently, cuts down on the time individuals spend in detention, freeing up detention space for illegal aliens who pose a threat to public safety. She says the average length a person on the expedited removal track spends in detention has been reduced from 90 days to 15 to 20 days. Still, the number of people subject to mandatory detention under the new rules is enormous. Immigration agents catch an estimated one million illegal entrants per year, with additional untold tens of thousands who slip through. Already, in an indication of what may happen in other border regions, South Texas detention centers are chock-a-block with non-Mexicans being processed for expedited removal.

Nearly 100 percent of the detainees in the CCA facility in Laredo and in a GEO Group center in Pearsall are being kept under expedited removal, says David Walding, interim director of the new Bernardo Kohler Center in Kyle, a nonprofit that provides assistance to detainees in South Texas detention facilities. But, he adds, echoing a nearly universal sentiment among advocates, "A lot of these people who get removed are just going to turn around and come right back."

If they do, their chances of being prosecuted on immigration-related criminal charges are greater than ever. Over the past five years, the federal courts' Southern District of Texas, which serves the region from Houston to Laredo, has exploded with noncitizens accused of federal immigration crimes. In 2005, the district tried 4,802 defendants accused of major immigration crimes, a 155 percent increase over 2001 levels, according to statistics compiled by the federal courts. The number of defendants charged with petty immigration offenses in southern Texas was up 260 percent between 2001 and 2004.

Together, the Southern District and the Western District of Texas, the other federal court district, had 80 percent of all minor immigration defendants in the nation, the majority of which were charged with illegal entry. According to Marjorie Meyers, the chief federal defender in the Southern District, more than 50 percent of the cases her public defenders handle each year in the border courts are "illegal entry" and "illegal re-entry," infractions that are committed hundreds of thousands of times each year at the border as people cross illegally back and forth.

Immigration attorneys and advocates have watched with a mixture of amazement and apprehension as the U.S. Attorney's office has increasingly focused on nailing border-crossers. "When I first started practicing immigration law many years ago, the only people that were prosecuted for illegal entry were people who had entered before or people who were doing something else wrong when they were entering," says Barbara Hines, director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Texas Law School. "I think that's really changed -- the people who are being prosecuted [now] are coming for the first time, who have no other criminal record, and they are being prosecuted and serving jail time." Sentences can range from probation to up to 20 years if the individual has an "aggravated felony" on record.

Nancy Herrera, executive assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District, says that district attorneys in border districts decided in 2002 to take more cases to end the "revolving door" of repeat immigration offenders. "It's an effort to deter illegal entry to the United States while protecting the border," she says. But their defense counterparts have their own theories. "It is clear, and I have heard the U.S. Attorney's office say, that they choose to bring an illegal entry charge so they're on the books," says Myers. While an illegal entry charge usually carries no more than 30 days in jail, most noncitizens convicted of illegal re-entry receive between about four and eight years in jail if they have priors on their record, including immigration crimes, says Meyers. Lisa Brodyaga, an attorney in San Benito, elaborates: "A lot of the people they are prosecuting are garden-variety undocumented. The reason I think they are doing that is so if they catch them again, they can give them prison time." Illegal re-entry is a felony. As a result, she says, they are "pushing undocumented people deeper and deeper underground ... so they are more and more exploitable."

The stepped-up prosecution of immigration violations has obvious effects on the court system. An Observer analysis of data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that in 2004, the most recent year for which statistics are available, at least 71 percent of the 8,785 criminal charges at the federal courthouse in Laredo were immigration-related, the vast majority for illegal entry. In fact, nationwide, immigration has recently surpassed drugs as the #1 federally prosecuted crime. Good-bye War on Drugs, hello War on Immigration.

As the number of criminal prosecutions increases, the civil immigration courts then receive more noncitizens branded as "criminal aliens." "Most federal immigration enforcement crimes also have deportation grounds," explains Lee Teran, a law professor at St. Mary's University Law School in San Antonio, which makes it easier for the government attorney, a Homeland Security employee, to secure an order of removal in immigration court.

Take, for example, the case of Maria Cardenas, a 27-year-old resident of Laredo. She is a lawful permanent resident who has lived in Texas since she came from Mexico at 15 with her parents. Employed as a truck driver, she was getting ready to make a run from Laredo to San Antonio in her 18-wheeler last July. At a gas station, an undocumented man from Mexico asked her for a ride, telling her he had diabetes and needed to work for his family. Cardenas agreed, later saying she felt sorry for the man. Cardenas knew she was doing something illegal, but her compassion got in the way of sober thinking.

At a Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 35, agents discovered the man hidden in Cardenas' truck. She was arrested and taken in front of a magistrate judge in Laredo the next day. She received one year of unsupervised probation and thought the ordeal was over. But then Cardenas was taken into ICE custody and put in an immigrant detention facility run by the GEO Group in San Antonio. Now, she faces deportation to Mexico and a bar on returning for 10 years unless her lawyer can muster a legal defense allowing her to remain. If she were to return, she could face up to 20 years in prison. Winning Cardenas' case, her attorney says, will not be easy.

What will she do if she has to go back to Mexico? "I have a life here," she says in an interview, beginning to cry. "There's nothing in Mexico for me. I've always worked and paid my taxes. I've been a good resident." For each day of Cardenas' 10-day stay in detention, she likely fetched between $35 and $65 gross profit (the going rate in the region) for GEO Group.

As Texas moves deeper into the corporate-run detention center business, immigrant advocates worry about how much public scrutiny will be possible. "I think that immigrants are definitely more exploitable than even state or federal prisoners because they often have less access to resources and they are often deported after their detention," says Libal. "They tend to be a transient population; they tend to have language problems."

And once new detention centers are built, it is likely that the facilities will be open for business indefinitely, private prison opponents say. "They might pitch [new prisons] as a way to solve some temporary need," says Libal, "but once they build the prisons, they will always fill the beds, especially with private facilities." He points out that prison companies usually want to sign contracts with federal agencies that guarantee a minimum number of prisoners per month, legally binding the government to supply the bodies. In Laredo, the superjail has engendered the enthusiastic bidding of five corrections outfits, including CCA and the GEO Group, which are jostling to corner the emerging borderland markets. CCA has offered to pay the $100 million construction cost if it wins the contract, while GEO Group told Webb County that the company would give $1 million to the impoverished county for indigent care if it prevails.

So far, the rise in the immigrant detention business has received little attention as the national debate splits the business community and leaves Republican ideologues arguing with pragmatists. But the Office of Detention and Removal is hard at work on what it calls the "Endgame." For the corporations involved in immigrant detention, the endgame is the beginning of something big.

Conspicuous Little Consumers

Juliet Schor's latest book, Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture, represents the culmination of many things: her training as an economist and sociologist, her ongoing analysis of consumer culture in previous books (The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure and The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting and the New Consumer), and her own experience as a mother.

Born to Buy examines the increased involvement of children in consumer culture, specifically as targets of advertising, and the resulting effect on their well-being. Schor balances her well-researched presentation of rather alarming data with a voice that is not alarmist, but practical, informative, and readable.

In many ways her conclusion comes as no surprise. Readers may be surprised, however, by her data -- namely, the sheer volume of marketing to which children are exposed. According to Schor, the advertising industry spent $100 million on marketing to children in 1983; by 2004 that amount had increased to $15 billion. Advertisements saturate television, radio, and print media. More disturbing, however, is the extent to which marketers have infiltrated schools, the Internet, airplanes, restrooms, and essentially every other public space available.

These ads are the product of some of the finest anthropological research and creative thinking in the marketing business. Techniques such as anti-adultism, which pits children against adults in the struggle for marketed goods, and age compression, which targets children of younger and younger ages, combine with all the traditionally manipulative advertising techniques to create a culture in which children do not merely consume, but also find their identity in consumption.

The effect on children's psychological, physical, and social health is, predictably, deplorable. Schor notes the dramatic increase in incidences of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, obesity, and psychosomatic disorders.

With their characteristically underestimated precociousness, children are not wholly unaware of this trend. Before I spoke with Juliet Schor, I ate lunch with children at the school where I teach. I explained to them that I was interviewing a woman who had written a book saying that children today saw more commercials than ever before. I asked them if they thought it was true.

"Well, yeah," they shrugged. "They're everywhere on the television and the computer." They went back to their lunch: chips in flashy containers, yogurt with movie characters on the package, and sweets upon sweets.

What is it, compared to children's advertising in the past or to adult advertising, that makes marketing to children so dangerous now?

Juliet Schor: Well, there's the volume. The sort or extent of media and ad exposure has increased enormously, along with the amount of stuff that kids have. It's taking over a greater and greater volume of kids' time use, activities, mental space, and physical space. It's the shift towards getting into very basic processes of identity and social connection and esteem, which is new.

Who is responsible for regulating this marketing phenomenon?

A lot depends on the ad. If it's going on television, the network has an office within it. There's a so-called self-regulation, a set of industry guidelines that companies say they adhere to, but in fact compliance is not that great and there's a very limited apparatus for enforcement of those guidelines. In any case, they're not binding.

I saw a study from the CARU, Children's Advertising Review Unit, which is part of the Better Business Bureau, showing that CARU claims they have 97 percent compliance, which is bogus. There are no penalties for not complying, the companies say they're complying and they're not. Sham may be too strong a word, but there are some sham aspects to it, particularly recently when you've had a lot of changing practices and a lot of competition in the industry. Television ads are the most regulated part of [children's advertising]. When you start getting out of TV, although CARU is nominally covering it, it has a small staff, and the volume of kids' ads is enormous. They basically are reacting to complaints that are brought to them. But there are not that many complaints because there's no formal body that's reviewing all these ads.

Can consumers make those complaints?

Yes, yes. You can also complain directly to the companies, and I think that's something to really push with your readership. When the public gets involved and complains we see a lot of cases where we're getting companies' response.

You describe general guidelines. With toys they have to show the toys in realistic settings for a certain amount of time in the commercial. This cuts down on overt exaggerations; they can't advertise a costume cape and show a kid flying because that can't actually happen. But does this standard in some way make advertisements more insidious? If an ad has to be believable to a certain extent, does that make the message subtler and more manipulative?

I think it really depends. For the little kids, I think that those flashy claims are really powerful, but for the older kids that won't work. They know that you can't fly just because you put a cape on. I think the point is that the whole regulatory system is responding to the techniques of yesteryear, which were to show products doing miraculous things they can't do to try and get kids to want them. That's not the way advertising is done today.

Today, we see the rise of symbolic messaging, which means it's less about the product than about the social meaning and the symbolism of the product. So, you say: This product makes you cool. Now, I think a good case could be made to CARU and the companies that that's magical thinking, that's fantasy, but they haven't interpreted it that way. They interpret it in such a narrow and strict way. But the symbolic messages I would say are more powerful than the messages which are about "Wow, look. This product can do this amazing stuff!"

So the method is: This cape, sure it won't actually make you fly, but it will make you happy -- that's just as fantastical, really.

It's a really important point, which hasn't really come out in the debates the way it needs to.

And yet, the industry asserts that they empower kids through marketing. What is their basic argument for why what they do is beneficial to kids, or at least not harmful?

Actually there are a lot who are unhappy and uneasy with what they're doing. That came out of my own research and also in a survey that was done of kids' marketers in which many of them expressed reservations, although they mostly pointed at other people -- "My colleagues, they're the problem," and so forth.

The major line of defense is "We need to make money." In some way this goes without saying, but it should be said because what it shows is a pernicious and instrumental relationship to kids. Now, their two other biggest lines of defense are, [firstly], that the problems are really coming from parents -- but this is kind of an incoherent argument.

I mean let's say junk food: It doesn't let you off the hook to be pushing it just because you can also point to another actor in the chain of events who is doing something wrong. The idea that they are empowering kids is a more complex one, and a more defensible one in the following sense: The idea that kids should get to be consumers, that they should have commercials and products oriented to them and that they like; all of those things I agree with. One of my marketer informants said to me in a discussion of all this research, "Well, do you think it would be better if we made products that kids didn't want or like?" My answer to that is no; but it's easy to get kids to want stuff that's not good for them and you need a balance between that empowerment and the messages and products [themselves] and I think that balance is missing.

As a teacher -- and in your case as a parent -- I agree it is important to give kids autonomy and choices, but at the same time they're kids, and they're not making choices with the same resources we have available to us.

There are people who argue you shouldn't do any advertising to kids because they have a hard time processing and resisting it. They aren't really up to it in some pretty fundamental way. I think that's a reasonable point of view. It partly depends on the age you're talking about. What's curious is in the survey that was done of marketers that I mentioned earlier, most of the marketers didn't differ too much from the child psychologists on when they thought kids could really resist the persuasive intent of advertising; the marketers say 11-and-a-half years and the child psychologists say 12 years.

So one question is whether you think there should be a sort of fairness as law. The two key principles of advertising law are deceptiveness and fairness. Well, they're violating deceptiveness all the time. That's become a huge business, deceptive advertising, whether we're talking product placement or word of mouth advertising, stealth advertising in school, or curricula advertising.

The second question: Is it fair to advertise to kids, do they have the ability to withstand the pull of the advertisement? The research suggests that kids below 12 have limited abilities to do that and the younger you get the more limited and impaired they are in understanding what an ad is and [its] purpose. That's a huge issue that the industry refuses to confront. When it says we're just empowering kids, it's making that argument in the face of a significant body of scholarly literature that casts doubt on the basic enterprise.

And yet, as they claim, they can't be held entirely responsible. One marketing technique is to respond to kids' stress—how is it that other adults, including parents and teachers, help unwittingly create a situation in which kids are vulnerable to advertising messages?

Well, I'm not sure we understand all the aspects of childhood stress today, but certainly adults have set up the institutions and practices that children exist in to a large extent. One thing that seems like a part of it to me is the very high expectations placed on kids for achievement in many different arenas; I think also just the way they're being brought up.

There's something about the way kids are living today that's leading to much higher levels of stress. Whatever it is, it's something about the way we have constructed the world; it's not a natural fact. Stress levels have gone up so much -- it's not just part of the human condition.

We all grow up with negative outside influences, no matter what they are, and yet if we're lucky, at some point we become self aware and discerning enough to sort through them. Considering that we can't totally censor everything kids are exposed to, how is it that we can help give them the tools to process consumer culture so that ultimately they can be happy and healthy, despite everything that's around them?

What I've tried to do in my own life is de-commercialize the household. I think that's a really key part of it. Turning off the TV and other media is key. Secondly, diet: not eating junk food, so you're cooking tasty, nutritious food. Eating together as a family, having a strong family life is important. And the third thing I talk about is reclaiming the outdoors for kids. If kids have to be indoors it's very difficult to limit the media exposure. Especially with the young ones where you just need too much adult time.

One of the big differences between the way kids are growing up today and the way generations in the past did is that, in the past, kids had more access to the outdoors on their own. And that's really key. It allows them to create peer networks, to interact with each other, to have independence—all of those things that are necessary for growing up to be a good and healthy person.

There isn't a magic answer to it, but basically you create a good healthy environment for the whole family. And then try to do the same thing in your schools and other institutions.

Standing Tall Against McCarthy

Watching the new film "Good Night and Good Luck" about Edward R. Murrow reminded me of John Henry Faulk and his own heroic struggle against McCarthyism. Well, okay, Johnny did actually wage a gallant and valiant fight, but since it was John Henry, it was also weird and funny and full of improbable characters -- what is it about Texans that we can't even be heroic without being comical?

In 1955, Johnny Faulk was a successful popular entertainer with a network radio program featuring his impersonations of the down-home Texas characters he invented (actually, a horrifying number of them were based on real people -- in fact, he was related to several of the prototypes). He appeared on television quiz panels and hosted CBS's morning program, being funny and folksy with pipe in hand.

In the insanity of the times, blacklisting had become an institutionalized protection racket. An outfit of professional commie-hunters called AWARE, Inc., run by a guy named Vincent Hartnett, was kept on retainer by the networks, major ad agencies, and big sponsors to vet performers for commie sympathies. The more "commies" they found doing anything from soap operas to soup commercials, the more money they made. This gave them quite a financial incentive to find "communist sympathizers." Should a network or agency refuse to play along, Hartnett's friend Laurence Johnson, a grocery magnate from upstate New York, would pull the sponsor's products from his grocery shelves until they caved in. The American Legion would chip in with a boycott of the product, accusing Proctor and Gamble or whoever of being part of the plot to undermine America.

Faulk and several other brave entertainers and journalists ran for union office on an anti-blacklisting platform and were elected overwhelmingly in September 1955. A month later Johnny was cited in AWARE's bulletin "Red Channels" on seven counts that were either completely false or distorted crap. Johnson came to New York and went up and down Madison Avenue pressuring Johnny's sponsors to drop his show. Some did and CBS eventually fired him even though his ratings were excellent.

So Faulk sued AWARE and Johnson in what became the great showcase trial that broke the blacklisting system. Unfortunately, it took six years to come to court. By then Johnny was broke and his career destroyed. I do not believe he ever regretted his decision, but it did cost him a great deal.

In the spring of 1955, Faulk took his case to Louis Nizer, easily the finest trial lawyer of the day. AWARE hired Roy Cohn. Faulk was so naïve, he had no idea that a million-dollar lawyer like Nizer would require a huge retainer. In fact, Nizer agreed to take the case for a paltry $10,000, about $10,000 more than Johnny had. Faulk hit up everyone he knew would support him and raised $2,500.

"As I was sitting at my desk at CBS, racing my mind for someone to call and borrow money from," he later recalled, "Edward R. Murrow called me from his office upstairs. He said he was terribly glad that I had filed the suit and that Carl Sandburg had sent word, 'Whatever's wrong with America, Johnny ain't.'"

Johnny chugged upstairs and laid the financial problem before Murrow who said, "Tell Lou Nizer, Johnny, that he will have his money tomorrow." And then Johnny protested:

Keep reading... Show less
BRAND NEW STORIES