THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Footbridges provide access to US from Mexico

Unsecured paths cut effectiveness of border fence

A footbridge across the Rio Grande near Acala, Texas, connects the United States and Mexico. It was built in the 1930s. A footbridge across the Rio Grande near Acala, Texas, connects the United States and Mexico. It was built in the 1930s. (Alicia A. Caldwell/Associated Press)
By Alicia A. Caldwell
Associated Press / August 29, 2010

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ACALA, Texas — On each side of a towering West Texas stretch of the $2.4 billion border fence designed to block people from illegally entering the country, there are two metal footbridges, clear paths into the United States from Mexico.

The footpaths that could easily guide illegal immigrants and smugglers across the Rio Grande without getting wet seem to be there because of what amounts to federal semantics. While just about anyone would call them bridges, the US-Mexico group that owns them calls them something else.

“Technically speaking it’s not a bridge, it’s a grade control structure,’’ said Sally Spener, spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission, which maintains the integrity of the 1,200-mile river border between the United States and Mexico. The structures under the spans help prevent the river — and therefore the international border — from shifting.

Spener said the river was straightened years ago to stabilize and prevent a shift during high river flow. Without the structures, which also help slow the flow of water in the river, she said it could erode its banks, wash out the river bed, and degrade natural habitats.

Whatever they’re called, there are fresh sneaker tracks on the structures — indicating they’re being used as passages into the country.

After a private meeting with Rio Grande Valley police chiefs recently, Texas Governor Rick Perry said news of the unsecured footbridges did not surprise him.

“This is a long border,’’ Perry said. “It’s been discouraging that there’s something as obvious [as the bridges] and the federal government hasn’t addressed it.’’

The realization that a section of the border fence is sandwiched between two footbridges comes at a time of heightened alarm along the US-Mexico border as the drug war in northern Mexico continues unabated. President Obama ordered thousands of National Guard troops to the border, but Perry has railed that the federal government isn’t doing enough to keep Americans safe and illegal immigrants out.

The steel fencing that dots about 600 miles of border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California was built under former President George W. Bush’s administration amid a national outcry for border security. The fences appear in urban areas, while more rural areas have shorter, concrete vehicle barriers.

“If we are spending so much money on a fence, why not put some into cutting [the bridge] out, eliminating an easy access at a place that is not a port?’’ said Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition.

The footbridges were built in the 1930s as part of a treaty with Mexico, Spener said.

On a recent visit to a bridge west of the fence line near Acala, Ramiro Cordero, Border Patrol special operations supervisor, spotted an hours-old adult-sized sneaker print in the soft sand at the foot of the bridge facing into the United States.

In a border tour with the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office in March, Associated Press journalists happened upon the bridge moments after a man with a bicycle used the bridge to cross the river from Mexico. The border crosser, who told authorities he was only trying to fish from the north side of the river, was promptly arrested.

“If he can do it, so can drug cartels with loads of narcotics of any kind,’’ Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Robert Wilson said. “Even a terrorist could pass here with weapons of mass destruction and be in the United States and up on the interstate and gone in a short time.’’

Cordero said agents in the area pay close attention to the bridges and other areas easily crossed on foot or by car. He said there also are underground sensors around the bridges that alert agents to area traffic.

The crossings are owned by both the United States and Mexico and are needed for workers to maintain concrete structures that support the bridge, Spener said. Any changes to the structures, she said, would have to be approved by both countries.

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