On the dusty road into Sabal Palms Sanctuary, near the banks of the Rio Grande, a sign a mile from the entrance reassures visitors that, despite the foreboding steel barricade ahead, no passport is required to enter through its gates.
Confusion is understandable here. This once-thriving tourist destination was forced to close in 2009 amid uncertainty over the future of the 527-acre palm forest, one of just two such tracts remaining, after the Department of Homeland Security raised a section of border fence north of it.
Since the sanctuary reopened in 2011, the towering rust-colored bars intended to slow the stream of illegal traffic from Mexico have done as much to ward off visitors, fearful of what is lurking on the other side.
“You hear lots of rumors,” said Jeanne Bork, an 80-year-old Midwesterner who spends her winters in South Texas and recently visited the sanctuary. “I heard somebody was murdered back here.”
Because of the snaking course of the Rio Grande, which marks the international boundary with Mexico, the border fence was built on top of the levee, in some places a mile or more from the river, marooning thousands of acres of bucolic farmland, native habitat sanctuaries and private landowners on its southern flank.
Today, there are roughly 56 miles of border fence and wall in the Rio Grande Valley alone, none of which changed the underlying character of the land — what was farmland before remains farmland today.
Yet, critics argue, the fence not only disrupts communities and impedes residents’ ability to move freely the nearer they are to the fence, it has also created a “Constitution-free” region where Border Patrol enforcement faces less oversight.
“What they’ve essentially created is a no-go zone,” said Joseph Nevins, associate professor of geography and chairman of earth science and geography at Vassar College, who studies the U.S.-Mexico border and is familiar with the Rio Grande Valley. “The very act of being in a particular place invites suspicion.”
At least three times in recent years, witnesses reported that Border Patrol agents shot and killed people along the Texas-Mexico line without justification. One man in Matamoros was fatally shot from across the Rio Grande in Brownsville in July 2012.
Late last week, the Border Patrol directed its agents to limit their use of force in certain situations after a recent report by independent law enforcement experts criticized the Border Patrol for a policy that led to the killing of at least 19 people.
For its part, the agency says agents are authorized to search any vehicle between the fence and the river if they have “reasonable suspicion” that unauthorized immigrants are aboard.
According to Mitra Ebadolahi, border litigation attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, there is no legal principle that would suggest diminished constitutional protection when people are behind the fence.
“This idea that people are uniformly treated with suspicion just for being in a place that is technically U.S. soil is problematic from our point of view,” she said.
Over the past decade, the Border Patrol more than doubled its staff in Texas to roughly 9,700 agents, who employ high-tech gadgetry and tried-and-true techniques to counter human and drug trafficking. As a permanent structure, the fence serves to funnel traffic into gaps where the Border Patrol has the upper hand.
“I can tell you it’s not a no man’s land,” Daniel Tirado, a Border Patrol spokesman in the Rio Grande Valley, said of the area between the river and the fence. “We are out there … so are aliens and smugglers.”
For those whose livelihood is by the river, there is a heightened sense of being exposed to danger that few are willing discuss openly out of fear of retaliation from smugglers.
A couple of years ago, not long after the fence was built on the north side of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3, which pumps water directly from the Rio Grande to farmers and McAllen’s public utility, employees working by the river were shot at from Mexico.
Othal E. Brand Jr., who chairs the water district, told his employees they had his blessing to carry concealed weapons to protect themselves. Brand even considered hiring security guards but struck a deal for increased Border Patrol presence instead.
“I do not like the turn-your-head attitude,” Brand said. “But that is exactly what you have to do if you are going to continue to work or live below the wall.”