Border Fence Construction Begins Near Historic Site

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
November 25, 2013
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
A historic marker tells the story of explorer Juan de Oñate's journey across the Rio Grande establishing the Camino Real trail which would eventually run from Mexico City to Santa Fe.

The construction of new stretch of fencing along the U.S./Mexico border in El Paso is causing concerns among some locals. They say it could interfere with a historically significant site. 

In 1598, thousands of Spanish settlers, lead by explorer Juan de Oñate, crossed the Rio Grande River at a spot near present-day downtown El Paso. The crossing established the foundation for the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez and created a major gateway from Mexico into what is now the southwestern United States.

Today, the site is near the parking lot of an abandoned restaurant that's designated under the National Register of Historic Places. The site is commemorated by three stone markers surrounded by gravel and dry weeds. Just south of the markers is the Rio Grande River, confined to a concrete channel, and Mexico.

"This is where they…crossed into the United States to lay claim for the King of Spain and to create a new country," said Bernie Sargent, chairman of the El Paso Historical Commission. "They called it New Mexico, or Nuevo Mexico."

Now the federal government is building a half-mile fence along this section of the border. U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke of El Paso has called on them to delay the project in order to do historical and archeological surveys of the area, but border fence construction is, by law, exempt from such reviews. 

"This is one of the last remaining phases…contained in the original language of the fencing plan dating back to 2007 and 2008," said Border Patrol Spokesman Doug Mosier.

Mosier said agents in the El Paso sector, with stretches from west Texas into New Mexico, average about 30 to 40 apprehensions of illegal border crossers a day. Apprehensions across the entire southern border are significantly down from a decade ago.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent a letter to Rep. O'Rourke saying they conducted their own reviews of the site and voluntarily submitted them to the Texas Historical Commission.

Mark Wolfe, executive director of the Texas Historical Commission, said his office reviewed plans for the proposed fencing two years ago.
"They (CBP) in their letter indicated that they had done their due diligence and we agreed that they had," Wolfe said. "That was basically the end of it."

But, Sargent still has his doubts.

"We're concerned about what kind of a visual impact it will have on an area that is as significant as this," Sargent said. "We would like to see something that would be a little bit more attractive than a 17 foot tall fence."