Monday, October 6, 2008

A bridge to somewhere

This a fascinating story. Human contact and international cooperation and understanding are victims of the fear, immigrant-bashing and xenophobia so prevalent these days. This man wants to resist such nonsense.

SIERRA BLANCA, Texas – In a swampy corner of his desolate ranch, Bill Addington proudly flouts the law.

Good for him.

The Department of Homeland Security has demanded that he tear down a rickety footbridge from his land across the Rio Grande into Mexico. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, authorities have shut down nearly a dozen of these informal river crossings along the Texas border. This is the last they know to be operating. They want it gone. Mr. Addington refuses.

Now that's great. How many terrorists are going to use that rickety little bridge 90 or so miles east of El Paso?

He crossed that bridge countless times as a boy, darting into Mexico to buy candy or watermelon juice or to flirt with the girls at church-hall dances. Mexicans crossed over, too, every day, to work the cotton fields for Mr. Addington's father – a U.S. Border Patrol agent. After a hard season's labor, they would all celebrate together with a night of bilingual poker, fueled by whiskey and calf-brain stew.

How ironic. His father was a wetback.

"They say it's a new era, but their vision of the border is a place of fear and trouble," he says. "We just don't see it that way. This is our home."

Common sense. Not something bureaucrats know.

He grew up on the river, soaring out over the international border on a tire swing, splashing in the lazy current, frying fresh-caught catfish with his Mexican buddies on one shore or the other. Border life has a unique culture and rhythm, he says, and he can't stand to see it locked down behind steel fencing. Or cut off by destroying a footbridge.

That's a point that is not often discussed, nor, I confess, one I thought of: making the border a garrison disrupts normal life, destroys culture.

The local sheriff, Arvin West, backs him up. Sheriff West believes that security imperatives will one day require the bridge to close. He acknowledges that it can enable illegal immigration -- in fact, his own grandfather used it to sneak into this country. But Mr. West says the bridge is hardly a threat and calls it ridiculous for the government to target a flimsy string of two-by-fours when miles of border remain unsecured. So for now, he vows to stand "toe to toe and nose to nose" against any federal official who tries to shut down the crossing.

The sheriff's grandfather crossed into the US on that bridge, and now the grandson is a law enforcement officer. Gives lie to the argument of cutting off immigration, no? Yes.

The letter from Homeland Security did contain a vague threat of unilateral action: "Our goal is to a peaceful and cooperative manner," it read, "...however, we cannot allow your bridge" to remain open.

Mr. Addington shrugs off the warning. He'll take that risk, he says, for his friends across the border, for his fellow ranchers who rely on day laborers from Mexico, for the memory of those dances and the long evenings after the cotton harvest, when people from two nations bonded over barbecue.

"We should be building bridges, not walls," Mr. Addington says. "I'm not taking it down."

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