A Bend in the River

At a time when Americans seem obsessed by the sanctity and immutability of their borders, you have to wonder how the government could essentially lose track of a chunk of American soil. You also have to wonder why we are cutting off new patches of American land again today through another construction project along the Rio Grande: the 18-foot-high border fence with Mexico.

Since Congress is considering doubling the length of that fence, this is a good time to tell the Horcón Tract’s cautionary tale.

The story begins in 1906, when an American irrigation company grew worried that a loop of the Rio Grande near Mercedes, Tex., might suddenly switch its course and leave the company’s new pumping station high and dry. The river, which marks the international boundary with Mexico, meanders in large horseshoe-shaped loops through this part of Texas. The loop that troubled the company ballooned south into Mexico.

This being Texas, the company took matters into its own hands and blasted a new channel though the northern neck of the loop to maintain the river’s flow. But doing so stranded south of the Rio Grande a patch of American land that the river had once enclosed.

This was the Horcón Tract.

American authorities charged the company with violating treaties with Mexico that forbade artificial water diversions. Those treaties also stipulated that while such diversions might change the course of the river, they did not change the international boundary.

The company paid a $10,000 fine in 1911, and also paid $2,000 to survey and mark the international boundary in the now-dry riverbed.

But for reasons that remain obscure — the remote locale, the chaos of the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920, the difficulty of gaining access to the southern shore — the Horcón Tract’s American pedigree slowly faded.

By the 1960s, when a professor from Arizona State University pulled out old survey maps and documented what had happened, no one on either side of the river realized the tract was still American soil. Its residents went to Mexican schools, obeyed Mexican laws and paid Mexican taxes. As a 1966 memo to the White House put it, the area “is being administered by Mexico although it is actually part of the United States.”

The United States ended up giving the Horcón Tract to Mexico in a November 1970 boundary treaty. It also granted American citizenship to those who could prove they had been born in the tract before the handover. A contemporary newspaper headline called them the “Forgotten Americans.”

It’s worth asking whether, just over 100 years after the Horcón Tract was cut off from the rest of the United States, we aren’t creating a new generation of forgotten Americans along the Rio Grande.

In 2006 construction crews began a new project that likewise restricts access to American territory: the 18-foot-high steel barrier mandated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006. Although known colloquially as the “border fence,” in many places it is nowhere near the border.

The boundary treaties in effect in 1906 still bar construction in the river’s flood plain, forcing the fence to follow levees that are as much as a mile inland. When visiting the area in 2005 as an American diplomat, I heard Border Patrol agents worry about effectively surrendering control over American land between the fence and the river.

Those concerns are echoed today by the landowners who deal with the resulting 350 miles of new pedestrian fencing, which in several places cuts across the necks of river loops that resemble the Horcón Tract, isolating hundreds of acres and slicing private property in two.

Some of the affected landowners got keypad-operated gates for entry to their southern parcels. But others, like Eloisa Tamez, whose family has owned land west of Brownsville, Tex., since Spanish colonial times, have no direct access to their southern plots.

And a third group, whose homes ended up between the security fence and the river, find themselves living “outside the wire” in a no-man’s land frequented by drug smugglers and illegal border crossers. Access is restricted, and property values are falling — who would buy a parcel of land that only you and the Border Patrol could enter? Some residents fear the fence will effectively become the new border, leaving them on the wrong side.

While no official figures exist on how much land lies outside the wire, a casual inspection of the lower Rio Grande Valley using Google Earth suggests that it amounts to several thousand acres. Soon there could be even more: Immigration reform bills now before Congress call for doubling the length of this high-security fencing.

Clearly, creating more Horcón Tracts will only increase the risk of losing another chunk of American territory. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Border Patrol, has already testified that the high-security fencing built since 2006 is sufficient. Plans for more should be shelved.

As for the existing barriers, the department needs to punch more holes in them. It may seem counterintuitive to build a fence and then provide more openings. But the Border Patrol to some extent already uses existing gaps in the fence — it is not a continuous line along the entire Rio Grande Valley — to herd illegal border crossers to specific areas where they are easier to apprehend.

At a minimum, in places where the fence cuts a piece of private property in two, every landowner deserves a gate.

The Horcón Tract was a chunk of American territory that vanished — in part because it was hard to get to. Let’s make sure we don’t do that again in the name of border security.

Stephen R. Kelly, a retired American diplomat who served in Mexico, is the associate director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Duke University and visiting professor of the practice of public policy.  This commentary was originally published in The New York Times.