As the Rio Grande River travels between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico, it snaps back and forth in long and narrow jags, creating land incursions by one country into the other.
For over 50 years, one of the American peninsulas that jutted into Mexico was the home to the Fort Brown Memorial Golf Course, an affordable, daily-fee layout. It closed in May 2015, a victim of PF (Pedestrian Fence) 225, the official name for the Rio Grande Valley border fence that is part of the United States’ attempt to stop the free flow of undocumented immigrants into the country.
The 18-foot-high ugly, rusting steel structure that separates hundreds of miles of the two countries does not neatly follow the rippling border but instead travels as much as possible in a straight line to minimize cost. It runs through working farms, residential property, Native American grave sites and environmentally protected areas, creating an odd no man’s land between the fence and the actual border. At Fort Brown, one entryway in the fence allowed workers and players access to the property. Border patrol agents sat outside the gap.
The federal government’s plans to erect the fence slipped out in 2006, and it was downhill from there for the Fort Brown.
“Right away, even before the fence went up (in 2008), it affected our business,” Robert Lucio, who ran the course, told the San Antonio News-Express newspaper. “We started having people not renewing their membership.”
For places like Brownsville, a border fence isn’t a political topic to be banded back and forth by presidential candidates or carping know-it-alls, but a reality that disrupts daily life and forces the end of small businesses.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that the community’s recreational spaces were sacrificed for a symbolic effort to look tough on immigration,” Denise Gilman, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law and a member of the UT Working Group on Human Rights and the Border Wall, told the News-Examiner. “It takes its toll on people’s psyche.”
The 649-mile intrusion, broken into 18 segments, cost a reported $2.3 billion to build. Not a dime was spent to help the golf course survive even though Lucio’s brother is state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., of Brownsville, who did his best to keep Fort Brown open.
What’s worse is that, contrary to what the federal government says, the fence is not working in many people’s eyes. Sgt. Rolando Garcia, head of police special investigations in the city of San Juan, which abuts the Rio Grande, said in a 2014 NPR.org story that the cartels adapted immediately to the effort to reduce drug trafficking.
“In order to get their product across, they basically measured the gap between the fence and started building their marijuana bundles within that gap so they could just slide through the fence,” Garcia says. “[A] border wall isn’t really gonna help.”
According to Aaron Nelson, a reporter for the Express-News who covers Brownsville, the demise of the Fort Brown course was accelerated by a local television report chronicling the violent war between rival drug gangs that was taking place in Matamoros in 2013 and 2014. Nelson said the reporter stood on the levee where the fence is located and made a sweeping gesture across the course out to nearby Mexico, with the camera panning the layout. It didn’t matter that not a single violent incident had happened at Fort Brown as a result of the narcotics trafficking. Soon after, school golf teams were not allowed to use the course to practice and play.
The closure of the facility meant the end to the home of the Pan American Golf Association, which the News-Examiner said, “promoted the sport in the impoverished and predominantly Hispanic community.”
The site is now named the Fort Brown National Historic landmark and commemorates significant battles of the Mexican-American War fought there. On the property are the remains of the fort, a cannon and historical markers – but no golfers. They’re on the outside of the fence, a fence designed to keep out illegals, but that in the end did a much better job keeping them out instead.