Not the typical town at all. In fact, it isn’t really a town, merely a census designated place (CDP), a move up from its previous designation as a census county division (CDD).
Despite being the largest town in Hudspeth County, it isn’t incorporated, doesn’t have a community hall or plaza or even a grocery store. Ft. Hancock Merchandise, like many of the town’s old stores, lies shuttered and forgotten. According to the census office, 47% of the 1800 Ft. Hancock residents live in poverty.
But the ghost-town pall of the town’s main intersection – where Texas 20 meets Knox Avenue – contrasts with the bustle seen at the other end of Knox Avenue – where it meets Interstate 10.
At the Ft. Hancock exit off of I-10, about 50 miles from El Paso, the boom times are evident. While a few of the cars parked at Angie’s Restaurant (which proclaims itself world-famous for its chicken fried steak) and at the adjacent convenience store are locals and interstate travelers, most now are construction workers stopping on their way back and forth from El Paso.
Ft. Hancock is booming today because of its border location. But it’s hardly cross-border trade and travel that is sparking the increasing activity. Rather, it’s all about the business of stopping cross-border traffic.
While the border bridge that connects Ft. Hancock and El Porvenir, Chihuahua hasn’t been improved or widened (not broad enough for two cars) since it was constructed in 1936, the other border infrastructure on the U.S. side is undergoing a major upgrade.
The average home (most are mobile homes) in Ft. Hancock is worth about $25,000, but the new home of the Border Patrol will cost taxpayers at least $19 million by the time it’s finished sometime this year. The palatial-looking concrete structure rising next to the U.S. port-of-entry station will be the new home for the 146 Border Patrol agents deployed in “line-watch operations” along this stretch of the Rio Grande.
Also contributing to the Ft. Hancock boom is the construction of the new border fence, which extends, with some gaps, from El Paso to the east side of Ft. Hancock. According to BP information officer, Lloyd Easterling, the government is spending about $3 million a mile to construct the fence in this area.
Illegals Don't Leave A Trace
“I don’t mind the illegals so much,” says Craig Miller, whose Miller Bros. cotton farm runs along the border next to the Ft. Hancock port of entry, “They don’t do much damage. In fact, no damage. It’s the Border Patrol agents who are the ones damaging our farms -- driving through our fields as if they own this land and four-wheeling it along our roads and levees, even when it’s wet, so they digging deep ruts that we have to repair.”
“But the Mexicans who pass through,” said Miller, “go through the irrigation channels, not leaving a trace, even covering up their tracks.”
The Border Patrol have long been part of the life on the border, but the relationship between the Border Patrol and community residents like Miller has changed with the recent buildup in the number of officers at the Ft. Hancock station.
“The Border Patrol used to be part of this community,” explained Miller, “but they no longer live here, don’t know the community, don’t know the land.” When he was a boy, he remembered fondly, a member of the Border Patrol was his Little League baseball coach. But now all but two of the 146 agents commute from El Paso, he said.
“Now they don’t even know where the post office is,” said Miller disdainfully, noting that a couple of station supervisors weren’t able to say where the post office is located.
He recognizes the need for a Border Patrol but like other Ft. Hancock residents now regards the Border Patrol as outsiders who don’t respect the locals, or worse don’t even know them. As a result, residents complain that they are repeatedly stopped by roving Border Patrol agents and asked all manner of intrusive questions.
Miller says that one day he was stopped four times when traveling along the border road connecting two of his farms. “By the fourth time, I gave them a piece of my mind,” said Miller.
(That morning I had addition reason to empathize with county residents who bitterly complain of Border Patrol practices. Earlier in the day, I myself had been stopped while traveling the border road and then interrogated by two agents. After providing the two officers with the requested identification and allowing them to search my vehicle, BP Agent McCraven checked my data on his computer and then came back two more times asking for additional forms of identification, my birth date, and social security number, as well as quizzing me where I had spent the night, what I had been doing in the county seat of Sierra Blanca, and where I was going next.
Finally, I, too, had enough when he asked me to roll up my sleeve to see if I had a tattoo on my arm, explaining that someone with my same birth date – but not same name, social security number, or place of residence – was wanted for some crime elsewhere in the country and had a tattoo on his arm. Indignant, I declined saying that had no right and had no reasonable suspicion. “Who do you think you are,” I said irritably, “an FBI agent? You have all my identification, you have already determined that I am not an illegal alien and am not smuggling any, as you can well see.”)
Just Plain Dumb
“They’re just dumb, plain dumb,” said Miller. Most of them he said are brand new and have never been in a rural area before. “They bring them in from Chicago, Philadelphia, wherever, and they don’t know anything about farms or this area.
Pointing out the Miller Bros.’ pump house, which stands near the border, he tells how one morning he saw 18 Mexicans crossing the border illegally near the pump house, each carrying a burlap bag on his shoulder. Taking them for drug runners, he phoned the Ft. Hancock Border Patrol Station, which is located about a quarter mile away.
Telling the officer about the border crossers, he explained that they were now walking past the farm’s pump house. Despite the farm’s prominence in the community, the answering officer didn’t know where the pump house was.
“Well, now they are walking up the dirt road past the Ft. Hancock ruins,” said Miller, recounting phone call. But the agent didn’t know where that was either, according to Miller, asking him if that was the old army post located some 15 miles to the east.
“I bet you know where the Ft. Hancock road is, don’t you?” he asked me, “and this is your first time through here– you can’t miss the sign!” As Miller guessed, I had seen the historical road marker just as I had spotted the Miller Bros. sign, both within minutes of the Border Patrol office.
Miller recalled that he called the Border Patrol again, after seeing the Mexican men pack into a large van that picked them up where the dirt road meets Highway 20. “They’re now coming your way,” he advised the agent, “All you have to do is step out of your office and stop the white van, which will be passing your way in a couple of minutes.”
Apparently, the illegal immigrants smuggling marijuana made it onto the interstate without being caught by the alerted Border Patrol.
Similar stories are told by Hudspeth County officials and other residents who seem uniformly angered and frustrated by the ineptitude of the Border Patrol. They see millions of dollars being pumped into this remote spot on the border but don't feel any more secure economically or any safer.
Tom Barry Photo