BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas - The bloody drug war in Mexico shows no sign of relenting. Neither do calls for tighter border security amid rising fears of spillover violence.
This hardly seems a time the U.S. would be willing to allow people to cross the border legally from Mexico without a customs officer in sight. But in this rugged, remote West Texas terrain where wading across the shallow Rio Grande undetected is all too easy, federal authorities are touting a proposal to open an unmanned port of entry as a security upgrade.
By the spring, kiosks could open up in Big Bend National Park allowing people from the tiny Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen to scan their identity documents and talk to a customs officer in another location, at least 100 miles away.
The crossing, which would be the nation's first such port of entry with Mexico, has sparked opposition from some who see it as counterintuitive in these days of heightened border security. Supporters say the crossing would give the isolated Mexican town long-awaited access to U.S. commerce, improve conservation efforts and be an unlikely target for criminal operations.
"People that want to be engaged in illegal activities along the border, ones that are engaged in those activities now, they're still going to do it," said William Wellman, Big Bend National Park's superintendent. "But you'd have to be a real idiot to pick the only place with security in 300 miles of the border to try to sneak across."
The proposed crossing from Boquillas del Carmen leads to a vast expanse of rolling scrub, cut by sandy-floored canyons and violent volcanic rock outcroppings. The Chihuahuan desert wilderness is home to mountain lions, black bears and roadrunners, sparsely populated by an occasional camper and others visiting the 800,000-acre national park.
Customs and Border Protection, which would run the port of entry, says the proposal is a safe way to allow access to the town's residents, who currently must travel 240 road miles to the nearest legal entry point. It also would allow park visitors to visit the town.
If the crossing is approved, Border Patrol would have eight agents living in the park in addition to the park's 23 law enforcement rangers.
"I think it's actually going to end up making security better," CBP spokesman William Brooks said.
"Once you've crossed you're still not anywhere. You've got a long ways to go and we've got agents who are in the area. We have agents who patrol. We have checkpoints on the paved roads leading away from the park."
A public comment period runs through Dec. 27 on the estimated $2.3 million project, which has support at the highest levels of government from both countries.
But U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican member of the House Homeland Security committee, questioned the wisdom of using resources to make it easier to cross the border.
"We need to use our resources to secure the border rather than making it easier to enter in locations where we already have problems with illegal crossings," McCaul said in an email. "There is more to the oversight of legal entry than checking documents. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) needs to be physically present at every point of entry in order to inspect for contraband, detect suspicious behavior and, if necessary, act on what they encounter."
While CBP will run the port of entry, the National Park Service is the driver behind the project, which it hopes will help conservation efforts on both sides of the border. Even as the National Park Service has increased cooperation with its Mexican counterpart, joint conservation has been limited by the inability of personnel to cross the border without making a circuitous 16-hour drive, Wellman said.
So the National Park Service is building the contact station just above the Rio Grande. It will house CBP kiosks where crossers will scan in their documents and talk to a customs officer in Presidio, the nearest port of entry, or another remote location. Park service employees will staff the station, offering information about the park and guiding people through the process.