This skinny plant is a huge threat to border security

John Moore/Getty Images

A new border security bill drafted by Republicans in the House of Representatives includes many familiar items, such as funding for double-layer fencing and surveillance drones.

One request, however, seems more like suburban yardwork than a threat to national security. The measure calls for the eradication of a bamboo-like plant that grows along the Rio Grande.


The plant, called Carrizo cane in Texas, is an invasive species that shoots up along the banks of waterways, forming an interlocking network of subterranean roots that crowds out other plants and makes it hard to remove.

Environmentalists see it as a hazard to ecological diversity. On the border, though, it poses a separate problem: the stalks—which grow up to 30 feet tall—provide cover for people trying to cross illegally.

"It stretches hundreds and hundreds of yards at a time, so they'll duck in and they'll hide in it," said Chris Cabrera, a 13-year Border Patrol veteran and the vice president of a local union for agents. "It's hard to see what's going on it there, whether it's a person or an animal."


Texas law enforcement patrols the Rio Grande on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

That's made the plant an enemy of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees Border Patrol. Over the past decade, government contractors have tried a number of tricks to remove it from the banks of the Rio Grande in South Texas. They've explored attacking the vegetation with herbicides and turning it into a snack for hungry wasps, a natural predator to Carrizo cane in other parts of the world. So far, they haven't solved the issue.


The plants are considered enough of a threat to border security to warrant a place in the new legislation introduced by House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas). A group of Republicans in the Senate introduced a companion bill on Wednesday, also mentioning the canes.

The legislation calls for eradication of the plants "to the greatest extent practicable." If passed, the law would require DHS to keep the vegetation under control to prove the border was secure.


That might not be so easy, according to Kevin Urbanczyk, a professor at Sul Ross State University in South Texas and the director of the Rio Grande Research Center.

Together with a group of environmentalist volunteers and funding from Coca Cola, he's been experimenting with eradication techniques in a secluded 25-mile stretch of the Rio Grande along Big Bend National Park.


His project presents challenges you wouldn't find in urban areas such as McAllen, where border crossings are most common. Volunteers need canoes to reach the Carrizo. When they get there, they burn the reeds and then return to treat the stumps with an herbicide. The process hasn't killed the plants entirely, but it keeps them in check.


A suspected smuggler allegedly brings immigrants across the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Urbanczyk isn't sure if their work will get rid of the plants for good. "We don't know the answer to that," he said. "We may be sort of jousting at windmills because we have money to do it."


However, he believes it would be easier to remove the plants in an urban environment, where you could drive directly to the area in question.

Even if the federal government could crack the code and figure out how to kill the Carrizo, folks on the other side of the border might not cooperate.


When DHS considered an aerial herbicide spraying campaign in 2009 to remove plants in Laredo, the city council received a letter from the mayor of the bordering Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo asking them to stop the project since residents downstream used the river for drinking water. U.S. officials continued with the operation, but abandoned spraying for a method that involved cutting stalks and applying herbicide.


A Border Patrol agent checks the U.S. side of the Rio Grande River in August 2008 near Laredo, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Migrants also face a risk when they take cover in the reeds, according to Border Patrol's Cabrera. "It can cut up your arms and face pretty good," he said. He's encountered migrants who are trapped in a thicket of cane or who fall into a ditch.


"It doesn't really take a firm hold or anything. Next thing you know, you're knee-deep in water," he said. "It's just a pain in the butt."

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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