Columbus Monument’s Fate is Uncertain
As the $85 million expansion of the Port of Entry proceeds, the chain link fence marking the construction zone has temporarily cordoned off a monument erected by the border community in December of 2000.
The monument, consisting of a wooden cross standing on a rammed-earth base, sits on a small triangle of land that is partly under the control of the General Services Administration and partly under private ownership. It is located near a small parking lot approximately 300 yards from the border crossing into Puerto Palomas.
On December 2, 2000, a procession of Columbus residents marched from the Holy Family Catholic Church of Columbus down New Mexico Highway 11 carrying the cross to the monument location.
“It wasn’t meant as a religious monument,” said Jack Long during a recent conversation at the Pink Store in Palomas. “It was meant as a monument to the sacredness of life for the people who cross the border and lose their life.”
At the time of its installation, Long had also indicated the monument was a protest against U.S. immigration policy. In a December 2000 interview with the Headlight, he said, “We want to take a stand and say that laws need to be more in tune with humanity and not so harsh as to take lives.”
Today, Long has taken up the task of protecting and restoring the monument. In Palomas, where he currently resides, he said, “The GSA has requested that Columbus do something about the monument. They want to preserve the monument.”
The monument’s fate, however, rests on ownership of the property. Columbus Mayor Phillip Skinner and Long both say that an El Paso customs broker, Manuel Nunez, claims to have purchased the base of the triangle on which the monument sits. However, the owner of record per the Luna County Assessor’s Office is Ricardo Fierro, the Palomas dentist who was reported kidnapped in 2009, and whose present status is unknown. The Fierro Dental Clinic of Palomas, responding to the Headlight, did not believe Fierro owned the property, stating: “We believe the Catholic church owns it.”
“Nunez first indicated he would like to tear down the monument, and then offered to sell it for $20K,” said Skinner, echoing an account by Long. Nunez has not yet responded to queries from the Headlight. Skinner said the tiny property is worthless for development. “If he had any sense,” remarked Skinner, “He would donate it to a non-profit, get the tax deduction, and just move on – if he can show that he owns it.”
As for the public portion of the property, the Mayor said it has never belonged to the Village of Columbus, but was granted by the New Mexico Department of Transportation to the General Services Administration for construction of the $85 million expansion of the Columbus Port of Entry. “It went from state hands to federal government hands,” said Skinner.
Skinner and Long both said the GSA is willing to grant a license allowing access to its property so the monument may be repaired and preserved at its present location, which will abut a walking area near the Port of Entry. A spokesperson for the GSA told the Headlight, “The monument will remain in its current location as part of the landscaping…GSA’s role is limited and complete at this point.”
Skinner said that from a property standpoint, the Village of Columbus would have little role in saving the monument, which shows signs of physical deterioration. “In the community at large, no one’s ever bothered to take care of major repairs,” he said. “It has been used maybe a couple of times a year for a procession. There were processions that would march down to the border and they would meet there.” Although he questioned how much the monument is in use, Skinner indicated it was still worth saving. “Whether you agree with people crossing the border or not, I think those people who perished were just trying to make a better life for themselves – so that can be honored.”
At the Pink Store, Long looked over photographs of the first procession and installation of the monument nearly 17 years ago, and said he was looking for a non-profit entity to deal with GSA and take responsibility for the monument; however, all parties indicate little can be done until the private owner is located.
For now, as far as Luna County is concerned, the owner is a man who has been missing for nearly eight years.