Bracing for the Wall in the Rio Grande Valley

A hand-painted "No Border Wall" message is seen on the roof of the the home of Nayda Alvarez in La Rosita on Friday February 8, 2019. Alvarez' house is less than 100 yards from the Rio Grande and is in the path of a future section of the border wall. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

February 20, 2019

By Jeremy Schwartz

MISSION, Texas — Just after 6:30 a.m., under a cold drizzle and black morning sky, Father Roy Snipes pulls the cord of an old bell and calls the faithful to Mass. Inside the peeling whitewashed La Lomita chapel, the priest puts on his green robes and tells the parishioners about the previous day’s court hearing.

“The judge just didn’t understand the nature of our relationship to this chapel,” he says in the darkened sanctuary, lit by flicker of votive candles. “There is so much meanness right now. This whole chapel stands for the hospitality of the people where we come from.”

He proposes an idea: holding another round of nine sunrise Masses, a novena, to register the flock’s opposition to the coming border wall.

“Can’t hurt,” calls out a voice from the darkness.

La Lomita has stood near the banks of the Rio Grande for nearly two centuries, since its founding by Oblate Missionaries who proselytized the countryside on horseback. The humble sanctuary gave its name to the surrounding town of Mission, and residents still consider it the area’s mother church.

But the chapel sits a few dozen feet south of the Hidalgo County flood control levee, which federal officials designated as the path for an 18-foot-high steel border fence and a surrounding enforcement zone of floodlights and roads for U.S. Border Patrol vehicles.

For months, Father Roy has been leading the fight to save La Lomita from ending up on the south side of a border fence, planned as part of 33 miles of barrier funded in a 2018 spending bill. It will be the first new border barrier built in Texas under President Donald Trump. “I’m worried sick,” Roy said before the anti-wall Mass. “It’s almost the opposite symbol of our lady of refuge.”

Last week, the priest’s efforts, along with months of protest from Rio Grande Valley residents, elected officials and nature enthusiasts, may have paid off. As part of a last-minute deal to keep the federal government open, lawmakers carved out an exception for La Lomita, even as they approved $1.3 billion to pay for an additional 55 new miles of border fencing in the Rio Grande Valley.

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Also removed from border wall plans, at least for now: the National Butterfly Center, which hosts thousands of schoolchildren every year, and the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, a popular stop for birders and nature tourists.

“Those places deserve to be protected, but so does the rest of the Valley,” said Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club’s borderlands team. “Members of Congress … see these areas through a purely political lens. It’s just horse trading to them.”

Yet the future of the Texas riverfront remained very much in doubt Friday, as Trump declared a national emergency to access billions of dollars to build a more expansive border wall.

Butterfly Center Executive Director Marianna Trevino-Wright said she still worried that Trump’s national emergency would put the center once more in the path of the wall.

“It feels like a stay of execution,” she said. “It’s hard to celebrate when our friends and neighbors in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the federal tract next door to us are being bulldozed, and people are losing their homes and property and inheritances.”

The funding measure, and the similar one last year, will together fund about 88 miles of new fencing in the Rio Grande Valley, much of it in Hidalgo and Starr counties.

The first round of construction activity, funded by a $145 million contract awarded in October to a Galveston firm, began a few days ago on a tract of land that’s part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, a string of U.S. Fish and Wildlife parcels along the river.

Because the area is federally owned, the Department of Homeland Security won’t have to enter into eminent domain proceedings or navigate public battles with landowners.

But that doesn’t mean the agency hasn’t faced behind-the-scenes resistance from Fish and Wildlife officials, who have argued that fencing in Texas would undo decades of efforts and millions in funding to rehabilitate the refuge and lead to “serious, and likely irreparable, wildlife and habitat loss and damage.”

The new fence route also is slated to run past historic cemeteries, churches, privately owned lands and scores of family homes.

Those residents face the prospect of losing their land through eminent domain proceedings or finding themselves south of the border wall in what they call a kind of no-man’s land.

“We will be trapped inside with the bad guys,” said Cesar Ortiz, 70, who lives in a rental home a few feet south of the proposed path in the town of San Juan. “We feel like we will be in more danger because there are going to be a lot more (illegal crossers) down here.”

On the same street sits the Jackson Ranch Church, an important stop on the Texas branch of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Two historic cemeteries sit alongside the church.

New border fencing is also slated to wind past the bluffs of the 250-year-old city of Roma and through flood-prone areas of Starr County where local officials fear a border fence could cause catastrophic flooding.

Between Roma and Rio Grande City in Starr County, Nayda Alvarez, a 47-year-old teacher, said she has been dreading a potential border deal that would add more fencing in the Rio Grande Valley. She’s already been informed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that her property along the Rio Grande, which she said has been in her family since the 1770s, is slated for the coming round of fence building.

“We’re next,” she said. “I’ve had a stress headache for three weeks. We have a lot of sweat equity in the house and it could be torn down. Am I going to be stuck on the south side of it? What’s going to happen?”

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About a quarter-mile south of the levee in Donna sits a cluster of homes surrounding Templo Hermosa, a small Pentecostal church founded by the Jackson family in 1931. Fields of cotton, cabbage and onion stretch in each direction. On a recent afternoon, Apolonio and Theresa Jackson’s young grandsons played in the yard, bouncing on a trampoline and snapping photos with a cellphone.

“It’s really peaceful, but once we are behind that wall it will be really scary,” Theresa Jackson said.

The couple say border crossers sometimes knock on the door to ask for water or food or directions to town. But family members say they feel safe because of the near-constant Border Patrol presence, in the helicopters that circle above and the patrols that regularly drive by.

“They are always watching,” Apolonio Jackson said. He’s gotten used to being followed by agents on his commute into Donna where he works as a bus driver for the school district. “Most of them know us. If they stop us it’s because it’s a new agent.”

But they wonder if those patrols will slow or stop.

“After the wall I don’t know if they would still come on this side or just be parked on the levee,” Theresa Jackson said. “To me it would be creepy, knowing we were isolated back here.”

So far answers have been few and far between. Surveyors recently came back to take measurements on the levee, but the Jacksons don’t know if they will get a gate like some other residents south of the wall or if the government will seek to buy them out.

“Whatever they do, you can’t stop the government,” Theresa Jackson said.

A few miles upriver, in San Juan, Arturo Hernandez, wonders if he will have to leave his home of 40 years when the border wall comes through.

His two-story brick and wood home is nearly two miles from the river, but just a few feet south of border wall’s proposed path on the levee wall.

“I built this place with my own hands, bit by bit, puro trabajo,” he says.

He poured his earnings into the house, leaving the Rio Grande Valley every year to pick tomatoes and cucumbers and weed cotton fields from Florida to Michigan. First came the small brick home for him and his wife and then additions for his seven children.

“We don’t have savings,” Hernandez said. “We have this house.”

Today Hernandez keeps a stable of bicycles hanging from his back porch for weekend visits from his grandchildren. Freshly cut mesquite sits in an ochre pile for the carne asadas that mark the family visits. He fears they could become a thing of the past.

“This is our bit of the American dream,” he says. “It’s all I have.”

———

The Rio Grande Valley has been at the epicenter of border security efforts since at least 2014, when an influx of families and unaccompanied children from Central America spurred Texas officials to send Department of Public Safety troopers en masse. The area, which annually has among the border’s highest illegal crossing and smuggling rates, has proven a difficult puzzle for border agents.

“That Rio Grande Valley, enforcement-wise, is a monster,” said Victor Manjarrez, a former Border Patrol supervisor who is now associate director of the University of Texas at El Paso’s Center for Law and Human Behavior. “It’s the river, there are so many bends that you need to have people at every bend. The magnitude of what they had to do was much greater than any other part of the border I’ve seen, from Brownsville to San Diego. The Rio Grande Valley is its own thing. Those 33 miles have been a long time in coming.”

Border officials have traditionally sought physical barriers as a tool to help agents primarily in urban or semi-urban areas, where river crossers can quickly melt into the existing population. Border fences, agency officials say, can buy badly needed time for agents to catch up to illegal crossers by funneling them out of cities.

Even longtime border wall opponents have conceded that in some urban areas, a border wall has been effective.

“Building a fence reduced illegal crossings in San Diego-Tijuana because of population density, wrote the research and advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America, noting that apprehensions there fell from 565,000 in 1992 to 26,000 in 2017.

In a 2017 analysis for the Naval Postgraduate School, former Deputy Directorate Chief of the Border Patrol Justin Alexander Bristow found that physical barriers play a much smaller role in remote areas where “vanishing points are often dozens of miles in length in very harsh conditions that makes it very difficult to become indistinguishable from the surroundings.”

In such areas, which make up the bulk of the Texas-Mexico border outside the Rio Grande Valley, he argued that well-trained agents and technology provide a “posture of agility and mobility.”

The analysis argues that most densely populated areas already have some form of fencing. “Most of the rest is empty countryside,” the group writes. The exception is the semi-urban riverfront land of the Rio Grande Valley, though it notes that crossing the river also serves to slow down illegal crossers.

———

The first Spanish-speaking Protestant Church in the Rio Grande Valley sits just south of the levee road in San Juan, on the same street as Arturo Hernandez’s home and squeezed between two historic cemeteries.

The small white and black Jackson Ranch Church holds a little known piece of the area’s history: It was a key stop on the Texas branch of the Underground Railroad, which helped thousands of slaves escape into the freedom of Mexico before and during the Civil War.

The church sits on a ranch founded by Nathaniel Jackson, a Unionist from Alabama who moved to the Rio Grande Valley in the 1850s with his African-American wife Matilda Hicks, hoping to “escape the intolerance of interracial marriage they had known in the South,” according to the book “Blue and Gray on the Border: The Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail.” Jackson operated a ferry on the Rio Grande and his property became a refuge for runaway slaves, according to the book. Slavery had been abolished in Mexico decades earlier by President Vicente Guerrero, who was of mixed race.

Jackson’s son Eli sold the parcel to the Methodist Church and the church continued to offer regular services until Hurricane Dolly struck in 2008, according to the United Methodist News Service.

Today it’s unclear if the border wall will displace the church and its accompanying cemeteries or simply leave the historic sites in the no-man’s land south of the levee.

“I found it sadly ironic that this sacred place, which had been a haven for African-Americans fleeing slavery, could be destroyed to build a wall that would serve to shut out immigrants fleeing violence,” Rob Rutland-Brown, a member of the United Methodist Immigration Task Force, told the church’s news service.

Descendants of the original family have hired an attorney in hopes of preserving the land, arguing the border wall will cut off access to the church and cemeteries.

Another group, led by members of the Rio Grande Valley’s Carrizo/Comecrudo Native American tribe, has set up an encampment in the adjacent Eli Jackson Cemetery.

Juan Mancias, chairman of the tribe, said he believes his tribe’s ancestors are also buried in the cemeteries as well as in other unmarked graves along the border wall’s path.

“We have those inherent rights to protect our ancestors, because for too long they’ve been digging them up and not saying anything,” he said on a recent evening as protesters sat around a campfire at the cemetery. “The wall is just putting another bullet into our people. For us those are our ancestors. “

Along its construction route, the Department of Homeland Security has waived more than two dozen environmental and other laws that would require study and permits before starting construction, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation and Historic Preservation acts.

The cemetery camp has grown in recent days and weeks, with protesters including several veterans of the Dakota Pipeline protests of 2017. According to the group’s Facebook page, it plans to build three more “villages” along the border wall’s proposed route.

“It’s catching fire,” Mancias said.

———

When Max Munoz started working at the National Butterfly Center nearly a decade ago, the back 70 acres were a mess. The 30 acres north of the levee wall are home to a modern headquarters and well tended botanical gardens. But the 70 acres south of the levee were overgrown and filled with toilet paper and trash from migrant and smuggler hiding spots “It was filthy” he said.

Munoz and others have worked to clean up the area and restore it to something closer to its natural state. Today it hosts school field trips and Girl Scout camping excursions and has become a place to learn about the region’s native wildlife. The center also is using the acres below the levee for a new monarch sanctuary, planting varieties of milkweed to feed the butterflies on their migration from Mexico to Canada.

The area, Munoz said, has grown safe. “I bring in Girl Scouts, 50 or 60 for overnight camping trips,” he said. “If it was dangerous I wouldn’t do that at all.”

He worries that the border wall that was slated to run through the center’s property would have blocked access and undo the center’s restoration work over the last decade. “We created this back 70 acres to show kids the way it was in the past,” he said. “Once you block it off, it will become a hiding place for anybody who wants to hide out in here. I would not want to bring visitors out here. You don’t know what you will find. It will be a dead zone.”

The Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, run by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, similarly sits south of the levee and presented a complicated panorama for wall builders.

While state leaders have supported the border wall, the state’s parks department has urged alternative security measures and warned that the fencing would likely force the agency to shut down overnight camping and nighttime wildlife viewing in the park for safety reasons.

“A wall would be a significant deterrent to visitors and inhibit the access currently provided,” the department wrote in a briefing to federal officials. “Construction of the proposed wall would certainly call into question whether TWPD could continue to safely operate the property as a state park.”

The 587-acre park is home to more than 350 species of birds, including rarities like the Green Jay, Buff-bellied Hummingbird and Altamira Oriole.

Agency officials warned wall construction could potentially cause the park to revert back to the family of late Democratic U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, which donated the land to the state under the condition it be used solely for park purposes.

On a recent morning, park visitors were split on the need for a wall to run along the levee just south of the park’s entrance, but all said they were worried about continued access.

Barry Engleman, a full-time RV traveler from Colorado said the wall was “probably a good idea, if it didn’t destroy too much habitat. This levee seems to be the perfect place, but they need to give access. If they did it right they would put a gate here and let people through.”

Austin resident Jean Martin said she was worried she would lose access to the park. “It’s a horrible idea. They should consider better electronic surveillance and more manpower. That would certainly be cheaper and less destructive of the habitat.”

The uncertainty surrounding construction activity has had a major effect on the scores of businesses catering to nature tourists, who pump half a billion dollars annually into the Rio Grande Valley economy.

Keith Hackland, who opened the Alamo Inn B&B with his wife in 1999, said business is down 30 percent this year amid news reports and public statements that he says give a distorted view of what is happening.

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©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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