In The Rio Grande Valley, Residents Prepare For Construction Of A New Border Wall

Originally published on September 5, 2019 8:43 am

Updated at 5:07 p.m. ET

President Trump's emergency declaration will potentially free up over $6 billion to build hundreds more miles of barriers along the Southern border. One of the places prioritized for construction is the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where the majority of illegal crossings now occur. Residents there have strong views about the barrier, both pro and con.

Nayda Alvarez is a lifelong resident of La Rosita, a small town along the Rio Grande nested between the cities of Roma and Rio Grande City. She's a local high school speech teacher and lives next door to her parents.

She remembers the moment she opened a letter from the federal government. "You know, I've had like a stress headache ever since I've got that letter," she said.

The letter asked Alvarez if she would grant the federal government permission to survey her land for the possible construction of some kind of border infrastructure.

She doesn't know what her legal options are: "It's the uncertainty behind the letter or behind everything, because you ask questions and they don't know when or where or how or what's going to happen."

Nayda Alvarez poses for a photo in her backyard, which is part of the property that her family has owned for five generations along the Rio Grande in the community of La Rosita, near Rio Grande City, Texas. Alvarez says that if the border wall were built as it is shown in preliminary maps, her house would have to be demolished to leave the 150-foot enforcement zone.
Veronica G. Cardenas / Texas Public Radio

Surveying is generally the first step before the federal government offers to purchase the land. If the landowner doesn't want to sell, the federal government can sue, using its power of eminent domain to take the land.

The first letter arrived in Alvarez's mailbox in September. Then a second one came in November, and a final one, threatening legal action, followed in January.

Alvarez has not yet responded to any of the letters because she's busy seeking legal advice.

"I have lived here all my life," she said. "This land belonged to my great-grandparents since this area was part of Mexico. Unlike some people [who] say that we might be first generation — no, my parents and great-grandparents have been here forever."

This is about what is right or wrong, and a wall is not going to help anything. It's not gonna work. - Nayda Alvarez, Rio Grande Valley resident

Alvarez questions the need for an emergency declaration to build a wall in her backyard — she says she has felt safe in her community her entire life. She says she has tried to talk to local, state, and federal government officials, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, about the impending border project.

"You ask them questions, and they have no idea," she said, referring to her interactions with the Army Corps of Engineers. "They won't give you an answer. They just give you the runaround, and they never give you a straight answer."

But now Alvarez thinks she has a plan to get elected officials' attention.

"If they ever do a flyby, I do have my 'No Border Wall' up on my roof so they know where I stand, but nobody's bothered to ask us," said Alvarez. "This is about what is right or wrong, and a wall is not going to help anything. It's not gonna work."

Gracie Garcia lives in Los Indios, a small town by the Rio Grande near San Benito in Cameron County. She knows what it's like to see a border wall built on her property. That happened to her over a decade ago.

"It's 10 years since they built it, and to this day we haven't been paid for anything as we were told they were supposedly going to pay for the property, the amount of land they took," said Garcia.

Garcia is also a lifelong Rio Grande Valley native and lives with her four children next to a section of border wall that cuts through her backyard.

"When I look at the wall, I think it's just a waste of money," said Garcia. "I really don't understand why they went this way."

Garcia said she stayed in the area even after the wall went up because she loves her community.

Let's try this wall, because for 75 years, nothing has worked. Maybe this will. - Ruperto Escobar, Rio Grande Valley resident

"It's really peaceful. Everyone gets along with everybody, the neighbors," she said. "It's quiet and it's good. It's a really good place to live in. It's comfortable."

But Ruperto Escobar, who lives by the Rio Grande in the small town of Escobares near Roma in Starr County, about 90 miles away from Garcia, welcomes the push for more border barriers. He said he has seen people cross illegally onto his property from Mexico.

"I've seen how freely people walk through here," said Escobar. "That's a fact."

Escobar, 75, is a farmer who owns a total of about 600 acres of land. He doesn't mind the government cutting through his property, because he believes it will reduce the flow of drugs coming into the United States. The topic is extremely personal to him.

"It has affected some of my kids, and I have personally gone through the hell that parents go through when they have children that are addicted to any one of these drugs," said Escobar. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, most illegal drugs coming into the U.S. from Mexico arrive through legal ports of entry along the Southern border.

Still, Escobar is inviting the government to build a wall on his property: "I say, let's try to stop it. Let's try something new. Let's try this wall, because for 75 years, nothing has worked. Maybe this will."

Nayda Alvarez said she doesn't have the luxury of a 600-acre farm.

"I'm not losing a piece of my land. I'm actually going to lose my house," said Alvarez. "Unlike other people who say, 'Oh, I'm just going to lose the back part' — OK, you lose your back part, but I'm going to lose my house. What are we supposed to do? This is not America. Or at least not the America that I know."

It's still unclear how many miles of border wall will be built in the Rio Grande Valley.

According to the border security bill passed by Congress and signed by the president, the Department of Homeland Security and the local elected officials of the cities affected by the upcoming border wall will need to reach an agreement regarding the design and alignment of physical barriers by Sept. 30.

Correction : 2/15/19

The audio of this story, as well as a previous Web version, incorrectly identifies Ruperto Escobar as Ruperto Cardenas.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Through the emergency declaration and executive action, President Trump will potentially freeze some $6 billion to build hundreds more miles of barrier along the southern border. One of the first priorities for construction is the Rio Grande Valley of Texas where the majority of legal crossings now occur. As Reynaldo Leanos Jr. of Texas Public Radio reports, residents there have strong views about the barrier both pro and con.

REYNALDO LEANOS JR, BYLINE: Nayda Alvarez remembers the moment she opened up a letter from the federal government asking for permission to survey her land to build a border wall.

NAYDA ALVAREZ: You know, I've had, like, a stress headache ever since I got that letter.

LEANOS: That first letter came in September, a second one in November. A final one threatening legal action followed in January.

ALVAREZ: It's the uncertainty behind the letter or behind everything 'cause you ask questions, and they don't know when or where or how or what's going to happen.

LEANOS: Alvarez has not yet responded. Their surveying is generally the first step before the federal government offers to purchase the land. If the landowner doesn't want to sell, the federal government can sue using its power of eminent domain to take the land. Alvarez is exploring her legal options.

ALVAREZ: I have lived here all my life. This land belonged to my great grandparents since this area was part of Mexico. My parents and great grandparents have been here forever.

LEANOS: Alvarez lives in La Rosita, a small town along the Rio Grande. She's a high school speech teacher who lives next door to her parents. She's felt safe here all her life. And when she heard the president was declaring a national emergency, she said she almost had a heart attack.

ALVAREZ: This is about what is right and wrong, and a wall is not going to help anything. It's not going to work.

LEANOS: Alvarez said she's heard horror stories of what went on in 2008 when the federal government last seized land east of Starr County for the border wall. Gracie Garcia is also a lifelong Valley native.

GRACIE GARCIA: It's 10 years since they built this.

LEANOS: She lives along the Rio Grande closer to the city of Brownsville with her four children.

GARCIA: To this day, we haven't gotten paid for anything. We were told - supposedly they were going to pay the property amount of, you know, land they took.

LEANOS: She shows me the border wall that now looms over her backyard.

GARCIA: When I look at the wall, it's just like - to me, it's just, like, a waste of money. And I really don't understand why they went this way.

LEANOS: Like Alvarez, Garcia says she's never felt unsafe in her community. But Ruperto Cardenas, who lives about 90 miles west of Garcia, said it's definitely a national emergency. He's seeing people cross illegally onto his property from Mexico.

RUPERTO ESCOBAR: I've seen how freely people walk through here. That's a fact.

LEANOS: He's 75 years old and a farmer who owns about 600 acres of land. Cardenas hopes that the wall will reduce the flow of drugs even though most illegal drugs come through legal ports of entry. Cardenas is inviting the government to build the wall on his property.

ESCOBAR: Let's try something new. Let's try this wall 'cause for 75 years, nothing has worked. Maybe this will.

LEANOS: Back at La Rosita, Nayda Alvarez says she doesn't have the luxury of a 600-acre farm.

ALVAREZ: I'm not losing a piece of my land. I'm actually going to lose my house. What are we supposed to do? This is not America, or this is not the America that I know.

LEANOS: President Trump's national emergency declaration means that if it holds up, it's not just Starr County that will be dealing with these conflicts. The president wants to build or rebuild over 200 more miles of border fences. For NPR News, I'm Reynaldo Leanos Jr. in Starr County, Texas.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story, as well as a previous web version, incorrectly identifies Ruperto Escobar as Ruperto Cardenas.]

(SOUNDBITE OF HARALD KINDSETH'S "KEFI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.