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Texans Greet Plans for Trump’s Wall with Tears, Fears or Open Arms

VAL VERDE COUNTY — On this stretch of riverfront near Del Rio, Maria Villarreal has an aging but attentive guard dog named Ace who barks in the shade of a fig tree, just feet away from a memorial to her nephew Elias Torres, who died at 21 during a combat mission in Iraq. Nearby is a sign warning that trespassers will be shot on sight and that any survivors will be “shot again.”

It’s a backyard that could be anywhere in Texas, with one exception: The back fence is the only thing separating her yard from the Rio Grande — and beyond it, Mexico.

The land and her modest house are the result of decades of hard work in San Angelo where, as a single mother, she raised three children while working for the local hospital.

“I saved for this all my life, to retire and come here,” she said. “And this is where I wanted to be, and slowly, I managed it.”

Then as she described waiting for the mail each day – and the anxiety of potentially receiving a letter from the federal government informing her that land isn’t hers anymore — her smile disappeared and tears welled in her eyes.

“For someone to just come and rip our dream away this way, it’s sad,” she said. “This is ours, this is our life, this is our land, the people’s land.”

The Trump Administration has been unpredictable on issues like trade and health care, but it has kept its focus on the border wall that President Trump promised at every campaign stop as a candidate. Trump didn’t get money for the wall in last month’s budget fight to keep the federal government running until the end of September, but he vowed that it will be funded this fall.

The Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, is already taking proposals for constructing the wall and announced it will begin construction of a prototype in California after winning bids are announced in June.

The Texas Tribune interviewed Texans in four counties along the Rio Grande who are potentially facing government seizure of their land for the wall — or have been living in the shadow of the border fence constructed under President George W. Bush’s administration. Their reactions to the specter of more government land seizures — and to the overall growth of border security measures — were as different as the landscape from Brownsville to El Paso.

Maverick County: a symbiotic relationship for rancher

About an hour downriver from Villarreal’s simple 150-by-200-foot lot, Salvador Salinas is also concerned about the federal government running a wall through his 500 acres along the Rio Grande.

“I hear they just say, ‘This is how much we’re going to pay,’” he said, referring to rumors the government gives simple, lump-sum offers when it comes to seize property. “Is it for certain acreage or space for the wall? They don’t buy the whole ranch, right?”

Salinas and his friend and business partner, state Rep. Alfonso Nevarez, bought the land in 2016, before Trump was elected.

Salvador Salinas in his 500-acre property in Maverick County. The private property ends where the banks of the Rio Grande begin. | Photo by Robin Jerstad
Salvador Salinas in his 500-acre property in Maverick County. The private property ends where the banks of the Rio Grande begin. | Photo by Robin Jerstad

“I didn’t know this was going to be an issue,” he said as he wound his 4×4 pickup through caliche roads flanked by thorn bushes and lazy-eyed steer. The river here is hidden in places by salt cedar or carrizo cane, which can hide smugglers and drug mules waiting for the right time to move.

But Salinas said despite its size, he isn’t concerned about cartels or other smugglers using his land as a staging ground. He sees the occasional clumps of discarded clothing and downed branches that signal illegal crossings, but he said the U.S. Border Patrol does a decent job patrolling the area.

Like other border landowners, he shares a symbiotic relationship with the federal agents: He allows them access to his land — they have copies of the gate keys — and agents keep him and his family relatively safe.

A wall, he said, is not only offensive but impractical. When asked what he thought was a more practical solution, he repeated what many border landowners have repeated for years: “More Border Patrol, more cameras and more boats in the water.”

But not everyone in this remote stretch of Maverick County feels as comfortable as Salinas. A neighbor who only wanted to be identified by her middle name, Delia, said she regrets moving so far away from the heart of Eagle Pass. From her backyard, the river is clearly visible, and so is a nearby gazebo where residents of the Eagle Point subdivision have picnics, meetings and even weddings.

Even so, Delia said she doesn’t leave her house after 9 p.m. because she fears people crossing the river illegally.

Twice, she said, she’s sent her kids to check the mail, only to have them run into Border Patrol agents on the hunt. “They asked, ‘Have you seen three guys running around.’ I don’t know why they would say that” to children, she said.

For her, making room for a wall is a no-brainer, even if it means selling her land.

“I would be more than happy. I would sell it today,” she said. “When we bought it, I thought this was what I wanted, but it’s very lonely out here.”

Eagle Pass was one of the last cities to get a piece of the border fence under the 2006 Secure Fence Act signed by President George W. Bush. The rusty barrier near the banks of the river has blended into the city’s landscape since it was finished.

The fence looms near a municipal park where Jesus Daniel Gonzalez, 25, recently practiced for the upcoming championship soccer match for his semi-pro league. His team, the Twin Cities FC, comprises players from Texas and the Mexican state of Coahuila.

“These are the only soccer fields in the area, so if [Trump] builds it here, we won’t have a place to practice,” he said. “And, a wall isn’t going to stop anyone. People are going to find ways to cross.”

Cameron County: comfort from the fence

Members of the Twin Cities FC practice at twilight on an Eagle Pass soccer field between the Rio Grande and the current border fence. Piedras Negras, Mexico, is in the background. | Photo by  Robin Jerstad
Members of the Twin Cities FC practice at twilight on an Eagle Pass soccer field between the Rio Grande and the current border fence. Piedras Negras, Mexico, is in the background. | Photo by Robin Jerstad

Six counties southeast of Eagle Pass, Pat Faltersack doesn’t mind the fence, which he said has helped make his area safer.

Faltersack is originally from Minnesota but owns and operates the Anglers Nest R.V. Park in Los Indios, a tiny municipality in Cameron County, during the mild Texas summers. His business is just across the highway from a field where the border fence blocks the view of the Rio Grande. And that’s fine with him, he said.

“I’ve been here 14 years and never had an issue,” he said. “As a matter of fact, things have gotten better.” He said an influx of local, state and federal law enforcement has helped as much as the fence. But Faltersack said he’d be fine if the government wanted to build a taller, thicker barrier, too.

“I think the wall is a good thing if they patrol it,” he said. “It wouldn’t bother me one bit.”

Hudspeth County: where the barrier ends

More than 800 miles and a time zone away, Jim Ed Miller drove his dusty pickup through his 3,000-acre cotton farm in Fort Hancock, about 55 miles downriver from El Paso.

Miller’s had a federal border fence just south of his property line for nearly 10 years. But the barrier stops in the middle of a caliche road just north of the Rio Grande. Where the fence ends, a camera sits fixed to its edge. Miller pulled up to the device, rolled down the window and waved.

“They know me here,” he said, laughing. Then he spun his truck around and stared at the fence’s edge.

“Do you feel safe?” he asked.

Here, the Rio Grande is little more than a muddy trench where even the slowest rattlesnake can go from Mexico to Texas in seconds.

Like many landowners here, Miller can regale visitors with stories about catching undocumented immigrants on his property. He’s always armed — three rifles in the back seat and his revolver at the ready in the front — but he prefers not to use his guns. He said he and his family will call Border Patrol and usually offer the migrants some food and water while they wait. Sometimes, Miller said, he even drives the migrants over to the Border Patrol station himself.

“This is ‘Almost America,’” he explained. “There are five checkpoints between here and real America.”

He’s more pragmatic than some of his neighbors about the prospect of a new wall that could replace the existing fence — and potentially claim more of his land.

“If they want it, they’re going to take it,” he said as he took out the letter from U.S. Homeland Security that he’d tucked into his copy of the U.S. Constitution. He pointed his large, bony finger to a paragraph he’d highlighted that quotes a federal law.

“… Any officer shall have the power to access private lands for the purposes of patrolling the border to prevent the illegal entry of aliens into the United States, within a distance of twenty-five miles from any external boundary,” it reads.

The letter was in response to a claim he filed three years ago after Miller said a Border Patrol agent wrecked a portion of his freshly planted cotton field by crossing it to aid an immigrant who had crossed illegally. His claim was denied.

The letter is a reminder of the place he lives and the power of the federal government.

“It’s Almost America,” he repeats.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • At the U.S.-Mexico border, scientists say existing fencing is hurting endangered wildlife and warn that a continuous wall could devastate many species.
  • The Trump administration may not be able to move mountains — literally — in its quest to build a coast-to-coast wall along the nation’s southern border. But that doesn’t mean the White House won’t review some longstanding treaties that have stymied past administrations
  • As the Trump administration sets its sights on building a barrier on the country’s southern border, a group of Texas attorneys aims to help border residents ensure they are properly compensated for whatever land the government seizes.

Author:  JULIÁN AGUILAR –  The Texas Tribune

Hurd on the Hill: A Sector by Sector Approach to Border Security

The privilege of representing the 23rd Congressional District of Texas is something I do not take lightly, and I work hard each day to ensure that my votes in Washington reflect the views and best interests of my constituents. I represent more than 800 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, more than any other Member of Congress.

La Frontera forms a unique social and economic connection throughout the district. From El Paso to Del Rio and on to Eagle Pass, each section of the border faces unique geographical, technological and cultural challenges that must be addressed separately.

My stance on the border wall has not changed, because the facts have not changed. There is no question that we must secure our border, but building a wall from sea to shining sea is the most expensive and least effective way to go about doing so. A one-size-fits-all solution won’t address all of the border’s complexities.

While physical barriers are one of many tools and may work well in urban areas, gaining operational control of the entire southern border will require a sector-by-sector approach that adequately empowers the men and women on the ground with technology, resources, and manpower.

I am in favor of investing in technology and personnel, instead of a third century solution. We also must implement an intelligence-led border security approach to combat the 19 criminal organizations currently operating in Mexico. The reality is that these are problems for Mexico as well, and there are a number of units we can be working with to stop these problems before they arrive at our borders.  This will keep people on both sides of the border safer.

I am often asked why I don’t support a border wall, and one of the reasons is because it hasn’t worked in the past. There are already almost 700 miles of fencing along the 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.  Much of it is in need of repairs from human smugglers and cartels repeatedly digging under, climbing over and cutting through it. On one of my trips to the border, I saw a portion of the existing fencing that was used by drug traffickers as a ramp to drive a full-size tractor-trailer into the U.S.

Additionally, many of the areas along the Texas-Mexico border are so remote, that border agents measure response time in hours or days. In these places, a fence is not a deterrent.  These areas need surveillance technology, infrastructure and most importantly, personnel. If there are not agents in place to respond to crossings or technology to monitor activity, a wall will do little to effectively secure our border.

Alternatively, we should be able to detect when someone illegally crosses the border, monitor them with a camera or unmanned aerial vehicle, and keep track of the threat until we are able to deploy our most important resources: the men and women in our border patrol.

There is no question that we must secure our border and enforce our nation’s laws. But the last thing we should do is limit ourselves to only one tool in the toolbox. I hope that we can begin talking about strategies, rather than tactics, and measurable benchmarks. When we measure the effectiveness of border security, we shouldn’t be measuring how many miles of fence or wall we have. We should instead measure whether we see a notable decrease in human trafficking, drug smuggling and illegal crossings.

These are lessons I have learned by proactively listening to the concerns of constituents, local law enforcement, landowners and Border Patrol. Until we get it right, this is the message I will carry to my colleagues in Washington and continue to fight for.

***

A former undercover CIA officer, entrepreneur and cybersecurity expert, Will Hurd is the U.S. Representative for the 23rd Congressional District of Texas. In Washington, he serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, as Vice Chair of the Maritime and Border Security Subcommittee on the Committee for Homeland Security, and as the Chairman of the Information Technology Subcommittee on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee

El Paso State Legislative Delegation: Trade War with Mexico ‘Catastrophic’ for Texas, Americans

Members of El Paso’s State Legislative Delegation again spoke out against the recent Executive Orders signed by President Donald Trump.

On Friday, via a joint news release, members harshly criticized the President’s action and provided economic numbers to bolster their position. Their statement, in full, is below.

Another day, another foolishly destructive action by the new administration. Wednesday, it was to target immigrants and border communities. Now, in order to do that, the President targets consumers by proposing a trade war with Texas’ biggest trading partner, Mexico. Texas will pay the price, and El Paso will be on the front lines.

Make no mistake. We all benefit from trade with Mexico. From vehicles to electronic products to energy to fresh food, Mexico is one of our country’s largest trading partners, and Texas’ largest. This action does not help Americans or Texans, and will both hurt workers while trickling down to consumers.

It seems yet another reckless reaction to a perceived personal slight – in this case, the cancellation by Mexico’s president of a meeting – which was the hallmark of his campaign and now of his fledgling administration. A trade war with Mexico will hurt Texas more than most, but it will hurt all Americans. This could be catastrophic.

Just some of the relevant numbers:

  • Mexico is the largest trading partner for five states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and New Hampshire) and the second largest for 17 more around the country.  These span the country from coast to coast and top to bottom, including Arkansas, Iowa, Colorado, Rhode Island, and Michigan, and based around a wide variety of goods such as, chemicals, transportation equipment, plastics and rubbers, foods, paper products, and electronics.
  • Tourism: According to the state’s travel office, preliminary estimates show that nearly 8 million travelers from Mexico visited Texas in 2015, generating $4.7 billion in direct spending. Texas welcomed 23 percent of all Mexican air arrivals to the United States, or roughly one out of every four visitors. Travel from Mexico to Texas is projected to increase by 21 percent by 2020.

State Sen. José Rodríguez represents Texas Senate District 29; State Rep. Joe Pickett represents Texas House District 79; State Rep. Joseph Moody represents Texas House District 78; State Rep. Mary Gonzalez represents Texas House District 75; State Rep. Cesar Blanco represents Texas House District 76; and State Rep. Lina Ortega represents Texas House District 77.

Bishop Seitz: ‘We will Continue to Walk with Migrants and Refugees’

The Church, like Jesus, cares for people, and in a special way we care for the poor and the marginalized. We will continue to walk with migrants and refugees and raise our voices in their defense.

As we know from our experience serving those who have been crossing in recent years those who are coming are not leaving their homes purely for economic reasons; they are fleeing deadly violence and threats against them and their families.

Although some are fleeing from parts of Mexico, the majority are coming from the Northern Triangle of Central America: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

As displaced refugees according to International law, which the United States helped to write, it is not illegal to enter another country when one is seeking asylum. It would not only be unChristian, it would be unAmerican to deny these refugees an opportunity to prove they qualify for protection.

Regarding the wall the Church in the United States has long held that it would be a much more efficient use of our taxpayer dollars if we would:

1) put in place a comprehensive immigration reform which addresses this country’s need for workers and

2) assist sending countries in their need for assistance to overcome the gang and drug violence that is forcing the departure of so many and creating such desperation.

We would also like to remind our immigrant brothers and sisters that we live in a democratic republic. No one person will have free reign to enforce his decisions. We will support legislative and court actions if the fundamental human rights of anyone is threatened.

To all these actions we will add our prayers that our new President will be open to these Gospel principles and that God will continue to provide for His beloved poor.

Author: Bp. Mark J. Seitz

El Paso State Legislative Delegation on Border & Immigration Policy: POTUS Attacked Border Communities, Immigrants

In a late Wednesday afternoon release, members of the El Paso State Legislative Delegation on Border and Immigration Policy announced their position regarding the President’s proposed border wall.

Below is the entire statement:

Austin – Today, the President of the United States used his office to attack border communities and immigrants. His announcement is disappointing but not surprising, given his rhetoric as a candidate.

A wall will violate the private property rights of Americans, be prohibitively expensive, and be ineffective. The only return on investment is political, and it sends a signal to the rest of the world that America is no longer the beacon of hope for the tired and poor, who given the opportunity in our country become exceptional, just as our parents and grandparents.

If the President talked to border residents, he would hear that we need to strengthen and streamline our ports of entry, so that we can build upon our economic, cultural, and social ties with our neighbors. He would hear that we want to build bridges, not walls. We are one of the safest communities in the country because we do not target immigrants – we welcome them.

Despite policies from the federal and state level that diminish instead of build our border communities, we will continue to do so.

State Sen. José Rodríguez represents Texas Senate District 29; State Rep. Joe Pickett represents Texas House District 79; State Rep. Joseph Moody represents Texas House District 78; State Rep. Mary Gonzalez represents Texas House District 75; State Rep. Cesar Blanco represents Texas House District 76; and State Rep. Lina Ortega represents Texas House District 77.

Rep Hurd: Wall ‘Least Effective, Most Expensive’ Way to Secure Border

San Antonio, TX – Texas Republican Congressman Will Hurd released the following statement regarding President Trump’s border security Executive Order:

The facts have not changed. Building a wall is the most expensive and least effective way to secure the border. Each section of the border faces unique geographical, cultural, and technological challenges that would be best addressed with a flexible, sector-by-sector approach that empowers the agents on the ground with the resources they need.

A wall may be an effective tool in densely populated areas, but a variety of tools are needed between Brownsville, Texas and San Diego, California.  The 23rd District of Texas, which I represent has over 800 miles of the border, more than any other Member of Congress, and it is impossible to build a physical wall in much of its terrain.

Big Bend National Park and many areas in my district are perfect examples of where a wall is unnecessary and would negatively impact the environment, private property rights and economy.

There is no question that we must secure our border, but we need an intelligence-led approach in order to effectively combat the 19 criminal organizations currently operating in Mexico.