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In Starr County, Texas, Trump's Border Wall 'Still Highly Unpopular'

Ross Barrera, Starr County GOP chairman, wants a border wall to stop unauthorized migrants who he says hike up from the Rio Grande on the path behind his fence.
John Burnett/NPR

As the Trump Administration prepares to accelerate construction of a border wall, Nayda Alvarez is preparing for the possibility that it will cut directly through her backyard.

Alvarez, a high-school teacher, received a letter last year from Customs and Border Protection about plans to build the wall on her family land in Starr County, Texas, that backs up to a bend in the Rio Grande.

"All this area was my grandfather's," she says. "So we've been here for about five or six generations. ... This is where we come fishing. We have our cookouts. We spend Easter here."

President Trump scored a major victory last week when the Supreme Court decided he can use a national emergency to divert billions of defense dollars to pay for the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Before, Trump had been limited to congressionally appropriated funding.

Starr County provides a glimpse of what a new era of wall-building will mean for border communities. The barrier planned for Starr County is part of the longest stretch of new border wall so far constructed under Trump — a total of 95 miles in the Rio Grande Valley.

Some residents are deeply skeptical of the border wall, fearing it will aggravate flooding problems and cut them off culturally from the river that has defined this landscape. Mexico exerts a gravitational pull all along the U.S. southern divide. But it's especially strong in Starr County — a rugged, impoverished expanse of riverbank and ranchland upriver from the Gulf.

This is where they filmed the 1952 production of Viva Zapata, starring Marlon Brando as the Mexican revolutionary; this is where Roma High School produces some of the greatest student mariachis in the country; and this is where Texans maintain connections with their kin in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

Under current plans, Starr County will be completely walled off from Mexico.

Federal maps show the county's meandering river border will be entirely blocked off by 52 miles of steel bollard wall — 18 to 30 feet tall. Every mile will include tall floodlights, hi-tech cameras and a 150-foot-wide patrol road.

Alvarez traverses her land on ATV, down a rocky path to a shady spot on the riverbank. Here the river is grand — wide, placid, alive with jumping fish and swooping birds. Dense foliage covers both sides — the U.S. and Mexico.

The Border Patrol told her they would put in a gate with a code to give her access to her family's riverfront. But Alvarez is not appeased.

"I don't want the wall through at all. It's not gonna solve any issues. It's not gonna stop what's happening. And I'm gonna lose my land," she says.

Border Patrol boats on the Rio Grande in Starr County, which has become one of the most popular illegal crossing spots for migrants seeking asylum in the United States.
/ John Burnett/NPR
John Burnett/NPR
Border Patrol boats on the Rio Grande in Starr County, which has become one of the most popular illegal crossing spots for migrants seeking asylum in the United States.

The U.S. government seizes private land through eminent domain to erect the structure. Unlike the vast reaches of public lands in the west, more than 90 percent of the river acreage in Texas is privately owned.

The starting offer for all landowners is $100. Nayda Alvarez says she'll see CBP in court.

The agency is taking public comment until the end of this month on all 95 miles of wall slated for the Rio Grande Valley. But everyone here is convinced it is unstoppable.

The Army Corps of Engineers has already signed contracts with construction companies.

Some sections to be built on levees will cost up to $24 million a mile.

The Rio Grande Valley is the nation's hotspot for illegal immigration. Forty percent of all apprehensions happen down here. And Starr County — an easy raft ride from Mexico—has seen a spike in asylum seekers.

Over one weekend in March, some 600 migrants paddled across the Rio Grande, crossing illegally into the U.S. to ask for asylum. On a recent canoe float, more than two dozen deflated rubber rafts could be seen caught on branches on the U.S. side that had been used by coyotes to ferry migrants across the river.

"We had one large group on a Saturday morning that was 400 people. That's when our locals said, 'Well, wait a minute, who are these 400 some-odd people that are coming in?'" said Dina Garcia-Pena, who runs the local newspaper, El Tejano.

But she says that doesn't necessarily translate into support for the border wall.

"I believe the people are scared, but I don't necessarily believe that they think the wall is the best way to go about it. It's still highly unpopular," Garcia-Pena said.

The formidable, rust-colored steel wall has never been popular on the border. All nine members of Congress who represent border districts have voted against funding for the wall.

On a recent canoe float down the Rio Grande, NPR's reporter spotted more than two dozen of these cheap, inflatable rubber rafts that are used by human smugglers to ferry migrants from Mexico into Starr County.
/ John Burnett/NPR
John Burnett/NPR
On a recent canoe float down the Rio Grande, NPR's reporter spotted more than two dozen of these cheap, inflatable rubber rafts that are used by human smugglers to ferry migrants from Mexico into Starr County.

The border wall is a sore spot among Starr County's movers and shakers, too. They gathered on a warm evening recently for an outdoor reception to munch sliders, quaff cold beer, and talk about economic development.

"In my humble opinion, 52 miles are not needed. I think maybe 8 to 10 miles is all we need. The rest can be done with technology and would save a lot of money," says Eloy Vera, the Democratic county judge and most powerful politician in the county.

"Building a wall," he continues, "it'd be like building a wall around your property so that your neighbor who might be your brother cannot come into your property. It's just not humanly right."

Trump has asserted that walls make border communities more secure, which is good for business. But that's not what you hear in Starr County. Rose Benavides, president of the local industrial foundation, says the wall is scaring away potential employers.

"The issue that has been raised to us is this whole conversation about us being a border war zone that requires a wall because there's a national emergency for security," she says. "And when you live in this area you know that that could be nothing further from the truth."

There are supporters of the government's wall in Starr County, but you have to look for them.

"I personally want some type of barrier," says Ross Barrera, chairman of the Starr County GOP. He lives in Rio Grande City about a mile from the river. His backyard, which he's decorated like a Hawaiian fantasyland, backs up to a trail that leads from the river. He says people illegally crossing the border frequently hike behind his house.

"I've seen the little fingers coming up my fence. 'What are you guys doing here?' And they talk to me, 'Oh, we're looking for Mr. So and So. They're gonna pick us up and transfer us up north.' I say. 'Guys, this is wrong. You're not supposed to be here. Get out!'"

The question that nettles the people of Starr County is whether the government's wall will worsen periodic flooding when the Rio Grande jumps its banks. According to maps published in late June, much of it will be erected in the floodplain. The fear is that when the river swells to flood stage, debris will catch in the steel-slatted fence, and turn it into a dam.

"Those walls will stop water from flowing properly out into the river when you have a big rain event," says Scott Nicol, Sierra Club's representative in the Rio Grande Valley. "Those walls will potentially deflect water deeper into Mexico whenever the river jumps its banks, as it has done many times."

The Rio Grande has flooded many times, but one event went down in history. The Rio Grande Valley took a direct hit from Hurricane Beulah in 1967. The slow-moving storm caused catastrophic flooding and killed at least 15 people.

Nayda Alvarez remembers her father pointing out where the river rose up more than 20 feet during Beulah, reaching the foundation of her house.

"Imagine a wall right here," she says. "How's the water going to go to the river? It won't. It's gonna pick up every branch, every leaf. It's going to make a dam, and the water's going to stay on the north side of the wall."

One favorite crossing spot for migrants seeking asylum is Roma. This historic town of 2,000 sits right on the Rio Grande. During the Civil War, it was a thriving cotton port for steamboats that plied the river . Today, it's common to see ragged asylum seekers walking through neighborhoods.

"These people come across the river, stand on any street corner and stop the nearest law enforcement that happens to pass by them," says Roma Assistant Police Chief Francisco Garcia. "And literally they just start waving and saying, 'Hey, police, I'm here. Turn me over to immigration.'"

Garcia says the border wall may prevent some of the illegal migrant traffic, but—like the others—he's worried about flooding.

"In 2010, we had river flooding. We had an area within the city that we had to shut down that subdivision for 3½ weeks. Nobody could live in it because it was underwater."

The exact placement of the border wall is still being worked out. CBP posted a preliminary document online saying it would put the wall on the edge of the 100-year floodplain, not in it.

And a year-old engineering study obtained by the Sierra Club indicates a few design features to address flooding .For instance, the distance between the bollards would be increased by an inch to allow more water to flow through the wall, and two large gaps are supposed to prevent water from deflecting into Mexico.

But residents remain concerned, as does Mexico.

Mexico and the U.S. have a 49-year-old river treaty that says both nations must agree if one wants to build any structure that would affect the flow of the Rio Grande or its floodwaters .

Antonio Rascón is chief Mexican engineer of the bilateral International Boundary and Water Commission. Two years ago, he told NPR that Mexico opposes any structure that would affect the trans-border flow of water.

"The Americans tried to say, 'Well, yes, we understand what the treaty means.' But the full commission was not in agreement," Rascón said at his office in Juarez, Mexico. "Formally, we can say, although they interpret the treaty their own way, for us the wall should not be there."

The commission is mulling the newly released border wall plans and declined to speak further.

NPR tried to get someone working on the project to address flooding concerns, but no one would. The companies building the wall, the Army Corps of Engineers overseeing construction, and Customs and Border Protection all declined comment.

JC Salinas, a retired history teacher and the unofficial Starr County historian said if he could get an audience with the president, he would tell him: "Look man, use your imagination. You're supposed to be a creative businessman. Can't you see a way to bypass this, because Roma really has a beautiful connection to the river."

Trump, of course, has said the border wall is beautiful.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018 and again in 2019, he won a national Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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