Many feel the Trump administration’s proposed border wall is toxic and divisive. But in the Rio Grande Valley, it’s also bringing the community together. Here in South Texas, people who would normally be ideologically opposed are joining forces to fight against the president’s plans.
The construction of a wall between the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico started in 2009—way before the election of President Trump, who announced in May that he would soon be seeking “full funding” for the wall in Congress and, earlier this week, repeated his claim that Mexico would pay for it. (Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, begs to differ.) Meanwhile, border towns across the country have been staging protests against the construction; there’s one community hike scheduled for June 17 at Bentsen State Park in Mission, Texas to inform the community about the effects of the border wall.
According to documents obtained by the Texas Observer in November, Trump administration had planned to build 33 miles of new fencing and levee wall in the Rio Grande Valley—which would not only affect people, but tear through wildlife areas. At least for this fiscal year, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge has been exempted. But residents fear that could change, and the areas around it were not so lucky.
These photos and interviews, which were condensed and edited, were taken over the last six months along Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
La Lomita [located yards away from the Rio Grande River, technically in the U.S. but on the wrong side of the proposed wall] is our mother church. The symbolism of the wall is terrible. In order to “save ourselves” [from immigrants]—which is a fallacy, anyway—we will abandon our values, our heritage, our history, and our neighbors. We’ll give up on being noble, being generous. It will cut ourselves off from the mother church, from our roots in order to save ourselves. In the Babylonian exile the Jews were separated from their roots, like we will be separated from La Lomita, and they became more intense in their fidelity to their heritage. If they do build the wall, we wouldn’t lose our faith. We would figure out something.
When I had just become a pastor 25 years ago, we did a Palm Sunday procession to La Lomita. We go in November to remember Father Peter Caroline, to welcome back the winter Texans and the migrants. We also go there to pray during severe drought season to pray for rain.
On Palm Sunday we always have a large procession there. Inside if you get 50 people, it’s pretty much a full house. We have weddings and baptisms there.
We have a church camp that starts at La Lomita and then we go down to the river. Sometimes they tell the boys who run the camp, “Ain’t it dangerous to go down fishing in the river?” and they say, “You know, the cartel is dangerous, but they are not looking for teenagers and an old priest.” We don’t stay overnight, we usually have a bonfire at night and by 10:30pm. we are gone.
We’ve seen illegal aliens there. Sometimes I go to the chapel to pray at night and I talk out loud. One time [my dog] Bendito started barking. I said, “Be quiet, we came here to pray.” And in the back of the church, there were four or five young illegal aliens in their teens or early twenties, boys and girls. They were hiding from me and it was dark. There were just the candles in the altar. So I gave them some food, but I don’t know what happened to them. I’ve never had a bad experience with people crossing through the property. None of us or our neighbors have ever been hurt or threatened.
The wall will be a sad, discouraging symbol. It will be depressing. I consider it sacrilegious to put a wall around La Lomita chapel. In a way is a good thing that it ended on the other side of Trump’s wall because that illuminates what is so stupid about that wall. To cut this people off from their church. For the sake of God’s creation, don’t build the wall.
More than 95 percent of the habitat has been destroyed for urbanization and agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley. Because of that, every little bit that we have is really critical for wildlife. Border walls not only take out the habitat, they also fragment it. So animals are not able to cross that barrier so they cannot get to mates, they cannot get to water sources, they cannot get to whatever their food source is. If you put a barrier through the habitat, wildlife cannot cross.
A habitat with a barrier is far less valuable because you’re essentially dividing these areas into small islands. Animals need to have different territories spread out and particularly because we live in such a drought region, they need to get to various sources of water. It’s a big concern that the border wall is essentially cutting off the river from the rest of the country.
There needs to be habitat on both sides of the river that allows [the animals] to make that journey. Ocelots require a dense forest; they have to live in the brush. The plans at this point for building the wall are not only putting in levee border walls or bollard walls that are 20 to 30 feet tall, but also clearing 150-foot enforcement zone on the river side and border wall so they can put lights and cameras somewhere off the wall and connected to that infrastructure. The vegetation in that zone will be denuded and replaced with caliche [pebbles used to make roads].
That’s what some of the people don’t understand about a virtual wall. A virtual wall is cameras and lights and they have to get rid of the vegetation.
That forest is a habitat for animals that we care about. It’s a park for people to really learn and understand the importance of our natural heritage here in the Rio Grande Valley. That is our forest, that is our natural cathedral, that’s our Yosemite, that’s our Yellowstone. Santa Ana is the iconic parkland of the Rio Grande Valley. I think this is one of the few places that make the Rio Grande Valley what it is.
It’s death by policy. The deterrence policy of the federal government in enforcement of immigration laws causes migrants to go through dangerous areas, and they expect them to die. They expect for that policy to cause death. Over the last decade you’ve had over 10,000 migrants die trying to cross the southern border and get through the checkpoints.
Why do they try to come and get through? Number one, because there’s not enough visas for them to come here legally or with a permit. Another reason for which they come is because somebody is gonna hire them. They’re gonna exploit their labor and at the same time don’t give them any privileges.
The border wall will further create a line of demarcation. It will create a barrier between cultures that have been interacting for years and years. It’s going to affect the economy, the environment, the ecosystem, it’s going to impose eminent domain on private property for the sake of someone’s demagoguery. There already is a wall and it’s already causing death. Continuing with the construction of it will cause more deaths. People are going to continue to go around it and go to even further more dangerous areas. The wall is a racist wall.
The border wall is going to hurt tourism in our area, which is one of the main sources of income for the Valley. Animals will be trapped on either side of the wall and won’t be able to get to the water from the Rio Grande river.
As a nature wildlife photographer, I love being out in nature. I am a lifelong Republican. I’m a conservative. Unfortunately lately, the choices we’ve had for president, the Republicans are not really conservative, not since Ronald Reagan. When I voted, I voted for Trump because it was either him or Hillary and there was no way I would vote for her.
And while I knew that he was in support of the border wall, I didn’t know what kind of wall it would be, where it would go, and how it would affect things. I didn’t realize that it might end up causing Bentsen State Park, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and the National Butterfly Center to close.
One of the reasons I oppose the wall is to overcome that oppressive accommodation of the colonizer. We don’t have to accommodate them anymore. If they feel insecure, that’s their problem. We are okay, we are in our lands. We are the native original people of this land. Why do we continue to set that division between our people?
Another reason I oppose it is because they have to stop the ethnic cleansing. They keep disrespecting us by digging up our graves and sacred lands. I have people buried at La Lomita. When they built that part of the wall in Brownsville, they dug up three graves. Every time you dig up one of our people, you’re killing them again. I grew up understanding that if I made a hole in the ground, I was digging up some of my ancestors.
If the border wall is built here, it will leave two thirds of our property south of the wall.
That concrete embankment will be the first thing Texas tortoises face; they can’t scale a 90-degree concrete wall. What was seen after tropical storm Alex in 2010, in the areas where the fence already existed, was hundreds of carcasses of shells from tortoises washed up against the border fence. The ferruginous pygmy owls can’t fly higher than the border wall.
I’ve had conversations with people in other nature centers who say that visitation has fallen by 50 percent ever since the border wall was put in place. We filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security in December. There was no due process in the contractors showing up here. Another aspect was due to the damages that were caused by the contractor. They did not do any environmental impact studies. Also there’s systemic harassment and the occupation of our property by [U.S. Customs and Border Protection].
This is private property and our employees, our members, and visitors have been subjected to routine harassment. We have laws in this country that protect private property and citizens against quartering soldiers, but Border Patrol has basically moved in here. They are on our property 24 hours a day dragging tires, planting sensors, and installing video cameras. What if the local police department was to enter your property all day and night and drag tires around your yard, plant sensors, and install cameras and live with you?
This feature is part of Splinter’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.