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The border wall will divide this Texas town, displacing or blocking homes – but where?

Originally Published by The Los Angeles Times.

By MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE

Photography by ROBERT GAUTHIER

DEC. 18, 2018 | REPORTING FROM ROMA, TEXAS

The neighborhood’s namesake, Maria Albesa De La Cruz, was among the first in the tiny, riverside colonia to receive a letter about the border wall.

Decades earlier, the 79-year-old De La Cruz, her husband and his six siblings had earned enough money picking crops in California’s Central Valley to buy land at the edge of the Rio Grande, where their cattle grazed and sipped from the river near the bridge to Mexico.

In September she got a letter from the U.S. government requesting access to her land so crews could survey the property and assess possible impacts of a wall. “We hope that you and other landowners in the Rio Grande Valley will assist us in our strategic efforts to secure our Nation’s borders,” the letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection said.

President Trump has been threatening a partial shutdown of the federal government if Congress doesn’t allocate $5 billion for his border wall by Friday. In Roma, a town of about 11,400 in southern Texas, the border wall debate is deeply personal.

“This is our land,” said Maria Guadalupe “Lupita” Rios, 60, De La Cruz’s niece. Her family created the colonia De La Cruz, as the neighborhood is known, and named streets after relatives — Sebastian Street, Federico Street, Angela Avenue. It is now home to more than 70 residents, the city says. 

A wealthy Tejano family once tried to take the ownership of the land, waging a protracted court battle. Rios’ father won. Now she and Roma residents with roots stretching back to the days of Spanish rule feel their property is again under threat.“This is our land.— Maria Guadalupe “Lupita” RiosPlay VideoMaria Guadalupe “Lupita” Rios’ family created the colonia De La Cruz neighborhood in Roma, Texas. The streets are named after her relatives.

The wall has created acute uncertainty in the neighborhood; even Roma city officials aren’t certain where it would go. 

“Are they going to go through those houses? The [river]banks? Will there be a gate there?” Assistant City Manager Freddy Guerra said. “We haven’t received a definitive answer from Border Patrol.”

Daniel Trevino, 52, who teaches environmental science at the local middle school, says his students ask whether they will still be able to reach the river to fish after school. 

“I don’t know what to tell them,” Trevino said. He supports more border security — “I stand by my commander in chief” — but wishes the government would “look at these things more closely before they start tearing things down.”

coyote runs along the outskirts of colonia De La Cruz after escorting a group of immigrants across the Rio Grande.

Some locals consider the proposed wall a vital safeguard; others dismiss it as a wasteful stunt. Most wish the government would be more forthcoming about where it will erect barriers spanning 37 miles of the Rio Grande Valley, the primary entry point for illegal immigration into the United States. The Border Patrol has yet to release precise maps. Throughout the valley, residents have grown frustrated and distrustful.

Last month, more than four dozen nonprofit and faith-based groups wrote to congressional leaders demanding that they require the Homeland Security Department to submit border security plans, which were due in September, before approving added funding for the wall. At a rally across the street from the McAllen Border Patrol station on Nov. 11, wall opponents toted signs saying “Save Our Homes” and “No wall thru our homeland.” Demonstrators dubbed the protest a “town hall” in the absence of public meetings by immigration officials.

“They refuse to listen to our concerns and take us into account,” Suzanne El-Haj, 20, an environmental organizer at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, told the crowd of about 100.

Although Trump has made the building of the wall a centerpiece of administration’s policy, plans for new border barriers have been in the works for years and construction of the first $1.4-billion stretch of mostly bollard fencing has quietly proceeded in Texas, Arizona and California. The Department of Homeland Security says it will build more than 330 miles of wall in the Border Patrol’s highest priority areas if Congress approves Trump’s $5-billion request. Nearly a third of that would be in the agency’s Rio Grande Valley Sector.

On Oct. 31, the government granted the first wall contract in Texas under Trump, a $145-million agreement with Galveston-based SLSCO Ltd., to erect six miles of border fencing near McAllen. A second $167-million contract was awarded to the company in November for an additional 8 miles. Construction is scheduled to start in February.

Up to a dozen miles of new fencing is slated to be built in Roma’s Starr County, about half near the city. Barriers will rise 30 feet, with steel posts mounted with lights and cameras and with a 150-foot “enforcement zone” cleared of vegetation on the south side facing Mexico, according to the Border Patrol. International treaties are supposed to guide the design, with the blessing of the International Boundary and Water Commission. But the U.S. has already built about 650 miles of border barriers over the objections of Mexican members of the binational commission.

In the Rio Grande Valley, riverfront land is mostly privately owned or set aside as wildlife preserves. Unlike with other parts of the border where new walls will replace fencing or sit atop levees, the geography of Roma limits the Border Patrol’s options. The river is the only barrier currently separating Roma from Mexico, and it’s still unclear where the wall will rise: To the south along the river? Through town, displacing homes? Or to the north, walling off neighborhoods and allowing access only through gates?

Rodolfo Villarreal looks on as his wife, Dora, kisses their grandson, Rene D’Jesus, 5, before heading to a school bus stop with his sister Aryanna, 9.

In the De La Cruz subdivision, Edgar Vargas worries about what the wall will destroy.

“I don’t think they value this place,” said Vargas, 30, a police dispatcher.

His grandparents already spoke with lawyers from the Texas Civil Rights Project, which has sued to block other stretches of border wall. The family of his 74-year-old grandmother, Dora Villarreal, sold their cattle in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, to immigrate legally and settle in the colonia about 30 years ago. 

“We don’t want this wall,” she said. “We will lose all of this.”

In neighboring Hidalgo County, Border Patrol officials met landowners in August and again last month to gather feedback on the wall. The wall’s path is apparent in Hidalgo County because it’s being built on levees. The November meeting was by invitation only and closed to the media.

Marianna Trevino Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center, which will be bisected by the wall, attempted to attend but was escorted out by police after arguing with agents over how people were admitted into the meeting. Officials asked landowners for ID and required them to sign in. Texas Civil Rights Project lawyers said they were not allowed in because they were not on the list. Robert Rodriguez, a Border Patrol spokesman, said afterward that the agency “will not tolerate vulgarity and unprofessionalism by any party during these meetings.”

At the August meeting, Loren Flossman, who has coordinated the Border Patrol’s wall building for more than a decade, said he had learned from mistakes made after the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the last major wall-building effort in south Texas that resulted in 55 miles of fencing. Valley residents faulted the agency for paying landowners vastly different sums, compensating the wrong people and failing to pay for some water rights. At the time, Roma residents protested in the central plaza, joined by the mayor and other officials.

“We’ve done a much better job — some of you may believe that, some may not — of reaching out to landowners,” Flossman said at the meeting, according to a recording made by attendees.

When landowners asked to see the designs provided to contractors bidding to build the wall, Flossman declined because “it isn’t a full design: It’s conceptual.”

Jeffrey Glassberg, founder of the North American Butterfly Assn., a nonprofit that runs the butterfly center nature preserve, pressed for more details. “It’s hard for people to respond — to suggest changes — to something they haven’t seen,” he said. “I’m missing why that whole design thing given to contractors shouldn’t be public information right now.”

Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team, has requested information on wall plans in the Rio Grande Valley, but said it can take years to get a response, and in the past the information has been inaccurate. “The map is so bad that if you look at the Rio Grande City wall, it actually crosses into Mexico,” he said of the most recent map he received this year.

“People whose houses are going to get knocked over deserve to know what’s going to happen to their community. The mayor should be able to post that map outside of City Hall,” Nicol said.““They do find a lot of ways to go around whatever barriers we put in between the Mexican side and U.S. They’ll find a way.”— Edgar Vargas Play Video

Instead, the Border Patrol has released information slowly and selectively. On Oct. 22, Border Patrol officials and Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents the Roma area, met with local leaders in Starr County without notifying landowners. Only one landowner, former Roma City Councilman Noel Benavides, attended, and that was because he owned the riverfront banquet hall where they were meeting.

Benavides said officials didn’t bring updated maps or information. “Nothing new,” he said. The media were barred from that meeting and from a Border Patrol webinar on Oct. 30 about wall building in the valley. (A transcript of the webinar was later posted online in English and Spanish.)

Roma City Manager Crisanto Salinas said he had advised federal officials to consult all landowners and to avoid past mistakes with border barriers.

“They’re going to have a reckoning,” he warned.

Flossman said the agency was still “fine-tuning” its maps.

Colonia residents fear the Border Patrol will build the wall on Sebastian Street, where a row of houses faces the river. Flossman said the wall “goes behind the houses, south along the river.” But he stopped short of promising the wall wouldn’t uproot homes.

“I would rather not make any predictions at this point,” he said. “People have built their houses in the floodplain. We may not be able in every case … to keep the houses north [of the wall].”

Joel De Los Santos, 83, is picked up for his daily trip to an adult day care center from his apartment in colonia De La Cruz.
Children flock to a truck for traditional Mexican treats in colonia De La Cruz.
Puppies play in the front yard of a home in the neighborhood.

The Border Patrol just completed flood modeling and, in its plan, added openings to the wall at local arroyos, or creeks, so that a rising Rio Grande could drain into U.S. waterways. Authorities don’t want to erect a barrier that would deflect floodwaters to the Mexican side.

The agency also sent requests to survey 300 property owners’ land in Starr County, according to a Nov. 15 Justice Department presentation obtained by The Times, but officials refused to release those records, citing privacy concerns. 

The Times contacted most of the colonia riverfront landowners, including several who live elsewhere in Texas and Mexico. As of last week, only a few had received a request to survey their land. Among those in the neighborhood who had not been notified: the city itself, which owns a lot along on the river.

Among those still awaiting notice was Romana Mireles, 76, a retired home health aide who worries she will have to leave her home of nearly 30 years.

“I can’t just find another house — land is expensive,” she said.

Also awaiting notice last week was Jose Armando Loera, 58, and his family. A neighbor told that him maps of the proposed border wall were posted online, but he doesn’t have Internet access. 

Loera saw Border Patrol install a surveillance tower across from his house a couple of weeks ago, and thinks that means they won’t build the wall. He wished locals had access to the nonprofit groups helping residents in neighboring Hidalgo County. 

“We don’t have anyone. We feel abandoned,” he said.

Roma City Hall also has received requests to survey municipal property outside the colonia, which were granted, said Guerra, the assistant city manager.““The total cost of the wall for our region … was almost to the dollar the tax value of the entire community.”— Freddy Guerra, assistant city manager Play Video

At his City Hall office, Guerra flipped through illustrations of an alternative to the wall plan: an import/export terminal with a walkway along the river that would serve as a limited barrier. In that rendering, the Rio Grande looks as picturesque as the Seine, with couples strolling past decorative planters and railings.

“We’re not against border security or the wall necessarily,” Guerra said. “If they get their structure and we get the import/export facility, it’s a win-win.”

Guerra wishes Roma could use its proximity to Mexico to create international business opportunities. The downtown area today has more storefronts shuttered than open. Unemployment only recently dipped into the single digits. The city across the river, Ciudad Miguel Aleman, is more than triple Roma’s size.

“There’s more wealth in Miguel Aleman than in Roma,” Guerra said one day as he steered his Ford F-150 King Ranch truck across the bridge, past a quiet import/export terminal on the Mexican side, which has seen less traffic as cartel violence increased in recent years. Guerra stopped to survey the riverfront.

“Definitely a missed opportunity, our inability to use the river as a recreation destination,” he said as a family lunched on the Mexican bank, dipping their toes in the water.

Miguel Aleman residents enjoy the last rays of sun on the banks of the Rio Grande as seen from the U.S. side of the river. 

Later, Guerra spied some “green jays,” Border Patrol agents picking their way through carrizo cane. Unlike the birds of the same name, he said, “they’re an invasive species.”

Efren Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, told about two dozen people at a Sept. 20 meeting at the National Butterfly Center that the government is supposed to pay “just compensation.”

“The big question is what happens if you refuse,” he said.

Landowners in the audience nodded.

The government can take land through eminent domain, Olivares explained, but when landowners sue — as they did in nearby Los Ebanos in 2008 — construction often halts.

“They don’t have a wall on their land. So in my book, they’re winning,” he said, then paused. “I see a lot of worried faces.”

Among those attending was Ramiro Ramirez, 70, who with his wife, Melinda, runs two nearby church cemeteries that could be cut off by the wall.

“What do I tell the parishioners?” he said. “This is something we cannot afford to lose. This is our heritage.… I’m not going to last forever. I want to be buried there, and I want my grandson to be able to come and see me.”

Noel Benavides visits Cemeterio De Roma which borders land his family has owned for hundreds of years that the government would like to survey to build sections of a border wall.

In the Nov. 15 Justice Department presentation, federal officials noted that in many south Texas border fence cases, landowners didn’t hire lawyers and settled without going to trial.

“Landowner has burden of proof on value,” they wrote of the land.

Last year, after a town meeting in Roma about the wall, Texas Civil Rights Project lawyers went door to door, warning residents about the environmental impact of a wall and offering to represent them. Some, like Benavides, the former Roma councilman, stayed in contact.

The federal government had already condemned a mile-long, 60-foot-wide swath of his riverfront property in 2008, but never started construction, as international approvals dragged on and money dried up. Recently, federal officials notified him they were taking legal action to ensure they were allowed to survey his land. Benavides had caught a federal surveyor there in October, told the man he didn’t have permission and escorted him out.

“I’ll make them work for it,” said the Army veteran and eighth-generation Roma resident who has maps of the Spanish land grants, or porciones, his ancestors received in 1767. “They come to Starr County and think they can do what they want, that we’re ignorant, waiting for a handout. We’re not. We’re American citizens. The river crossed us; we didn’t cross.”““Twenty some billion dollars on something like this is just ridiculous. We can have a ‘virtual wall’ with cameras, with sensors.”— Noel Benavides Play Video

In the colonia, Rey Rodriguez Jr. readily agreed to a government survey of his family’s land. A Roma police officer and school board member, he supports the wall, which he thinks will reduce illegal crossings and drive those immigrants away from the neighborhood toward ranches where they would be easier to catch.

Lupita Rios, of the De La Cruz clan, also agreed to a survey of her riverfront property, but she is worried about rumors suggesting the wall will be built north of the colonia. “They can’t leave us on the Mexican side,” said Rios, a Democrat who voted for Trump because she opposes illegal immigration. Her daughter has been renovating her nearby home, and fears the investment will be wasted.

Cristina De La Cruz, 82, where she lives with her husband, Guadalupe, 91. Their daughter, Lupita Rios, lives across the street and cooks them meals every day.
Police Officer Rey Rodriguez talks with a passing motorist while campaigning for reelection to the school board.

Border security has cost the De La Cruz family before. The family once operated Nati’s, a Tex-Mex diner that served scratch biscuits and chicken-fried steak near the border bridge. Decades ago, the federal government bought the parcel for a new bridge complex, paying Maria Albesa De La Cruz and her husband $105,000, enough to move east into what became the subdivision.

De La Cruz has had mixed feelings about the wall.

She thinks the neighborhood she helped create has changed — and not in a good way. Migrants frequently lurk behind the grapefruit trees in her backyard, then sneak toward a suspected smuggler’s trailer. At night, Border Patrol agents’ flashlights dance on her bedroom wall. Neighbors sometimes spend the night at her home because she’s scared to be alone.

When De La Cruz fell and broke her hip in September, she returned home in a wheelchair. Now, she’s decided that she’s tired of fighting.

“If they give me good money,” she said, “I’ll sell.”

Special correspondent Verónica G. Cárdenas in Roma contributed to this report.

@mollyhf

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

@rgaut999

robert.gauthier@latimes.com

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