A Monument to Stupidity

A Monument to Stupidity

Originally Published in The Intercept

Ryan Devereaux - October 31, 2020

The Trauma of Trump's Border Wall

SITTING ON A pew in his chapel on the banks of the Rio Grande, Roy Snipes tells a story about his early days spreading the gospel in south Texas. He was a young man then and he was feeling angry, so he went to confession to unburden his soul. An aging preacher listened to his troubles, then offered a word of advice. “Listen,” he said. “You’re a pretty good man. Don’t let ’em make you mean.” The preacher died a few days later. Four decades later, in the early months of 2020, Snipes was doing his best to heed the old man’s advice.

The election of Donald Trump brought repeated threats to the La Lomita Chapel, a small adobe building on the outskirts of Mission, Texas. The chapel is nearly as old as the border itself, and Snipes, known locally as Father Roy, has been serving worshippers there since 1980. For a time, it seemed that the Department of Homeland Security might cut La Lomita off from the rest of the country, fencing it off on the southern side of Trump’s long-promised border wall. The church averted that disaster but then, last winter, a group of out-of-state contractors came to town looking to take the president’s project into their own hands by erecting a crowdfunded barrier on the banks of the river.

La Lomita Chapel as seen in Mission, Tex., on Feb. 14, 2020. The chapel was initially going to be on the south side of Trump’s border wall, but for now it is protected.Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

La Lomita Chapel as seen in Mission, Texas, on Feb. 14, 2020. The chapel was initially going to be on the south side of Trump’s border wall, but for now it is protected.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

The private wall wouldn’t fence the chapel in, but it would seal off land that locals used to enjoy the water, devastate the natural habitat, and place an enormous barrier in the middle of a flood plain. Previous plans to build a wall in the area had been scrapped over fears that doing so would likely get somebody killed. Not only that, the private wall would send an un-neighborly message that Father Roy found deeply upsetting.

All hell broke loose last November, when a video shot by a local journalist captured Snipes’s opposition to the project. “It’s insulting,” Father Roy told veteran border reporter Sandra Sanchez, as he guided his motorboat down the river. “It’s obnoxious and obscene. The river’s sacred. The chapel’s sacred. The people are sacred.” Snipes was accompanied by Marianna Treviño-Wright, director of the National Butterfly Center, a world-famous nature reserve adjacent to the proposed site of the wall. She called the men behind the project “fraudsters” and said the wall would be a “three-and-a-half mile monument to stupidity.”

Two days after the video was posted, the men who Treviño-Wright called out went on the attack. The priest and the butterfly advocate were covering up for “rampant sex trade” on the wildlife refuge, tweeted Brian Kolfage, the head of We Build the Wall, a GoFundMe operation that had crowdfunded tens of millions of dollars for private wall construction along the border, including the project in South Texas, which was spearheaded by Fisher Sand & Gravel, the favored border wall contractor of the Trump administration.

The tweet was one of several baseless allegations Kolfage lobbed at his critics in South Texas, setting off a familiar online cycle of right-wing conspiracy theorizing and threats. A decorated war veteran and noted scam artist, Kolfage had friends in high places. We Build the Wall’s leadership featured Steve Bannon, the former White House adviser, and its consultants included Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary company Blackwater, and Kris Kobach, the former secretary of state of Kansas and one of the country’s most prominent anti-immigration activists. Before turning to the Rio Grande Valley, the group’s efforts in New Mexico received a public stamp of approval from Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of DHS, the nation’s largest and most politicized law enforcement agency.

Heading into 2020, the private wall was one effort among many aimed at securing the president’s goal of sealing off the United States from Mexico or, at the very least, laying as many miles of new barrier as possible before voters headed to the polls in November. So in mid-February, I traveled through the Rio Grande Valley with Intercept video producer Paul Abowd and photojournalist Verónica Cárdenas to meet with residents at the forefront of the expansion. We began at La Lomita.

Father Roy had delivered sermons at the chapel through the Reagan years, when civil war and U.S.-backed death squads forced a Central American exodus north, and he continued through the 1990s, when the North American Free Trade Agreement sent waves of displaced Mexican workers the same direction. He was there through September 11, 2001, and the unprecedented hardening of the border that followed, and during the Obama administration, when a new generation of Central Americans fleeing violence began showing up at the chapel’s door — among them tens of thousands of children.

And yet the present moment was as grim as anything Father Roy could recall. The national mood reminded him of the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, he said, or the terror of the McCarthy era.

“It’s not just that we don’t want to see these Mexicans come across here and be part of our community,” Father Roy told us. “It’s that we’re proud to reject them, we’re proud to disparage and despise them.” He found the shift deeply troubling. “That was happening right before I was born,” said the priest, who was born in 1945. “The United States and the other allies saved us from that mentality, but I don’t think it’s hysterical or paranoid to worry about that happening again.”

For many of the families standing in its path, the wall was an attack on basic border decency and good sense. “This is dumber than dumb,” Rey Anzaldua said as he looked out at the private wall on a brisk morning.

Anzaldua was standing on a patch of property that his family acquired through a Spanish land grant, back before the current U.S.-Mexico border even existed. His first border wall fight was during the Bush administration, when the government began acting on post-9/11 legislation that gave the newly christened DHS sweeping authority to waive any law that would impede the construction of barriers along the border. From an engineering standpoint, this new private wall was a disaster, Anzaldua explained. By cutting the riverbank at a sharp angle, tearing out all of the natural vegetation and building right up against the water, Anzaldua believed the barrier was destined for failure. “This is going to be gone next major flood,” he said. “All this will be gone.”

But Anzaldua’s concerns ran deeper than the wall’s foundations. “This is mostly nativists in this country saying they don’t want certain people in the country — that’s what it is,” Anzaldua said. The demographics of the nation are changing, he said, “and the fear is that they’re going to lose political power.”

As a former U.S. customs investigator, Anzaldua had built cases against smugglers in the valley. He knew as well as anyone that drugs overwhelmingly come through the ports, not through the open areas where Trump, Fisher, and We Build the Wall had set their sights. As for the foot traffic, the areas around his family’s land are already crawling with law enforcement and military, including Border Patrol, National Guardsmen, DHS helicopter patrols, sheriff’s deputies, local police, game wardens — both federal and state — as well as the Mexican military on the other side of the river. The most militarized of them all seemed to be the ironically named Department of Public Safety, which employs gunboats to patrol the Rio Grande as if it were the Mekong Delta in 1968. All of the agencies and offices are tapped into an interconnected network of high-tech snooping and spying systems, including a pair of nearby surveillance towers.

“So why do you need a wall here?” Anzaldua asked as he stood on his family’s dock looking out over the river. It was clear he was not expecting an answer; he already knew.

The privately-funded border wall as seen from the Rio Grande in Mission, Tex., on Feb. 14, 2020.Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept
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(Left/Top) The privately funded border wall as seen from the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas. (Right/Bottom) Rey Anzaldua gives an interview to The Intercept on his cousin Fred Cavazos’s property in front of the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas, on Feb. 14, 2020.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Irreversible Consequences

Contrary to Trump’s 2016 campaign vision, there is no border wall stretching from sea to shining sea. Though the pace of wall expansion has nearly doubled since the beginning of the year, and contractors are working around the clock in one of the costliest infrastructure projects in American history, the latest figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show that 400 miles of new border wall have been built under Trump. A little more than half the total that was put in place under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Nearly two-thirds of the $15 billion in federal funds obtained for these efforts have been rerouted from the U.S. military — the legality of that diversion is the subject of a high-stakes legal fight.

But assessing Trump’s wall based on miles and dollars alone fails to capture the full story. Beyond its political symbolism, the multiyear effort to “build the wall” altered life in real places for real people, in some cases with devastating and likely irreversible consequences. For some, it was a moment of awakening that drew people together in new alliances. For others, it was a period of escalating violence against the land, an attack on cherished places and traditions, and yet another a reminder that the legacies of dispossession and racism that shaped the American West have never really left.

Driving to a client’s property out near Los Ebanos, one of the oldest riverside Rio Grande communities in the United States and home to the last remaining ferry crossing into Mexico, Ricky Garza, a staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project, described his frustration with flattened depictions of life in South Texas. “The valley is not this like, poor, tiny, colonized space that can’t do anything for itself, that is being completely overrun by border infrastructure stuff and has no agency, no self-determination, no other things going on,” Garza said. Eco-tourism, trade, finance — the Rio Grande Valley is a regional hub for all of it, Garza explained. “It’s so frustrating for me,” he said. “There is so much other stuff going on.”

Ricky Garza, attorney at Texas Civil Rights Project, poses for a photo in front of the Rio Grande in Los Ebanos, Tex., on Feb. 13, 2020.Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Ricky Garza, attorney at Texas Civil Rights Project, poses for a photo in front of the Rio Grande in Los Ebanos, Texas, on Feb. 13, 2020.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Wall expansion in the valley mostly pitted the federal government against private citizens. “What that looks like in Texas is the government having to forcibly take hundreds of pieces of land from individual landowners,” Garza said. “Many of whom are Mexican American, Latinx, low and moderate income and people who don’t necessarily have the funds to hire lawyers.”

Growing up in McAllen, the valley’s second largest city, Garza came of age during a historic moment for the border and the country. In the wake of September 11, border security became national security. DHS was born, and the department quickly set out to radically expand CBP, the Border Patrol, and the nation’s border interdiction infrastructure through a combination of billion-dollar initiatives and diminished hiring standards.

“It didn’t used to be this way — there didn’t used to be so much militarization,” Garza said. “There are 3,000 Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas. That’s not even including Laredo.” Nor is it including the other state, federal, and local law enforcement agencies operating in the area. For Garza, all of the attention and resources poured into policing and security, in what are some of the statistically safest communities in the country, perpetuates a state and national level vision of a dangerous war zone — one that crowds out meaningful responses to issues that actually matter to valley residents. The border wall was a prime example.

“It really is like something being done to us,” Garza said. Home to more than one million people and growing, the Rio Grande Valley is urgently in need of flood control infrastructure to withstand the clear and present danger of climate change and yet, Garza said, “what we get are border walls.”

Scott Nicol, an environmentalist, paddles a boat along the Rio Grande in western Starr County on Feb. 15, 2020.Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Scott Nicol, an environmentalist, paddles a canoe in the Rio Grande in western Starr County on Feb. 15, 2020.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Campaign Billboards

Tall stands of cane and mesquite trees lined the riverbanks as Scott Nicol’s canoe glided down the Rio Grande. The air was still and the setting was serene. To Nicol’s right was the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, to his left was the Salineño Wildlife Preserve.

“The thing is, the world’s most boring story is probably the most accurate one,” Nicol remarked, as he lifted his oar from the water. “The border wall will wall off an area where nothing is happening.”

In addition to vulnerable people, Trump’s border wall has also threatened vulnerable places. Because the vast majority of the border in Texas is privately owned, protected wilderness, nature preserves, and other cherished spaces have presented a more attainable target to homeland security planners. Salineño was one of those places.

Nicol and his wife, Stefanie Herweck, and their 13-year-old daughter, Eliya, who goes by Zay, guided us down the river, along with Betty Perez, a rancher and fierce opponent of the wall.

An art teacher by day, Nicol’s knowledge of border barriers is encyclopedic and rooted in struggles that long predate Trump. He has written reports on the border wall for the ACLU — including one co-published with Herweck, a border wall expert in her own right — and is currently working on a book about the wall. At the time of our visit, the administration had completed just five miles of new wall in the state. When asked what that said about the president’s efforts, Nicol argued that the answer depends on how success is defined, and by whom.

“What he’s actually trying to accomplish is to put up big campaign billboards,” Nicol said. “In that respect, he’s getting stuff done. It doesn’t matter to his supporters. They’re not going to distinguish between a wall that’s in a totally new place and a wall that’s replacing an old wall. They’re never going to the border anyway.”

We pulled our canoes onto the bank to explore an arroyo. Perez led the way, explaining that she had seen signs of government surveyors on a recent visit to the area; it wasn’t long before the rest of us saw them too.

A wooden stake protruded from atop the ridge to our right, its bright pink ribbon twisting in the breeze. The idea, evidently, was to run the wall down the ridge, into the arroyo, then back up the other side. “This is so clearly a waterway,” Herweck noted, meaning that the addition of a massive steel barrier would inevitably lead to flooding. Not only that, Perez added, the area was rich with limestone that would be tough for construction crews to work through. “They’re gonna have to use dynamite,” she said.

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(Left/Top) A surveyor stake is seen in a tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in western Starr County. Trump’s wall is proposed to be erected in this wildlife refuge. (Right/Bottom) Arroyo Morteros, a tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, as seen on Feb. 15, 2020.Photo: Veronica G. Cardenas for The Intercept

Nicol and Zay ascended the ridge to get a closer look. The climb wasn’t easy. The loose, cryptobiotic soil crumbled beneath their feet. It was “the worst soil you could be building on,” Nicol said. “As soon as you break the living crust of the soil, it just blows away.” Once the vegetation is gone, the ground that the wall would stand on would crumble, giving way to massive erosion. But of course, Nicol said, “none of that reality matters to the people that are building this thing.”

“If this area is destroyed,” Nicol said, “there’s not a replacement for it, and for the species that would be lost, there’s not a replacement for them, but it’s also just galling to destroy things for no reason.”

As the bright, clear morning stretched into a hot, lazy afternoon, we paddled further down the river. A short walk from the riverbank, nestled in a thicket of mesquite trees, sat an RV, a cooler of beers, and a scattered collection of lawn chairs turned as though they were seats in a theater. The stage, as it were, consisted of two large tree trunks bent low and parallel to the ground. The performers were the birds.

We were welcomed by Lois Hughes and Merle Ihne, performing their yearly duty as caretakers of an internationally renowned birders’ paradise. The retired couple met online, fell in love, and discovered a shared passion for the great outdoors. For more than a decade, they have been making the trek from Iowa to Salineño. For them, life in an RV by the Rio Grande was an existence bordering on perfection. The diversity and density of birdlife at Salineño is world-famous, which means that every year Hughes and Ihne meet birders from around the globe.

From left, Stefanie Herweck, Scott Nicol, Betty Perez, Lois Hughes and Merle Ihne, talk during an interview with The Intercept at the Salineño Wildlife Refuge in Salineño, Tex., on Feb. 15, 2020.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

From left, Stefanie Herweck, Scott Nicol, Betty Perez, Lois Hughes, and Merle Ihne talk during an interview with The Intercept at the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in Salineño, Texas, on Feb. 15, 2020.

Photo: Veronica G. Cardenas for The Intercept

“We have people who come here to see these birds from every state, all 50, and sign our guest book,” Hughes said proudly. “We have a section for Canada. We have people who have been here from every province in Canada. We have an international section where we have 34 foreign countries.”

“Thirty-seven,” Ihne noted.

“OK,” Hughes acknowledged with a laugh. “I’m wrong, but we have people that have visited here from those countries, and when they come to the valley, people say, ‘You have to go to Salineño. The birds up there are different than you will be able to see any place else.’”

Through those encounters, Hughes and Ihne have made friends and built a community. They have taken on projects to improve the preserve; Hughes was five years deep into the creation of a butterfly garden when we visited. Those physical and emotional investments are the reason why their hearts broke and their minds reeled when the first survey stakes started popping near the birding sanctuary. The couple was suddenly faced with the possibility that in a year’s time, there would be no Salineño to come back to, or at least it wouldn’t be the one that they knew and loved. The thought of that absence kept Hughes up at night.

“The day the pinks flags showed up in the parking lot is when it really hit me,” she said. “This is reality. It is coming. We’ve been here, this is our eleventh year, and you know, we’re emotionally attached to this place. It would be such a devastating thing for the environment, for the habitat that’s here, for the city and the people and their way of life — being connected to the river. It just, it can’t happen. I don’t want to see it happen.”

Red-winged Blackbirds eat from the food provided by the Salineño Wildlife Refuge in Salineño, Tex., on Feb. 15, 2020.Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Red-winged blackbirds eat from the food provided by the Salineño Wildlife Preserve in Salineño, Texas, on Feb. 15, 2020.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

A Manufactured Crisis

Elsa Hull considers herself a private person. Her property in San Ygnacio, Texas — population 667 — where she has lived for the past 20 years and raised her two daughters is an extension of her disposition. Running right up to the international divide, the three-acre spread is calming and quiet. From the patio, you can look out past Hull’s well-tended garden, with its worn footpaths, onto miles of wide open, picturesque brushland.

“I bought it because I liked the quietness,” Hull told us. “The river was nearby, and it was quiet and peaceful, and I like being close to nature.” Despite the current president’s rhetoric, Hull said that in her two decades on the border, she has never had a problem with people “running rampant” through her property. “I wouldn’t have any business raising my family here if this was a dangerous place,” she said. “That’s just not the case.”

Prior to 2018, Hull had no intention of becoming an activist, but then word began to spread that DHS was eyeing borderland properties in the Laredo area, and that the president’s contractors would likely turn their attention to communities south of the city, including San Ygnacio. “I was kind of floundering,” Hull recalled. She didn’t know what to do or how to do it. “All I knew,” she said, “was I had to do something.”

From Hull’s vantage point, the problems associated with the wall stemmed from misrepresentations of border life and a tendency to treat border communities as places where normal rules do not apply. “They’re treating us like second-class citizens because we live along the border, like we don’t have rights,” she said. Hull argued that the roots of the disregard were clear. “It all boils down to racism,” she said. “I’m a white person, so obviously that doesn’t apply to me, but my children, they’re half Hispanic,” she said. “People have that false perception of people here on the border, that … they don’t know better, they’re not like us — we’re people too.”

Elsa Hull shows The Intercept where the border wall would affect her property at her home in San Ygnacio, Texas, on Feb. 16, 2020.Photo: Paul Abowd/The Intercept

Last year, as the threat of wall expansion to San Ygnacio became more serious, Hull decided to make a sign and stand outside her local congressman’s office. “It doesn’t sound like a big deal to go stand on the street with a sign, but for me it was a huge deal,” she said. Her demonstrations became a regular, if solitary, affair. One of her one-woman protests late last year, in which she stood in the rain outside Rep. Henry Cuellar’s office in Laredo, drew local media coverage. Shortly thereafter, Hull received a call from Tricia Cortez, the executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, informing her of a likeminded group of activists in Laredo organizing against the wall. Cortez invited her to join them.

For Hull, the invitation was a turning point. Together with her newfound allies in the No Border Wall Coalition, she sharpened her talking points: that there was no invasion on the border, no emergency, no war zone in need of walls and occupation. In addition to helping to organize a protest that drew hundreds of people into the streets of downtown Laredo, she focused on informing border residents that they were under no obligation to allow government officials onto their land to survey for potential wall construction, the first step toward eminent domain. The message, she said, was to “fight from the beginning, so they have to fight for that right of entry and that drags it out.” If all went well, this strategy of delay would hold the government off until a new administration took the White House.

“Our only hope is the election, that we get rid of ol’ Trump,” Hull said. “If he gets reelected, all is lost. I mean, not just for the wall, but I mean, the whole freaking country.”

The specter of the election hung over a strategy meeting that we attended with Hull and her fellow activists in mid-February. Thirteen people sat around a table in conference room in Laredo, talking about the city’s deep history, the threat that the wall posed to the identity of the binational community, and how they planned to stop it. The activists were young and old; there were college students and a retired teacher, a young woman facing deportation, an artist, and organizers with varying levels of experience. They were preparing for an upcoming visit from Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

A Border Patrol agent is seen in front of the cabins that Fred Cavazos rents across the Rio Grande in Mission Tex., on Feb. 14, 2020.Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

A Border Patrol agent is seen in front of the cabins that Fred Cavazos rents across the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas, on Feb. 14, 2020.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

“We are asking the most powerful woman in Congress what does she think and what will she do,” Melissa Cigarroa told the group. It was imperative to get the message right. Cigarroa and her husband had already received an entry request from DHS for property they owned outside of Laredo. Later that day, Cigarroa would drive us out to the property. Standing on a bluff overlooking her family’s land as dusk settled in and the sky turned orange and pink, it was easy to see why they were fighting. Like so much of what we had seen on the border, the land was postcard-pretty and the essence of calm and quiet. “There’s the great big danger — America be scared,” Cigarroa joked, as we looked out on the horizon. “It’s just ridiculous.”

At the center of the activists’ meeting in Laredo, was Cortez, the infectiously energetic and passionate executive director of RGISC, Laredo’s only environmental nonprofit. In an interview at her office the following day, Cortez, who was named 2019’s “Laredoan of the Year,” described how Trump’s declaration of national emergency on the border in February 2019 was the moment her world began to change.

Laredo was founded in 1755, two decades before the United States declared independence. Prior to the president’s declaration, the idea that the city’s two-and-a-half centuries of access to the Rio Grande would be upended by one man’s political project was unthinkable.

“That was like number 1,017 on our priority list — it wasn’t even on our radar screen,” Cortez told us. “For a long time, a lot of us thought that will never happened here.” By fall of 2019, Cortez began hearing from landowners who were receiving right of entry requests from DHS and the Army Corps of Engineers. The fight to hold off the wall had been raging ever since.

Cortez situated the wall expansion in a longer history of land theft in South Texas going back generations: a violent legacy of dispossession, racial terror, and the systematic disenfranchisement of nonwhite communities that fall south of the “invisible line” that stretches from El Paso in the west to Corpus Christi in the east. “I see the wall as just the next new, really lamentable chapter in border history,” Cortez said. She said her wish was that Americans living away from the border would pause and think for a moment about what it be like to have the federal government come into their cities uninvited and press forward with a plan to build a three-story-tall steel structure through their parks and nature trails, through properties that have been in families for generations, and to do so while simultaneously waiving any and all environmental laws and regulations that got in its way.

“It’s so difficult to imagine that you can live in the United States and you don’t have access to the same protections that any other citizen in the United States would have,” she said. “I just can’t believe that America would allow someone to manufacture a crisis on so many of our communities and rip through the hearts of our cities and suspend laws just for political gain. I just can’t fathom that, and it’s exactly what’s happening.”

Rocio carries her four-year-old daughter, Patricia, in an encampment where they live in Matamoros, Mexico on Feb. 23, 2020. The following day Rocio and her family were sent back to Mexico after their court hearing. They were kidnapped for two months the first time they were sent back under the “Remain in Mexico” program to wait for their asylum case to be decided last year.Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Rocio carries her 4-year-old daughter, Patricia, in an encampment where they live in Matamoros, Mexico, on Feb. 23, 2020. The following day, Rocio and her family were sent back to Mexico after their court hearing. They were kidnapped for two months the first time they were sent back under the “Remain in Mexico” program to wait for their asylum case to be decided last year.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

A Trauma on Communities

In the months since our visit to South Texas, the battle over the border wall has taken a series of dramatic twists and turns.

In August, Kolfage and Bannon were arrested on charges of orchestrating a scheme through We Build the Wall that defrauded donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Their alleged victims included a 7-year-old boywho used a hot chocolate stand to raise approximately $28,000 for the project; Kolfage had previously posed with the boy in a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating his efforts in New Mexico.

An investigation by ProPublica, meanwhile, found that Rey Anzaldua’s concerns about the structural integrity of the private wall were well-placed, with experts telling the investigative news outlet that the structure was already in danger of falling into the Rio Grande. Tommy Fisher, the man behind Fisher Sand & Gravel Co. and the recipient of the lion’s share of border wall contracts under Trump, has so far emerged from the government’s investigations unscathed. In May, Fisher won a $1.3 billion contract for wall construction in Arizona, the largest border wall contract of all time.

The No Border Wall Coalition’s work in South Texas continues, and in August featured the unveiling of an enormous street mural in front of Laredo’s U.S. District Courthouse. “Defund the wall. Fund our future,” it read. This weekend, in conjunction with Día de Muertos, the group will construct an altar near the Rio Grande in Laredo and encourage members of the public to offer blessings, prayers, or thoughts for the river. Thirty-five miles south, in San Ygnacio, Elsa Hull has been canvassing in barrios along the Rio Grande. “I have just been a bundle of nerves and losing sleep over this election since every part of my life, personally and professionally, will be ruined if this wall goes up, not to mention the catastrophic devastation to the surrounding land and ecosystem,” Hull said in an email this week.

This week, with five days to go before the election, Trump’s top border officials made a visit to the Rio Grande Valley to celebrate the president’s wall. Wolf, a former TSA lobbyist, wore a bulletproof vest for the occasion and was seen zipping around on an ATV like a homeland security general surveying his battle space. Border officials autographed the wall with sharpie markers, telling reporters that any derivation from the president’s agenda would result in an “invasion.” The event was the latest example in recent weeks of a broader pattern of senior DHS officials using their official positions to lend support to the president’s reelection efforts.

In the past six months, the Trump administration has filed 75 lawsuits to seize private land in South Texas, up from 17 lawsuits last year, according to an analysis by the Texas Civil Rights Project. Melissa Cigarroa’s family’s property was the target of one. They fought it and won, but fear that the government may try again. The fate of the wildlife preserve at Salineño remains uncertain. For the most part, however, the strategy of fighting government land seizures in South Texas has been successful, with the Trump administration failing to make any significant headway in the state.

In Arizona, however, the picture is much different. One week after we left Texas, I attended a surreal demonstration in the Sonoran Desert, in which the Border Patrol and the U.S. Army detonated a series of explosives on a national monument to make way for the border wall. The intensity of wall expansion in the state has been escalating ever since.

Unlike Texas, the vast majority of borderlands in Arizona already belong to the federal government. The Trump administration has seized on that fact. Government contractors are working around the clock to lay down new partitions at a cost of approximately $41 million a mile. Along the way, they are plowing through the Sonoran Desert’s most pristine and fragile ecosystems, felling ancient saguaro cacti, blowing rugged mountains to bits, and standing 30-foot-tall barriers, topped with floodlights, in the migratory paths of a variety of endangered species.

The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in particular, has become a dramatic flashpoint in the battle. The monument is home to an ancient oasis known as Quitobaquito Springs, the only source of fresh water in the region and a site of profound spiritual significance to the indigenous Hia Ced O’odham and Tohono O’odham people going back generations. In order to draw water to mix concrete for the president’s wall, contractors have tapped into the aquifer that feeds the springs. The results have been devastating, and after thousands of years of sustaining life in the desert, the springs may never recover.

With tribal leaders complaining that DHS has run roughshod over their concerns, Indigenous activists have embraced direct action protests in hopes of saving their ancestral homeland. In September, two O’odham activists used their bodies to temporarily block construction vehicles on Organ Pipe. They were arrested, driven to a for-profit jail 130 miles away, strip-searched, chained, and held incommunicado for 24 hours on what amounted to low-level misdemeanor charges. One month later, on this year’s Indigenous People’s Day, Arizona Department of Public Safety troopers tear gassed Native American activists and shot them with less than lethal munitions as they protested border expansion on O’odham lands and the desecration of Quitobaquito. Twelve people were arrested. Resistance to the project continues.

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(Left/Top) Betty Perez, left, points at animal footprints in Arroyo Morteros, a tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in western Starr County. (Right/Bottom) A turtle carcass is seen in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in western Starr County on Feb. 15, 2020.Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has said he would immediately halt border wall construction if elected president. He has not, however, said that he would remove the portions of wall that the Trump has produced, nor has he offered a vision of how his administration would address the environmental and cultural damage that has already been done in places like southern Arizona.

While they are of course opposed to four more years of Donald Trump, among the Rio Grande Valley residents we spoke to earlier this year, there was a concern that if Biden wins, issues on the border will once again recede into the background and little will change on the ground.

As the sun began to set over the Salineño birding sanctuary, our hosts, Hughes and Ihne, and our guides, Nicol, Herweck, and Perez, described their fears. “I think it just stops being an issue because Trump is gone and everything is fine and we’re all going to be happy Democrats,” Herweck worried. “Everyone will forget about the border.”

For real change to take hold, she argued, it is not enough to simply stop the forward march of walls along the border. “There’s this perception that Trump is pushing these walls and as soon as we can get rid of Trump, we can get rid of the walls, and that is not the case,” she said. “What we’ve seen as border communities is that the perception of the border, the perception of our communities, the perception of the land here, is such that people do believe there’s a war.” That perception of the border as a war zone, and the walls that come with it, need to be torn down together, she argued.

There are places on the border where the walls have now been standing for more than a decade, Nicol added. “So now you’re starting to get high school kids who have no memory of that wall not being there,” he said. “Over the course of a couple generations, you just lose the whole concept of not having walled-off the river, of not having something that casts a shadow like prison bars on the back of your house.”

“It’s a trauma on communities,” Nicol said, one that reinforces the idea that there must be something on the other side of that wall worthy of fearing. “That is really psychologically damaging,” he said. “And it’s being done to entire towns, to entire communities, and that’s just unconscionable.”

unitedwestay

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