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The Reality At The Border: Valley Residents Defiant In Shadow Of A Growing Wall

Reynaldo Leanos
Texas Public Radio
Eloisa Tamez

President Trump vetoed a congressional measure aimed at blocking his national emergency declaration, and the next battle will likely be in the courts. In the meantime, the plan to extend the border wall in Rio Grande Valley marches forward.

About 570 landowners in Hidalgo and Starr counties received letters from the government asking to survey their land for possible border wall construction.

Eloisa Tamez lives in El Calaboz, a small town outside of Brownsville. In 2007, she received a phone call that she said changed her life.

“I was notified by two Border Patrol-men that did I know that my property was in the path of the planned construction of the border wall?” she said. “I told them I did not know.”

The government wanted permission to access her land to survey it, but she refused, so they took her court, where her case dragged on for months until she lost.

“Within 24 hours after [the judge] gave the order, they built that,” Tamez said, referring to the wall that now sits behind her property.

Next came the battle for compensation. “The settlement that I got ... was $56,000,” Tamez said. “I converted some of that for scholarships for graduate nursing students.”

Tamez said she didn’t want the money. She just wanted her land, without a wall.

Tamez's experiences in dealing with the government back then was similar to what other landowners went through — they fought, they lost, the wall was built.

Efrén Olivares, director of the racial and economic justice program at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said this time around it seemed more people will be impacted but was hopeful more residents now know their rights.

“What happened last time, which was a lot of people didn’t know they didn’t have to accept the first offer, so they signed without knowing they were giving up their rights,” he said.

Olivares said landowners in the Rio Grande Valley should know the courts can weigh in on the surveying and the compensation amounts.

In this latest effort to extend the wall, Congress required the federal government to meet with local officials to discuss design and alignment of the wall.

In Starr County, Roma Mayor Roberto Salinas said he met with local Border Patrol officials to negotiate on behalf of his community.

“Right now what’s planned below the center of town is an 18-foot steel fence,” Salinas said. “We think that would be a detriment to tourism. Instead what we would like to see is something more like a concrete barrier built with some decorative fencing on top of it. That would enhance tourism.”

Salinas said the Border Patrol officials were receptive, but there’s no official contract.

He said he sees both sides of the wall debate.

“Border Patrol and Homeland Security say they need the fence in order to do their jobs, and I’m a big supporter of Border Patrol and Homeland Security, and if they say they need it, I think we should comply and give them what they need."

The mayor said border officials assured him no homes would be displaced during the construction of a new border wall, but he was skeptical because they’ve walked back commitments in the past.

90-year-old Elvira Canales lives in Salineño, about a 15-min. drive west of Roma.

She said she recently talked to the Army Corps of Engineers about an upcoming road construction project near her property by the Rio Grande. Canales said she’ll take legal action if the government tries to take her land for the road or for the proposed wall.

Credit Reynaldo Leanos Jr. / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Elvira Canales

“I won’t sell it, or I won’t give it permission because it’s my property for generations and generations,” Canales said.

The Canales family had not yet received an official letter from the government asking for permission to survey their land.

Customs and Border Protection said in a statement to Texas Public Radio that they preferred to avoid homes and other structures and were in the preliminary stages of planning and design in Starr County.

CBP also said they had not finalized border wall construction timelines for the county.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at reynaldo@tpr.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos