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For Laredo, 69 Miles Of Border Wall Are Also On The Ballot In The Presidential Election

On most days, the outlet mall in the border city of Laredo is quiet and sleepy. But on an early September morning, cars packed the parking lot. Many of them flew Trump flags.

“We want change. I want change,” Carlos Ureño said as he rushed to stick a flag on his truck.

Others rolled out on a parade through the city in what they call The Trump Train.

“I'm here to support something new, something that’s gonna be different from the same old politics every day,” he said.

Laredo resident Carlos Ureño fixes the Trump 2020 flag on the back of his truck in October 2020.
María Méndez
Texas Public Radio
Laredo resident Carlos Ureño is a long-time Democrat, but he didn’t vote in 2016. This year, he’s drawn toward President Donald Trump, but he’s still undecided.

Ureño has long been a Democrat, but he didn’t vote in 2016. This year, he’s drawn toward President Donald Trump, but he’s still undecided.

“I think it's kind of like a ‘wait and see’ approach I'm going to take because I think I'm gonna vote for who I believe is going to be the best person,” he said. “I don't honestly think Biden is the best person right now. I really don't. But I think that if the race is close, I think I will vote.”

He’s undecided about more than just the election — the Trump Train gathered at one of the sites of Trump’s proposed a border wall, but Ureño isn’t so sure about that either.

“We're standing in front of beautiful Laredo, Texas, and then here's the river, Nuevo Laredo right across the street,” he said.

Since 1848, the Rio Grande has served as the natural border between Texas and Mexico. But the Trump administration has insisted on a 30-foot-tall border wall.

“This is beautiful. I wouldn’t want a wall here,” he said.

The City of Laredo has been pushing for an alternative to a wall in the downtown area, but many residents still worry they’ll lose access to the river and parks nearby. And the Trump administration has only ramped up their efforts ahead of the election. It has awarded a little over $1 billion in four contracts for border wall construction, including two more announced at the end of September.

Construction could begin as soon as January, depending on the availability of the needed land, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden, on the other hand, has said he will not build another foot of new border wall.

As what appeared to be a Border Patrol helicopter flew by, Ureño had second thoughts about the border wall.

“You know, now that I think about it, and I could change my mind in a split second, right?” he said. “I would say if Border Patrol asked for it, then I would give it to them, you know, if it was me, because they’re the subject matter experts and they should know where the weaknesses are. I think that's the route we should take as opposed to letting other people vote on it or whatnot.”

Like Ureño, Laredo voters will have to take Trump’s border wall into consideration when casting a vote. At stake are at least 69 miles of border wall in the Laredo area.

“What we say is that walls save lives on both sides of the border,” said Hector Garza, president of the local chapter of the National Border Patrol Council.

“It’s going to discourage illegal immigration and it’s also going to ensure we have controlled immigration into the United States,” he said.

Melissa Cigarroa is a Laredo resident and supporter of Joe Biden's presidential campaign. She stands in front of a 30-foot-tall poster that reads, "Su voto es su voz. Stop the Wall. Defend Laredo." She also holds a sign that reads, "30 feet. This is the height of the border wall," with arrows pointing at the larger poster behind her. She is at a Joe Biden rally in Laredo, Texas, in October 2020.
María Méndez
Texas Public Radio
Melissa Cigarroa is a Laredo resident and supporter of Joe Biden's presidential campaign. She attended a Biden rally in Laredo to protest the continued construction of a border wall.

Garza started the Laredo Trump Train Facebook group this year. Many of its members are pro-wall.

“This group that we created grew to over 5,000 members in just five days, and the overwhelming majority of members are Laredoans,” he said. “What’s very interesting is there’s a lot of excitement and motivation to get engaged and what people are saying is, ‘Hey, we support President Trump and we support the border wall for border security.’”

But local residents have pushed back for more than a year now. Local landowners sued the federal government, arguing Trump has discriminated against Latino border residents by waiving federal laws to build a wall on or near their property.

“From what I have observed and watched and am seeing develop, I would say that I will say that the grand majority of Laredo, the grand, grand majority of Laredo understands that the wall is absolutely, absolutely useless,” said Sylvia Bruni. She’s the Webb County Democratic Party Chair.

She said many voters have picked up “No Border Wall” from lawn signs from the No Border Wall Coalition along with their Biden and Harris signs. The signs were also visible at a Biden car caravan earlier this month.

A 2019 poll of Texas border residents found almost 60% opposed Trump’s border wall, and Trump only received roughly 23% of Webb County votes in 2016. But Bruni said she has also noticed more visible support for Trump this year.

“We're a predominantly Democratic community, but I've never seen, I had never seen Laredo so full — I mean, mainly in North Laredo, you see Trump signs all over,” she said. “He's very much their man when it comes to their portfolios and the oil and gas and the things that he takes care of.”

Some Trump supporters have other priorities. Rafael Emilio García took his kids out to see the Trump Train.

“My main reason for being out here, I want to see an end to abortion,” he said.

His parents raised him to vote Democrat. But now he hopes Laredo Republicans will gain momentum.

“To become for what looks like to me, a more transparent and upright local government and then all the way to the national government,” he said.

He also went to see downtown street murals a few miles from the Trump Train. As a “Defund the Wall” street mural was painted in front of the local federal courthouse, García talked to Melissa Cigarroa. She’s a landowner and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the federal government. She was there to help refresh the mural against the wall.

Volunteers in Laredo freshen up the paint of a “Defund the Wall” street mural that is in front of the local federal courthouse in October 2020.
María Méndez
Texas Public Radio
Volunteers in Laredo freshen up the paint of a “Defund the Wall” street mural that is in front of the local federal courthouse.

“And I hope things get resolved with your land,” he told Cigarroa.

But overall, he doesn’t see an issue with the border wall.

“The border wall is to keep America America,” he said. “There's nothing wrong with keeping America America just like there's nothing wrong with me keeping the García household a García household.”

But for landowners, like Cigarroa, the border wall is more than a fence. They fear losing land, ranches, vegetation or their homes. They also worry the wall will cause flooding after heavy rain.

For now, the federal government has dropped their legal fight to access Cigarroa’s land. She’s still waiting for a decision in the discrimination lawsuit. It’s all building toward election day.

“We are under attack, so certainly, I feel that more deeply, but it feels different because we have a man who is campaigning against the essence of American democracy,” she said, referring to Trump’s reluctance to say he’ll accept the election results if he loses.

If Biden wins, she says she'll continue fighting to reinstate laws to protect landowners.

“Our work doesn't end there,” she said. “Because this issue keeps getting picked up by a different administration, right? And what we need is a restoration of our rights.”

For now, she’s making her case to local voters.

María Méndez can be reached at maría@tpr.org or on Twitter at @anxious_maria