The small Texas town where Trump’s wall will destroy families and livelihoods

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Deep in the deep Rio Grande Valley, plans for president Trumps wall would cut through towns and communities. In Madero, families fear the loss of their livelihood but vow to resist

Rey Anzaldua walks the path, through a pluvial afternoon on the Rio Grande reach opposite Mexico, towards the little church where he has worshipped “since I was five years old”– the lovely chapel of La Lomita, built in 1865 on a Spanish land grant of 1767. It is a jewel: candle smoke and the musky scent of whitewashed stone wrapping the Virgin of Guadalupe icon and offerings of flowers and corn.

Rey’s family has been here since the 1750s. His extended family “had three Spanish land grants between 16,000 and 18,000 acres along the Rio Grande river and the bridge between,” Rey said. “We don’t have much of that now.”

Rey has served his time and country as special agent for US customs – stopping contraband north and southbound – and wears his Vietnam Veteran’s cap and jacket. He and his family still own land along the river border here, and nearby.

That’s the problem.

Hard to imagine, but the levee running beside La Lomita chapel, in the tiny hamlet of Madero in Texas’s south-west corner, has been battered by – but survived – hurricanes and floods, and is now designated to be the course of a new border wall, cutting the chapel off from its congregation. This wall was planned before Donald Trump’s national emergency, budgeted under the presidencies of George W Bush and Barak Obama.

Father Roy Snipes, known locally as the “cowboy priest” for his Stetson hat, leads prayers for his chapel to be spared. “It would still be a sacred place,” he said, “but it would be a sacred place that was desecrated.”

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Cousins Fred Cavazos and Rey Anzaldua, whose family has been farming the borderlands since the 1780s. Photograph: Ed Vulliamy

“I saw it all as a customs agent,” Rey said. “Working both sides of the border. Cocaine and you-name-it coming north, guns and money going south. One haul heading to Mexico was 60,000 rounds of ammunition.” So his view is that of a professional, not just a landowner.

“You got to ask yourself: why are all the drugs and illegal immigrants coming through? Why? Because of the demand for illegal drugs and illegal labour, not much different from Al Capone and prohibition. Do I, as a retired customs agent, think the wall will stop that? Oh, come on.”

This is the deep Rio Grande Valley, South of McAllen, Texas, where the river runs its final course towards the gulf estuary. And among the things that mark this fiercely proud border country from most others is the preponderance of privately-owned land along the route of proposed walls, rather than public land more easily sequestered, according to a report last year commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union. And many of those landowners refuse to comply, like the Anzaldua-Cabazos cousins.

Fred Cavazos is unable to join us at the chapel and down on his riverfront land today; he moves thanks to a wheelchair and the mud is deep. So we convene at his home half a mile away, over maps and plans sent there by the government.

Fred runs his finger along red lines that mark the wall’s trajectory – and the 150ft “enforcement zone”, which includes a patrol road – across his land.

“This is where it’ll go, along the levee by the chapel, taking out a couple of houses, some of the RV park – but there’s a lot of businesses on the other side, including mine. What happens to them?”

“It started with letters from the government, last September,” Fred said. The map arrived with the first, from the Department of Homeland Security demanding ‘Right-of-Entry For Survey and Site Assessment’, and the three that followed it. Each one ends with a line for signature of acquiescence by the landowner. On Fred’s letters, they remain blank.

“Our strategy is silence,” he said. “I will not agree to this.”

The serial challenges by the Anzaldua and Cavazos families to walls already built or due to be built present a model for the kind of private litigation by landowners – in addition to that by 16 states and environmental groups – president Trump would face even if he overcomes congressional opposition to his proposed national emergency.

“People far away, want the wall,” Rey said, “but hardly anyone down here. There’s less illegals than there used to be – though we do get a car chase now and then – and there’s no crisis on the border. When Donald Trump came here” – two weeks before our conversation – “all he talked to was a few people who want the wall and law enforcement. He didn’t speak to a single landowner; they just don’t understand our ties to the land, on both sides of the border. There’s a village called Cavazos over on the other side – that’s family.”

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Rey Anzaldua on family land on the Rio Grande River, with Tamaulipas, Mexico, on the far bank. Photograph: Ed Vulliamy

Ten years ago, the Department of Homeland Security came for his land at nearby Granjeño. “It was a partial victory, only because we fought all the way. They got their fence, and we lost access to the river, which has been a nightmare. But under the initial proposal, 25-30 houses would have been lost. They moved the wall by 50 yards, so we didn’t lose the houses.”

Now Fred faces loss of access to his livelihood: he has divided 70 acres of his land on the riverfront into 50ft-wide lots onto which 30 tenants – mostly local – have built decks and huts, for fishing and gathering, eating and camping.

“The tenants pay each year”, he said, “and I use the rent for taxes and bills. Now I worry I won’t get that money.” Fred has cattle too, which traverse the wall’s proposed path, “and we won’t know where to put that cattle now”.

At some points along stretches of wall that have cut across private property, gates are installed, with pin-code locks. “But even if we’re lucky enough to get a gate, who gets the code?” Fred wondered. “Do all my tenants get the code? Do the bad guys make sure to get the code?”

“Most of the people come across to work,” Fred said, “in hospitality and agriculture, like they did since I was born and Grandma used to bake ’em cakes and feed rice and cheese when they came to work the ranch – cotton, watermelon and cabbage in them days.”

Addressing the strategy of silent response to the letters, Rey said, “We can try to delay it as long as we can. We can try to hold them up, but I’m afraid that’s all.”

“What can you do?” Fred asked rhetorically. “They call it private land, but when the government wants it, it’s not. Whatever we do, they’ll win; they’ll build their wall anyway.”

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A definitive report on the politics and legacy of border walls and fencing was commissioned by the ACLU from Stephanie Herweck and Scott Nicol, who teach at colleges in McAllen.

“As we see from Fred’s and Rey’s cases,” Scott said , “sacrosanct property rights in America are inviolable, until they get in the way.” Nicol points out that landowners who have resisted the initial demands for entry onto their property ended up getting paid higher amounts for land than those who agreed: “People think if they fight, they’ll lose. But they should realise that throwing a wrench in the works can be advantageous in itself.”

Scott sketches out the dramatic impact the wall will have: “Communities are built on rivers. But if Trump gets the wall he wants, we’ll be completely cut off from the river, after centuries. The only view we’ll have of it will be from the bridges to Mexico. The Rio Grande Valley will be that no longer.”

“We’re the losers if this wall gets built,” Fred said. “This land is all we have. This is where we learned to hunt and fish; where our parents taught us the value of work, and to enjoy working the land. If they build this wall, my property’s a no man’s land on the far side.”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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