After securing over $500 million in March to build a border barrier, the Department of Homeland Security has begun laying the foundation for the first miles of Donald Trump‘s long-promised wall. The blueprint bisects federally protected public lands and dismembers private property that’s been passed down for generations.
On a muggy September morning, Rey Anzaldua looks out over the Rio Grande from a riverside dock on his family’s property, just south of Mission, Texas. It’s been pouring for more than two days straight along the border, but finally the rain seems to have let up. The Rio’s swollen from the downpours, its surface a glassy emerald green sheet stretching well over 100 feet wide. Palm trees and thick brush line its banks on either side, their leaves rustling gently in the wind as we stare across the water into Mexico.
That sense of serenity is broken, suddenly, when a Border Patrol helicopter buzzes above us, its blades whirring loudly as it circles overhead. Anzaldua rolls his eyes. Although the property we’re standing on has been in his family for over 70 years, it’s obvious the chopper doesn’t want us lingering near the river.
As we make our way back to Anzaldua’s truck, he explains that his cousin, Fred Cavazos, owns the land but couldn’t make it down to the river. Cavazos is paralyzed; his wheelchair can get stuck in the floodplain’s thick mud after heavy rains. “Fred used to run cattle here for years before he got sick. Now, with his mobility gone, he rents out about 30 riverfront homes to make a living,” Anzaldua says, removing his Vietnam Veteran cap as he wipes his brow. “He works hard to make due with what he’s got.”
A moment later, a Customs and Border Protection SUV pulls up next to us. We’ve walked less than 50 yards from the riverbank and are still on Cavazos’ property, but the agents are free to enter as they please—and question whomever they want. Anzaldua calmly speaks with the officers, unfazed by the intrusion. It’s a situation he is familiar with: He was a CBP special agent for over 30 years; he understands the ins and outs of the job. By the time we’re back in his truck, there are five more SUVs waiting on the road and a second helicopter hovering above. “It wasn’t always like this,” Anzaldua tells me, shaking his head. “But such is life on the border these days.”
As we pull away, Anzaldua gestures toward the rocky road below us. We’re driving on an elevated levee, one that was previously constructed to protect the region from the Rio’s sporadic floods after especially strong storms. Judging by the heavy CBP presence along it, it’s also the backbone for the area’s border security forces. The levee currently overlooks a thicket of trees and brush on his cousin’s land but, unless something drastic happens, that view will likely give way to the first iteration of President Donald Trump‘s long-awaited southern border wall. The barrier is projected to cut directly through Cavazos’ property.
After a last glance toward the Rio, we turn off the levee road, leaving the group of green-and-white CBP vehicles in our rearview. The helicopters continue to buzz loudly overhead, prompting Anzaldua to repeat something he told me earlier that morning: “This issue of border security—the push and pull of people and drugs and materials between Mexico and the U.S.—developed over a long period of time. A solution won’t come quickly, either. And a wall’s not part of it.”
Unlike the talking heads and immigration hawks who characterize the borderlands as a war zone, Anzaldua and Cavazos view the security of their homeland through a historical lens. They’re both direct descendants of prominent landowners who shaped the Rio Grande Valley for centuries, including José Narciso Cavazos, who received a Spanish land grant of roughly 600,000 acres in the 18th century. At nearly 1,000 square miles—almost as large as Rhode Island—the San Juan de Carricitos land grant was the single largest area awarded by the Spaniards at the time. But over the past 250 years, the territory has been chipped away by a host of factors, including the movement of Native Americans, the settlement of Texas in the 19th century, and the Mexican-American war. Now, a U.S.–Mexico border wall is the greatest threat to what’s left of the storied region.
Half an hour later, Fred Cavazos and I are speaking outside of his home. He’s sporting a white Dallas Cowboys football jersey, which matches the color of his thick head of hair. Cavazos clearly has an affinity for animals: There are several cats roaming around us and a motley crew of dogs staring intently in our direction through the slats of his front gate. Cavazos beams as he describes his previous life as a rancher running cattle on his riverside property—a practice he was forced to give up several years ago after he lost his ability to walk. He’s still got a few longhorns and some goats, but they’re largely there as a reminder of better times. These days, his main source of income is a cluster of riverfront properties he rents out to vacationers visiting from both sides of the border.
It’s not even noon yet, but the Valley’s infamously oppressive humidity has reared its ugly head. Beads of sweat shining on his forehead, Cavazos points across the street, gesturing to the flood levee in front of us. “I’ll have a front row seat of the wall’s construction whenever they start building it,” he jokes, exhaling and hanging his head. “If I lose this, I don’t know what I’ll do. I won’t be able to make a living.”
Like many Americans, Cavazos never imagined Trump‘s proposed “big, beautiful wall” stood a chance. He saw the prospective partition as mere campaign bluster, a promise that would dissipate following the election. But after Congress appropriated nearly $650 million for 33 miles of border barrier in March, it was clear that he had misjudged the situation. Over the past seven months, the 69-year-old has received a series of letters and maps from CBP detailing a proposal to build a wall directly through his property. Though the mock-ups are rough and the details provided are murky, it’s clear the barrier—which will run parallel to the Rio Grande, just north of the river’s floodplain—will be constructed along the existing levee. The plan’s implications are serious. If built, the wall will splice Cavazos’ land in half, effectively cutting him off from the river. This won’t just jeopardize his access to the land he owns; it will threaten his rental properties too. “I’ve fished and lived on this property my entire life. Now, the government wants to take it away from me,” Cavazos says. “They have patrol boats, helicopters, towers, sensors, drones, checkpoints, and agents covering every inch of this area. Why do they need a wall too?”
Building a border wall has been a key component of American immigration policy since the mid-’90s, when Bill Clinton introduced a series of barrier-centric operations to beef up U.S. border security. In a three-year span, Clinton introduced Operation Gatekeeper in California (1994), Operation Safeguard in Arizona (1994), and Operation Hold-the-Line in Texas (1993), all of which erected massive walls along cities and major migration corridors. Soon after, he further militarized the border in hopes of pushing back would-be crossers by signing the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996. A decade later, George W. Bush followed in his predecessor’s footsteps by signing the Secure Fence Act of 2006—setting aside over a billion dollars to construct an additional 700 miles of double chain link and barbed wire fences equipped with guard stations, infrared cameras, and light poles.
Little by little, these policies walled off most of California, Arizona, and New Mexico’s southern boundaries. Meanwhile, large swaths of Texas’ border with Mexico have survived unscathed, a surprising circumstance given the state’s staunchly conservative reputation and proximity to some of the most crime-ridden stretches of Northern Mexico. There’s an easy explanation for this: The vast majority of the property along its border (upwards of 95 percent, according to some estimates) is privately owned land that has often been passed down for generations. The impact of this cannot be overstated, particularly in a state that is known for its ardent dedication to private property rights. So, rather than braving a flurry of lengthy legal battles with landowners fighting to protect their land from seizure through eminent domain, the federal government has largely avoided constructing border barriers in the Lone Star State.
Since a physical wall wasn’t feasible, CBP has deployed alternative border security tools including sensors, listening devices, and other cutting-edge technology throughout the Texas border. The segments of wall that do exist stand largely alongside major cities and have been strategically placed in areas most vulnerable to traffickers and smugglers, including parts of the Rio Grande Valley. That runs counter to what many mainstream Americans believe, says Ben Masters. A Texas-bred conservationist, Masters is the filmmaker behind the upcoming adventure documentary The River and the Wall. In the film, Masters (who made a name for himself in conservation circles with the film Unbranded in 2016) and five other wildlife advocates traverse the entirety of the 1,800-mile Texas–Mexico border by horse, bike, and boat to capture the immense impacts a physical wall will have on landscapes, animals, and people. “Many Americans still think it’s possible for somebody to cross our border and hop into a car waiting for them on the other side, but that simply isn’t true anymore,” he says. “All that’s left unwalled is open country, some of the wildest and most beautiful landscapes our state—and maybe our country—have to offer.”
With existing barriers already in place along every major border-centric metropolis in Texas, CBP no longer has a choice: If it wants to build a wall here, it’s going to have to run through protected lands or private property.
Last July, Marianna Treviño-Wright was walking along a wilderness trail at the National Butterfly Center when she discovered a group of chainsaw-wielding contractors cutting away trees and clearing brush. The center, a Mission, Texas-based wildlife sanctuary located five miles west of Fred Cavazos’ property, is a restored onion farm that abuts the Rio Grande and is home to nearly 200 species of native butterflies. It’s a small territory (about 100 acres), but the center anchors a key piece of the Lower Rio Grande Wildlife Corridor and is home to a native species botanical garden, observation areas, and educational exhibits. When Treviño-Wright approached the contractors, they told her they’d been hired by CBP to survey land for a prospective border wall. The news caught the director off guard, given the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice hadn’t contacted her or the center’s owner, which it was legally obligated to do.
Treviño-Wright was livid, but she was hardly surprised. A few weeks before, news broke that the Trump administration had spent months secretly planning to construct its first segments of border barrier through the federally owned Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary that sits on the banks of the Rio Grande, known by many as the “crown jewel” of the U.S. wildlife refuges. “I knew that if CBP was willing to make Santa Ana ground zero for Trump‘s wall, they weren’t messing around,” she says. “Still, walking up on those guys chopping up our land without any authorization was nothing short of disturbing. It really showed this administration’s lack of regard for protected habitats, due process, and the rule of law.”
Considering the Butterfly Center is less than 20 miles west of Santa Ana, CBP’s motives were obvious: The agency was plotting a path for a contiguous border wall through the Rio Grande Valley—specifically, in Hidalgo County, where the Butterfly Center and the 2,000-acre riverfront refuge are located. Although Santa Ana is significantly larger, both lie in a critical migratory channel for endangered ocelots, jaguarundi, bobcats, armadillos, coyotes, and over 400 species of birds. Cutting directly through this vital ecological avenue would almost certainly devastate its sensitive ecosystems and irrecoverably hinder its ability to foster life, but that didn’t deter CBP. In fact, it attained a legal waiver to bypass pre-existing environmental laws that would otherwise have prevented it from erecting a wall on protected public lands. And because Santa Ana is owned by the government, construction wouldn’t have required messy confrontations with landowners or years-long lawsuits over eminent domain. Conservationists around the country decried the plan. “This isn’t just about tearing up protected lands or the immediate footprint of a wall that won’t curb immigration patterns in any real way. This about long-term effects,” says Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands. “By building a barrier at the heart of some of the most diverse and vital migration paths in North America, you’re directly impeding both terrestrial and airborne species from their natural movements. It’s difficult to say exactly how large a danger this poses for our wildlife, but it’s massive.”
Armed with testimonies from wildlife advocates like Nicol, Democrats eventually stymied the president’s plans to build on Santa Ana by placing protections for the refuge in the 2018 spending bill. Opponents of the wall championed the effort as a major victory, but with a Republican majority in both chambers and Trump at the helm, it wasn’t a comprehensive one. Instead, CBP has simply shifted its plans to build its barrier through Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, which is one mile west of the Butterfly Center and still in Hidalgo County. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has indicated he’ll gladly offer it up.
Placing a wall in Bentsen will be just as costly ecologically, but this decision hasn’t received the same level of criticism as the proposal to build on Santa Ana. That’s troubling, says Treviño-Wright, whose center has again been targeted by the newest barrier blueprints. “We’re smack-dab in the middle of migratory ranges for southern subtropical species and northern animals traveling from the U.S. interior. Whether you build the wall on Santa Ana or Bentsen, you’re threatening some of the country’s most precious ecosystems and the animals that inhabit them.”
Despite resistance from local stakeholders and outspoken wall opponents like Masters, Treviño-Wright, and Nicol, CBP spokesman Carlos Diaz says that border barrier construction in Hidalgo County will begin as early as February of 2019. “The new segments of wall construction will augment the existing wall infrastructure by closing a substantial amount of border gaps within the Rio Grande Valley Sector not completed during the 2008 wall construction,” he writes in an email. “The border wall system, combined with personnel and technology, will increase Border Patrol’s operational capabilities by creating persistent impedance, delaying and facilitating the deterrence and prevention of successful illegal entries.”
As things currently stand, the prospective wall holds protected lands (Bentsen), wildlife sanctuaries (the Butterfly Center), and private landowners (Fred Cavazos) firmly in its crosshairs. But with the country’s national attention shifted elsewhere, anti-wall advocates can’t help but wonder if they’re running out of time. That’s certainly how Cavazos feels as we sit at his kitchen table, where a recent map sent to him by CBP is splayed across his red, orange, and green floral tablecloth. The diagram’s pretty rudimentary—the wall’s proposed path is simply depicted with a thick, red line—making the entire scenario feel all the more surreal. Slowly tracing his finger along the wall’s targeted territory, Cavazos’ gaze never strays from the paper in front of him. He’s looked over the map countless times, but it’s clear reality still hasn’t sunk in. After nearly a minute of silence, he begins to laugh in disbelief. “I always thought we were living in a free country, that something like this couldn’t happen here,” he says. “But what kind of America are we in, where the people are powerless and government can come in and take everything? I guess I was wrong.”
Much of Cavazos’ anxiety stems from the ambiguity of his situation. Up to this point, CBP has provided him minimal information about when, where, and how it plans to build on his land. The maps and diagrams he’s received do not indicate if he’ll have direct access to the property through a gate or will need to enter the barrier’s south side through an entry point miles away. Fortunately, Cavazos has his cousin, Anzaldua, to help him navigate this nerve-wracking process. Anzaldua had a portion of his land taken away in 2007 when the Bush administration built a barrier through his community, Granjeno.
Granjeno is a tiny town just a few miles further east of where we’re standing, but Andalzua believes its predicament is symbolic of larger issues facing the entire Rio Grande Valley. “I don’t know if it’s media sensationalism or straight up racism, but the stereotypes that define people’s understanding of South Texas are directly reflected in policies like this wall,” he says. “Fred’s father served in World War II as a tank commander; I’m a Vietnam veteran; A lot of my cousins are veterans. There’s a rich history of patriotism here, but we’re still being made to feel like second-class citizens, that our rights matter less.”
No surprise, then, to hear Cavazos say he won’t go down without a fight. Whether it’s out of hope or sheer stubbornness, he’s vowed to resist CBP as long as he possibly can. “We’re fighting to prolong this even though we know we won’t win. At the end of the day, the government always gets what it wants,” he says, his gaze set firmly on the spot where a barrier may eventually stand on this property. “But we want to drag this out for as long possible. Who knows, maybe Congress will flip in November and thinks get shaken up? We have to look to the future right now, because the present is too frustrating to dwell on.”
Unless a dramatic shift occurs, those 33 miles of approved border barrier will pass through Cavazos’ property, the National Butterfly Center, and Bentsen State Park. Should that happen, it will likely be presented as a historic victory by Trump‘s camp—the delivering of his greatest campaign promise yet and a sure-fire photo-op to feed his hyper-conservative voter base. But amid the political fanfare, it’ll also send a chilling message to the rest of Texas: Regardless of its long-term implications for your most sensitive ecosystems, how long you’ve owned your land, or how many border security resources your community already has, the wall is coming.