Trump May Be Gone, But the Fight Against His Border Wall Goes On
Originally Published in The New York Times
Edgar Sandoval – September 13, 2021
Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times
LOS EBANOS, Texas — The men showed up unannounced, but it didn’t take long for Aleida Flores Garcia to figure out why they were measuring portions of her backyard. “We are here to mark where a border wall would go,” they told her last summer as they surveyed the ranch her family has owned for five generations.
Ms. Garcia, the last surviving member of her family, had successfully fended off the federal government more than a decade ago, when a different president, George W. Bush, was intent on building a barrier that would cut across a large swath of her land. Now she stood guard as the men took notes and marked the path of an eventual barrier, tears streaming down her face, worried she wouldn’t be so lucky again.
This time, she feared, the border wall really was coming to Los Ebanos.
A tiny village with fewer than 300 residents, Los Ebanos sits on the edge of the Rio Grande, which snakes around the community in such a way that it essentially feels like an open-air barrier. It is the kind of border community where families with Spanish surnames have lived for generations, dating back to when Texas was part of Mexico. “The border crossed us,” Ms. Garcia and many residents of the Rio Grande Valley, which includes Los Ebanos, are fond of saying.
Now the community has found itself in the middle of a sharp debate over shifting immigration policies, as a surge in crossings has reached levels not seen in more than two decades and as the Texas governor has vowed to further fortify the border.
During a special session that ended late last month, state lawmakers approved nearly $2 billion in funding for border security. While it was unclear how exactly the money would be spent, Mr. Abbott has said he would need more than $1 billion to build barriers along the border. So far he has raised more than $54 million from a website that solicits donations.
Many residents like Ms. Garcia are vocal opponents of a wall cutting across their properties, believing that it is both inhumane and also would barricade their binational and bicultural village from the rest of the border region. More than 100 landowners like her have been sued by the federal government, their land earmarked for parts of a wall that polls show most South Texans don’t want.
“This town is too small for a wall,” said Ms. Flores, 61. “It would feel like we are trapped in our own homes, like a prison.”
But there is also a small but growing group of residents who have concluded that only a barrier could slow down what they see as a crippling surge in migration not seen in decades. So far this year, there have been more than 1.3 million interactions between migrants and border officials.
The debate has pitted some neighbors who favor a wall against the many who don’t. A few doors down from Ms. Garcia, at least one family has publicly expressed desire for more fencing. They declined an interview, but have been vocal about their position that a wall could benefit their town.
The disagreements in Los Ebanos mirror those of many other communities across the Southwest border with Mexico, where divisions over a wall have been brewing since the Clinton administration. Every president since the early 1990s has authorized construction of fencing. The issue gained momentum after Donald Trump made it a cornerstone of his presidency, and during his four years in office, he pledged to build hundreds of miles of barriers, including in remote areas where few people had typically crossed.
Surveys have shown little appetite for a border wall in the Rio Grande Valley, or El Valle, as the Spanish-speaking majority calls the region. In a 2018 poll conducted by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, two thirds of respondents said they did not favor one. That tracks with national polls, which show a majority of Americans oppose the expansion of a wall.
Still, the debate is sharply split along party lines, with about eight in 10 Republicans supporting a border-wide barrier. “Build the wall” was a regular refrain at Trump rallies, and during his presidency, Mr. Trump built about 450 miles of new fencing, though mostly in Arizona and not in South Texas.
Many Texans thought the issue would subside once President Biden took office. But in a move that critics said appeared designed to attract support from conservative voters ahead of his re-election campaign, Gov. Greg Abbott announced an ambitious proposal to pick up where Mr. Trump had left off.
He said he had set aside $250 million from the state’s general revenue to continue building a wall, and also asked people to donate online.
For the most part, the additional fencing would be erected on vacant ranch properties or land owned by the state or federal government. But residents fear that many areas under consideration include populated communities like Los Ebanos, those right on the border and frequent crossing spots for migrants.
Ms. Garcia, whose sprawling 30-acre ranch is called La Paloma, has grown accustomed to the sight of desperate and thirsty migrants — many of them fleeing violence and poverty in Central America — wandering in her backyard. “They are human beings,” she said. “A wall is not going to deter anyone.”
When the men in construction hats and measuring tape arrived at her home last summer, while Mr. Trump was still president, she balked — but also worried. The federal government was intent on building on her property, she said, and it initiated an eminent domain case to take the property if she would not willingly give it up.
But then Mr. Trump lost the 2020 election and Ms. Garcia felt relief, as President Biden had vowed to pause construction of a wall. “We thought Biden was going to give us our land back,” she said.
But eight months after Mr. Biden took office, 100 lawsuits remain open against Texans who own land along the border, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project, a civil rights group.
Pam Rivas, who owns property in Los Ebanos but lives several miles away in the more populated city of Edinburg, said she had little hope that her land would be returned until the government abruptly began steps to do just that last week to owners like her. Her case is ongoing and was scheduled to go to court this month. At issue was not whether the government has the authority to build a wall along seven acres of her property, but how much she would be compensated for it, said her lawyer, Ricky Garza.
“This has been a long fight,” said Ms. Rivas, 60.
Ms. Garcia, for her part, has stopped tending to her property. New fencing, as planned, would cut her off from 90 percent of her backyard. “The wall is coming,” she said. “What’s the point?”
While Mr. Biden halted construction on the border wall on his first day in office, lawyers with the Texas Civil Rights Project said that in recent months there had been little movement by the Department of Justice to dismiss the pending litigation and lawsuits over property, until this month, when legal filings began to show movement that they are willing to return the land to a handful of owners. They also said that some construction for border barriers has resumed in parts of the Rio Grande Valley.
A Customs and Border Protection official said the work was levy repairs to mitigate flooding.
Department of Justice officials said a few dozen cases were pending, but added that the department was also evaluating whether any landowners qualified to get their property back and was inquiring if other owners were even interested in getting it back. Some officials pointed to a case where the federal government reversed course and planned to return the land to its owner in nearby Starr County.
Two of Ms. Garcia’s neighbors could not wait. They sold their land and left the area after receiving letters from the federal government. Los Ebanos — named by early Mexican settlers who stumbled upon a wealth of ebony trees — is small enough that everyone knows each other. The post office doubles as a gathering spot. Children attend school in nearby cities.
The population has never grown beyond a few hundred residents, even as the village flourished in the early 1930s with two churches, its own school and several now shuttered businesses, which today resemble an abandoned Western movie set.
A single road leads residents — the majority of whom live below the poverty line — in and out of the village, and there is a steady patrol of white and green Border Patrol trucks.
The village, best known for its squeaky hand-pulled wooden ferry, El Chalán, which carries people and their cars across the Rio Grande, did not expect to be thrust into the national fight over immigration. On a recent afternoon, Richard F. Cortez, the leader of Hidalgo County, which includes Los Ebanos, called on President Biden and lawmakers in Washington to liberate his constituents of their burden.
“We already have a barrier between the United States and Mexico,” he said. “It’s called a river.”
Ms. Garcia agrees. Among the pile of paperwork that she keeps on her case, she often returns to a satellite map that shows a thick blue line in the shape of a reversed L. That’s the proposed wall, and it would separate the river where she and her neighbors grew up playing from the cluster of fewer than 200 tightknit homes.
“For me this is personal,” Ms. Garcia said of her crusade to keep her land and live peacefully in Los Ebanos. “This is all I have known.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
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