After Biden’s Border Wall Pivot, a Texas County Asks: Why Build It Here?

On the outskirts of Rio Grande City, Texas, Eva Alvarez stepped past the graves of her parents and grandparents before stopping at the edge of the small cemetery to marvel at the rust-red steel bollards stacked in piles, row after row, not far from her house.

For years, the Trump administration had surveyed and condemned land along the border in Starr County, where Ms. Alvarez lives, constructing a steel border barrier in segments to deter and redirect unauthorized crossings. Many residents saw the wall as unnecessary and ill-advised, and when President Biden took office and ordered a halt to construction, Ms. Alvarez and others in this rugged, mostly rural South Texas borderland believed the project was over.

No longer.

Residents of Starr County, particularly those with land along the Rio Grande, are now bracing for the resumption of construction after the Biden administration last week said it would waive dozens of federal laws and regulations to begin erecting new sections of border wall in Texas.

The decision to build about 17 miles of new fencing in Starr County prompted anger among many Democrats, who accused President Biden of going back on a campaign promise. But it coincided with a surge of unauthorized crossings along many parts of the southern border in recent weeks that has overwhelmed communities in Texas, Arizona and California, and posed a formidable political challenge to Mr. Biden.

The huge number of arrivals has upended the usual politics of immigration as Democratic mayors, including in New York and Chicago, have urged action to stem the flow of migrants to their cities, often on buses provided by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas.

Eva Alvarez, whose family has long lived along the Rio Grande, fears that construction of a border wall near her property could get in the way of visitors who come to fish there.Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

A child playing in Roma, Texas. Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

By waiving existing laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act last week in an effort to speed up construction, the Biden administration signaled the urgency of the situation — “an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers,” according to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro N. Mayorkas — even as the president himself said that he did not believe that barriers worked.

The barrier construction in Starr County is unlikely to have an impact on the number of arrivals along the border, at least in the short term, local officials said, because the area has not seen a recent surge in migration.

“We were told that this was to curtail the flow of illegal immigrants into the country,” said the county judge, Eloy Vera, who is the county’s top official. “If that is the case, and that is what it’s for, then it’s being built in the wrong place.”

Mr. Vera suggested a better location in Texas would be around El Paso or Eagle Pass, where hundreds and sometimes well over 1,000 migrants have been arriving each day.

The Biden administration has said that its renewed construction of a federal border barrier in Starr County was required by Congress in a budget passed during the Trump administration. It was based on plans that had already been in the works for the county, whose roughly 66,000 mostly Hispanic residents live just upstream from the mostly densely populated urban centers of the Rio Grande Valley.

The state of Texas has also been slowly building its own border barrier in Starr County, though so far only about two out of a planned seven miles have been built.

Bollards to be used for a planned border wall, stored near a cemetery in La Rosita, Texas.CreditCredit…By Ben Lowy For The New York Times

The county has long been a popular crossing point, both for migrants and for drug smuggling, particularly in the small city of Roma.

“There’s crossings every day,” said Alejandro Barrera, the Roma city manager. But he said the numbers were manageable and migrants were mostly being taken by Border Patrol agents for processing in other areas. “It’s not affecting the local population right now,” Mr. Barrera said, apart from the occasional pursuit of smugglers by law enforcement on local roads.

The area has had a reputation for crime and cross-border drug trafficking for decades, though some law enforcement officials said that was mostly a bygone era. The largest city, Rio Grande City, recorded a single homicide in each of the last two years, according to the assistant chief of police, Jose Solis.

The county is among the poorest in Texas — many of its young people leave for work, with many headed to the Texas oil fields — and it has recently been trying to create jobs by bringing in more commercial truck traffic from Mexico. A large industrial center is being built in Roma.

Alongside increased legal commerce, illegal activity has continued along the border as well. On a recent weekday, a column of Border Patrol agents and local law enforcement officers could be seen descending on a home for an operation in the small community of Fronton, upriver from Roma.

Some in the county said that the overall situation at the border had reached a point where something needed to be done, and that a border barrier could be part of the solution. “I don’t really see why not,” said Leonardo Sánchez, who moved from Mexico two years ago to open an agave distillery in a historic district of Roma. “Reading the news and everything that is happening, I can see why people don’t like what is happening, opening the door and letting in all these people.”

Eloy Vera, the county judge in Starr County, says the area has had few migrant crossings and the wall is being built “in the wrong place.”Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times
A national wildlife refuge near La Grulla, Texas.Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

Customs and Border Protection officials declined to provide statistics for migrants crossing the border in Starr County, pointing instead to publicly available data for the entire Rio Grande Valley, which includes Brownsville, another Texas city that has seen surges in recent weeks. Some large groups have crossed in Starr County as well.

The officials said that new border barrier construction had not yet begun in Starr County.

Nayda Alvarez, 52, a high school teacher who lives along the river outside Rio Grande City, has been among the most vocal residents fighting border barrier construction since the Trump administration proposed it, when she climbed onto the roof of her house and painted “No Border Wall” in large white letters.

Over the years, she has fought in court, with the support of the Texas Civil Rights Project, and tried to keep surveyors from her land. Standing under a mesquite tree in her backyard, she pointed to the area where, during the Trump administration, she was told a wall would go — a few dozen feet from her house.

“I feel drained, like, really, I’m drained,” she said, describing her reaction to the Biden administration restarting construction, but she noted that the reaction among many of her neighbors had been mostly muted. “I think a lot of people have given up,” she said. “Let’s start at the top: Even Biden said, ‘My hands are tied.’”

The barrier is planned to pass through lands that attract migratory birds — along with birding tourists — from thousands of miles away, including places such as the Salineño Wildlife Preserve. Even if the wall does not directly cut through the preserve, it could block access and upset the ecology, said Debralee Rodriguez, the executive director of the Valley Land Fund, which manages the sanctuary. “Nature tourism is extremely valuable to the Rio Grande Valley,” she said.

The Rio Grande provides a resting place for migratory birds.CreditCredit…By Ben Lowy For The New York Times

The planned barriers would be built in 14 segments, rather than as one continuous wall, and would consist of 18-foot-high steel bollards in a movable concrete base, according to an official description from August. They would be placed mostly in areas where the federal government has already secured access, including through prior agreements with landowners, though some additional condemnations could be necessary.

Ms. Alvarez, 63, who was visiting the cemetery that day, lives along the Rio Grande, surrounded by relatives, on land that has been in her family for generations.

The 13th of 17 children, Ms. Alvarez has long ignored efforts by the federal government to take her family’s land for a border barrier.

Still, the steel bollards stacked near the cemetery were an ominous sign. She said they appeared over the summer — shortly before Customs and Border Protection began seeking public comment on new border barrier construction in the county — but she did not know if they were destined for a federal barrier or for one constructed by Texas. A state agency spokeswoman said the bollards did not appear to be part of the Texas effort. Federal officials did not respond to a request for comment.

A map released in August of the proposed new construction showed a barrier segment nearby but not on her land.

Either way, Ms. Alvarez feared the destruction of her land, which includes a riverfront park where, for $3 a person, or $1 for children, she lets locals wrangle catfish and bass from the swift waters. Ms. Alvarez said she had never encountered a migrant trying to cross.

Nayda Alvarez, 52, a high school teacher who lives along the river outside Rio Grande City, has been among the most vocal residents fighting border barrier construction since the Trump administration proposed it.Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times
A section of the border wall near La Grulla.Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

Standing at her kitchen counter, she spread out a pile of envelopes that she had received over the years from the federal government — all of them unopened — and other documents, including some in which condemnation of her land is discussed.

“What are we supposed to do?” she said, resigned to whatever might happen. “They’re going to do whatever the hell they like. They are the law.”

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