Over our dead bod­ies, say Tex­ans in path of the wall

The Sunday Telegraph - - World news - By Nick Allen in Roma, Texas

WHEN the let­ter dropped through Noel Be­na­vides’s door in the dusty bor­der town of Roma in Texas re­cently, it was some­thing of a shock.

The let­ter was from the “Wall Program Port­fo­lio Man­ager” at US Home­land Se­cu­rity. Mr Be­na­vides, it said, must grant “ir­rev­o­ca­ble right of en­try for the United States of Amer­ica” to sur­vey his prop­erty.

At­tached was a satel­lite pho­to­graph of a mile-long stretch of forested land he owns along the Rio Grande. If Don­ald Trump’s wall ever gets built, then it will have to go through that 150-acre plot. How­ever, it will do so over Mr Be­na­vides’ dead body.

Speak­ing in his cow­boy cloth­ing store in Roma, the 76-year-old US Army vet­eran told The Sun­day

Tele­graph: “I be­lieve in bor­der se­cu­rity, but not the wall. I’ll fight them all the way. I’m go­ing to court next month against the gov­ern­ment.”

While politi­cians in Washington fight over fund­ing for the wall, lit­tle at­ten­tion has been paid to the per­haps more pro­longed bat­tle that will ul­ti­mately face Mr Trump’s sig­na­ture build­ing project.

Much of the 2,000-mile US-Mex­ico bor­der is heav­ily pop­u­lated, right up to the banks of the Rio Grande. Un­der the le­gal process known as “em­i­nent do­main” the gov­ern­ment can req­ui­si­tion homes and land for a fair mar­ket price, but it will not be quick. Lawyers act­ing for res­i­dents in Texas, like Mr Be­na­vides, said le­gal chal­lenges could last a decade.

Fund­ing for an eight-mile sec­tion of wall pass­ing through Roma has already been ap­proved. It is not de­pen­dent on Mr Trump se­cur­ing the $5.7bil­lion (£4.4bn) cur­rently be­ing blocked by Democrats in Congress.

The run­down Span­ish colo­nial town of 11,400 peo­ple is on the front line of the im­mi­gra­tion cri­sis. Last year, bor­der pro­tec­tion of­fi­cers stopped 137,562 il­le­gal im­mi­grants in the Rio Grande Val­ley bor­der sec­tor, which in­cludes Roma – the most of any of the 20 sec­tors along the bor­der.

Il­le­gal im­mi­grants can be seen walk­ing through the town’s streets on a daily ba­sis. Bod­ies – the un­for­tu­nates who could not swim – oc­ca­sion­ally float by on the river.

This week more than 20 bod­ies, many of them set on fire, were found dumped in the Mex­i­can city of Ci­u­dad Miguel Alemán, just across the river, ca­su­al­ties of a gang war. Noth­ing sep­a­rates Roma from Ci­u­dad Miguel Alemán apart from 200ft of wa­ter.

One Roma res­i­dent, who de­clined to give his name, wel­comed the wall. “If they pay me money to leave I will, no prob­lem,” he said. Nod­ding across the river, he added: “Over there, they’re watch­ing us right now. Yes I’m scared. I’d leave if I could.”

How­ever, the over­whelm­ing sen­ti­ment in the town is against the wall. The rea­sons, out­lined by nu­mer­ous res­i­dents, are four­fold: peo­ple do not want to leave their homes, at any price; they fear the wall will cre­ate a flood risk in Roma’s nu­mer­ous creeks; they be­lieve a wall “won’t work”; and, per­haps most of all, they ob­ject to the “ob­scene” cost.

The $196mil­lion (£152 mil­lion) price tag for eight miles of wall is more than the town it­self is worth. The com­bined value of ev­ery prop­erty in Roma is $184 mil­lion (£143 mil­lion), half the build­ings on its main street are boarded up, and the av­er­age fam­ily in­come is just $21,000 (£16,300).

Many would like to see the wall money in­vested in other ways, and be­lieve more bor­der pa­trol of­fi­cers, drones and blimps would be more ef­fec­tive than a bar­rier. Efrén Oli­vares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), rep­re­sent­ing prop­erty own­ers, said that more than 100 peo­ple had re­ceived sur­vey let­ters.

He said: “These le­gal cases could go on for more than 10 years. The issue will be com­pen­sa­tion. How much will they pay?”

The TCRP is already rep­re­sent­ing the Catholic Church in a case which in­volves La Lomita, a ru­ral chapel a short drive east of Roma, which faces be­ing left on the wrong side of a planned 18ft con­crete slab wall, topped by 18ft steel bol­lards.

It is presided over by Father Roy Snipes, who wears a Stet­son with his white robes, and is known as the “cow­boy priest”. He told The Sun­day

Tele­graph: “We’ve de­clined to let them in to sur­vey, and we’re go­ing to court next month. You can’t just put walls ev­ery­where, there are peo­ple already liv­ing here. Stop and think about it.

“Look, there is no cri­sis. It’s just poor peo­ple com­ing across look­ing for jobs. They’ve been do­ing it for over 100 years.

“Don­ald Trump says hordes of van­dals and sav­ages are wait­ing to come across the river and mur­der us. But that’s not what I see. I find peo­ple hid­ing in the church, and they’re more scared of me than I am of them.

“No­body thinks we should have an open bor­der, but a wall is a ter­ri­ble sym­bol. As Mr Trump likes to say, we’re strong and smart in Amer­ica. We can think of a bet­ter idea.”

Noel Be­na­vides, a busi­ness­man and landowner, says he op­poses the pres­i­dent’s wall

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