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