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What Trump's Wall Means For Starr County, Texas


President Trump is expected to accelerate the building of a border wall after a court ruling said he can access billions of defense dollars to pay for it. Let's go now with NPR's John Burnett to the border community of Starr County, Texas, where the longest stretch of new wall is set for construction.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Mexico exerts a gravitational pull all along the U.S. southern divide, but it's especially strong in Starr County, Texas, a rugged expanse of riverbank and ranch land, upriver from the Gulf. This is where they filmed the 1952 production of "Viva Zapata!" the movie starring Marlon Brando as the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Out of the Earth that shook with a cry, conquistadores, comes Zapata, the Robin Hood of Mexico.

BURNETT: And this is where Roma High School, for years, has produced some of the greatest student mariachis in the country.


BURNETT: Now, under current plans, Starr County will be completely walled off from Mexico. Federal maps show the county's meandering river border will be blocked off by 52 miles of steel slat wall, two- to three-stories tall, plus floodlights, high-tech cameras and a patrol road.

Nayda Alvarez, a high school teacher, received a letter last year that the wall would run directly through her backyard. Her family land backs up to a bend in the river.

BURNETT: We hop on ATVs for a quick tour of their 6 acres.

NAYDA ALVAREZ: OK, all this area was my grandfather's. My uncle, who passed away about 18 years ago, used to live here. So we've been here for about five, six generations.

BURNETT: We careen down a rocky road to the river, ducking branches.


BURNETT: Here, the river is grand - wide, placid, alive with jumping fish and swooping birds. Dense foliage covers both sides, U.S. and Mexico. Alvarez stops at a shady spot on the riverbank.

ALVAREZ: This is where we come fishing, you know, we have our cookouts, you know, we get together. We spend Easter here.

BURNETT: The Border Patrol told her they would put in a gate with a code to give her access to the river. But Alvarez is not appeased.

ALVAREZ: I don't want the wall through at all. It's not going to solve any issues. It's not going to stop what's happening. And I'm going to lose my land.

BURNETT: The government is seizing private land through eminent domain to erect the wall. The starting offer for all landowners - a hundred dollars. Nayda Alvarez says she'll see Customs and Border Protection in court.

CBP is taking public comment until the end of the month on all 95 miles of walls slated for the Rio Grande Valley; 52 miles of that is in Starr County. But everyone here is convinced it's unstoppable. The agency has already signed contracts with construction companies. Some sections will cost up to $24 million a mile.

According to CBP, which declined repeated requests for an interview for this report, the Rio Grande Valley is the nation's hot spot for illegal immigration; 40% of all apprehensions happen down here. And Starr County, an easy raft ride from Mexico, has seen a spike in asylum-seekers.


BURNETT: On a warm evening, movers and shakers gather at an outdoor reception to munch sliders, quaff cold beer and talk about economic development. The border wall was a sore spot.

ELOY VERA: In my humble opinion, 52 miles are not needed. I think maybe 8, 10 miles is all we need. The rest can be done with technology, would save a lot of money.

BURNETT: Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, a Democrat, is the most powerful politician in the county. He's concerned that families who've lived on the river for generations are about to see their landscape profoundly altered.

VERA: So building a wall, it'd be like having a neighborhood and building a wall around your property so that your neighbor, who might be your brother, cannot come into your property. You know, it's just not humanly right.

BURNETT: Trump has asserted that walls make border communities more secure, which is good for business. But that's not what you hear in Starr County. Rose Benavidez, president of the local Industrial Foundation, says the wall is scaring away employers from coming here.

ROSE BENAVIDEZ: The issue that has been raised to us is this whole conversation and this national rhetoric about us being a border war zone that requires a wall because there's a national emergency for security. And when you live in this area, you know that that could be nothing further from the truth.

BURNETT: At the same time, more migrants are crossing illegally in the western portion of the county. And people are concerned, says Dina Garcia-Pena. She runs the local newspaper El Tejano.

DINA GARCIA-PENA: We had one large group on a Saturday morning that was 400 people. That's when our locals said, well, wait a minute; who are these 400-something people that are coming in?

BURNETT: Do you think some of this is translating into support for the border wall?

GARCIA-PENA: Not completely. I believe that people are scared, but I don't necessarily believe that they think that the wall is the best way to go about it. It's still highly unpopular.

BURNETT: The border wall has long been unpopular on the border. All nine members of Congress who represent border districts have voted against funding for the wall. In Starr County, supporters of the wall are here, but you have to look for them.

ROSS BARRERA: I personally want a - some type of barrier.

BURNETT: Ross Barrera is the Starr County Republican chairman. He lives in Rio Grande City, about a mile from the river. His backyard, which he's done up like a Hawaiian fantasyland, backs up to a trail that comes up from the river, which he says is frequented by illegal border crossers.

BENAVIDEZ: And I've seen the little fingers coming up my fence. And I said, what are you guys doing here? And they talk to me, oh, we're looking for Mr. So-and-so. They're going to pick us up and transfer us up north. I said, guys, this is wrong. You're not supposed to be here. Get out.

BURNETT: After Rio Grande City, the second-largest city in the county is Roma. The 200-year-old historic district is perched on a bluff right over the river, which is popular with bird-watchers. During Prohibition, Roma was popular among bootleggers.

JC SALINAS: Tequila, mezcal, mataburro (ph) - those were the drinks that came from Mexico this way.

BURNETT: JC Salinas is the unofficial county historian. Now that the contraband through Roma is drugs and humans, is a 30-foot-tall wall the way to stop it? I asked Mr. Salinas what would he tell President Trump if he had an audience?

SALINAS: Look, man; use your imagination. You're supposed to be a creative businessman. Can't you see a way to bypass this, because Roma really has a beautiful connection to the river?

BURNETT: Trump, of course, says his wall is beautiful.

John Burnett, NPR News, Roma, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.