Big Bend residents fought a wall once. Will they again?
On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-February, long-time Redford residents Enrique and Ruby Madrid welcomed about 25 Colorado high school students into their small living room. While Ruby prepared the kitchen for a lesson in making perfectly round tortillas, Enrique, a scholar of local history and culture, delivered a lecture on the border and Native American culture. From a three-ring binder, he showed the students a Scientific American article about the migration of human beings thousands of years ago from Northeastern Eurasia into North America and south into what is now Texas and Mexico.
“So you can see we’re not illegal aliens,” Madrid told the students. “We’ve been here for 12,000 years.”
On January 25, U.S. President Trump signed an executive order calling for the construction of “a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier” along the U.S.-Mexico border. His supporters hailed this as a sign Trump, whose term was then only five-days old, intended to follow through with one of his most prominent campaign promises. To Trump’s critics, the president was doubling-down on a controversial, intrusive and expensive plan. For some longtime Big Bend residents, the executive order brought back memories of past fights against border walls and the common misconceptions about migration and smuggling on the border.
“Well, it’s starting all over again,” said Madrid, who traces his family lineage in the United States back to the time of the Mexican revolution. He’s lived near the border all of his life. Redford, like much of South Texas, have long been hot spots of efforts to control the movement of people across the U.S.-Mexico border. In the late 1990s, this effort took the form of the federal government stationing Marines in Presidio County. Marines were pulled from the border after one of them killed Esequiel Hernandez Jr., a Redford teenager and Presidio High School student, but following Sept. 11, 2001, the number of Border Patrol agents in the area was significantly increased.
Madrid sees proposed border walls as part of this continuum of attempts to impose a barrier on the international boundary through measures that are inherently violent. “Maybe for you it’s new,” he said of Trump’s wall executive order. “But for us it’s been a long century of militarization and colonization.”
Indeed, Trump’s executive order was only the most recent plan for a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. In fact, a piece of Bush-era legislation, including a plan for a six-mile border wall in Presidio was adopted by Congress in 2006 and was fought by Big Bend-area residents and elected officials. The Secure Fences Act of 2006 authorized and partially funded 700 miles of barrier along the 1,989-mile U.S.-Mexico border. The act indicated mostly residential areas where the Department of Homeland Security would construct double-layer fencing separated by a road, allowing Border Patrol to patrol the fence. Among the places targeted for the border wall were a stretch of Hudspeth County and Presidio.
Under the authorization of the Secure Fences Act the Department of Homeland Security issued an environmental assessment in January 2008 outlining plans for 6.2 miles of wall along the Rio Grande through Presidio, 3.1 miles on either side of the Port of Entry. The assessment included two alternatives, but the main plan called for a 15-foot-high concrete wall built into the Mexico-facing side of the river levee. It is unclear how supporters of then-President George W. Bush or border security hawks received the plan. But much reporting from the time, including in this newspaper, show a group of concerned Big Bend residents at the time mobilized to oppose any border walls in the area.
In late January 2008, the Department of Homeland Security hosted an informational meeting on its plans for the border wall at Marfa’s Hotel Paisano. About 150 people gathered outside the hotel to protest the government’s plans, the Alpine Avalanche reported at the time. Terlingua resident Adrienne Evans was among the residents who attended. Inside the hotel conference room, representatives from DHS presented the environmental assessment and discussed the wall.
“They called it a town hall, but It wasn’t really a town hall, there was no question and answer period,” Evans said. “They called it a public comment period when you went upstairs past an armed guard and spoke to a court reporter.”
But outside, the protesters took it upon themselves to provide a platform for citizens concerned about the border wall’s necessity and effectiveness. A handful of speakers, including then Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton, Sierra Blanca farmer Bill Addington and area resident Molly Walker gave testimonies against the wall, citing environmental concerns, appeals to human rights and the generally good relationship many West Texans have with their Mexican neighbors.
“We never had a voice in this,” Alpine resident Eve Trook said in her speech. “I hope we develop a strong one.” Evans and Trook co-founded a group called the No Wall – Big Bend Coalition. They maintained a blog (nowallbigbend.blogspot.com) that shared developments in the walls planning and events going on in the area. More than planning direct actions or protests, Evans said, the main goal of the blog was to raise awareness among the geographically disparate residents of the Big Bend. The coalition coordinated with other groups and individuals across South Texas and the Southwest Workers Union in San Antonio.
“We just wanted to figure out actual facts,” Evans said. “It all was happening so rapidly. We were doing fact finding missions and sharing information. Standing up to the federal government is difficult out here because we struggle just to get to the grocery store… Just to be informed was our main focus.”
The No Wall Big Bend blog became, in part, a platform for sharing information about ongoing protest and awareness-raising projects. Among the projects locals organized was student art project led by Presidio Elementary School teacher Julia West to teach students about the environmental impact the wall could have. West had her fifth-grade students make posters about endangered and threatened species that live in the Rio Grande. Her students, West said, took a real interest in the issue that was unfolding in their backyard.
“They were 100 percent engaged,” West said. “It was so close to here, it was multi-sensory, and it was about animals and plants, which the kids loved.”
When asked about new plans for a border wall, West said she is still concerned about it and thinks better solutions must be available. “This is not about the wall, it’s about corporate greed. The only people who will benefit from the wall are the ones invested in the infrastructure, building the roads, the mortar, the bricks.”
In addition to the student art project, West said, she and husband Roberto Lujan tried to organize adults in Presidio in 2008 to resist the wall. Although they were met with some apathy in the community, West said, there was at least one meeting at the Catholic Church hall about getting information out about the Department of Homeland Security’s plan for a wall in Presidio. About 10 people attended.
The Presidio City Council, for their part, took some action. Almost nine years ago this week the city council approved a resolution making public the city’s opposition to the border wall. On Feb. 19, 2008, then-Mayor Lorenzo Hernandez signed a council resolution “opposing a border wall as proposed by the Department of Homeland Security and specifically opposing the six miles of wall that is to be built in the Big Bend region.” In May of that year the council approved joining the Texas Border Coalition (TBC), a coalition of a coalition of Texas border cities, counties, chambers of commerce, and economic development corporations that at the time was preparing a suit against the Department of Homeland Security. The TBC suit alleged that the U.S. government had violated the Constitution when Congress gave then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff authority to waive more than 30 federal and state laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Solid Waste Disposal Act, to construct a border wall. A federal judge ultimately dismissed the case, but not before El Paso County, Bexar County and other entities joined the class action suit.
Ultimately 649 miles of border wall were built under the authorization of the Secure Fences Act. Of course, the 6.2 miles of wall planned for Presidio were never built. Accounts vary about why the plan never came to fruition. In 2007, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson submitted an amendment for 2008 Department of Homeland Security budget that effectively gave the department’s secretary more discretion on what type of wall, if any, was necessary on specific parts of the border.
As the Trump administration pursues a new wall, how well Far West Texans take it remains to be seen. To be sure, Trump’s current wall plan has support. Recall videos of crowded stadiums of people enthusiastically chanting “Build the wall!” in Ohio. Although he lost the popular vote, Trump was elected on a platform of which the wall was a significant part. In Presidio County, Trump took home nearly 30 percent of the vote in the November presidential election. In Brewster County, Trump beat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by more than 4 percent of the vote.
But among local elected officials, the wall seems to have found little public purchase.
Current Presidio Mayor John Ferguson has been an outspoken critic of the president on social media since even before the election. The day after Trump signed the border wall executive order, Ferguson issued a statement calling the plan ineffective.
“President Trump’s executive order to construct a wall along our nation’s southern border is a short-sighted political move that will not stop illegal immigration, nor will it do the hard work of alleviating the causes of why people choose to make a dangerous trek to be in our country in the first place,” Ferguson said.
In Trump’s own political party, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, who represents much of West Texas, shared similar sentiment about the wall. “Big Bend National Park and many areas in my district are perfect examples of where a wall is unnecessary and would negatively impact the environment, private property rights and economy,” Hurd said in a statement. “There is no question that we must secure our border, but we need an intelligence-led approach in order to effectively combat the 19 criminal organizations currently operating in Mexico.”
In neighboring Brewster County, the county Commissioner’s Court unanimously passed a resolution opposing the executive order during its regular meeting on Feb. 14 of this year. “The Brewster County Commissioners Court expresses its opposition to a wall built at the border in the County because it is not necessary, nor will it make us safer…” the resolution reads.
Evans recalled attending a prayer vigil in 2008 in El Paso where border fencing was constructed in the 1990s. A group of anti-wall activists had marched 40 miles along the border from Ft. Hancock over the course of several days. Following the prayer, the activists received permission from the Border Patrol agents standing by to pass their remaining supplies and camping gear to Mexican children who had gathered on the other side of the wall. On the American side, the activists backed a truck up to the wall and stood on the tailgate to reach the top of the wall. In Mexico, Evans said, the children quickly formed a human pyramid to receive the goods being passed over the wall.
“I looked at that and thought, ‘tens of billions are going to be spent on wall. It’s ridiculous. Children can scale the wall in a minute, less time than it takes to cross the river.’”
In Redford, Enrique Madrid believes the wall would do little to address the root causes of undocumented immigration or drug smuggling. It might, he said, do more harm than good. “If you want to hurt people you take away their food, take away their jobs, if you close access to the jobs you’re taking away their food and job. It’s an ugly thing to do. It’s an evil thing. Drugs aren’t going to be stopped by walls. If Americans demand them, they’ll get them through.”
Madrid offered a solution to the problem of undocumented immigration from a bookmarked passage in his brown leather-bound Bible. He read from chapter 19 in Leviticus, “When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt.”