MADERO, Texas – The most recent government letter arrived in an envelope marked “Urgent: Action Required”, so Fred Cavazos asked his family to meet at their usual gathering spot on the Rio Grande. He and three of his relatives crowded around an outdoor table as Fred, 69, opened the envelope and unfolded a large map in front of them. It showed a satellite image of the family’s land, 77 rural acres on the US border where Fred had lived and worked all his life, but he had never seen the property rendered like this.
“Border Infrastructure Project,” the map read, and across its center was a red line that cut through the Cavazos family barn, through their rental house, and through a field where they grazed a small herd of longhorn cattle.
“This is where they want to put the wall,” Fred said, tracing his finger along the line. “They want to divide the property in half and cut us off from the river.”
They stared at the map for a few seconds, trying to make sense of it. It seemed to Fred that the government was interested only in a thin strip of land running across the width of his property, just wide enough to build a wall, leaving the Cavazos family with land on both sides. But even if they lost only a few acres of land to the 30-foot wall, the barrier would sever the property in half and make it difficult for anyone to access the riverfront. The map didn’t show a gate or a door, and Fred wondered how they would travel from one side of the property to the other.
“We’d lose the renters,” his sister said. “We’d lose the cattle without access to the river.”
“All of it,” Fred said. “Who wants to live on the other side of that wall? If this goes through, our property’s useless.”
In the three years since Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign with a promise to build a “great, great wall,” Fred had tried to dismiss the idea as an easy applause line, a fantasy both too expensive and too complex to become reality. Texas alone has more than 1,200 miles of border, much of it similar in nature to the Cavazos’ land: rugged, remote, unfenced and privately owned. But, in March, Congress approved USD641 million toward building 33 miles of Trump’s wall in the Rio Grande Valley, and now every few weeks, Fred was turning away another government official who had come to ask for the right to access his land. They wanted him to sign a “Right of Entry” form so they could take soil samples, survey the flood plain and plot the final path for a hulking concrete-and-steel barrier.
Fred and his family had consulted with a pro-bono lawyer, who helped explain their options. They could sign the forms, grant access to their land and expect to eventually sell some of their property to the government at market price for construction of a wall. Or they could refuse to sign, risking a lawsuit and the possible seizure of their land by eminent domain.
“What kind of choice are they giving us?” Fred said now, staring at the map. “We let them have them access, or they take it. Either way, we lose.”
“We can’t give an inch,” said his cousin, Rey Anzaldua, 73. “It’s the principle. I don’t care if they offer us a million dollars. We’d be selling off our history.”
Fred’s ancestors came from Spain to the Rio Grande Valley in the 1760s on a Spanish land grant of more than 500,000 acres, giving them ownership of almost a third of the Valley. Over the generations, some of that land was lost to taxes and land grabs as governance of the Valley changed from Spain to Mexico to the independent Republic of Texas, which became part of the United States in 1840s. The Cavazoses had continued to lose land, much of it transferred to settlers through sales, tax penalties, fraud and thievery. The family had hired lawyers to investigate and had filed legal claims, but by the time Fred was born, what his parents had left was 77 acres, a rectangular plot tucked against the river. They built a small house, a farm store, and then cut down patches of unruly mesquite to farm cattle and cotton.
For much of his lifetime, Fred had watched border politics continue to transform the property as illegal immigration increased in the Rio Grande Valley. His pasture was now a busy route for human trafficking, with as many as 30 migrants passing through on some days.
The quiet riverfront where he learned to fish had become a cacophony of Border Patrol speedboats and helicopters. But through it all, Fred had continued to work the land – even after an illness restricted him to using a wheelchair – waking up early to feed the cattle and renting out a few dozen recreational fishing camps on the river for USD100 a month.
“This wall leaves you with nothing,” Rey said. “Who’s going to rent your land if it’s on the other side of the wall? They’re asking you to sign away your livelihood.”
“This is Trump’s baby,” Fred said.
“Then we delay them and fight it in court,” Rey said. “We have to stand strong.”
“I know,” Fred said. “But how long can we hold them off?”
Already, they had been resisting the government’s requests for five months, and it had begun to seem to Fred that his job was no longer to work the land but to preserve it. He had met with other nearby landowners to discuss their options and studied the intricacies of eminent domain. His sister, a retired teacher, had written letters to Texas politicians. Rey had travelled to Washington and walked the halls of Congress in his cowboy boots, asking lawmakers to defund the wall. But still the letters from Washington continued to arrive, each more insistent than the last.
“We hope that you and other landowners in the Rio Grande Valley will assist us in our strategic efforts to secure the Nation’s borders,” read the first notice, which Fred forwarded to his lawyer.
“Return two signed copies within seven days,” read the second notice.
“This is critical,” read another notice, midway through the summer, at which point Fred decided to attend a meeting hosted by local Border Patrol officials to learn more about the wall. He remembered an agent explaining that much of the 33 miles of wall being built in this initial stage would run through Hidalgo County, where Fred and about 200 other landowners had received government letters asking for the right to enter their property and nearly 85 per cent had signed. That meant Fred was one of about 30 people left standing between the president and his primary campaign promise. “The wall is moving ahead,” Fred remembered one agent telling him. “It’s just a matter of how hard you want to make it.”
There were other pressure as well, such as the kind Fred felt as he and Rey drove through the property one morning to feed the cows and were met again by the reality that, even if a wall wasn’t the solution, there was in fact a problem to solve. They drove by a cattle fence damaged by migrants and saw a discarded inner tube hidden in the mesquite. They passed two Border Patrol SUVs parked on the side of the road and continued to the barn, where Fred saw footprints scattered across the dirt. Some were of shoes aimed toward the brush. Others looked like paws.
“Probably canine unit,” Fred said.
They went into the barn, and Fred attached a rolling cart to his wheelchair and loaded it with hay for the cows, feeding them one at a time. The small herd didn’t make him much money, but he liked the familiarity of the work. He’d grown up raising livestock, harvesting corn, and fishing the Rio Grande with a bamboo pole. As children in the 1960s, he and Rey had escaped the heat by swimming 150 yards across the river to Mexico.
But in the past two decades, drug cartels had taken over the human-smuggling business, and the number of Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley had risen from about 500 to more than 3,100. Now there were often several units patrolling Fred’s acres, a crossing spot favoured by traffickers. The property sat directly across from the Mexican city of Reynosa and was obscured by dense mesquite and thorny brush. It was a good place to hide, and in the past several years, Fred had found dozens of inner tubes stashed in the brush, trails of discarded water jugs, bales of marijuana floating on the river, and, once, 25 illegal immigrants hiding in one of the small fishing camps he rented out on the water.
Border Patrol agents had come asking for his help again and again, and he always gave it to them. They wanted access to his private dirt road, so he gave them the combination to the lock on his gate. They wanted to drag tyres across the road twice each day, smoothing it so footprints were easily visible. They wanted to bring in a tower to monitor the waterfront, so they erected one that was three stories high.
Now a Border Patrol truck approached the barn, and an agent rolled down his window.
“Morning,” he said. “You guys wander into anyone out here in a green shirt?”
“No, sir,” Fred said.
“We caught a raft this morning, and we got all of them but the guide,” the agent continued. “He’s out here somewhere, so please keep an eye out.”
The agent waved and drove off, and Fred went back to feeding cows as Rey handed him more bales of hay.
“I guess we’re not alone,” Rey said.
“Are we ever?” Fred said. “Sometimes it feels like this place stopped being ours a long time ago.”
“Yeah, but you still own it,” Rey said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t need you to sign the papers.”
Fred had asked for his cousin’s advice because, a decade earlier, Rey had been forced to make the same decisions about his own piece of family land pressed up against the US border. Rey grew up a few miles farther down the Rio Grande from Fred, in Granjeno, Texas, where in 2006 the government arrived with plans to build a border wall under George W Bush. Rey had also been sent a series of government letters and property maps, the first of which showed a prospective wall running through the centre of his family home and several other houses on the same block.
“I never thought I’d be reliving that nightmare,” Rey said, but now he was driving to and from Fred’s property every day to share his experiences from fighting against a wall and help Fred think through the same options. – Text & Photos by The Washington Post