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The Border Wall: A Special Report - KRISTV.com | Continuous News Coverage | Corpus Christi

The Border Wall: A Special Report

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About 640 miles of walls and fencing run along the Southwest border's nearly 2,000 miles. The Rio Grande Valley is one of the country's busiest crossing points for undocumented immigrants and drug smuggling. About 640 miles of walls and fencing run along the Southwest border's nearly 2,000 miles. The Rio Grande Valley is one of the country's busiest crossing points for undocumented immigrants and drug smuggling.
For people living in the Valley, it is common to see undocumented immigrants crossing into Texas. This video shows migrants swimming across the Rio Grande River. For people living in the Valley, it is common to see undocumented immigrants crossing into Texas. This video shows migrants swimming across the Rio Grande River.
The border wall in Progreso has openings to allow landowners to access private property, and ends a few miles out from the checkpoint. The border wall in Progreso has openings to allow landowners to access private property, and ends a few miles out from the checkpoint.
Some fear a larger wall will lead to more deaths as migrants take more dangerous routes. In 2016 at least 130 migrants died entering the United States. Some fear a larger wall will lead to more deaths as migrants take more dangerous routes. In 2016 at least 130 migrants died entering the United States.
A McAllen immigration center supports solutions besides a wall that will keep people from fleeing their countries, but there is no easy answer. A McAllen immigration center supports solutions besides a wall that will keep people from fleeing their countries, but there is no easy answer.
MCALLEN -

President Donald Trump's first month of presidency is already marked by his actions to reshape U.S. immigration policies. That includes building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a promise that dominated last year's presidential campaign, and some argue, is the reason he is now in the White House. 

Yet for South Texans who live in the shadow of the border, the debate goes beyond politics.

People there say the ramifications of building a wall will touch the economy, immigration, and the everyday lives of people on both sides of the Rio Grande. 

The Southwest border spans 1,989 miles, stretching from Brownsville to San Diego, California. It is the most crossed border in the world. Those who live near the border are accustomed to that reality. 

"The buildings over there, that's Mexico. We're not far," said Robert Cameron, navigating a four-wheeler across an expansive field and kicking up mud as he points to a cluster of brightly painted structures just over the horizon. 

Cameron runs Texas Border Tours, and frequently takes visitors to a boat landing on the Rio Grand River. Although that bend in the river is less than three miles from the Progreso International Bridge, it is serene, a quiet contrast to the hustle and bustle of tourists and locals going back and forth at the bridge's crossing point. 

At that bend in river, there is a sense of being alone. But Cameron knows firsthand, the spot is far from secret. Just a few months ago, he witnessed dozens of people swimming across the Rio Grande into Texas. He captured the moment with cell phone video. 

"Twenty to thirty people just swimming across," he recalled. "They appeared to have packages or bundles with them. Right behind me! There were people crossing in the middle of the day."

The Rio Grande Valley is one of the country's busiest crossing points for undocumented immigrants and drug smuggling. In 2016, Border Patrol agents captured more than 186,000 migrants and seized 326,0000 pounds of marijuana.

For Cameron, drug trafficking is the biggest concern. 

"If it wasn't such a big demand up North, for the product that's being produced in Mexico, then you know there wouldn't be this exchange. But it's money," he said. 

Narcotics trafficking is a $13 billion dollar a year industry, even with a wall already built along 640 miles of the border. Construction of that wall was part of a 2006 Bush administration project, that ceased in 2010 due to a lack of funds. 

However, near the Progreso International Bridge, the wall is not impenetrable. Several gaps give landowners access to private property that lies between the barrier and the Rio Grande. 

"You see openings on that wall," Cameron said. "Then if you drive a few miles over to the west, there's no wall. There's two to three miles of absolutely just openness. Just anybody can come in.

Cameron believes that would change with President Trump's wall. 

"We do need something that's larger," he said. "Even if the wall is 50-feet tall, double the size of what it currently is, I feel that it's not going to completely solve the problem, but I think it will have a great impact."

But with gaps scattered across just six miles of the barrier in Progreso, some wonder how any wall will cover the vast terrains of the west and truly secure the border. 

"Well I guess it's going to be feasible. But it's going to be very expensive," said Dr. Bill Thompson, a Rio Grande Valley resident and founder of Shop-Progreso.com.

President Trump's wall would be 1,300 miles, 40 feet in height, and made of 19 million tons of concrete. It will cost a minimum of $15 billion.

Nonetheless, Dr. Thompson believes that investment could come back into the economy. 

"The greatest benefit would just be to reduce the number of illegals that are coming over here to work," he said. "American jobs would be kept."

Hector Guzman Lopez, who advocates for low-wage workers, takes a different stance. 

"It's a bad investment for the community," he said.

His grassroots organization, Fuerza Del Valle, has been pushing the federal government to instead invest in Rio Grande Valley communities. Some of them are among the poorest in the nation. 

"Infrastructure, roads, public lighting, adequate drainage. We think that's a better investment," Guzman Lopez said. 

He also fears a larger wall will lead to more migrant deaths.

"A lot of people get lost, a lot of people get left behind, get sick on the way, get bit by a snake," Guzman Lopez said. "It forces people to go through more dangerous routes."

In 2016, at least 130 migrants died in the Rio Grande Valley trying to make the dangerous crossing into the United States.

Others who risk their lives to get into the U.S. -- and make it -- end up at the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen. Like one father, who paid $12,000 to a trafficker to flee El Salvador, and save the future of his two young sons. 

"Gang members wanted to take them," Jose Rogelio Ayala Albarenga explained in Spanish. 

He also left his war-torn country because he was threatened with assassination for his involvement in politics. 

"They're people of war," he said. "I know that if they say 'we're going to kill you,' it's because it's true."

Now seeking asylum, he is just one of thousands fleeing a desperate situation to pass through the Respite Center. The center took in about 300 people a day during the months of September through December last year, compared to 30 a day now. 

The director believes that surge was caused by Trump's campaign pledges to crack down on immigration.

"Maybe traffickers are telling them, 'I will encourage you to do it now.' And so it's possible that because of the elections, that number went higher," Sister Norma Pimentel said. 

She does not think a wall is the answer to ending illegal immigration. 

"I think we have to find solutions so they don't have to flee," she said. 

But those solutions do not come easily. It is something everyone we spoke to agrees on. 

They say there is no door to close on drug smuggling... 

"As long as there's a demand for it, the problem will always exist," Cameron said. 

No crackdown that can stop people from climbing walls...

"Every day you can go to the border wall and see different ladders, new ladders," Guzman Lopez said. 

And no basic method to keep immigrants from breaking barriers. 

"In our countries life is very difficult," Ayala Albarenga said. "The American dream is all over the world. And the people, however tall you build the wall, if they don't pass over it they'll pass under it. People are always going to enter this country."

Customs and Border Protection are working on the mandates laid out by President Trump's executive order. That includes hiring 5,000 more agents and assessing wall infrastructure that is currently in place. 

One of the biggest obstacles the border wall faces is funding. It is not clear if Congress will go along with the estimated $15 billion cost.

A key figure in the funding fight will be U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan. He is visiting the Rio Grande Valley area today to get a firsthand look at some of the challenges of building the border wall and to learn more about the issues that border communities face. 

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