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Governor’s Border Wall Plan Raises Eyebrows in Rural Corner of Texas

Some Far West Texans share concerns about migrant crossings, but many disagree with the governor’s rhetoric and talk of a wall.

VALENTINE, Texas (CN) — Summer Webb, mayor of this remote West Texas town of around 70, is used to migrants wandering across her ranch as they head north in search of a better life. In the past, she said, they might stop by and ask for work — but this year has felt different.

As more migrants cross the southern border, Webb and other residents in the Big Bend region are concerned with what they say are public safety and quality of life issues. That’s in part because of changes in who’s crossing: Fewer children and more adults are passing through, according to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Fences have been cut and cattle water-lines slashed. Migrants have started fires near Valentine, apparently in hopes of sending smoke signals to Border Patrol. Webb has grown wary of her leaving her kids, aged 10 and 13, home alone while she runs errands.

Webb has sympathy for the migrants. “I think they’re desperate people in search of something better,” she said. Still, the noticeable increase of trespassers on her ranch has been “unnerving.”

Webb stressed that most migrants intended no harm — but “it’s a numbers game,” she said. The more people crossed through her land, the more she found herself worrying.

Bill Kitts, the local sheriff, has also noted the increased numbers of migrants in Jeff Davis County, where Valentine sits.

“Even for our area, it’s unprecedented,” he said. “People have lived here their whole lives, and they’ve never seen this before.”

So far this year, he estimates local deputies have had around 10 high-speed chases with migrants and smugglers. Recently, a group of migrants bailed out in the county seat of Fort Davis. Some tried to hide in houses.

“From a public-safety standpoint,” Kitts said, “people are pretty worried and upset.”

In response to this complex situation, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has offered a range of increasingly partisan solutions. He has ordered migrant children’s shelters closed. He has issued a disaster declaration, citing what he calls “the Biden administration’s open-border policies.” He has promised to jail migrants for various state-level crimes, an act that will surely result in family separations.

Now, in another nod to the politics of former President Donald Trump, Abbott wants to build a wall. In a news conference about the plan on Wednesday, Abbott echoed Trump’s talk of “American carnage” as he evoked what he called “carnage” on the border.

“Homes are being invaded. Neighborhoods are dangerous,” the governor said. “People are threatened on a daily basis with guns.”

At the news conference, Abbott said he was setting aside $250 million for wall construction and was hiring a projects manager. The presentation was otherwise vague on specifics like costs or location.

When a reporter asked Abbott about the humanitarian crisis faced by migrants, he said he was focused on Texans whose lives were “riddled with crime.” On Thursday, The Texas Tribune reported that state officials had emptied a 1,000-person prison near San Antonio as law-enforcement prepares to lock up migrants.

Abbott’s rhetoric and hardline policies have caught the attention of Trump, who has said he will tour what he calls “an unmitigated disaster zone” on the border with Abbott later this month. Meanwhile, Democrats in the state have condemned Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick for referring to migrant crossings as an “invasion.”

In 2019 — just a day before a shooting in El Paso that left 23 people, including mostly Latinos, dead — Abbott sent out a fundraising letter urging supporters to “defend” Texas. The suspected shooter left a manifesto saying he wanted to stop a "Hispanic invasion." Abbott later said that "mistakes were made" with his rhetoric.

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“If people die again, blood will be on your hands,” Veronica Escobar, a Democratic congresswoman representing El Paso, said on Twitter this week in response to Abbott's plan.

Reaction in the Big Bend — like the situation on the border itself — has been more nuanced and complicated. Many officials in the region agree with Abbott that more resources are needed.

But few in the region want a wall, and many express more empathy for migrants than state leaders do. A public letter this year decrying the situation also called for the “start of a work program” for migrants.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent is posted at the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Abram-Perezville, Texas, as agents take migrants into custody in March 2021. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Ronny Dodson, sheriff of neighboring Brewster County, is a big proponent of allowing local communities to hire migrants.

“Restaurants are closing because they don’t have help,” he said. He noted that his son, a veterinarian, could use a couple extra hands at his clinic.

Migrants have caused property damage in Brewster County, but “we’ve had nobody really threatened with a gun,” Dodson said. And as for a border wall, “everybody knows that’s not feasible here.”

Greg Davis, the local Border Patrol spokesperson, is also worried about the numbers of migrants passing through the Big Bend. Just last week, Border Patrol found 33 migrants who were close to dying in the heat of U-Haul truck. Twelve of them were taken to local hospitals.

Like Dodson, Davis didn’t think a wall in the Big Bend was the answer.

“The governor can make proposals all day long, but in our sector we have natural borders,” he said. “Vast open rangelands, giant mountains, giant cliffs: These are the things that impede people.”

Other local officials were also dismissive of the wall proposal. John Ferguson, mayor of the border town of Presidio, thought Abbott was using the situation to deflect from concerns about the state power grid.

“It’s very interesting how we’re back with the ERCOT situation again, but here comes [Abbott] saying the borders are out of control,” Ferguson said, referring to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. “For the base, that’s red meat,” but “we don’t have rooms in our jails to be throwing all these extra people.”

Margarito Hernandez, police chief in Presidio, says he’s noticed more migrants passing through the town. Still, “most of them are pretty peaceful,” he said.

Asked about Abbott’s talk of regular home invasions and gun threats, Hernandez said: “I don’t see it.”

“Most of the time,” he added of the migrants, “they’re victims of the violence in Mexico.”

Other officials and residents expressed concern about what a wall would mean for tourism in the Big Bend. Sara Allen Colando, a Brewster County commissioner, said in an email that her “main concern is for the safety of the migrants, especially as we enter summer and the heat becomes so dangerous.”

The Big Bend relies on tourism, Colando noted — and “to put it bluntly, building a border wall or fence in Brewster County could potentially destroy the county’s economy.”

“Everyone who has seen Santa Elena Canyon [knows] that a border wall or fence makes no sense here,” she added. “Getting around a fence or wall would be the easy part, compared to crossing the desert.”

One regional official involved with tourism, who requested anonymity so as to not dissuade Abbott supporters from visiting the region, described the governor’s border wall talk as “empty posturing.” A wall here, he said, would “damage the landscape, damage wildlife [and] damage the tourist industry.”

He acknowledged that migrants had caused concerns in the region but stressed those mostly amounted to “nuisance crimes.”

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"When people elsewhere speak in alarmist tones, that can affect the economy of our area,” he said. “When people paint up the idea of the border as violent, which is not what we’re seeing here, it does damage us.”

From the patio of La Posada Milagro hotel in the tourist town Terlingua, visitors can look out over the rugged expanse of Big Bend National Park as they eat breakfast. On a clear day, they might see even farther, to the peaks of the Sierra del Carmen mountains in Mexico.

Owner Mimi Webb Miller, who’s lived in the region for decades and has ties on both sides of the border, was equally dismissive of the wall idea.

“It would not work at all. The whole point is the visual that we’ve got out here,” she said. And besides, “people are not crossing the Rio Grande like they talk about.”

It remains to be seen if Abbott will actually try to build a wall in the Big Bend. In 2016, he expressed opposition, saying: “We don’t want to see a wall in the beautiful Big Bend National Park.”

But Abbott has been cagier about the issue this time, instead deferring to those who would ostensibly handle the wall project. Asked if Abbott still opposed a wall in the Big Bend, a spokesperson said that decision would fall on “the project manager and contractors.”

In federal lands like Big Bend National Park at least, a new border wall seems unlikely. Asked about the proposal, Tom VandenBerg, a park spokesperson, said that the park was “not a location where this would occur.”

But there are other lands in the region — including private lands in the nearby tourist town of Lajitas and state lands in Big Bend Ranch State Park — where it’s less clear what the governor will do. Asked if Big Bend Ranch State Park could see any new walls or fencing, a spokesperson for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department declined to comment, noting that the agency had not yet seen specifics on Abbott’s proposal.

If new walling goes up in the region, wildlife experts say it could be devastating to local species. Myles Traphagen, borderlands program coordinator with the Wildlands Network, noted that “connectivity” between Big Bend National Park and nearby protected lands in Mexico had led to a resurgence of species like the black bear. Building a wall in this sensitive ecosystem, he said, could be “catastrophic.”

Even when it came to less charismatic species — like deer, javelina and raccoons — a wall would still be bad news, Traphagen said.

“It would cut them off from their food and water sources,” he said. “In this time of drought, when a lot of animals need more space, a border wall reduces their options dramatically.”

Bob Krumenaker, superintendent of Big Bend National Park, agrees. As a federal employee, he stressed he wouldn’t want to share opinions on the politics of Abbott’s wall proposal.

Still, when it comes to the “pristine ecosystem where animals can travel freely across the river, a wall would have a significant impact,” Krumenaker agreed. And from his conversations with local Border Patrol officials, he said most thought “there are better ways of dealing with" migrant crossings.

Webb, the Valentine mayor, is worried about local residents dying amidst the increase in migrants. But her main concern isn’t gun-toting smugglers — it’s cows.

“There are lots of gates being left open,” she said. “If cattle get out on the highway, that could kill someone.”

Webb finds herself frustrated with the lack of nuance in border politics. Some people took the “hard line” that migrants are “the worst people on the planet,” while others argued that “we’re all fine.” The reality, she said, is somewhere in between.

While Abbott has spoken of guns and gangs, Webb’s concerns are smaller scale. She wants less trash and trespassing. She wants to feel okay about letting her children roam around her property.

A couple weeks ago, her children were home alone when a group of migrants started peering through windows. “I won’t be leaving my children home alone again,” she said, “and that’s a very, very sad situation.”

Follow Stephen Paulsen on Twitter

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