When Norie Garza bought seven acres of riverfront land in south Texas, all she wanted was a quiet place for leisure time with family.
It was the trees, some of them hundreds of years old, that grabbed the attention of her late husband when they made the purchase eight years ago.
A small boat launch that would let them float down the Rio Grande on weekend afternoons was the selling point for Norie. A historic home on the property, built a century ago by early residents of the town of Mission, gave her a maybe-someday restoration project to tinker with.
Then last year, federal officials showed up. Garza was told that the border wall would soon be pushing through just north of the old homestead, cutting off about five of the property’s seven acres from the rest of the United States. Other than that, there have been few details about the project.
“They talked about having gates, but they couldn’t guarantee, they said that basically they don’t know,” Garza told ThinkProgress.
Dozens of property owners are grappling with similar news in the Rio Grande Valley, where construction of a physical barrier on the border was authorized and funded by Congress last year on land the government doesn’t yet own.
Even as President Donald Trump drags the government shutdown into a fourth week to get a wall built along the southern US border, some 30-odd miles of terrain north of the Rio Grande already has been swarming with appraisers and contractors.
Bulldozers are ready to roll, not just through family getaways like the Garzas’ but also across the vast open lands of the nearby National Butterfly Center and Bentsen State Park.
“I’m still confounded by everyone saying where they might build, or ‘the proposed wall,’” the National Butterfly Center’s Executive Director Marianna Wright told ThinkProgress.
“Our section was funded, contracts have been executed, appraisals have been done, bulldozers are scheduled to roll in next month. This is not proposed, this is already happening.”
Although the specifics she’s been offered are vague, Wright said the upshot is perfectly clear: Between the butterfly preserve and two similar adjoining wilderness spaces, officials are proposing a 3.3-square-mile dead zone of U.S. territory north of the river, but south of the fence line.
“The land we’re ceding to Mexico is potentially enormous. And all of this land now becomes a landing and staging area for illicit traffic,” Wright said.
An all-weather road the Border Patrol intends to build will rip down existing fences at property lines, she said, giving striving migrants and illicit traffickers alike a speedway through land they currently have to carefully navigate.
Federal officials have tried to mollify objectors by promising to build access gates with security codes at regular intervals, but Wright is concerned they will also provide access targets to traffickers.
“They can just join the National Butterfly Center,” she said, only half-joking. “They said all our members will get a code [for the gates].”
Supporters of a wall frequently portray the project as a basic necessity demanded by men and women in uniform. Wright begs to differ.
The Border Patrol has 3,000 active agents in the Rio Grande Valley sector alone, plus scores of high-tech surveillance platforms that give them overwatch capacity for the entire area.
“They can zoom in on the butthole of a bunny rabbit. There is no reason that they’re not already apprehending everybody, because they can watch them drive to the river, load up, paddle across, unload, and they’ll have a dozen BP agents there to greet them all day every day,” Wright said.
Such high-tech solutions have long been central to counter-arguments to Trump’s wall, and are probably one of the reasons for the historically low levels of illicit border crossings there today.
“What you’ll see if you come down here is a lot of agents sitting in their SUVs watching Netflix, looking at porn magazines, napping. Stuff like that. When the agents leave their office, they’re completely unaccountable,” Wright said, noting that union officials have barred Border Patrol from putting GPS trackers into patrol vehicles.
Plenty of other civilians in the valley support the wall, and and reject the views of detractors that it will undermine security. But even locals who support it worry about what its construction will mean for their livelihoods.
“It is a shame to not only have the wall, but it’s a shame to have the traffic that we’ve had over the last 30 years. It’s just uncontrollable traffic,” said Sam Sparks III, whose family grows sugar cane, cotton, and other crops on roughly 2,000 acres across Cameron and Hidalgo counties.
“It’s too bad that a beautiful piece of property such as this one is right in the middle of fence, no fence, and all the illegal traffic.”
Sparks’ grandfather was a farmhand who by the early 1950s, had saved enough money to buy swathes of Rio Grande Valley farmland that his sons and grandsons would expand into the vast property the family manages today. Though the dollar figures involved in the tallying up the Sparks family holdings are large, he stressed that the family has dutifully reinvested almost every dollar of profit the farmlands produce in order to maintain, grow, and consolidate for the future. Their practical frugality has positioned them to survive what’s coming, Sparks said — but future wall projects will radically change their land and lives.
If the border barrier construction proceeds as Trump envisions, some 900 acres of family property would get cut off, hurting not just the family’s bottom line but dealing an emotional blow to what they consider to be their grandfather’s legacy.
“It’s deep in our roots, it’s in our blood. And we’re very proud of what’s been built, and I guess presented to us from our previous generations. It’s our duty to not only maintain it, but build upon,” Sparks said.
Landowners on the border can’t stop the seizures. The best they can hope for is a substantial increase in payment from the initial value listed in the deceptively named “offer letters” the federal government sent at the outset of the takings process.
For those with smaller lots and more limited means, the legal battles have meant squeezing a fairer price out of the government, a goal that can seem daunting with the cost of a good eminent domain lawyer out of reach for many. It’s sometimes easier to agree to the sale.
“It would just be a legal battle that I would lose,” Garza said. “Basically you sign it or you spend thousands of dollars, and at the end of the day you still have to allow them to come in.”
It’s unclear as yet how much Garza will ultimately get for her rustic seven-acre getaway, after it has been split up and reshaped by security infrastructure. So far, she said, the government has offered her $40 for an initial right of entry to the strip where construction is likely to begin later this winter.
But will the government’s compensation ultimately include the negative impact on the value of the land? The investment she made to replace siding on the 100-year-old home she had planned to fully renovate, but which will now sit south of the wall? Officials she has spoken with so far couldn’t say.
“They don’t have the design, they don’t have any of the details. Actually it’s kind of frustrating to sign over our right of entry when you have no idea what may come in the future,” she said. “The uncertainty is what frustrates most of us.”
Construction scheduled to start next month is the second large-scale border fence project Rio Grande Valley landowners have had to accept in a decade.
The last wave of wall and fence and gate construction was done in a rush, and officials made egregious and basic errors in the frenzy of appraisals and earthworks and take-it-or-leave-it offers sent to roughly 200 property owners at that time.
The government forgot at the time to include water rights in their valuations during those early land seizures, and lowballed landowners even more aggressively than intended. Most people took what they were offered, but dozens of legal battles dragged on for a decade.
Officials have presumably learned from their mistakes. But the asymmetry of information and resources between large agribusiness families and smallholders persists, and the eminent domain system is built to exploit the gaps.
For the big guys — even those like Sparks who want some version of a wall built locally to restore their neighbors’ peace of mind — the stakes are high. The family estate isn’t currently set for any new construction under the barrier segments funded by Congress last year.
But any wall-building project will surely cut through land the Sparks family cobbled together over generations and improved with state-of-the-art subterranean irrigation systems at substantial expense.
Ten years ago, the family worked with federal officials to accommodate a quarter-mile fence segment on their croplands in Cameron County. Sparks said he stands ready to give up another 2.5 miles, which would restrict geography that currently makes their area popular with smugglers.
The project would cut off 900 acres of the Sparks family holdings, stranded between the fence and the river. A lot of people are fond of calling those south-of-the-fence patches of Texas “no man’s land.” Sparks has a more succinct name for it: “Mexico.”
“You put up that wall, and anything south of the wall is going to essentially become Mexico. They’re gonna be able to come in, set up shop, and treat it as if it’s Mexico,” Sparks said.
A family friend to the east in Brownsville finds himself in exactly that unenviable position, walled off from the rest of the U.S. by a previous round of fence-building after federal officials refused to rejigger plans that put the family home on the wrong side of the wall.
“He fought and fought and fought, and he lost. And it happened. So his house is, basically, inside Mexico,” Sparks said.
“That’s your family. You don’t want your family to be locked behind a 30-foot steel gate every night. When you call 911, how are they gonna get to you? I hope they know the code.”
For a farming family that owes its success to years of penny-pinching and diligence, the improved peace of mind that a fence could bring will come at a huge personal cost.
Worth around $4,000 or $5,000 per acre today, Sparks said the 900-acre southern reach of the family holdings would lose a combined $2 or $3 million in value if it gets orphaned by future fence construction.
And that figure doesn’t capture the full picture, since the land would also effectively cease generating saleable crops if it were ceded to Mexico by new construction.
If a 1500-foot fence is already scaring away some farmhands, Sparks has to assume that a full barrier would mean nobody would be willing to take shifts down there.
“If guys don’t wanna work down there because it’s unsafe now, well when you stretch a wall across that whole property, then for sure nobody will want to work down there in that 900 acres, because then you’re trapped,” he said.
“If you get in danger, there’s no getting away. We need the protection,” Sparks said. “But at the same time, what are we willing to sacrifice in the name of doing so?
“So,” he said, “I’m on both sides of the fence.”