County leaders, residents in South Texas feel powerless against border wall

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LA GRULLA, Texas (BorderReport.com) ⁠— Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, in a surprising statement to Border Report on Thursday, said he never expected that all 52 miles of his county would be walled off from the Rio Grande. He thought it would only be a few stretches of this border community.

“What bothers me is that at the very beginning we were told that only certain areas would be looked at for a wall or a fence and now they’re coming out that it’s going to be continuous from county line to county line and that’s not what we had been told and that’s not what we want,” Vera said.

Vera also said that federal authorities, like Customs and Border Protection, have not met with him or county leaders “in months.”

“We really haven’t had that many public meetings with CBP or Homeland Security or any federal agency,” he said.

And Vera said the feds better reach out to them soon ⁠— before construction begins in the county this fall, “otherwise they’re going to have a lot of lawsuits,” he said.

The statements are surprising because many citizens in this rural county with a population of just 61,000 feel it’s their leaders ⁠— both local, state and federal ⁠— who have sold them out and thrown them under the bus and forgotten about them in these border wall negotiations.

Read a previous Border Report story on Starr County here

It’s no secret that Starr County became collateral damage earlier this year when Congress came to a stalemate over the funding of President Trump’s border wall, shutting down the government for the longest stretch in recorded history. To end the shutdown, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, whose district includes Starr County, has told Border Report that he did what he had to do to keep the government running.

“The Trump Administration is trying to get their campaign promise, which we disagree. In the House side, we said no funds for border walls,” Cuellar said on Thursday after holding a news conference in La Grulla to announce $12 million in grants and loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a new water treatment plant there.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, (D-Texas), whose district includes Starr County, speaks with Border Report on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in LaGrulla, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

“My position has always been don’t shut down the government because then you affect the military, the veterans, the school teachers, transportation, health care and all that,” said Cuellar, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. “My position as an appropriator is not to do that and so we had to work something out with a Senate that’s Republican and a president that’s Republican.”

The cost to taxpayers under the deal translates to about $25 million per mile of border wall. Construction is slated to begin in October in Starr County on lands that are federally owned.

‘Mutual consent’ with locals required

Cuellar pointed out that in the 2019 fiscal budget he was able to add language to the appropriations bill that requires federal officials to not only consult but gain “mutual consent” with local officials over border wall plans in Starr County.

The nuance in terms is significant, says Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation.

Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, wants federal authorities to consider their alternative border wall plan. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

“That essentially means they do not allow any funds to be spent unless there is an agreement between the government and the local communities about what kind of barrier is potentially constructed,” said Benavidez, who this week released new proposed border wall plans for Starr County that she hopes federal officials will consider.

“In the rounds prior to that consultation was a requirement but that could be potentially anything from sending you a letter and saying ‘we’re consulting with you on what we want to do,'” Benavidez said. “This would offer an opportunity to have some serious dialogue on what future barrier, if any, would be constructed in these communities.”

These new plans include steel picket fences, instead of bollards in some places, and flood levees at the ports of entry, Benavidez told Border Report on Thursday.

“We’ve provided a proposal in hopes of getting some sort of response from DHS that they would maybe not acquiesce, but be agreeable to looking at these options,” Benavidez said.

Benavidez said she was hopeful federal officials would consider the county’s plan, and she said that current plans place the wall way south of this small town of La Grulla, not through it, as originally planned. Read a Border Report story about La Grulla and one man fighting the wall here.

“Initially it was right at the city limit and would have been behind everyone’s backyard and so that has changed,” she said.

That’s news to longtime La Grulla resident Ruben Solis, who said the community is starved for information on what federal, state and local officials have planned for their towns and livelihoods.

“We want to be heard,” Solis, who attended Cuellar’s news conference in the hopes of learning something new, said. “We don’t want the wall.”

In the audience also were neighbors Yvette Gaytan and Nayda Alvarez, who earlier this week captured on home surveillance cameras four men on Gaytan’s Starr County property without permission, believed to be surveying for placement of a border wall.

He (Cuellar) sold out Starr County. Yvette and I are the only ones out there fighting the wall, fighting for our property rights,” Alvarez said. “We don’t know what’s going on. Right now we’re just told the wall will be built.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.

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