Living in no man’s land: Life along the US-Mexico border

This excerpt is from Austin’s American-Statesman, which sent a team of five reporters and photographers to travel nearly the entire length of the Texas-Mexico border to examine how the existing border fence is affecting communities in the Rio Grande Valley, and to study the impact the coming border wall would have in places like Big Bend and Falcon Lake. The full special report, Borderlands, is available at the American-Statesman

BROWNSVILLE, TX — Most mornings, 19-year-old Greg Garcia passes through an opening in a rusting, 18-foot-high steel fence on his way to classes at Texas Southmost College in Brownsville, where he studies the air conditioning sciences.

On his way home, he drives south past the border fence. More often than not he is waved through by Border Patrol agents stationed at the opening who have come to recognize his truck. If there’s a new agent on the wall, he might get stopped and asked a few questions. It’s something he’s gotten used to over the last half-decade.

“I’ve had some family members say to us, ‘When we come over to the house, do we need to bring some legal documents to get back?’ ” he said.  “People think we live in Mexico. Actual Mexico.”

Garcia and his family live in the U.S., but on the other side of a border fence built in the Rio Grande Valley over the past decade.

Building the border wall in Texas was not clean work. Unlike many parts of Arizona, New Mexico and California, where the border is an unseen straight line on the desert floor, the natural barrier of the Rio Grande made wall-building a frustrating experience for federal officials a decade ago.

Fencing couldn’t hug the madly winding shoreline or it would exacerbate flooding. And because nearly all the riverfront land in Texas is in private hands, the government had to negotiate rights of way or claim eminent domain through condemnation lawsuits.

Combined ShapeCaption
A Border Patrol vehicle guards a section of the border fence in Runn, Texas, earlier this year. The patchwork border fence along the Texas-Mexico border has created a nebulous and bizarre third space between countries.

Credit: Kelly West

A Border Patrol vehicle guards a section of the border fence in Runn, Texas, earlier this year. The patchwork border fence along the Texas-Mexico border has created a nebulous and bizarre third space between countries.

Credit: Kelly West

Combined ShapeCaption
A Border Patrol vehicle guards a section of the border fence in Runn, Texas, earlier this year. The patchwork border fence along the Texas-Mexico border has created a nebulous and bizarre third space between countries.

Credit: Kelly West

Credit: Kelly West

So there are sections where the fence sits up to a mile from the border, on the U.S. side. An entire ecosystem sits behind the fence: wildlife refuges, birding trails, thousands of acres of farmland, cemeteries, soccer fields and homes where families such as the Garcias live.

As President Donald Trump follows through on his promise to expand the border wall, it's likely that much more of Texas will be caught in no man's land. The administration is pushing to build another 1,250 miles of barrier, which could nearly seal the entire border. Nearly all the unfortified land is in Texas, where about 1,100 miles lack a fence or wall.

» RELATED: Will new reporting system provide key to border security puzzle?

The administration's first phase will target areas near El Paso, as well as in Arizona and California. At least part of the new barrier will be 30-foot concrete walls, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The primarily gravel roads that run along and through the existing fencing are mostly open to the public but heavily patrolled by border agents or state and local police. To visit the famed Montezuma Bald Cypress, for example, a 900-year-old tree that’s one of the few tourist attractions in the border town of Abram, visitors pass through an opening guarded by a Border Patrol SUV. On a recent afternoon, an agent questioned reporters driving on the road and escorted them to the tree. In other sections, property owners have been given codes to open massive gates to access their land.

ExploreRead the rest of “Living in no man’s land” at the American-Statesman.

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