Roma border wall forum gauges gov’t legal battle

An observation deck along the Roma bluffs looks out over the Rio Grande near downtown Roma. The bluffs, part of the World Birding Center, could be heavily affected by the border wall.

ROMA — After a second meeting Sunday, many things remain unclear for residents here more than 16 months after the last landowners forum regarding proposed border wall construction in Starr County.

One thing does seem apparent: The wall is coming.

More than 50 residents of Roma packed the small Casa Del Rio building situated on the edge of the Roma bluffs, where dozens of the same residents also met in October 2017 to hear from representatives with the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club about where the border wall would be placed in the county and what, if anything, they could do to stop it.

On Sunday, those residents from the city of about 10,000 people made their concerns known about the wall construction and how it may affect them. Government representation was again notably absent at the meeting, like the last.

The forum comes amid a lack of clarity in the aftermath of the president’s national emergency declaration after lawmakers agreed on a spending bill that avoided another government shutdown and funded 55 miles of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley sector, some of which will likely be constructed in Starr County.

Scott Nicol, executive board member of the Sierra Club and one of the presenters at the Sunday forum, focused his presentation on the aforementioned spending bill and the details important to Roma residents, who will have to live with the proposed wall.

The funding for that wall came in March 2017, five months after the first Roma forum and when Congress appropriated $1.6 million for about 25 miles of wall in Hidalgo County, and about 8 to 12 miles in Starr County.

Efren Olivares, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project who worked on behalf of Hidalgo landowners during construction of the Bush border wall in 2008, again gave landowners in attendance information about their respective rights should government officials try to access or subsequently take their land to build the wall.

Olivares, just like in the October 2017 meeting, explained Sunday what landowners could expect if and when the federal government began attempting to condemn or take land for the purposes of a wall — an area of expertise for the attorney from Alamo who challenged the federal government over Los Ebanos landowners’ rights in 2008.

Residents like Yvette Gaytan of Roma, who was not at Sunday’s meeting but attended the previous stakeholders meeting in 2017, expressed concern about recent contractors asking for permission to survey their land.

A few weeks ago Gaytan, who delivered a letter to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s staff expressing her concerns about construction, told The Monitor she was hoping the spending bill being negotiated by lawmakers to fund the government through the fall would not include any funding for border wall construction for fiscal year 2019, fearing that her property along the river would be in the wall’s path.

Gaytan further expressed frustration over the lack of clarity from government officials about how much of her property would be in the path of the construction, a sentiment shared by many in attendance Sunday afternoon.

Mission resident Reynaldo Anzaldua, who was also in attendance and whose own relatives face the loss of their land in the Hidalgo County city of Mission, said he wanted to show support to his fellow landowners in Starr County.

“I wanted to see what these folks are going to do. They might be allies; you never know. We’re in a fight right now, and they’re starting to be in a fight,” Anzaldua said before the start of the meeting.

Currently, his cousin Fred Cavazos is facing the loss of acres of land near the Rio Grande in Mission. In December federal contractors began surveying his land near Chimney Park.

Both Nicol and Olivares were quick to underscore the difficulty of taking on the federal government — despite this, they said, coming together and making their voices heard might be the only way to stop the imminent construction that threatens their respective lands.

“…It is possible, if you’re loud enough,” Nicol said. “If you make it so people like Rep. (Henry) Cuellar, and Sen. (John) Cornyn cannot ignore you, it is possible to push back on these things. It’s really, really hard, but it is possible.”