ROMA — Starr County residents potentially affected by border wall construction convened here for a third time to receive an update on the proposed construction.
On Sunday, residents from the city of about 10,000 gathered once again to hear from attorneys and opponents of the border wall, and to learn about their rights as landowners. Specifically, what they can do, if and when, the government approaches them about their land.
Only about 10 affected landowners showed up to the Roma Community Center to hear from attorneys at the Texas Civil Rights Project and Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid during a two-hour “Know Your Rights” session.
Efren Olivares, an attorney with TCRP, was once again of the presenters. Olivares previously worked on behalf of Hidalgo landowners during construction of the border wall in 2008 when President George W. Bush was in office.
In February, a similar session drew roughly 60 landowners who packed a local dance hall near the Roma bluffs. Sunday’s session was held at a new location and may have affected attendance.
Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration and human rights attorney who earlier this year launched her bid against U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, also attended the event to show her support.
Attendees asked questions about the upcoming wall construction and aired their concerns about how it may affect them and their land.
Government representation from U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials was again notably absent at the meeting, as it was during the last two previous sessions.
The forum comes on the heels of recently awarded contracts in Hidalgo and Starr Counties, with residents frustrated at a continued lack of clarity about the exact location of the construction, which has yet to begin.
On Wednesday, CBP officials announced they awarded a contract to Southwest Valley Constructors Co. for the base contract amount of $80,869,000 for 11 miles of new levee wall system in three non-contiguous segments located within U.S. Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector in Hidalgo County.
In May and June, CBP officials confirmed they had awarded a contract for 3 miles of border wall in Starr County — and then a few weeks later announced another contract for 4 miles.
The barriers would be placed on federal land between Salineño and Escobares, but not within city limits. They would also be built in areas located 5 miles north of Salineño and 5 miles west of Escobares.
Melissa Canales, 57, and her mother Elvira Canales, 90, both of Saliñeno, said they attended the event Sunday to make sure they were up to date on any news related to wall construction in the county.
“Exactly where and when the wall is (going to be built, is) what we want to know,” Melissa Canales said.
Two weeks ago she encountered government surveyors near the Saliñeno cemetery.
Her mother, Elvira, who was born and raised in Saliñeno, said she doesn’t want the wall built near her home, saying it won’t help her community, who she characterizes as safe.
Elvira Canales, during Olivares’ presentation, asked why the government contractors and surveyors were allowed to come into the land without permission from city officials.
Melissa, who along with her mother attended the February session at the Roma bluffs, said she’s concerned the construction of the barriers will make obsolete the beautiful landscape she and her family have enjoyed for generations.
“We’re going to lose the land that we enjoy every day,” Melissa Canales said prior to the meeting.
During a conference call with CBP officials in late May, they confirmed 3 miles will mark the first phase of construction in what is expected to be a total of 53 miles of barriers in Starr County.
That construction is expected to begin this month, and 4 additional miles will be built starting in November, CBP officials said during the May conference call.
Olivares once again told landowners what to expect, if and when, the federal government begins to try to condemn or take their land for the purposes of a wall. It’s an area of expertise for the attorney from Alamo who challenged the federal government over the rights of Los Ebanos landowners in 2008.
He offered attendees contacts for other attorneys who would be willing to work pro bono in border wall litigation — where most of these land disputes are likely to head.
“These cases can take months, and even years,” Olivares warned.
He discussed his prior work in 2008 and how the litigation effectively stopped the construction from that time period.
“There’s a landowner who now, 11 years later, still has not even a brick placed on her land,” Olivares said in reference to fighting the government.
He underscored how litigation can prevent the government from building on their land.
Olivares, who in the past has expressed reluctant optimism for landowners in their fight against government contractors, however, was also quick to underscore the difficulty of taking on the federal government. Despite this, he said, what’s worked in the past has been making their voices heard and bringing media attention to their cause.
He continued to implore to those in contact with government officials to refrain from signing documents until they know exactly what it is they’re giving up to the government.
And just like during the previous two sessions in February and October 2017, the prevailing feeling at the meeting was that of frustration from landowners, who due to the lack of clarity on the issue, still feel like the taking of their land is inevitable.
Nayda Alvarez, of La Rosita, has been active in making her displeasure known about the wall construction in Starr County — so much so that earlier this year she hand delivered Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, a letter outlining her concerns with the construction near her home.
At the forum, Alvarez said her home sits roughly 200 feet from the river. The wall will be constructed right at the river, causing her to lose about 8 acres of land, she said.
Alvarez made clear she’s had to chase down elected officials because to this day, she doesn’t know how much land she stands to lose.
Alvarez, who also gave attendees information about their rights, said she feels like she’s been living in uncertainty ever since she received a letter from the government a year ago.
She said the way to combat the noise about construction is to come out and be vocal about what they stand to lose.
“We need to come out, we need to do interviews,” Alvarez said.
When they encounter U.S. Border Patrol agents, Alvarez said landowners should not fear them.
“Don’t be afraid, they can’t arrest you,” she said.
Alvarez’ message was clear: Become involved and be ready to stand your ground against the government.
“We don’t have to let ourselves be overrun — you don’t have to sign anything,” Alvarez said.
This post was updated to reflect more accurately who spoke during the meeting.