MADERO, Texas — The most recent government letter arrived in an envelope marked “Urgent: Action Required,” so Fred Cavazos asked his family to meet at their usual gathering spot on the Rio Grande. He and three of his relatives crowded around an outdoor table as Fred, 69, opened the envelope and unfolded a large map in front of them. It showed a satellite image of the family’s land, 77 rural acres on the U.S. border where Fred had lived and worked all his life, but he had never seen the property rendered like this.
“Border Infrastructure Project,” the map read, and across its center was a red line that cut through the Cavazos family barn, through their rental house, and through a field where they grazed a small herd of longhorn cattle.
“This is where they want to put the wall,” Fred said, tracing his finger along the line. “They want to divide the property in half and cut us off from the river.”
They stared at the map for a few seconds, trying to make sense of it. It seemed to Fred that the government was interested only in a thin strip of land running across the width of his property, just wide enough to build a wall, leaving the Cavazos family with land on both sides. But even if they lost only a few acres of land to the 30-foot wall, the barrier would sever the property in half and make it difficult for anyone to access the riverfront. The map didn’t show a gate or a door, and Fred wondered how they would travel from one side of the property to the other.
“We’d lose the renters,” his sister said. “We’d lose the cattle without access to the river.”
“All of it,” Fred said. “Who wants to live on the other side of that wall? If this goes through, our property’s useless.”
In the three years since Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign with a promise to build a “great, great wall,” Fred had tried to dismiss the idea as an easy applause line, a fantasy both too expensive and too complex to become reality. Texas alone has more than 1,200 miles of border, much of it similar in nature to the Cavazos’s land: rugged, remote, unfenced and privately owned. But, in March, Congress approved $641 million toward building 33 miles of Trump’s wall in the Rio Grande Valley, and now every few weeks, Fred was turning away another government official who had come to ask for the right to access his land. They wanted him to sign a “Right of Entry” form so they could take soil samples, survey the flood plain and plot the final path for a hulking concrete-and-steel barrier.
Fred and his family had consulted with a pro-bono lawyer, who helped explain their options. They could sign the forms, grant access to their land and expect to eventually sell some of their property to the government at market price for construction of a wall. Or they could refuse to sign, risking a lawsuit and the possible seizure of their land by eminent domain.
“What kind of choice are they giving us?” Fred said now, staring at the map. “We let them have them access, or they take it. Either way, we lose.”
“We can’t give an inch,” said his cousin, Rey Anzaldua, 73. “It’s the principle. I don’t care if they offer us a million dollars. We’d be selling off our history.”
Fred’s ancestors came from Spain to the Rio Grande Valley in the 1760s on a Spanish land grant of more than 500,000 acres, giving them ownership of almost a third of the Valley. Over the generations, some of that land was lost to taxes and land grabs as governance of the Valley changed from Spain to Mexico to the independent Republic of Texas, which became part of the United States in 1840s. The Cavazoses had continued to lose land, much of it transferred to settlers through sales, tax penalties, fraud and thievery. The family had hired lawyers to investigate and had filed legal claims, but by the time Fred was born, what his parents had left was 77 acres, a rectangular plot tucked against the river. They built a small house, a farm store, and then cut down patches of unruly mesquite to farm cattle and cotton.
For much of his lifetime, Fred had watched border politics continue to transform the property as illegal immigration increased in the Rio Grande Valley. His pasture was now a busy route for human trafficking, with as many as 30 migrants passing through on some days. The quiet riverfront where he learned to fish had become a cacophony of Border Patrol speedboats and helicopters. But through it all, Fred had continued to work the land — even after an illness restricted him to using a wheelchair — waking up early to feed the cattle and renting out a few dozen recreational fishing camps on the river for $100 a month, earning just enough to get by.
“This wall leaves you with nothing,” Rey said. “Who’s going to rent your land if it’s on the other side of the wall? They’re asking you to sign away your livelihood.”
“This is Trump’s baby,” Fred said.
“Then we delay them and fight it in court,” Rey said. “We have to stand strong.”
“I know,” Fred said. “But how long can we hold them off?”
Already, they had been resisting the government’s requests for five months, and it had begun to seem to Fred that his job was no longer to work the land but to preserve it. He had met with other nearby landowners to discuss their options and studied the intricacies of eminent domain. His sister, a retired teacher who lived with Fred, had written letters to Texas politicians. Rey had traveled to Washington and walked the halls of Congress in his cowboy boots, asking lawmakers to defund the wall. But still the letters from Washington continued to arrive, each more insistent than the last.
“We hope that you and other landowners in the Rio Grande Valley will assist us in our strategic efforts to secure the Nation’s borders,” read the first notice, which Fred forwarded to his lawyer.
“Return two signed copies within seven days,” read the second notice, which Fred put into a drawer.
“This is critical,” read another notice, midway through the summer, at which point Fred decided to attend a meeting hosted by local Border Patrol officials to learn more about the wall. He remembered an agent explaining that much of the 33 miles of wall being built in this initial stage would run through Hidalgo County, where Fred and about 200 other landowners had received government letters asking for the right to enter their property and nearly 85 percent had signed. That meant Fred was one of about 30 people left standing between the president and his primary campaign promise. “The wall is moving ahead,” Fred remembered one agent telling him. “It’s just a matter of how hard you want to make it.”
There were other pressures as well, such as the kind Fred felt as he and Rey drove through the property one morning to feed the cows and were met again by the reality that, even if a wall wasn’t the solution, there was in fact a problem to solve. They drove by a cattle fence damaged by migrants and saw a discarded inner tube hidden in the mesquite. They passed two Border Patrol SUVs parked on the side of the road and continued to the barn, where Fred saw footprints scattered across the dirt. Some were of shoes aimed toward the brush. Others looked like paws.
“Probably canine unit,” Fred said. “Must have been a foot chase.”
They went into the barn, and Fred attached a rolling cart to his wheelchair and loaded it with hay for the cows, feeding them one at a time. The small herd didn’t make him much money, but he liked the familiarity of the work. He’d grown up raising livestock, harvesting corn, and fishing the Rio Grande with a bamboo pole for catfish and alligator gar. As children in the 1960s, he and Rey had escaped the heat by swimming 150 yards across the river to Mexico. They watched Mexicans cross, too, and sometimes their grandmother would trade migrants a few meals for a day of work picking cotton.
But in the past two decades, drug cartels had taken over the human-smuggling business, and the number of Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley had risen from about 500 to more than 3,100. Now there were often several units patrolling Fred’s acres, a crossing spot favored by traffickers. The property sat directly across from the Mexican city of Reynosa and was obscured by dense mesquite and thorny brush. It was a good place to hide, and in the past several years, Fred had found dozens of inner tubes stashed in the brush, trails of discarded water jugs, bales of marijuana floating on the river, and, once, 25 illegal immigrants hiding in one of the small fishing camps he rented out on the water.
Border Patrol agents had come asking for his help again and again, and he always gave it to them. They wanted access to his private dirt road, so he gave them the combination to the lock on his gate. They wanted to drag tires across the road twice each day, smoothing it so footprints were easily visible. They wanted to bring in a tower to monitor the waterfront, so they erected one that was three stories high. They wanted to cut down some of Fred’s mesquite trees to allow for a clearer view of the river.
Now a Border Patrol truck approached the barn, and an agent rolled down his window.
“Morning,” he said. “You guys wander into anyone out here in a green shirt?”
“No, sir,” Fred said.
“We caught a raft this morning, and we got all of them but the guide,” the agent continued. “He’s out here somewhere, so please keep an eye out.”
The agent waved and drove off, and Fred went back to feeding cows as Rey handed him more bales of hay.
“I guess we’re not alone,” Rey said.
“Are we ever?” Fred said. “Sometimes it feels like this place stopped being ours a long time ago.”
“Yeah, but you still own it,” Rey said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t need you to sign the papers.”
Fred had asked for his cousin’s advice because, a decade earlier, Rey had been forced to make the same decisions about his own piece of family land pressed up against the U.S. border. Rey grew up a few miles farther down the Rio Grande from Fred, in Granjeno, Tex., where in 2006 the government arrived with plans to build a border wall under George W. Bush. Rey had also been sent a series of government letters and property maps, the first of which showed a prospective wall running through the center of his family home and several other houses on the same block.
“I never thought I’d be reliving that nightmare,” Rey said, but now he was driving to and from Fred’s property almost every day to share his experiences from fighting against a wall and help Fred think through the same options.
He got into his truck and left Fred’s property to drive back toward Granjeno. A sticker on his pickup read “Original Texan.” He wore a hat emblazoned with the American flag and a long-sleeve flannel shirt despite the 100-degree heat. With the window rolled down, he passed through miles of land that had belonged to his and Fred’s ancestors under the original Spanish land grant. The family cemetery was lost to a government floodway in the 1950s, and the former hunting grounds were now a high-end golf course. “We’ve lost so much land already,” he said. “To me, that’s what makes the wall such an insult.”
Rey had spent his career working as a customs agent, trying to stop traffic illegally traveling across the river. He had learned that 90 percent of illegal drugs in the United States came from Mexico in a $60 billion annual business. He’d investigated gun smugglers, money launderers and illegal traffickers of everything from cattle to ammunition to people, and he’d come to the conclusion that no amount of enforcement would ever be enough. If people could find a way to cross a river 150 yards wide and evade the U.S. government — if they were willing to risk death by walking through miles of brush in 120-degree heat — they would find a way to scale a wall.
“A pointless and wasteful exercise,” Rey had written to the government at the time. “It’s supply and demand. Why not spend the money on drug treatment and reducing the need for cheap labor?”
He’d devoted himself to organizing the neighborhood against Bush’s wall, refusing access to his family land, printing dozens of campaign-style yard signs and encouraging neighbors to take the government to court. The fight had lasted more than two years, and in the end Granjeno had won a compromise. The government agreed to move the wall back by about a hundred yards onto a flood levee, saving existing homes.
Now Rey exited the freeway and drove onto what remained of his family property, two acres where four of his siblings were building identical homes side by side. Just 50 yards behind those homes was Bush’s attempt at a border wall, an 18-foot concrete barricade completed in 2009. Rey had heard stories in recent years about immigrants scaling the wall with ladders, and traffickers had been caught sending drugs over the wall with drones, homemade cannons and catapults. The only thing Rey believed the wall had prevented was his family’s access to the riverfront that was once rightfully theirs.
One of his sisters came outside, and they stared together toward the wall and at the blue sky beyond it.
“I’ll never get used to it,” Rey said. “I can’t stand the idea of going through all this again.”
“What about Fred?” his sister asked.
“He’s still holding up to the pressure. I don’t see him signing,” Rey said, but just to make sure, he drove back to talk to him again.
They sat together by the water late one afternoon, when the wind died in the heat and the riverfront went quiet and it felt for at least a few moments just as it had when they were growing up. No boats. No helicopters. Nothing but a few languid cranes and the incessant hum of cicadas.
Fred grabbed his fishing pole and tossed his line into the water. People told him not to eat the fish anymore, but he still ate the fish. He watched the line bob up and down in the water. Nothing was biting and he didn’t care. “I love it out here,” he said.
“It’s everything we have left,” Rey said.
“Just the quiet peacefulness of it,” Fred said, keeping his eyes on the surface of the water, where everything was smooth and still, until he noticed a sudden flurry of movement coming from the other riverbank.
A large raft slid from the brush on the Mexican side and into river, with one person paddling in the front and another in the back, and Fred tried to count the number of bodies jammed between. “That has to be at least a dozen people,” he said. The raft was a few hundred yards farther from where Fred sat and was aiming for the far end of his property. He set down his bamboo pole and grabbed his cellphone, hitting the speed-dial number he had programmed in for Border Patrol.
“There’s a boat of illegals coming over, and I’m watching them right now,” he said. “They just started out. You might have time to get them.”
The agent said he would try to scramble some units, and Fred hung up and kept his eyes fixed on the raft. No matter how many times he had watched people cross, he never stopped marveling at the audacity of it. The river was 150 yards wide and 40 feet deep, and now it seemed to Fred that the raft might be taking on water in the swift current. Even if it made it to the American side, a dozen migrants would be deposited into the thorny mesquite, left to sweat out the heat of the day with the cottonmouths and rattlers as the Border Patrol closed in. Those who were lucky enough to escape might end up in a crowded stash house, and then maybe in the back of a locked truck that would have to pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint before carrying them into the interior of the United States.
“The boldness of the whole thing is crazy to me,” Fred said. “There’s Border Patrol everywhere here all the time. It’s the middle of the day.”
“Looks to me like they’re going to make it,” Rey said.
“I’m assuming,” Fred said, because now the raft was in the American half of the river and picking up speed in the current.
“If they’re determined enough to get here, they’ll get here,” Rey said. “How can anyone believe a wall will change that?”
“It won’t,” Fred said. He had been reading stories and watching videos on the Internet of what sometimes happened when immigrants encountered a border wall or fence. They climbed it. They went around it. They used wire cutters and went through it. They built ladders and went over it. They dug tunnels and went underneath it.
Now the raft was nearing the shore. He dialed the Border Patrol again.
“You’re running out of time,” he said to the agent on the phone as he watched one of the guides jump into the shallow water and begin pulling the raft toward land.
“They made it across,” Fred said, as he counted five, 10, 14 men leaping off the raft and running onto his property. The river had not stopped them. The Border Patrol speedboats had not stopped them. The motion detectors, viewing tower and drones had not stopped them, and Fred felt certain that a wall would not have stopped them, either. He wasn’t going to sign over access to his land for one more solution he didn’t expect to work.
“I’m sorry,” he said, to the Border Patrol agent on the phone. “They’re gone. I don’t know what to tell you. I did what I could.”