On an overcast afternoon, Jose Alfredo Cavazos and his cousin Reynaldo Anzaldua wriggled into a cluttered white Chevrolet work van. It was early January. They were taking a quick ride to check on what may be the country’s most divisive private construction project. The two men, both in their 70s, are part of a family that’s been present in what is now South Texas for over two centuries, ever since an ancestor was granted a 600,000-acre ranching plot by the King of Spain.
Cavazos, a soft-spoken man who goes by Fred, lives in a modest one-story house south of the city of Mission, in the mostly sleepy, traditionally agricultural border region known as the Rio Grande Valley. Cavazos’s house, still adorned with a fading sign for what was once the family store, lies east of a rural five-lane highway; across the road is the roughly 70-acre plot hugging the winding Rio Grande, where the family rents out parcels to tenants who use the space for boat access and weekend barbecues. This land was purchased decades ago by the cousins’ grandmother, a Mexican-born woman who raised money for the land by selling tamales and chicharrones from a horse-drawn wagon. Later, when the family used it to grow cotton and watermelon, she would cook huge pots of chicken, rice, and frijoles for the Mexicans who would cross the river for a day or two to help on the farm. Cavazos uses a wheelchair now, but he told me when he was a boy, he would visit the river with his father, who showed him how to fish for catfish and bass, digging out a wet spot to gather worms and cutting off a scrap of bamboo to make a rod.
For a few minutes Anzaldua drove slowly along a bumpy dirt road through the dry brush, passing a collection of chickens, goats, and a few beloved Texas Longhorns, who have come to associate the van with food. We had turned parallel to the river and were advancing slowly toward the edge of the property, where a striped Border Patrol truck waited below a lookout tower, when Anzaldua jolted from the driver’s seat. “It looks like they’ve already started putting it up!”
Even above the fields of tall carrizo cane, the structure was impossible to miss: Just beyond the family’s property line, along with a collection of bright yellow excavators, rose a section of 18-foot-high grey steel bollard, stretching for perhaps 200 feet along the neighboring riverbank—the beginning of the privately-constructed wall along the U.S.–Mexico border.
“This is new!” Anzaldua continued. “They’re not supposed to be doing this!”
Donald Trump made building a border wall—and forcing Mexico to pay for it—a central theme of his 2016 campaign. While his administration has made it much harder for migrants, particularly asylum seekers from Central America, to cross into the U.S., construction of additional physical barriers has mostly stalled; Trump’s promise of 450 new miles of his border wall by the end of the year now appears far-fetched, as the project has been snagged by various lawsuits and complications. But the administration’s wall isn’t the only wall. Either as a demonstration of loyalty to the president or, in the case of one developer, a bid for lucrative government contracts, some private citizens are furiously erecting their own barriers along the Southwest border.
The latest iteration, the three-and-a-half-mile Rio Grande Valley wall, is now nearly complete, after a district judge rejected suits against it from both the federal government and the nearby National Butterfly Center. For months the project has roiled neighbors, who fear its construction will result in irreparable damage to local property and the area’s critical habitat. As a kind of rightwing cause célèbre, it’s also inflicted a different kind of damage, unleashing the kind of ugly, conspiratorial wrath that’s come to define the darkest element of Trumpism. “Oh it’s been hell,” Marianna Treviño, the executive director of the local butterfly center and a prominent project opponent, told me. “It has been hell.”
In December 2017, Brian Kolfage, a triple-amputee military veteran and right wing celebrity provocateur, declared he was “sick and tired of watching politicians in both parties obstructing President Trump’s plan to build a wall.” So he launched an effort to erect a private one. With the support of prominent immigration hardliners Steve Bannon and Kris Kobach, Kolfage’s group, We Build The Wall, went on to raise some $25 million on GoFundMe. Last May the group paid a contractor, North Dakota-based Fisher Industries, to complete its first project, a nearly one-mile segment of private wall outside El Paso. The new barrier, unsurprisingly, was highly controversial—residents worried it was simply steering vulnerable migrants to a more dangerous crossing area—but the group declared victory and announced plans for more walls.
The next barrier would go up along the Rio Grande, on private land owned by a sympathetic local businessman. Again, Fisher Industries would build it.
For Tommy Fisher, the company’s bombastic CEO, the $42 million endeavor—paid for almost entirely by the developer, with some $1.5 million donated by We Build The Wall—represented a gamble. In September 2017 Fisher Industries had been one of eight companies chosen by Customs and Border Protection to develop a border wall prototype; Fisher also kicked off his own conservative media blitz, appealing to the president on cable television, often declaring, with a decidedly Trumpian tone, that he could build Trump’s signature project better, faster and cheaper than any other contractor. Fisher Industries has a checkered history, including more than $1 million in fines over environmental and tax violations, but after seeing Fisher on television, the Washington Post first reported, Trump aggressively lobbied the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hire his company, and last month the agency did, with a $400 million job to build 31 miles of Trump’s wall in Arizona. (The Department of Defense quickly announced it was investigating the contract for potential improper influence from the president; Fisher denied having a relationship with Trump.)
Customs and Border Protection has already contracted a different company to build a section of Trump’s wall in the Rio Grande Valley, but the developer is convinced that his riverfront version will serve as a proof-of-concept that helps him land more government contracts along the nearly 2,000-mile border. “I think the Trump administration will like this,” the developer told the media at the time. “This will 100% change the game in Texas.” In another interview, Fisher compared his wall to a Lamborghini, and other versions to a horse and carriage.
(Fisher Industries did not respond to requests to interview Fisher. Lance Neuhaus, the property’s owner, also did not respond to messages. Neuhaus, who comes from a prominent Texas banking family and owns a group of John Deere dealerships, has remained publicly quiet on the project, although his son Clayton Wayne Neuhaus has said the wall would deter the drug smuggling that precludes employees from working on the property at night.)
Fisher’s work crews arrived in November, only for construction to be halted by a temporary federal injunction. When I met with Cavazos and Anzaldua, the project was still legally stalled—a lawyer later explained that the steel bollards we saw likely didn’t violate the order, because although they were in place, they hadn’t actually been set in the ground. The next day, January 9, the point became moot, when a federal judge ruled construction could proceed. For opponents worried about the infrastructure’s potentially catastrophic ecological impact on the river delta, the ruling represented a crushing defeat. Yet by then, before any concrete had actually been poured, much harm had already been done.
After Marianna Treviño joined the National Butterfly Center in 2012, her kids joked that their mother was a kind of professional Snow White, traipsing around in harmony with colorful birds and butterflies. Her job meant she interacted often with Border Patrol, but she was on good terms with the agency, and was regularly invited to its community outreach meetings. She was also friendly with Neuhaus, whom she would alert if she saw hunters trespassing on his land; once, she told me, she even joined the property owner and his wife for beers at a local beach bar. “So I thought everything was fairly neighborly,” she said.
But beginning in November, once the project was underway, Treviño became a marked woman, targeted both by We Build The Wall leaders and the group’s followers around the country. On Twitter, Kolfage attacked the butterfly center, which lies a quarter mile away from the construction site and had been outspoken in its opposition, calling it a “sham” run by “left wing nut jobs” who bought the property to protest the Border Wall. (The center’s parent organization, the North American Butterfly Association, was established in 1993.) In other posts he declared the property was the site of a “rampant sex trade,” implied the organization was profiting from butterfly smuggling, and accused Father Roy Snipes, a local priest who emerged as another wall opponent, of “promoting human trafficking and abuse of women and children.”
The social media attacks were supported by a series of YouTube videos in which Foreman Mike, a hefty, blustering character, appeared on site in a hard hat and neon jacket to give project updates and solicit donations while warning viewers about mutilated bodies, boats equipped with long guns, and Mexican “splashers” who retreat out of reach back across the Rio Grande. In the cartoonish narrative, Treviño—“the butterfly lady”—and Snipes— “the rogue priest”—served as a highly useful foil. “There are women and children on both sides of this border that YOU PEOPLE are defending!” Foreman Mike bellowed in one video. “You keep up the good work! Don’t listen to these freaks!”
Inspired by Kolfage and the videos, We Build The Wall supporters escalated the smear campaign even further. Online critics branded Treviño an “anti American wench” or a “pedophile” who was profiting off of child trafficking. Waves of attacks inundated the center’s phone lines, with callers cursing and threatening the “butterfly freaks” who were stopping the wall, while another shut down the group’s Facebook page.
Treviño called the police after two men with out of state car tags, apparent members of the Three Percenters, an alt right militia group, showed up and began surveilling the center, examining security cameras and exits as if preparing for a military operation. The threats also spread to Treviño’s family and other associates; it was the constant allusions to violent rape, she told me, that caused her to start considering moving herself and her family out of the area.
The attacks, separate from their vileness, were also fundamentally ignorant, assuming that the butterfly center’s opposition was based around a concern that butterflies would be physically impeded from traveling over the wall. “If I had a dollar every time somebody said, ‘Bitch! Butterflies can fly over the wall!’ I’d be a millionaire,” Treviño cracked. “That’s not it.”
Instead the center is concerned about protecting some of the continent’s most critical ecosystems. The Rio Grande Valley, along with serving as a world-famous birding location, is also home to the United States’ most important butterfly corridor, with the National Butterfly Center acting as a kind of anchor refuge for a larger conservation effort that’s been decades in the making: On its own, the center has some 300 native plant species and 240 butterfly species, roughly one third of all species found in the country. The interaction between plants and butterflies is highly delicate, with each butterfly depending on just one or two plant species.
A transformation of the river delta could wipe it all out. While Trump’s wall, whether it’s ultimately built by Fisher or another contractor, is slated to run far north of the riverbank, beyond the slope that serves as the floodplain’s natural levee, Fisher’s steel and concrete barrier is going up just 35 feet from the water’s edge—a proximity opponents argue all but ensures ecological catastrophe.
In order to build, construction crews first cleared and flattened the riverbank, which is likely to speed the river flow and and hasten erosion; the barrier itself is designed to allow water through, but once a flood hits, opponents argue, large objects—trees, cars, piles of debris—will inevitably clog the flow, creating what Javier Peña, a lawyer representing the National Butterfly Center, calls a three-mile long “freestanding dam.” In that scenario the structure could end up collapsing, or even altering the course of the river and destroying untold acres of neighboring land.
“Once you put an obstacle like that,” Peña told me, “the water is going to find the path of least resistance.” As he explained, Peña pulled out his phone to show me how the section of river where the wall is going up forms a kind of U-shape, with the curve pointing south. The presence of a major obstacle during a flood could mean the river, instead of following the U, ends up simply cutting across the U-shape. “If it follows the path of least resistance,” he went on, “that becomes the new river, and that becomes the new international border.”
The federal government’s case against the project hinged on this line of argument: that an alteration of the river path would violate the country’s treaty with Mexico. Yet in his January 9 ruling green-lighting the wall’s construction, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane rejected both the government’s and butterfly center’s arguments of permanent environmental damage as “highly speculative.” Unaddressed was what the project would actually accomplish.
For years the Rio Grande Valley, the first entry into the United States following the shortest northerly route through Mexico, has been the country’s busiest corridor for illegal crossings and smuggling. But the vast majority of drugs are trafficked through official points of entry; along the river, an armada of Border Patrol trucks, boats, blimps and helicopters is already engaged in a highly sophisticated cat and mouse game with desperate migrants and well-funded cartels who seem unlikely to be dissuaded by another barrier. Despite the frenzy, the Rio Grande Valley, like other Southwest border regions, has consistently low crime rates. Last year McAllen, the largest city in the Valley, was recognized as the country’s fourth-safest city according to one assessment of 2018 crime rates.
But more than a piece of infrastructure, the wall—Trump’s, Fisher’s—is also a symbol. After Anzaldua parked the van, I was hanging around near the property line when a middle-aged couple and their two grown daughters wandered over, the family of one of Cavazos’ long-standing tenants. “It’s kinda neat for us to come see this,” Orville Reid told me. Reid is a retired auto sector worker from Michigan; his wife Simone was an office manager. Both supported a border wall, the couple told me, to stop the flood of migrants streaming in for free food and healthcare.
“I do, absolutely,” Simone told me, “to keep all the illegals out because we have too many. We should be supporting our people.”
A minute earlier Anzaldua stood a few feet from the slow Rio Grande, looking over at the steel structure that would become his new neighbor. “To me,” he told me, “this is hate. They hate somebody. They know it’s not going to work.” Any fool, he added, knows that you don’t build on the riverbank.
2/3/2020: A previous version of this story said the We Build the Wall fundraiser was done on Kickstarter; it was actually done on GoFundMe.
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Trevor Bach is a journalist based in Detroit.