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Joseph Hein drives about 20 miles from his Laredo home to the 580-acre Rancho Santo Niño, which has belonged to his family for nearly 100 years.
The 67-year-old makes the trip four times a week, and when he does, he uses the horn of his 2002 Ford Explorer Sport Trac to call his 12 Appaloosa horses to their barn for feeding time.
Hein has been breeding and selling horses for over 40 years at the ranch, which sits on the Webb and Zapata county line. He is often accompanied on his ranch visits by his 16-year-old twin daughters, Alex and Amy, whom he calls his “sidekicks.”
The ranch’s purpose has changed over the years, from raising cattle to goats to horses, but it has always been a fixture in his family.
In recent years, though, Rancho Santo Niño’s location, which includes about a mile of riverbank along the international border, has made it a target as the state, and previously the federal government, vie for the land needed to build Texas’ border wall.
A wall on his property would drive away game, cut him off from his hobbies and ruin the view of the Rio Grande his family has enjoyed since his great-grandfather first bought the land. More important, he says, it would cut off his herd of spotted horses from their only source of water and force Hein to get rid of them along with the income they provide for his family.
And his property taxes would increase if he gave up his horses because he would no longer qualify for an agriculture exemption.
Hein is concerned that he must make a decision soon or he could end up with a wall built on his land anyway — without compensation.
And he’s not the only landowner feeling pressure to sign over the rights to his land amid a historic rise in migrants requesting asylum along the nation’s southern border, escalating accounts of violence in Mexico and debate over how best to reform the immigration system.
The retirement plans Hein made years ago include hunting deer and wild hogs, along with fishing in the Rio Grande and running a horse-breeding business. But all these dreams are at risk because of what he says is the government’s false assumption that his slice of land along the U.S.-Mexico border is a dangerous place.
He says in his lifetime, he has never thought of his family’s ranch as unsafe, and it’s never been a common crossing point for migrants.
“Do you see them running all over the place? Do you think I would bring my daughters if it was dangerous out here?” Hein said, gesturing to the empty brush surrounding him. “What father in his right mind brings his kids to a dangerous situation?”
“The ones who hold the power”
Webb County is the only remaining major border county in Texas without a wall, with the exception of a short stretch of an 8-foot-tall iron fence along the Laredo College campus.
The Texas Facilities Commission could change that as it plows ahead at getting permission from private landowners to build a state-funded wall.
Gov. Greg Abbott first announced his border wall project in 2021. The task, helmed by the Texas Facilities Commission, was “way outside the box of what the TFC has done in the past,” said commission Chair Steven D. Alvis.
At its Feb. 16 meeting, Commissioner Mike Novak said the commission is resuming construction on the border wall after months of securing easement agreements with private landowners in what has been a challenging feat.
The commission is pursuing 190 easements for the first 40 to 45 miles of wall in the first phase of the state program but has not said exactly where it’ll be installed. About 56 of these offers are either closed or in the process of closing, Novak said.
“It’s a very time-consuming process. In real estate, time is the enemy,” Novak said. “The fact is when we’re dealing with these land agreements, you’ve got to think in terms of months for each easement. Not weeks.”
Webb County’s residents have historically opposed a physical barrier, and its county seat, Laredo, has become ground zero in the fight, said Tricia Cortez, one of the founding members of the activist group No Border Wall Coalition.
The coalition was formed in February 2019 from a small group of lawyers, teachers and landowners motivated by then-President Donald Trump announcing a national emergency at the southern border to try to secure wall funding without congressional approval.
Since then, coalition members have worked to protect the communities in Laredo, Rio Bravo and El Cenizo from the construction of a wall — one they say would harm their towns.
They hosted rallies and town halls to encourage landowners in Webb County to prolong communications with Customs and Border Protection planners as much as possible. They knew that with eminent domain, a federal wall could not be stopped at the will of individual landowners, but what they could do was extend the process until the next presidential election in hopes that Trump would be leaving office.
“The game changed after Biden came in. We claimed these as huge victories for our communities,” Cortez said.
But their work wasn’t done. She said the coalition worked in 15 other border communities from California to Texas on an action called “Not Another Foot” to demand newly inaugurated President Joe Biden fulfill his campaign promise of ending Trump-era border wall construction. Their efforts were successful when Biden’s administration canceled all construction contracts.
The No Border Wall Coalition’s brief hiatus from fighting active wall construction ended in January when the Texas Facilities Commission approved the fourth and fifth contracts of its state wall project. The fourth, a $224 million contract with the private company Fisher Sand & Gravel to build just over 9 miles of wall in Webb County, was approved on Jan. 4. Two weeks later, the commission approved a $137 million contract with Sullivan Land Services for close to 7 miles in Webb and neighboring Zapata counties.
Neither of the contracts specifies where in the counties the border wall will be installed. Contract records include plans for 5 miles of border land “northwest of Laredo,” and documents from the facilities commission’s project manager show there are plans for several miles of wall south of Laredo, through the towns of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo.
When the coalition members learned their towns were included in the plans, they were left with more questions than answers and began organizing with two goals: to make their neighbors aware that a border wall could be built in their communities and to piece together what the agency’s planned route might look like based on which landowners the state had been in communication with.
“I heard that the contracts had been signed, but I didn’t know it was in our little town,” said David Delgado, pastor of Rio Bravo Church. Delgado is usually in the know about community happenings. But he was surprised when Cortez called him in January, asking if he had heard the news that the state government was looking into building its border wall in Rio Bravo.
“She said if you don’t know and you’re the town local pastor, imagine the people that live there. Nobody knows,” he recalled.
He brought it up to his congregants during church services and decided to join the coalition. They hosted several block walks, going door-to-door and handing out flyers advertising two “emergency town hall” events.
“We’re trying to find out who has been approached and make them aware that we need to know where the fence is going to be built,” Delgado said. “That you just can’t sign away your rights.”
Last month, Cortez, along with city officials from both Rio Bravo and El Cenizo, organized a town hall in each city. About 30 El Cenizo residents filed into the Lamar Bruni Vergara public library just blocks away from the border for a bilingual presentation from the No Border Wall Coalition followed by a Q&A.
Cortez said that throughout the organization’s continued fights to stave off a wall, there has been a constant.
“This is all about the landowner,” Cortez said in front of the audience that had gathered on a Wednesday night. “The ones who hold the power are the landowners.”
She explained that signing a right-of-way easement with the state government would give the state permanent access to that portion of a landowner’s property. She stressed that despite the money the state is offering for access, owners’ land would decrease in value once a 30-foot steel barrier is constructed.
“If you do not sign, the government does not have the power to build a wall,” Cortez said. “You all are very powerful.”
Attendees were encouraged to direct anyone who has been in contact with state officials over land easements to speak with the coalition members or to seek legal advice before they make a decision.
Cortez said even though the state is not using eminent domain powers to get access to private property, the “secretive nature” of Abbott’s planned border wall has created an extra challenge. Without any public records showing where the wall is planned, she and other organizers are using town halls to try to identify more landowners and speak with them before they grant the state access to their land.
“They’re dangling money in a very dishonest way,” Cortez said, adding that she heard some residents were being offered around $18,000 for access to their land. “They’re taking advantage, in some cases, of people and not telling them the harm that it’s going to cause to their property value and to the river itself.”
Scaling back promises
Hein said he was first contacted by the federal government in 2017 when the Army Corps of Engineers wanted access to his ranch to survey the land.
For several months, Hein was in contact with the Army Corps through packages in the mail asking him to confirm his ownership of the land, its acreage and other details. He also had several phone calls with officials planning visits to his ranch. Hein said he knew things were “serious” when he realized he would have to get a private appraisal on his land to compare with one conducted by the federal government. That’s when he hired a lawyer to handle future communications.
For nearly three years, Hein remained in contact with the Corps, offering officials the right to enter his property and survey the ranch. They kept him updated on plans for the proposed wall, and when he expressed concern over a lack of river access,they promised to build a well and pump, he said.
But as the 2020 presidential election approached, Hein said the Corps officers he had been in contact with began scaling back the promises they had made.
“They’re telling me now that after 100 years of using it, they’re entitled to take away our accessibility for water and that they’re not going to compensate me for anything or at least figure out a way where I can still have water, and I was going to have to accept it,” Hein said. “I was shocked how they had lied to me, they led me on and then at the end they changed the whole story.”
Two years after dodging the construction of a federal wall separating him from the river, Hein found himself in a similar situation. He was contacted in September by people he believed were representatives of state-hired contractors. For months they discussed where a wall could be built on his ranch, and Hein again expressed his concern over losing access to the river before their communication abruptly ended.
He hasn’t heard from them in a while, but the yearslong back-and-forth with the federal government left him open to signing a land easement. Hein said if he is a “willing participant,” he could demand access to the river for his horses.
Still, he feels like the fate of his ranch is at the whim of whatever state or federal administration decides to build a border wall along the Rio Grande.
“There has not been an alternative to the wall that would satisfy the fears of the country,” Hein said. “If a Republican gets elected [president] again, they’re going to go back to the same thing and what they didn’t finish will get finished the next time. I’ll have the wall.”
To some, outright rejecting a wall is a no-brainer. But for Hein, he has to think of the financial future of his family and his land.
“I have a moral responsibility to my family to see if there’s a way I can still save the value of the ranch and, if it’s coming, then doing the best I can do so that we can still have a life afterwards,” he said.
Hein has wondered what life and his ranch might look like with a steel border wall running through it. He would no longer have a reason to visit the ranch without his horse-breeding business.
“It would be like going to visit a parking lot. My wife would go crazy having me at the house all the time,” Hein joked, adding that he would lose the best part of his ranch, the lush foliage closest to the river.
“The beauty of the ranch is its life. The wall, people don’t have a concept of what it does. It kills everything. This ecosystem has its own unique wildlife, and the wall is going to destroy most of it,” he said. “Once it’s lost, it’s going to take a long time to get it back.”
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune