FRONTON, Texas (Border Report) — Martin Molina, 61, grew up fishing for “big juicy catfish” in the Rio Grande in his hometown of Fronton, in South Texas’ rural Starr County.
One of six siblings, he said they hunted wild birds on the river banks and celebrated birthdays and holidays, like Easter-egg hunts, on the river’s shore where old photos show them grilling hamburgers as a group with babies in playpens.
The Rio Grande has always been a special place for the Molina family. But he said it will be ruined if a border wall is built through his family’s lands where they have lived for generations.
On Wednesday, Molina took Border Report on a tour of his family’s peaceful and quiet farmlands where he located several new 3-foot-tall wooden stake markers that were put up on their properties. These survey markers are a telltale sign that U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers are seriously considering building a Border Infrastructure System here — which could include a border wall, all-weather roads, floodlights, cameras and underground sensors.
And that makes Molina mad.
“I think my aunt will be in Mexico and I’ll be in the United States,” said Molina, who did not want his face photographed for fear of retribution by federal authorities.
Molina said since stake markers have gone up, he has had helicopters and airplanes overhead in what used to be his tranquil farmland home, where exotic birds and butterflies twitter about and his three dogs roam free.
As a flock of colorful green jays flew overhead, Molina pointed to the birds and asked: “Do you think with that wall here that we’ll have those birds in the field?”
Molina lives on a 1-acre lot in a trailer less than a mile from the river. He is a retired migrant farmworker who began picking cotton at age 7. His aunt, uncle and various cousins all have property and homes nearby where they have farmed cotton and sorghum for decades.
Molina owns several acres scattered throughout the area. He said his great-grandfather bought the land when he emigrated from Spain in the 1800s. And they were told to always to keep the land in the family.
But now he worries that they will be divided if a border wall is built.
(The border wall) will mess up the whole property.”Fronton, Texas, landowner Martin Molina
Molina doesn’t believe a wall will stop the drug-running from Mexico that occurs readily in the Fronton area. “You can’t do the impossible,” he said as he trudged through dirt trails with his dog Cleo searching for more markers that were scattered among the hog tracks. “It will mess up the whole property,” he said.
Building on an ancient oyster bed
On Wednesday, U.S. Border Patrol officials confirmed to Border Report that land clearing for border wall construction has begun in Starr County on federal lands a couple miles east of Fronton in the Arroyo Ramirez Wildlife Refuge Tract. The 668-acre refuge is where ancient oyster beds are located. The section being cleared is about 3 miles long.
It is the first confirmed land clearing in Starr County, and we’re told it is fairly far along.
These federal lands are restricted by a gate and not accessible to the public, nor visible from nearby Highway 650.
Plastic Santa Claus statues mark the turnoff from the highway to the entrance of the Arroyo Ramirez Wildlife Refuge Tract. That is where Tom Sutter, a survey crew chief with BF Engineering from Arkansas waited for Border Patrol agents to let him in. He showed Border Report blueprints with dozens of planned markers for the quarter-mile area.
Some environmentalists had been let in earlier, he said, to transplant rare plants from the construction zone.
Last Friday, a group of high school students from Pharr, Texas, traveled to the refuge and transplanted strawberry cactus and other plants from the zone, said Jonathan Salinas of the executive committee of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, who went with them.
Conferring with local officials
Construction of a border wall on these federal lands does not require special permission. But elsewhere in Starr County it does.
That is because in appropriating billions of dollars for a border wall, Congress inserted language that requires U.S. Customs and Border Protection to consult with “community leaders” regarding border wall plans for incorporated towns in Starr County, including Rio Grande City, Roma, Escobares, La Grulla and Salineno.
But rural areas like Fronton are not included in this codicil.
Altogether, CBP has announced that 52 miles of border wall will be built around the entire Starr County.
Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, said the county’s leaders as a group submitted their suggested plans to CBP for where they believe wall construction should go in Starr County, including special plans for the Roma Port of Entry. But they have not been told whether those are being considered, she recently told Border Report.
Border Report has repeatedly requested to see the Starr County leaders’ proposed plans and even visited Benavidez’ office on Wednesday, but those plans have not been shared with Border Report.
Fear of flooding in Starr County
With a population of only 61,000, Starr County is a flat, rural county, which environmentalists fear will suffer major flooding if a border wall is built.
In 2006 when the Secure Fence Act was approved and construction for a border levee wall began soon thereafter in Hidalgo County — which is to the east — levees were never built in Starr County because of serious flooding concerns.
A letter written in 2008 and obtained by FOIA by the Sierra Club, then-commissioner of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection W. Ralph Basham confirmed that fears of flooding at the time prevented the construction of 14 miles of levee walls. which was
The letter read: “After months of hard work trying to find a technical solution that would allow the construction of Secure Border Initiative (SBI) Infrastructure in the flood plain of the Rio Grande in the areas of Los Ebanos, Rio Grade City, Roma and Brownsville, I’ve concluded that given the current constraints, our respective staff were not able to find a feasible solution that would allow for the construction of these fence segments in the flood plain of the Rio Grande.”
An article last week in Scientific American reiterated those flood concerns.
Salinas, of the Sierra Club, questions what has changed with the county’s topography to mitigate flood concerns and to now allow construction of a wall nearly double in height and four times longer than that originally proposed.
“It would obviously be a crime to not let the public see this. This is for everyone’s enjoyment,” Salinas said Wednesday as he toured the Rio Grande near Fronton. A border wall “would hurt the river through erosion and it would hurt the migratory birds and all the wildlife that come down to the river for a source of water.”
“The wall would be constructed within the Rio Grande flood plain, causing a number of concerns. So Mr. Molina is correct to be concerned about that and quite frankly outraged by that,” Salinas said.
Border Report asked CBP officials exactly where the border wall is to be built in Starr County and if those plans have been finalized, and whether local leaders have been informed.
And although they confirmed the current land-clearing at the Arroyo Ramirez Wildlife Refuge Tract, this is all they said in an email regarding further construction: “U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) consulted with Starr County elected officials pursuant to section 232 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019 regarding the alignment and design of border barriers in locations specified in section 232. CBP is committed to continuing an open dialogue with stakeholders, including community leaders, as the border barrier system is implemented in Starr County.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.