LA GRULLA, Texas — The federal government said it needed Ociel Mendoza’s land on the outskirts of this tiny Texas town — and it couldn’t wait any longer.
Each additional day of delay was costing the government $15,000 as contractors waited to begin construction on the border fence slated to go through Mendoza’s ranch, the Department of Justice argued in court filings. By Nov. 24, the tab for the delay had reached nearly $1.6 million, the land acquisition manager for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in an affidavit.
More than a year earlier, CBP had awarded a contract then worth $33 million to a New Mexico-based company to build 4 miles of fencing in Starr County. The county is one of the top targets of President Donald Trump’s administration for a border wall and a place agents have called the most volatile stretch in the nation. Construction was slated to begin in November 2019, the agency announced.
There was one problem: The government had awarded the contract before obtaining the land it needed, including Mendoza’s. This September, after more than a year without getting that land, CBP had to suspend the contract to Southwest Valley Constructors, accruing “substantial” charges along the way, according to court documents.
An investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune has found that the government’s strategy of awarding contracts before acquiring titles to the land in Texas has led to millions of dollars in costs for delays, according to calculations based on statements made by CBP officials in court filings. On at least two dozen occasions, the agency has used the argument, often successfully, to convince even dubious federal judges to immediately seize land from property owners fighting their eminent domain cases.
The situation could become even more complicated if President-elect Joe Biden makes good on his promise to stop border wall construction.
In 2016, when it became clear that Donald Trump would become president, media outlets across the U.S. were blindsided by the results. They pledged to do better representing the larger communities that make up America. That included conservatives, those in rural areas (a complex group on its own) and, yes, Latinos.
Four years later, though Trump did not win reelection, former Vice President Joe Biden’s narrower margin of victory in spite of polls predicting a landslide have media outlets asking similar questions all over again. The increased percentage of Latino voters for Trump in particular caught many off guard. How could pollsters get it wrong again? And is the media, and a lack of diversity in newsrooms, part of the problem?
Last time around, a national publication made a show of announcing it was expanding its coverage teams and hiring people that brought those unique perspectives. I applied for a spot to cover immigration even though I knew that coming from a smaller newspaper, it would be a long shot. Still, if it was serious about diversifying the newsroom, I thought, I had a chance.
I’m a first-generation immigrant, born in Ciudad Juárez and raised across the border in El Paso, in a middle-class family. While my dad had been an engineer in Mexico, he became a life insurance salesman when we emigrated, then a truck driver, something he is still doing in his mid-60s. There’s no 401(k) for him, there’s no deep savings account or a fully paid mortgage.
When I applied for the position, I had been an immigration reporter for about a decade; I had experience writing about immigrants and refugees from a dozen countries. Spoiler alert, I didn’t get the job, neither did another person of color.
It didn’t have to be me, by any means, but we’ve made so little progress in diversifying our newsrooms. Newsrooms are a window into America. Journalists have the great power — and responsibility — to choose whose voices we represent and how. We are part, or should be, of the communities we cover.
Growing up in El Paso meant taking certain things for granted, like speaking two languages and living in two cultures. It was simply a way of life.
My grandfather, born to a mining family in New Mexico, at some point returned to Mexico, where he grew up, got married and had my mother (along with nine other children).
I was born across the border in Juárez. When I was 8, my father moved us al otro lado to El Paso in search of better opportunities.
My husband was born in El Paso but raised in Juárez, learning Englishby listening to oldies and watching cartoons.
My family’s story is not unique. Most of us straddle the border, not feeling foreign on either side.
To us, it is not Juárez and El Paso — it’s one big city where people cross from one side to the other to shop or eat out. Where families like my own keep a home in each place. The cities are intertwined, and so are the people. And that makes us better; it makes us stronger.
People in El Paso switch from English to Spanish, sometimes in the same sentence; we can have a carne asada (grilled meat) one day and cook hot dogs the next. Families celebrate the Fourth of July and el 16 de septiembre, Mexico’s independence day. Neither makes you less American or less Mexican.
As I read the four pages of the so-called manifesto posted by the accused El Paso shooter, I realized that the seamless blending of two cultures and ethnicities that El Paso represents was the very quality that he feared the most. The “Hispanic invasion of Texas,” as he called it.
He was against race mixing, he said, and cultural diversity. His solution was the physical separation of the races, which would in his view, “improve social unity by granting each race self-determination within their respective territory(s).”
He was afraid of people like me. Brown. He recoiled from a connection that my community embraced.
I found this jarring. Spending most of my childhood and teenage years in El Paso meant seeing others who looked like me, sounded like me. Judges. Teachers. Doctors. I was not the “other.”
It wasn’t until I moved to Tennessee in 2007 that I realized I was actually seen as a foreigner. It was the first time people questioned whether I belonged. The first time I was told to go back to where I came from.
In El Paso we live in a sort of bubble where we are generally shielded from racism and discrimination.
This doesn’t mean El Pasoans don’t have their own issues with immigration. I’ve heard plenty of conversations — including in my family’s kitchen — about Central Americans arriving and how Juárez has its own problems and how local governments should help those in need first, instead of people coming from elsewhere. About how their numbers are overwhelming the border cities. About how you don’t know who they are and what their intentions might be.
And of course, El Paso could benefit from better-paying jobs, better school equity, more voter participation and engagement.
Somehow, El Paso continues to have that small-community feel in an ever-sprawling city. It’s still the place where my parents can leave the house without locking the door and not worry about it (even though I continue to advise against it). Where you run into people you know when you’re out shopping — including at Walmart. Where people show up for each other, as we’ve seen these last few days.
When I talked to my Dad Sunday, he said he had to go to Walmart later that day.
Do you feel weird about it? I asked him in Spanish.
You can’t live in fear, he responded. Life must go on.
And if more of Texas becomes like El Paso, I say there’s nothing to be afraid of. Quite the opposite: We should embrace it.
NOGALES, Ariz. — It’s been nearly three months since troops first showed up at the Southern Arizona border, placing razor wire atop the fence and blocking some port lanes in anticipation of Central American caravans that instead went to the California line.
As more troops are being deployed to the border, locals here are calling for the razor wire to be removed, saying it hurts businesses and sends the wrong message.
“In Nogales we are used to seeing the federal government make decisions about our surroundings,” said Evan Kory, whose family owns Kory’s and La Cinderella stores in downtown Nogales. “But the razor wire was way more aggressive than anything we had seen, which scared me. It felt like it was out of our hands as a border community. You feel powerless, like your voices aren’t heard.”
About 3,500 additional active-duty service members will be sent to the border as part of a new request from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that extends their mission through the end of the fiscal year. There are about 2,300 troops currently deployed, down from 5,900.
In Arizona, there are about 650 troops assisting Customs and Border Protection, down from the 1,500 originally deployed in the beginning of November. That’s in addition to hundreds of National Guard troops activated since April.
Across the U.S.-Mexico border, the projected cost of the deployment of the National Guard is $550 million through the fiscal year, Department of Defense officials said at a Jan. 29 congressional hearing. So far another $132 million has been spent on the active-duty military on the border, and officials said they couldn’t estimate the full fiscal-year cost.
While the soldiers were initially tasked with helping CBP strengthen ports of entry and working on logistics and transportation, the new mission focuses on surveillance and placing 150 miles of additional concertina wire away from the ports. So far, they’ve laid 70 miles of the wire near ports in Texas, Arizona and California.
On Saturday, the Nogales International newspaper reported that more troops were already in town adding wire. As many as six rows can be seen coiled across a section of fence in an image posted on social media.
Tucson’s iconic Benedictine Monastery opened its doors to Central American asylum seekers ahead of schedule due to larger numbers of families arriving at the border and being released by immigration officials.
Catholic Community Services, which is running the shelter inside the monastery, received the keys on Friday and weren’t planning to open for another two weeks to get the space ready, said Teresa Cavendish, director of operations. But on Saturday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement called them to ask how many people they could take.
“They had 130 who needed to be released,” said Cavendish. The Inn Project, run by the United Methodist Church, could take between 40 and 50, so she told the officials the Casa Alitas network of shelters could take the rest.
The Border Patrol has seen an increase in the number of large groups of 100 immigrants or more apprehended along the southern border in the El Paso, Rio Grande Valley, Tucson and Yuma sectors. During the last four months, the agency said smugglers and traffickers have delivered 53 large groups, totaling 8,797 adults and children.
Within six hours that day, Cavendish said they had the monastery ready and started to receive families vetted by ICE. And it hasn’t stopped.
The owner of the Benedictine Monastery offered to let asylum seekers and migrants stay at the facility while their final destinations are arranged. That’s usually places where they have a close friend or relative who can sponsor them while their immigration cases are processed.
Developer Ross Rulney plans to build apartments around the monastery at 800 N. Country Club Road and has a few more months of rezoning hearings before construction can begin. He offered its use for housing refugees through the end of May since it was empty. Catholic Community Services is the tenant and Rulney is not involved with the operations, nor is he charging rent or receiving any government reimbursement.
So far, Cavendish said, the response by volunteers, which includes medical staff, has been overwhelming. On Saturday afternoon, they quickly helped put together the rooms with cots and blankets, and sorted donated food and clothing in time to receive the first 57 families, mostly from Guatemala.