A line of 18-foot-tall steel posts placed four inches apart cuts like a scar across the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge near McAllen, Texas. It’s a stretch of a barrier extending intermittently across 650 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border from California to Texas, and presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio vow to enlarge it if elected. The barrier is intended to deter illegal immigration and smuggling. Whether it has achieved those aims remains unclear, but what is clear in this part of Texas is that sections of the barrier bisect and isolate public and private lands, threatening to decimate wildlife habitats and leaving communities on both sides of the border that rely on wildlife tourism to wither.
The Rio Grande traces the entire 1,254-mile border between Mexico and Texas. Alongside a 120-mile stretch of the river that ends at the Gulf of Mexico, more than 200 miles south of San Antonio, is what’s known as the Rio Grande Valley. Communities on both sides of the river here share generations of family and business connections. Jim Darling, mayor of McAllen—one of the larger communities on the Texas side—says Mexican nationals spend about $1.3 billion annually shopping in the town, coming for the better prices and greater selection. Some 70,000 visitors walk across the border, and tens of thousands more come by car or air every year.
Darling points out that illegal-crossing numbers are down in the McAllen area and that many of those who do come across illegally aren’t exactly being sneaky about it. “Here it is primarily women and children and unaccompanied minors from Central America seeking asylum,” says Darling. “They walk across the bridge and say, ‘Here I am.’”
Because this part of the Rio Grande bends, twists and tends to flood, the barrier doesn’t follow the actual border. It sits as far as several miles north of it in many places and often marches straight where the river turns. As a result, land throughout the valley ended up on the Mexican side of the barrier, including private homes; a former Audubon Society sanctuary near Brownsville, Texas; parts of several state Wildlife Management Areas; and significant portions of three national wildlife refuges, including the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Laguna Atascosa and Santa Ana refuges.