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Trump's Border Wall Would Go Through Laredo's Historic Downtown


President Trump's border wall is coming to Laredo, Texas. The federal government plans to build 69 miles of the massive barrier through the city's historic downtown but not if opponents in Laredo have anything to do with it. NPR's John Burnett reports that an unusual coalition of activists, landowners, city officials and business leaders are banding together to try and stop it.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: When it became clear that Trump's imposing border barrier would plow through the center of this proud city, Laredo assembled what may be the most diverse coalition of wall haters anywhere on the U.S.-Mexico divide.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Our waters (ph).

BURNETT: That's a noisy contingent of folks in black No Border Wall T-shirts who took to the streets. They share the movement with sedate bankers in starched white shirts and gray suits who are just as passionate.

DENNIS NIXON: Here, we have a beautiful river, a historic river that is an amenity for our city and our area. It's disheartening. And so it's just, why would you want a wall on the Potomac? Or why would you want a wall on the East River in New York City?

BURNETT: That's Dennis Nixon. I talked to him in his plush offices at the International Bank of Commerce, where he's chairman. Also joining the anti-wall coalition are outraged property owners like Elsa Hull. She lives on a remote three-acre plot downriver where there are plans for the wall and stadium lights every 150 feet.

ELSA HULL: And one of the things we like to do out here - I have a telescope - we like to observe the night sky, meteor showers. And the bright lights will wash out our night sky, no more Milky Way, you know? There's so many reasons that this wall is just a horrible idea.

BURNETT: And leading the charge against the border wall is the Laredo City Council. The federal government has sued Laredo to get access to nearly a thousand acres of city-owned riverfront. The city has refused to allow surveyors on its property, contending that Congress did not specify the wall to be built in Laredo. That issue is pending before a local federal judge. Mayor Pete Saenz embodies the close ties between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, in his double life as a mariachi singer.

PETE SAENZ: (Singing in Spanish).

BURNETT: Laredo was founded 265 years ago as a Spanish colony, and it retains deep cultural and familial relationships with its sister city opposite the Rio Grande.

SAENZ: Our policy, again, has been that basically we're against any physical structure. But as a last resort, I mean, there's always a plan A and a plan B.

BURNETT: Mayor Saenz says plan A is to block construction of the 30-foot rampart. Plan B is if the wall is coming any way, don't let it deface downtown. There are discussions ongoing with Customs and Border Protection to build, instead of an ugly levee wall with steel barriers on top, a concrete riverwalk or bulkhead. The structure would stop illegal crossers, hold back seasonal floods and function as a sort of promenade.

SAENZ: It would be more easy on the eyes. It would be aesthetically pleasing, as I said. In this world, I mean, you got to make choices sometimes, especially when you're pinned down and they've got you beat. So, you know, we're doing the best we can with the situation that we confront ourselves with.

BURNETT: The agency confirmed to NPR that it is open to constructing a mile-long bulkhead, but the other 68 miles of steel fencing would continue as planned. An Alabama construction company has been selected to build the first 14 miles at a cost of $20 million a mile. CBP says the Laredo sector is an area of high illegal activity and that the wall is needed to protect people from drug and human smuggling. This is what baffles locals. CBP's own figures show that apprehensions in the Laredo sector have been among the lowest on the southwest border consistently for more than two decades. Moreover, DEA agents say the vast majority of illegal narcotics are smuggled in vehicles across international bridges, not by backpackers through the bush. Carlos Flores is a local lawyer who's part of the anti-wall movement.

CARLOS FLORES: Laredo is across of Nuevo Laredo, which is one of the most dangerous cities in northern Mexico, and Laredo is one of the safest cities in America, and we don't have a border wall. So where is the problem?

BURNETT: CBP says construction will not begin here until early 2021. With that in mind, opponents are still working on plan A, hold off the bulldozers until after the presidential election. Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar is urging his constituents to stonewall the feds.

HENRY CUELLAR: Do not give them entry. Delay the process, and hopefully November, we'll have a new White House, a new president at the White House.

BURNETT: And the new president would presumably halt wall construction. But wait, there's a plan C in case Trump wins. In this scenario, maybe he could be convinced that he no longer has to pander to his base and he could pull the plug on the wall. This is what Dennis Nixon hopes for. He's the bank chairman who's a big Trump supporter.

NIXON: I want him to change his mind. I want him to spend some time to look at the issue and maybe we'll take it out of the political arena at that time when he's not running for reelection again. And time changes things. People do learn and people do evolve.

BURNETT: Anything to keep the city of Laredo connected to its storied river.

John Burnett, NPR News, Laredo, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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