But they're still standing by their man
“Might have some four-wheelin’ fun out here, it’s starting to rain”, says Chris Cabrera, 16-year border patrol veteran, as he revs his pickup towards the Rio Grande River.
I’ve joined Chris and Miriam Cepeda, who work with border agents and volunteered for the Trump campaign, on a trip along the border.
The number of undocumented migrants stopped and detained along the border has plummeted so far this year, hitting the lowest levels in at least 17-years.
Chris is in no doubt that President Trump is responsible for the reduced figure.
“Agents are excited that things have started to change.
“The biggest thing has already been done. The majority of us are in favour of that wall. This is what’s needed," he says as the truck crunches through the thick brush that knots atop the Rio Grande floodplain.
“There’s a lot of talk about immigration reform, and yeah that’s needed, but the wall comes first.
"If your sink was to overflow, are you gonna start mopping first or are you gonna turn off the water?”
Chris Cabrera (right) and Miriam Cepeda (left)
Not that Chris is unsympathetic to the plight of the thousands of migrants he’s come across in his time on the ‘green line’, as it’s dubbed by those who guard it.
Eyeing a small child-sized red t-shirt caught on a branch, Chris says he sees kids as young as two crossing the river.
“You get five-year-olds crossing with a two-year-old brother or sister. We’ve found two-year-olds, four-year-olds alone in the brush by themselves. You find small children who’ve fallen to the elements and die out here, alone.
“It’s a terrible thing. One is too many but it’s because all too common. You have to wonder how many didn’t make it this far. Falling ill along the way? Subject to a human trafficker or sexual predator? There are too many unknowns,” he says.
Chris believes building the wall will deter people from risking their lives out here.
While the border patrol agents are gearing up for a wall and still toasting the new administration, some business owners further east along the great river are eyeing up an opportunity.
Robert Cameron, a tour guide, says “I don’t think it’ll ruin the landscape. I tend to think it’ll be like a monument or a landmark. It’ll be like as the Great Wall is to China.”
He’s driven me cross-country to look at the border fence outside Progreso Lakes. Its rusty, pointed columns look intimidating but not insurmountable.
He brings me closer. Down below lies a 15 foot drop against a sheer face of concrete. Ah.
“That’s pretty imposing,” he says. “But this fence doesn’t work, obviously. I think a bigger, taller obstacle won’t be 100% but it will be a greater deterrent to discourage people from venturing out. Keep in mind they have to swim across the water and then track, run, walk a half-mile before they get to this point,” he says pointing towards the hellish drop.
“But, there are gaps all the way all the fence. That’s why it doesn’t work.”
Not everyone is happy with the president’s pet project, however.
Jeremy Barnard is the General Manager of River Bend Resort & Golf Club in Brownsville, the southernmost city in Texas. It’s a sprawling property, earmarked for expansion, and is home to dozens of retirees from across America who have come for the gorgeous climate and the relaxed pace of life.
We take a spin in a golf cart along the top of the levee that cuts through the course. Jeremy explains that if the wall comes, everything to the south of that levee will be behind the wall, on the Mexican side of the border.
Jeremy Barnard, River Bend Resort & Golf Club, on the banks of the Rio Grande
“15 of the 18 holes are on the southside - 70% of the property. There’s 343 property owners, about 600 people. Of the 343 property owners, 220 of them are on the south side of the levee.
“The levee is the southernmost point you can build the wall. You’re a US citizen, you pay your taxes, and yet you live on the Mexican side of the wall.”
He says if the President wants to buy out the entire property, it will cost upwards of $200 million.
“I’m not a happy camper,” says 72-year-old resident Doug Nelson, originally from South Dakota, putting it mildly. “The wall is a 1920s or '30s operation. This is my permanent home. We need to get with the times,” he says
To add to the cruel irony of the situation, the majority of the residents voted for President Trump, the architect of their anguish. But they assure me they do not regret their choice.
My final tale from the borderland comes from an unexpected source.
After laying down for the night at an Air BnB in nearby Mission, I chatted with my hosts Joseph and Esmerelda - long-time dual-nationality Mexican immigrants - who wondered what a pasty-skinned, lone Irish traveller was doing in the Rio Grande Valley. I told them.
It turns out Joseph is a structural engineer and one of the projects he worked on was the Brownsville border fence.
Esmerelda tells me their daughter Samantha worked as an attorney for those fighting to keep their property during the last round of government buyouts in 2006.
“She was up and down the border in her little car with her bumper stickers ‘No to the Border Wall’ and then she comes home and we’re building the border wall,” she laughs.
I’d say it made for interesting dinner discussions anyway.
Joseph tells me the ease with which he and his colleagues hopped the fence to retrieve tools and materials from the other side. He sees the border wall as a ‘ridiculous project.’
His main concern is what it stands for.
“It’s the wrong idea as far as containment. It’s the wrong idea for friendship… It makes you kind of lose faith in this country. It’s not even about Trump. He’s just one guy. What about the millions that voted for him? It’s scary.”
So says a man who built the fence. It’s just another complexity of life on the line.
There will be no simple solution to this issue. But for President Trump, there is a warning here; proceed without caution, and he may risk finding out, as so many others have in the past, you simply don’t mess with Texas.