Longtime Middleton resident Sandy Rubchinuk on her visit to the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, where the border wall may be built.

The tour boat we took down the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas, was aptly named Riverside Dreamer. The people that live here, the year-round local residents and the thousands of winter escapees, all had dreams of this place staying the same as it has been for years. They enjoyed walking over the International Bridge to Nuevo Progresso for medical services, dental work, dining, and purchasing prescription medicine.

On our boat, the driver motored us up to the Anzalduas Dam, an irrigation and water control dam run by both Mexican and American workers together. The February weather was in the high seventies when I arrived and checked into my cabin in a huge RV park, where my childhood friend from Middleton and her husband live in their motorhome all winter. My friends and family warned me of the dangers, the stories they had heard, and the news reports. I wanted to see for myself where the wall was being built and what the dangers truly were.

The Rio Grande is a source of life for all species in this area; The entire ecosystem depends on it. Mission boasts of hosting the National Butterfly Center, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, headquarters of the World Birding Center, El Morillo Blanco, and the La Parida Banco unit of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. These properties make up about 2,000 acres of virgin and restored habitat protected for public benefit, as well as species conservation, recreation, and environmental education.

In only one week, I was able to kayak a lake in the park, hike the many trails, visit the dam both by land and water, and thoroughly immerse myself in the beauty of the verdant lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Bicycles were our usual mode of travel. I didn’t get to see all of the 530 types of birds, 300 different butterflies, and dozens of endemic species of bees, dragonflies, reptiles and mammals that make this their winter or full-time home. I really wanted to see the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi that live here; I hope to have the chance in the future. However, the future of all these species and the crucial habitat they need to survive is threatened.

Construction of new concrete and steel border wall is not taking place along the river’s edge. The wall planned to be built—and areas are already being bulldozed through federally protected lands—will be 1 mile to 1.5 miles from the river, which is the Mexican boundary. It will wall off many American-owned businesses, such as Riverside Dreams restaurant and tour boat business. It will wall off huge RV parks, which support jobs and boost the economy for six months of the year. It will wall off La Lomita, the national historic site and chapel where Father Roy Snipes and his dog hold Mass every Friday. It will destroy or damage 13,832 acres of federally protected wildlife refuge land. Most of all, it will wall off access to the Rio Grande itself, the river of life-giving waters that has been fought over for centuries. This means giving up our waterfront parks, businesses, and crucial protected habitat to the Mexican cartels, or whomever takes over all our lands that will be walled off from America by a 30 foot tall cement and steel wall, located up to 2 miles inland from the river.   

The Border Patrol agents come and talk to the residents in the RV parks often. They are friendly and tell us that we are safe. We believe them. We bicycle and hike in the wild areas, even up on the levee where we look over the lands and observe the 70 acres of the Butterfly Center that will be walled off. A sugar plantation owner decided to try and help. He built a wall, privately funded, for about 2 miles on the edge of the river. His motive was mostly self-serving, as his sugar cane fields will be on the Mexican side of the wall with the government’s plan. He has offered the wall to the United States but they have declined. So there will be two walls here, this man’s and Trump’s. Creatures will be trapped between them.

The Border Patrol agents tell us there are some places along the Texas-Mexican border that need a wall. People agree. This area is not one of them, and is using more modern ideas. As we boat down the Rio Grande, every 500 feet or so, there is a large elevated camera tower. There are drones and helicopters. There are U.S. patrol boats, as well as Mexican police airboats and powerboats. There are motion sensors and even camera balloons. 

The river is wide here, flows fast and very deep. It is dam controlled so it doesn’t turn into the creek that it appears to be near El Paso most of the summer. The parks and luxurious lodges and vacation homes on the Mexican side of the river are busy places. Children’s laughter as they enjoy birthday parties and swim in the river can often be heard from the American side. The river divides our countries but we are all sharing it now; The people that live here know that will change if the wall is built. They hope to make others more aware, to understand that what will be lost will be much greater than what will be gained.

I met a family from Kentucky in the RV park that shared their story with me. Since the “MPP, Remain in Mexico” policy (July), any refugees getting across the border are sent back, or those that reach the border stay there in tent cities. This couple pulls wagons loaded with donated supplies across the international bridges to distribute to the refugees. The Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center also helps those coming out of detention with asylum papers and a court date. Families get their first hot meal, first shower in months, and some clean clothes. Lisa and her husband used to bring the supplies over to Mexico in McAllen; Now they have to travel three hours to Brownsville and go over into the bridge to Matamoras. They have big hearts!

The people that live in the border towns should be listened to. My perceptions were changed by my visit, by both viewing the lands and talking with the residents. These people do not live in fear. They live in harmony with the people and the many species they protect. More than fifty laws have been waived for this wall to be built here. The creation of the wildlife preserves, the Butterfly Center, the federally protected lands of the LRGV (Lower Rio Grande Valley), these were all a dream of the people that live here and supporters from all over the world.

Signs at Father Roy’s church state, “No Wall Between Amigos.” I hope these kind and friendly people get to keep their riverside dreams.

—Sandy Rubchinuk is a longtime Middleton resident and president of the Middleton Stream Team.