Trump’s border wall and the slow decay of American soil

<span>Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Several miles south of the small town of San Juan, Texas, beyond acres of onion fields, orange groves and other cash crops sits a historic cemetery and the site of the beginning of a slow decay of American soil.

I hadn’t been to this area for more than a year because of the pandemic, and I was startled at how different this remote part of Texas had become. The most obvious change is the steel 18ft-high bollard fencing, among the last vestiges of Donald Trump’s glorious border wall with Mexico.

Trump visited this site in June with Governor Greg Abbott to tout his accomplishments in controlling the border and to praise Abbott for taking up the anti-immigrant baton that resonates so well with the conservative voting base in Texas.

The last time I came to visit this spot, no wall existed and the historic cemetery – the Eli Jackson cemetery – was under a 24-hour vigil by a Native American tribe called the Carrizo/Comecrudo, as well as other supporters who feared a border wall would destroy sacred burial land and a sacred piece of history.

The Eli Jackson family built this cemetery, designated a historic landmark by the state, on land owned by Nathanial Jackson, Eli’s father. Nathaniel was a slave owner from Alabama who fell in love with and married one of his slaves, Matilda Hicks, before the two fled to the banks of the Rio Grande in 1857 and settled on the border with Mexico. Nathaniel was known for his generosity to visitors and his ranch soon began a relatively unknown line of the vaunted Underground Railroad in which fleeing slaves escaped servitude and, with the Jackson family’s help, fled to Mexico where slavery was forbidden.

The Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe and its descendants also claim this area and, with the permission of the landowners, set up a camp in January 2019 to fend off any wall construction. Many of the inhabitants who camped out said they were veterans of the Keystone pipeline protests in northern Minnesota. And given the supply tent and other facilities that were erected adjacent to the Eli Jackson cemetery there was a suggestion that organizers hoped that a similarly large protest would develop in south Texas to fight the border wall.

The Eli Jackson cemetery near San Juan, Texas.
The Eli Jackson cemetery near San Juan, Texas. Photograph: Veronica Cardenas/Reuters

And despite a 24-hour vigil, often by as few as one or two diehard protesters in heat and cold for nearly a year in 2019, the efforts to protect the cemetery fell victim to Covid in 2020. As federal construction crews erected Trump’s wall ever closer to the cemetery, the landowners finally told the protesters to vacate. Soon, a large sign declaring the cemetery closed and camping prohibited was posted and the steel bollards marking the wall’s arrival began to overtake the horizon less than 100 yards from the burial grounds.

When I returned to this remote site, about a mile from the Rio Grande, the first thing I noticed was a road to get over an earthen flood levee and back to the cemetery was closed; a sign said the area was now a construction zone, a Trump border wall just a few yards east of the road. I found another road that circled around to the cemetery.

The protesters’ area of encampment, once a cleared field, was now the site of overgrown vegetation, leaving little evidence of human habitation for the better part of a year, suggesting the border wall decay has begun. It’s a decay that marks the beginning of a no man’s land: virtually uninhabitable, threatening because of its isolation, essentially a chunk of US territory that might as well belong to Mexico.

That’s because in south Texas the term border wall is a misnomer because of the unpredictability of the Rio Grande and a treaty with Mexico. While the great river is dammed and channeled along its international path through Texas, the Rio Grande can still bite back with massive and unpredictable flooding. One attempt to mitigate the threat resulted in a treaty with Mexico that was signed during the Nixon administration that prevents either side from altering the flow of the river with land impediments – something like a border wall.

To protect from flooding in south Texas, a long, mostly earthen levee generally follows the route of the Rio Grande from about a mile away. So, while border walls in Arizona and California may straddle the border with Mexico, those in south Texas are typically located atop or adjacent to the levee system, meaning that this so-called protective barrier is ceding about a mile of US territory behind the wall, effectively creating a no man’s land.

It was true under the wall that was built by the George W Bush administration and it’s true of the walls that were erected during the Trump administration.

Beyond the threat the creation of a no man’s land has to private homeowners and their property values, this region is also rich in ecological sites along the river. One of these, called the Southmost Preserve, is a thousand-acre wildlife preserve home to one of the only two remaining large stands of native Mexican sabal palm. More than 900 acres of that preserve is now in a no man’s land south of a Bush wall and locals generally avoid it because of the potential danger a no man’s land poses. Another Bush wall runs near the historic Hidalgo Pumphouse Museum and World Birding Center in the city of Hidalgo. Several nature trails run behind this area. But many of those trails are now behind a border wall and impassable or too dangerous to enter.

Critics had predicted that a Trump border wall in this region would have the same no-man’s-land result. What I didn’t realize was how quickly the negative effects of this isolated land would be felt. Aside from all the warnings to keep out when I recently visited the Jackson cemetery, there was an emptiness in this area that I had never felt before. An isolation that hinted at vulnerability.

The irony of this situation is that Texas, a state that brags about its commitment to property rights, continues its fight to finish the border wall. But I noticed that there was one section of the Trump wall that was about a mile long in this area. Then there was a mile-long gap before another section of wall began. So, this barrier effectively did little to deter unauthorized immigration because the migrants simply need to walk a mile or two in either direction to go around the wall. But this barrier, this big, beautiful wall, as Trump called it, that was built to protect US citizens from the “invasion” of migrants, was only truly effective at something else: keeping US citizens away from the no man’s land that it created and ceding the territory to Mexico.

Carlos Sanchez is director of public affairs for Hidalgo county, Texas. He was a journalist for 37 years and has worked at the Washington Post and Texas Monthly magazine, as well as eight other newsrooms. He can be reached at