Where Trump's border rhetoric meets reality

Story highlights

  • Hurd says his district is a case in point why a complete border wall doesn't make sense
  • The Southern border can change dramatically from mile to mile

Del Rio, Texas (CNN)"So where would you put a wall?"

The question was being posed by a Texas congressman as he gazed out over the crystal blue water, with Mexico a few dozen yards ahead of him and the US a few dozen yards behind.
Republican Rep. Will Hurd was floating on a National Park Service boat at the international boundary line on the Rio Grande River. At our backs were the gentle desert hills of Amistad National Recreation Area, a national park that shares 83 miles of border with Mexico. In front of us was more desert, uninhabited land on the Mexico side.
    We were getting a tour of the Amistad Reservoir and surrounding river -- a body of water that is essential to the region for drinking water, irrigation, recreation, commercial fishing and ecological and archeological significance.
    "Building a wall on the middle of a lake is actually called a dam," Hurd said emphatically.
    Hurd is a rarity on Capitol Hill -- a Republican who won a congressional district that was carried by Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.
    In the debate over what to do at the southern border, none of Hurd's colleagues can lay claim to a bigger chunk of it than he can. His district, which runs from the outer ring of El Paso on the western edge of Texas to the region due south of San Antonio in the middle of the state, includes more than 800 miles of border with Mexico, which is more than one-third of the entire US-Mexico border.
    And it is a case in point, he says, in why much of the Trump administration's border security rhetoric doesn't match the actual situation at the border.
    The sophomore congressman has been outspoken against President Donald Trump's oft stated objective of building a 2,000-mile wall along the entire border. He even brought pictures of parts of his district to a congressional hearing where the newly minted Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly was testifying in January, asking Kelly where a wall could be built in places like Amistad and nearby Big Bend National Park. Kelly acknowledged that it may not make sense in every spot.
    Hurd's credibility on the subject isn't only based on growing up and attending school in Texas. The San Antonio native spent nearly a decade in the CIA overseas and went on to advise a cybersecurity firm, giving him a deep understanding of best practices in approaching security. His background is readily apparent as he talks about the issue, with common phrases like "defense in depth" and "tactics, techniques and procedures" peppering his conversation.
    Back home in his district, Hurd is not alone in his opposition to a wall.
    As residents of the region are intimately familiar, the border can change dramatically over the course of a few miles, from deserted river-filled canyons to ranch land to densely populated towns. And Mexico feels like a valued neighbor, rather than a troublesome enemy.
    Not far from where Hurd was floating, in fact, there is a dam -- one that is jointly run by Mexico and the US as part of an international treaty. Two eagles sit atop the dam, one for the US and another one with a snake in its mouth symbolizing Mexico.
    Amistad, the name of the park, reservoir and dam, actually means friendship in Spanish -- a symbol of the interconnected relationship that communities on the Texas side of the border have with their Mexican counterparts just across the river.
    Area residents, law enforcement professionals and business leaders in this community say Amistad exemplifies life at the border for them. While they want a secure border and to combat any cartels and violence in Mexico, a closed border could be devastating to their way of life.
    "My entire district needs cooperation with their Mexican counterparts," Hurd said. "I have 820 miles of border. It goes from Eagle Pass all the way to El Paso. On every public safety issue, whether it's local or federal law enforcement, they work with their counterparts."
    And they push back at Trump's characterization of the border as a "tremendous danger," as he described it while visiting Texas in 2015, or as Attorney General Jeff Sessions called it in April, "ground zero" and "where we first take our stand."
    "Life here is very peaceful. It's very quiet," said Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez, whose county includes Amistad and nearby Del Rio, Texas, a town of nearly 40,000 people.
    Martinez, whose county sheriff deputies work closely with Border Patrol, Park Rangers and local police to maintain public safety in the border county, bristled at any suggestion the area is crime-ridden.
    "It is not a war zone in Val Verde County," Martinez said. "Is there an illegal immigration problem? Is there a drug-smuggling problem? Yes there is, but I don't think it is to the extent that is made out throughout the country. It's not a war zone."
    Town business leaders say the portrayal of the border as unsafe has hurt the local economy, with businesses on both sides of the border suffering.
    "One of the things that I don't like is all the bad publicity that's coming out about the border," said Blanca Larson, the director of the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce. "People tried to make us a divided community, which we're not."
    "I don't know if it's so much we're on the border -- we straddle the border, is probably a better way to state it," said Mike Wrob, president of the chamber and a local businessman. "Acuña and Del Rio are so closely intertwined, and it's just part of the fabric of the community," he added, referring to the Mexican city Ciudad Acuña that sits just across the river.

    A varied border

    Roughly 50 miles from Del Rio in the opposite direction from the national park sits Eagle Pass, Texas, another small town of nearly 30,000 people. Whereas Del Rio sits a few miles back from the river, neighbored by a national park, Eagle Pass and its sister city Piedras Negras, Mexico, sit a stone's throw from one another, across a narrow stretch of the river. Public soccer fields and a municipal golf course line the Rio Grande on the US side and a manicured river-walk runs along the Mexico side, with both cities' downtowns connected by two steadily busy international bridges running overhead.
    In Fiscal Year 2016, the region that includes Eagle Pass had nearly 11 million pedestrians legally cross the border at its eight ports of entry, and more than 41 million came across as vehicle passengers.
    Both Eagle Pass and Del Rio have strategically placed fencing along the more populated areas, designed to push any would-be illegal activity to areas where it would be easier to intercept before it disappears.
    The river is regularly patrolled by various types of Border Patrol boats, including air boats for the narrower, more densely populated areas and hardier boats for the deserted, wider and more dramatic stretches.
    The stretch of river between Del Rio and Eagle Pass is almost entirely made up of privately owned ranches, which rely on access to the river for irrigation and watering livestock. Border Patrol personnel work closely with each ranch owner to collaborate on patrolling that land and intercepting illegal activity.
    The roughly 100-mile stretch encompassing the park, private land and two towns, all patrolled by the same sector headquarters of CBP, encapsulates how much the Border Patrol mission can vary -- and how a cookie cutter solution is misguided.
    "Here's what everybody needs to know about this district of the border -- one of the most diverse parts of the border: You can't have a one-size-fits-all solution to border security," Hurd said. "What you need here in Lake Amistad and Del Rio, Texas, is very different than what you need in El Paso, or further down in Texas in Harlingen, and even more so in San Diego. ... What we need here is more boats, and we need more cameras. In a place like El Paso, you need other things. In Big Bend National Park, you need horses."
    Matthew Hudak, the acting sector chief patrol agent in the area, echoed Hurd in emphasizing that while there may be stretches of the sector where a wall or fence make sense, there are more strategic investments that could make more of a difference than a complete wall.
    "We do have some fencing and that offers advantages to us," Hudak said during our tour of the Rio Grande, adding that there are "some areas" where a wall "might not be the right solution" for practical reasons like flooding and a better answer could be "different technology or a combination of fencing and technology."
    Over and over, residents of the area told CNN that their message to Washington is to actually attempt to understand the situation at the border before coming up with policies for it.
    "It's two cities, but it's one destiny," said Morris Libson, a businessman who lives in Eagle Pass and does business both in Texas and his town's sister city Piedras Negras. "It's one place where everything is so intertwined. ... You know, when you talk about a wall, that would be devastating for our communities, both of 'em. And I think it would be of almost no use to do that."
    Val Verde County Judge Efrain Valdez, who has also served as mayor of Del Rio, says his community has been fighting Washington's prescribed solutions for years, going back more than a decade to when then-President George W. Bush signed into law the Secure Fence Act, which authorized more fencing, surveillance, checkpoints and barriers on the border.
    "I tell people in Washington, don't pass laws before you even come to visit us," Valdez said. He noted a wide range of factors that make a wall unsuitable for Texas: access to the water of the Rio Grande for livestock, irrigation and drinking; the high percentage of land that is privately owned and would need to be bought out by the government; and the ecologically significant national parks.
    "Here in Texas, one-size-fits-all doesn't work," Valdez said.