Nearly five years ago, Salvador J. Castillo and Yvette Arroyo found the perfect home to raise their family.
A few miles west of Brownsville, they walked into their backyard on a recent afternoon, prompting two rabbits to scurry in opposite directions as the breeze rustled through the leaves of a line of trees along the back fence line of their property.
Behind the fence, the river levee stood as a backdrop to their tranquil life about a half-mile from the Rio Grande.
“The tree line, from what I understand is, it’s gone,” Arroyo said, leaning against a tree that stood 18- or 20-feet tall. “They’re going to cut all my trees. We love taking pictures out here.”
That’s because that line of trees may one day be replaced with 18-foot steel bollard fencing that President Donald Trump has promised to build to secure the border.
But for Arroyo and Castillo, a wall standing tall approximately 40 feet from their back porch will just destroy the life they’ve built together in a small neighborhood south of Military Highway.
Castillo is Cameron County’s Veteran Service’s director, a position he’s held since 2011, and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army.
Arroyo is a stay-at-home mother raising the couple’s children while working toward a graduate degree in counseling at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.
Their home is their paradise.
“You know, you sit here in the morning and have a cup of coffee and in the afternoon a beer,” Arroyo said.
Castillo loves how quiet his home is and says the sunsets, which can’t be beat, attracted him when the couple was house hunting.
“We have beautiful birds,” Castillo said. “I never imagined that birds are that beautiful, but we get them here.”
The backyard is perfect for their children, private and safe.
But six months ago, they received a letter foreshadowing a probable and dramatic change to their paradise, what Castillo refers to as the beginning of their ordeal.
“Well, it all started with a letter in the mail saying that it was just documents that we should sign … to give the Army Corps of Engineers entry to this property,” Arroyo said. “It was on a volunteer basis.”
But Arroyo and Castillo didn’t want strangers entering their property.
Then a couple weeks later another letter came. This time, Arroyo said, she realized that there was nothing voluntary about the letters at all.
“So, at first, it was like this is on a volunteer basis, but then it was not on a volunteer basis and they are going to take us to court,” Arroyo said.
In late May, the government filed a land condemnation lawsuit against Castillo and Arroyo because they didn’t sign papers allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entry to their property.
Castillo and Arroyo are defendants in one of three lawsuits the government has filed against property owners in and around Brownsville in recent weeks.
Owners of an agricultural property in west Brownsville were the first to be sued. Last week, another homeowner who lives in Castillo and Arroyo’s small neighborhood was also sued.
The government, however, apparently has targeted more property owners than just the ones they’ve sued.
Arroyo and Castillo said their neighbors who live on the backside of the neighborhood against the levee all received the same letters they received six months ago.
Castillo said one neighbor, who he says is a really nice lady, felt intimidated, a sentiment Arroyo echoed.
“They see the letter saying United States against whoever it is, so I know a lot of our neighbors felt intimidated,” Arroyo said. “And honestly, I feel they weren’t understanding what it really was because the initial letter did not say everything that’s here.”
Arroyo pointed to a stack of papers that go into great deal about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans for surveying their property for border security purposes.
“Everything that’s here, it’s very different from the initial paper that they gave us,” Arroyo said.
And the government did more than just send letters before suing, they said.
Arroyo and Castillo said the Assistant United States Attorney who eventually sued them, Baltazar Salazar, went to great lengths in his efforts to get the couple to sign their rights away.
Castillo said Salazar called him at work. He said Salazar called his wife.
“I feel like … there was a tactic that they were kind of utilizing to catch us separately because I’m a little more of a moderate and she’s very on the other side,” Castillo said, explaining that he was open to speaking to the attorney while is wife was resistant. “We’re still married. So whatever you have to say to me, let’s do it together.”
He believes the government was trying to see if it could get one of them to sign the paper while they weren’t together.
“I was like no, get us together and we can talk about because I’m not going to make a decision without my wife,” Castillo said. “So let’s just get us together and stop wasting your time and stop wasting my time.”
For the couple who has been enjoying the quiet while raising their children and living their lives, the thought of contractors having 24 hours per day, 7 days a week access to their property for 12 months is disturbing.
“What this is saying,” Arroyo said, pointing to paperwork the government provided them, “is that they can have access to our property whenever they want for 12 months. They have access to demolish anything. They have access to demolish vegetation. They can access, any government contractor, basically anybody can come in at anytime into the property.”
That includes their home. The government’s proposed area to survey their property is the entire property, not just the backyard.
And even those Arroyo and Castillo have not given the government permission, Arroyo said she already caught surveyors making markings on their property.
“I saw them making markings and since they didn’t have access to the property, they just used a stick and put the markings inside,” Arroyo said. “Legally, they are not inside the property.”
That bothers Castillo.
“I have young children and we let them out in the back and what is to say they don’t come, who are these people,” Castillo asked. “Who are these contractors?”
But perhaps the most insulting part of the government’s effort is the financial offer contained in the lawsuit seeking right of entry.
“They’re insulting. One hundred dollars for your privacy for the home that you worked hard for,” Arroyo said. “For 12 months, and the fact that they have every right to demolish everything we own without any type of compensation. I mean $100 on a $240,000 home?”
SECURING THE BORDER
Late last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced a $3,731,380 contract for seven gates to fill in gaps in the border wall with an additional option for four gates valued at $1,985,525—or $519,710 per gate for 11 gates.
There is no gap in the border wall behind Arroyo and Castillo’s house. In fact, there is no border wall at all.
The nearest section of border is about a quarter-mile to the east of their home.
In February, Congress ended a government shutdown after budgeting $1.4 billion for 55 miles of new border wall that would be built in the Rio Grande Valley.
Much of the discussion around that funding has focused on Hidalgo and Starr counties. Cameron County, which has had border wall for a decade, hasn’t come up in that conversation and U.S. Customs and Border Protection hasn’t announced any plans for building new border wall in Cameron County, aside from the 11 gates.
Construction on that effort is ongoing and construction workers have been seen working in the Southmost area and south of Los Indios.
Trump has said the wall is necessary to stop the illegal flow of drugs from Mexico into the United States and to stop illegal immigration.
In May, Border Patrol reported apprehending nearly 133,000 undocumented immigrants along the southwestern border, the largest amount for any month since 2007.
So far this year, Border Patrol has reported apprehending approximately 593,500 undocumented immigrants.
But Castillo and Arroyo said they haven’t seen any drug traffickers or undocumented immigrants tracking through their backyard. They haven’t seen signs of people crossing through their property, either.
“We’re not saying that there isn’t anything, but we haven’t seen anything,” Castillo said.
Arroyo echoed that sentiment, saying sometimes she stays up late at night and she’s never heard or seen anyone in the vicinity of her backyard.
“Either they’re not coming through here or they’re just really good,” Castillo said.
In fact, illegal immigrants and clandestine drug traffickers are their last worry.
“I’m worried about strangers in our backyard for the first time in four years,” Arroyo said.
While the future of Castillo and Arroyo’s oasis of peace from the busy life of work and school is uncertain, their determination to protect it is not.
“I think he was pretty irritated,” Castillo said of Salazar, the government attorney, who he described as persistent but polite. “I know where they’re coming from, but this is my house.”
For Castillo, whose family has lived in the Rio Grande Valley for nearly 180 years, it’s principle.
“I’m not going to let them take it. I know the odds of winning are limited to us because of eminent domain, I know what it means,” Castillo said. “But also, we’re protected by the Constitution and certain stipulations, so that’s what I’m going for.”
And he’s ready for that uphill battle.
“I’ve been in the military,” Castillo said. “I know how to fight. Let’s do it.”