Last September, 73-year-old Juan Vargas was hospitalized with the coronavirus at Laredo Medical Center in south Texas, and it was not looking good. “We all thought he was going to die,” says his son Jerry. “We were getting ready for basically that.”
To avoid a potential legal quagmire if things turned for the worse, the elder Vargas signed an agreement with the federal government that the family had been fighting for over a year: Juan agreed to allow the Army Corps of Engineers right of entry to their ranch on the U.S.-Mexico border, paving the way for the construction of President Trump’s wall. The family didn’t immediately expect much to come of it. Engineers said they would only sample the soil and remove some light brush, and with their neighbors suing the administration over the plan to build on their property, it wouldn’t make sense to put in heavy work only to stop after a few acres. (Plots on the border in south Texas are long and skinny, designed to cram in as many tracts with Rio Grande access as possible.) Plus, the virus that put Juan Vargas in the hospital had made Trump’s electoral prospects and the future of his wall an open question.
Vargas eventually recovered, to the point that he can even hunt and fish again on the family ranch. While out tracking white-tailed deer in January, he noticed that a bulldozer had removed mesquite trees and demolished a 40-foot cliff near the river to make way for a road. “It looked like they used dynamite,” his son recalls, “but it was a dozer who knew what he was doing.”
The demolition on the Vargas ranch two months after Trump’s electoral loss is consistent with reports from other landowners and environmental advocates who have described an uptick in contractor activity along the vast southern border after November 3. And though President Joe Biden’s swath of day-one executive orders included a 60-day pause on all wall construction — and ended the national emergency that Trump declared so he could reroute billions of dollars in Pentagon funding toward the effort — the cleanup is just beginning. As Vargas puts it, “They’re gone and now we’re left with this.”
The new administration has inherited a much larger quagmire, involving expensive outstanding contracts, hundreds of miles of unfinished construction, and frustrated parties all along the border. Overseeing an alphabet soup of government agencies involved in the undertaking, President Biden must now figure out which option is the least bad.
Finishing the thing is out of the question.
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