A Win Against the Wall

A Q&A with Pamela Rivas. The Federal Government Wanted to Build a Border Wall on Her Family’s Land. After 13 Years, Rivas Finally Won It Back.

Pamela Rivas said she had a bad feeling when she learned Border Patrol agents had been to her parents’ home with papers for them to sign. The U.S. government, the Border Patrol agents said, wanted to build a wall on their property in Los Ebanos, Texas, on the land that had belonged to them for generations. It was the place where her large extended family hunted and fished and had picnics together. It was 2008, and the Secure Fence Act was in full swing in the Rio Grande Valley. Many families, many of whom had lived on the stretch of river before there was even a border, were being asked by federal agents to sign away their land.

Los Ebanos is a historic South Texas community established in a bend on the Rio Grande and named after its towering ebony trees. Its most notable landmark is a hand-pulled ferry, which travels between Texas and Mexico. The ferry is the last of its kind. There is a church, cemetery, and post office, and before the troubles in Mexico and the big security buildup on the border, the town had a few souvenir shops and a country story that did a brisk business catering to Winter Texans who wanted to ride the hand-pulled ferry.

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These days it’s a little desolate. The shops are abandoned. And the ferry crossing is now an official port of entry with chain link fences and armed border agents. But it’s still a beautiful historic town. And Rivas plans to pass on the land to her four sons. In Texas there are 111 miles of border wall, and most of the region is owned by private landowners, many of whom are still fighting the federal government to keep their land. And although President Biden campaigned on “not another foot” of wall, not much has changed for many landowners in South Texas, where the daily paper still publishes condemnation notices for land that will be taken to build more surveillance towers and border wall.

After many conversations, Rivas, a registered nurse, persuaded her parents not to sign the papers. Lawyers with the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project agreed to take her case in 2008 pro bono. And for the next 13 years — and four presidential administrations — Rivas fought for her family’s land. On September 21, she finally got the news that she’d won. It was a day she thought might never come. Rivas’s win is significant because many landowners  in Texas are still in legal limbo, waiting to hear if their land will be returned, or if the government will continue with condemnation proceedings. (The Department of Homeland Security recently announced it will build no more border wall, but Congress hasn’t rescinded funding designated for wall construction, which means construction could still happen.)

I phoned Rivas shortly after it was announced that she’d won her lawsuit. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

It must feel good to have won your court case after so many years.

It was the best day ever when I got the news.

How did you find out that you’d won?

It was a reporter who phoned me first, actually. Then right after that, my lawyer called.

How did your parents react when they got the notice that the U.S. government wanted their land?

Well, they were elderly. And at first, they really didn’t understand the magnitude. Not till I spoke with them after speaking with the government. I said, “Mom and Dad, they want to take the property to build a border wall.” I explained it to them and my dad said, “Daughter you’re not going to win against the government. They’ll get what they want. The government is the government.” I told him, “Maybe so. But I’m not just gonna hand it over to them. I’m going to fight as much as I can.”

Did the U.S. government talk about where it would construct the wall on your land?

At first, they told us they weren’t really sure. It didn’t come out until later that they had plans. That the wall would go between the house and the river. So it would split our property in half, and I wouldn’t be able to access the river anymore.

Did you spend a lot of time on the Rio Grande?

Oh yes. We had a lot of fun there. We’d hunt, fish, and we’d go swimming. We’d have our picnics there every year on the banks of the river. It was a lot of fun, a lot of memories. My dad had cattle there and horses. You know, family farm life.

And I think I read that your family owned a store in Los Ebanos?

My brother had a tourist curio shop. We own the land on either side of the ferry, so he had it there near the ferry. I don’t recall the year exactly. I want to say around 1994.

There used to be quite a few souvenir shops that catered to the Winter Texans and other tourists. They’re all gone now. What happened to them?

I don’t know really. I just know my brother gave up, because he was tired of dealing with the Border Patrol. Even if I go now, I was there last week on my land, and five Border Patrol agents arrived within a matter of 15 minutes. They came on to my property. They asked me, “What are you doing there? What is your business? Who are you?” After a while, it gets to be very aggravating. Another Border Patrol agent recently asked me if I was interested in selling my land. I told him, “No way.”

It must make you feel like you don’t belong there, right? Or you’re doing something wrong?

Exactly.

Are there other neighbors in town who still have their lawsuits pending?

Oh yes, there’s Aleida [Flores Garcia]. She’s related to me. Her lawsuit is still pending.

Have you been able to figure out the government’s reasoning on who gets their land back and who doesn’t?

I have no idea whatsoever. They just said we’re going to give it back to you, and it was music to my ears. I don’t know how it’s working for other families, though.

Did you ever lose confidence in those 13 years and think you might not win?

Many times, I wanted to throw in the towel. And I remember one time Aleida came by, who is also fighting the border wall. And she gave me a few words of encouragement. And it was good to know that I’m not the only one. Just, you know, come up for air and keep swimming and keep going. But yeah, I felt like giving up many times, but I kept thinking, Let’s fight it, you know, what have I got to lose? At least I know I gave it my all.

What kind of advice do you have for other landowners who still are trying to get their land back?

Hang in there and keep fighting. It was very tiring and often intimidating. But I fought it for 13 years and I triumphed. I only wish my parents were still here with us, so I could say, “See, Dad. We won.”