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Border wall plans could divide South Texas retirement community

BROWNSVILLE, Texas ( ⁠— Lauren Heiy has an ailing back, but that didn’t stop her from joining about 50 of her neighbors to protest a planned border wall through their River Bend Resort and Golf Club communities.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection met with residents at the field office in Brownsville. Heiy, 69, said they asked officials where exactly the border wall will be built and whether virtual technology can be utilized instead. Residents in this community for adults 55 and older also pleaded with border officials to recognize that if a border wall were built there, property values could substantially decrease, threatening their homes and livelihood.

Lauren Heiy, 69, is seen at her house on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, standing in front of a sign designating her backyard a “Wildlife Habitat.” (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

“If the wall is here who do you think’s going to buy these houses if it’s cheap? Not the people you want,” Heiy said to Border Report on Wednesday afternoon after the meeting.

CBP did not allow media to attend the Wednesday morning meeting, but Heiy and several other residents welcomed Border Report afterwards into their gated community for a tour, and to do some venting.

A killer sunset

Heiy’s picturesque and well-manicured backyard backs to a resaca, a small tributary of water near the Rio Grande whose water is collected, purified, recycled and ultimately returned to the community members for their use.

Lauren Heiy stands in her backyard on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, overlooking a resaca in Brownsville, Texas. A border wall is to be built on the other side of the resaca on a levee wall. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Evening sunsets are a favorite time for her as the South Texas sun reflects off the tranquil waters of the resaca. Her backyard has been deemed a “Wildlife Habitat” by the National Wildlife Federation, and she fancies the many green jays and great kiskadee birds that often flock to her greenery. Her yapping 12-year-old Terrier, River (named after the community) enjoys the wildlife and scenery, as well, Heiy said.

But if a 30-foot-tall iron border wall is built directly behind her house, she wonders just how beautiful this area will continue to be. And how much her home will be worth.

“This is a 55-plus community and we have people into their 90s and this is giving us fits,” Heiy said. “My one friend is afraid she’ll lose her house.”

‘We B.S. together’

There are about 400 properties in this community and most would be behind the border wall if it is built as currently planned. Worse, says Heiy, is that their community clubhouse, pool, several golf course holes and meeting hall ⁠— which is the heart of this golf cart community of mostly retirees ⁠— would also be behind the wall.

Jerry Olsen, 85, and his wife Genevieve, 82, sit in their living room on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, in their home in the River Bend community in Brownsville, which will be cut off by a border wall. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

“This place is hopping,” said Heiy as she zipped around in her golf cart (which she says can get up to 26 mph if the wind is behind and on a downhill). “We have outside entertainers come in. We have bingo. We have dances. And all of this happens at the club house.”

Gerald “Jerry” Olsen is 85 and says he oftentimes “is all thumbs.” If a border wall is built and he is required to remember a gate code, he fears he won’t be leaving his house much.

“Old foggies forget things,” Olsen said seated in his living room beside his wife, Genevieve, 82, who is on oxygen and has a chronic condition. “If (the wall) had openings ever so often it wouldn’t be that bad but people here commute all over the place. We play cards together, we B.S. together. We go to functions at the clubhouse and there’s constant going back and forth. To have to go through a gate and remember the code, that would be tough.”

Jerry Johnson and his wife Gwen have a home valued around $200,000 in the River Bend community in Brownsville, Texas. They went to Wednesday’s meeting with Customs and Border Protection officials. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

The Olsens moved here in 2003 from the St. Louis, Missouri, area. Jerry Olsen is a retired engineer. He said he also was mayor of Kemmerer, Wyoming, back in the 1980s. Genevieve Olsen worked in banks. This was their dream retirement home, they both said.

They said their home was valued at around $130,000. But that was before talk of the wall. “Now nobody wants to buy here because they don’t know what will happen,” Genevieve Olsen said.

“We figured we would croak here. If they build the wall, I don’t know what will happen to our house’s value,” Jerry Olsen said.

Homes here range from $60,000 for park models ⁠— which are typically about 800 square feet ⁠— to a few larger brick homes that can be valued around $200,000. Most are somewhere in the middle, like Heiy and her husband’s neat and modest abode.

It’s up to Congress to save them

Jerry and Gwen Johnson said their home is valued in the $200,000 range. They went to the CBP meeting on Wednesday, and Jerry Johnson, who is retired from the military, surmised that CBP isn’t really calling the shots as to the border wall location. He believes politicians who control the funds in Congress ultimately have control of where the wall will go, or not.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, speaks to Border Report in his Brownsville office on Aug. 23, 2019. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

He said that community members have written to both Texas senators and President Donald Trump to appeal for help.

“We’re still wondering why some of them aren’t talking to us. We have sent letters and called,” Jerry Johnson said. “It has put everything in limbo, as far as buying and selling, because nobody knows what kind of decision will be made.”

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, held a meeting Aug. 23 with some of the community’s residents who serve on the homeowner’s association board, but not everyone was invited, Heiy said.

“We followed them around,” Heiy said with a wink.

Walling off Cameron County

The border wall expansion is part of 95 miles of border wall to be added in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. In Cameron County, which is home to River Bend, 19 planned miles are scheduled, CBP has announced.

A border wall already was built back in 2008, as part of the Secure Fence Act, near the subdivision.

It is barely visible looking out from Heiy’s backyard. But adding to it to complete the fence, would wrap the structure behind this neighborhood, taking it behind Heiy’s backyard. This would block their beautiful vista views, and separate them from one another, she said.

A border wall is already located about a half mile from the River Bend community in Brownsville, Texas, but CBP officials plan to extend it through the middle of the subdivision, which is for residents ages 55 and older. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

This community is comprised of many Winter Texans who live here for six to eight months a year, as well as some full-timers, like Heiy. They are a close-knit group, she said.

If someone is sick or needs help, 20 people will come and bring food, she said. “But if a wall is built, how are we going to get to one another?”

Jerry Olsen, 85, tools around his River Bend community in Brownsville, Texas, in a golf cart on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Many here came away with more questions than answers from Wednesday’s meeting with CBP, but almost all said they are resigned to the fact that they believe a wall will be built through their community.

Jerry Olsen, the former mayor and engineer, says he is worried that given the recycled water system they have from the resacas, and because several streets here are prone to flooding, he fears that a border wall will also damage the community’s plumbing infrastructure. He said that CBP has yet to give him any answers on how they will get around that. And so he speculates that the wall will actually have to be built closer to the homes so as to not disturb the water pipeline.

“Would you build a wall through Brownsville? It’s the same thing. Building a wall right through our community,” Jerry Olsen said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at

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