Editor’s note: Marketplace’s Andy Uhler spent a week reporting about doing business on the Texas-Mexico border during a time of intense debate over U.S. immigration policy and a push by President Donald Trump to build a border wall. Below is the eighth entry from his reporter’s notebook. You can read the other entries here.
A tiny chapel on the banks of the Rio Grande, built in 1899, is in the middle of a big fight.
The federal government plans to build a new section of border barrier that would place the chapel, called La Lomita after the hill that it was built on, just south of that wall. La Lomita would be in the middle of a border “enforcement zone,” meaning a constant presence from border patrol agents and local police.
“How is it going to work out for the poor people who love this river and love this chapel?” asked Roy Snipes, the 73-year-old parish priest. “The sacred place would be desecrated.”
The town of Mission, Texas, was named after La Lomita, a small chapel built in the 19th century.
Last year, more than 160,000 people crossed the border illegally from Mexico to the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas. That’s made the Rio Grande Valley a priority for the Trump administration and its plan to build more sections of border wall. The president deployed several thousand troops to the area last year, and just last month Congress approved new sections of a border wall. Across the Rio Grande Valley, you’ll find locals, like Snipes, fighting new barriers.
Snipes is concerned that the 100 or so parishioners who regularly attend mass at La Lomita, and those who just go there to pray, will have trouble getting past the wall.
Snipes is known locally as the Cowboy Priest, maybe because he wears a Stetson, cusses and drinks Lone Star beer. Or maybe because he’s a bit of a rebel. He’s sometimes gives shelter, food and water to people who cross the border illegally.
“How is it going to work out for the poor people who love this river and love this chapel?” asks Snipes, pictured here with his dog, Bandito. “The sacred place would be desecrated.”
In fighting new sections of border wall, Snipes has the support of his church. The South Texas Catholic Diocese is suing the government, claiming a wall would infringe on freedom of religion at La Lomita.
But Snipes’ beef with Trump extends beyond the chapel.
“You know when he [Trump] said there was a humanitarian crisis, the real humanitarian crisis is to foment fear and loathing of your neighbor,” he said. “Even if they come across here with papers, you’ll discover that your best neighbors are those guys. They’d take the shirt off their back to help you.”
Construction of new border wall in the Rio Grande Valley has plenty of local supporters, of course. Like 32-year-old Joacim Hernandez, who works in a local produce warehouse.
“I do understand,” Hernandez said. “But I do think that they are politicizing a chapel as the argument is being made for border security.”
When Congress approved new border wall construction for the Rio Grande Valley last month, it included protections for La Lomita. But then the president declared a national emergency, and the administration claimed congressional restrictions were invalid under that state of emergency. That leaves La Lomita and its parishioners fighting for their future.