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Legal Battle Over Border Wall Plays Out At Chapel In Mission, Texas


This week, we'll find out whether or not Congress and President Trump have been able to come to an agreement over funding the government and the president's proposed border wall. The thing is Trump's wall isn't really just one wall. It's many walls. And 25 miles of it was funded this past year, when Republicans still held their majority in the House. It'll run through Hidalgo County in Texas. And I went there this past week to a place where a legal battle over that wall is already underway.


ROY ROGERS AND SONS OF THE PIONEERS: (Singing) Blue shadows on the trail.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the chilly pre-dawn, illuminated by lantern light, the faithful gather to pray as they have many times before at La Lomita chapel in Mission, Texas.


ROY ROGERS AND SONS OF THE PIONEERS: (Singing) And a plaintive wail from the...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The choice of processional music is an unusual one for a Catholic mass - Roy Rogers' song "Blue Shadows On The Trail." But the congregation expect that. The priest leading the Mass is father Roy Snipes. And he's known around here as the cowboy priest. He normally wears a cowboy hat. And on the altar with him are two of his rescue dogs. He's pretty outspoken.

ROY SNIPES: You, oh, Lord, made our hearts. And you know our affliction and our astonishment at the arrogance of our own government desecrating the sanctuary of our homeland.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And on this day, Father Roy's prayers are politically pointed.

SNIPES: Disdaining and disparaging our values, our ancestral lands and this house of God, ignoring our rights as free Americans and sons and daughters of south Texas. We pray to you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The local diocese is in a legal battle with the U.S. government over the chapel land, which is right next to the Rio Grande River. Part of President Trump's proposed border wall is set to go right through here. La Lomita, which means little hill, has been here almost since the southern border was created after the Mexican-American War in the mid-19th century, part of a series of missions established by the Catholic Church to keep their presence on the U.S. side of the new border. The town of Mission, now with around 80,000 people, grew up around it. The Mass ends outside the chapel with a hymn in Spanish. And the congregation is gathered around a bonfire amid the twisted mesquite trees.


SNIPES: Beautiful. God bless us all.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: In last year's appropriations bill, what is planned at La Lomita is called levee fencing. But it's actually going to be a massive, 30-foot wall on the north side of the property with access roads and cameras. Father Roy tells me after the mass that he believes a wall will desecrate this place. Those who came to pray here today agree.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: During the after-church breakfast of tacos and bunuelos - fried dough sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon - and a cake with a picture of the chapel on it, Rene Villarreal tells me this is more than just a spiritual place. Generations have prayed here.

RENE VILLARREAL: You're here in the mornings. And you just wonder how many of your ancestors have been here praying for the same things we're praying and asking our God to help us and give us all the strength to go through another day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's a 51-year-old electrical contractor and a father of five sons. Like many here, he has deep roots on both sides of the border. People here easily switch between Spanish and English. The town of Mission is in Hidalgo County, which is 92 percent Latino. Many have family in Mexico. Mission's mayor, Armando O’Cana, was also at the service.

ARMANDO O’CANA: Look around. You know, look around. Look at people just eating breakfast here out in the middle of - under some of these trees here in this nice park here in Mission, you know? You know, it's normal. It's a normal event. So there's no crisis here on the border.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's what he told President Trump when he met him last month during his border visit. Mayor O’Cana says once the wall is built, it will cut off access to city services, like 9-1-1, from Mission's residents on the other side of the wall.

O’CANA: That's not right. How can I protect them? How can we get even water and sewer on the other side? Yeah, they say that we're going to have some gates and all that. But, you know, when seconds count, you know, you still have to go through a gate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The latest legal battle over the La Lomita land between the government and the diocese took place last week. The Catholic Church tried to stop the government from even surveying the chapel land. But it lost. Mary McCord is a senior litigator at Georgetown Law's institute. And she's one of the lawyers representing the diocese. She says the government has a right to claim private property for public use. But La Lomita is a chapel, not just private land.

MARY MCCORD: What's different about this is that government can't take action that substantially burdens the free exercise of religion. And that is not only part of the First Amendment, but it's also part of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The church argues that the wall is inconsistent with Catholic teachings.

MCCORD: Which includes this principle of universality - that all people are equal and that need be treated as such and provided with basic necessities of life, whether it's food and shelter - and that migration - and, according to the teachings of the pope, migration is an important piece of this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The next court battle will be over the government's plan to actually seize the land and start building.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: We leave La Lomita and drive down the road that will become the border wall if the government has its way.

What strikes me is how regular it seems in a lot of ways. I mean, we're driving right now past an RV park that is where winter Texans come to sort of enjoy the warmth in the winter. There's also a riverside restaurant, a lot of farms and houses. But there is a presence of the Border Patrol. You see them driving by, the occasional helicopter. And there are sensors dotting the river here. And that's the debate, right? What kind of border security does this part of Texas need? And most people here don't believe that they need a wall. But that's not the case for everyone.

MONTY AWBREY: Our national security is at risk.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Monty Awbrey (ph), a local rancher and businessman who also met President Trump when he was down here last month. And he made quite the impression.

AWBREY: Whenever I asked President Trump to sign my name tag, I asked him, you know, if - would it be OK if I gave him a gift? And he said, yeah, sure. And I just kind of reached down and just started undoing my belt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can imagine the scene. Monty Awbrey is a really big guy. And he's digging around his pants in front of the president.

AWBREY: Everybody kind of lost their - they're like, whoa. He looked at me like, what are you doing?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But what he was actually going for was his rodeo championship buckle, which reminds him of his late father. And he wanted Trump's son Barron to have it. It's no surprise that Awbrey was invited to the event. He's a vocal supporter of the president's signature campaign promise. Last month, he threw a barbecue for Border Patrol agents working without pay during the shutdown.

AWBREY: You know, each one of those agents I got to meet, I shook their hands, talked to them, thanked them for their service. And I asked them their opinion of the wall. Out of all those 250 agents, not one of them was against it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Walls, he says, work.

AWBREY: It's a humanitarian crisis. Whether the mayors or local law enforcement want to say no, it's not, they're not in the rural areas out here. They don't see what goes on on a day-to-day basis. They've never had people walk up on their doorstep at 3 o'clock in the morning begging for help.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After his meeting with the president, Awbrey says he got a lot of hate on social media, calling him a racist. He says those labels don't work on the border. His wife is Latina. He speaks fluent Spanish. And he's friends with Father Roy. He was even baptized at La Lomita six months ago when he became a Catholic at his wife's request.

AWBREY: Father Roy and I discussed this. And he knows what side I stand on. And he understands my views. And I understand his, as well. Father Roy is a very compassionate man. I love him to death. And I'll do anything in the world for him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's the border way, he says. You can stand on different sides of an issue and still respect each other. We repeatedly tried to get comment from Customs and Border Protection for this story, but they declined. What they did confirm is that no work on the Mission section of the border wall has yet begun.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at La Lomita, the post-Mass meal is winding down. Seventy-two-year-old Leonor Ochoa is sitting at the table, enjoying the food and company.

LEONOR OCHOA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We live in a neighborhood where everyone shares," she says, "like right now in this moment. We're a lot of different families and all of us are coming together and sharing our tacos and our lunch. We are united," she says. And she says wall or no wall, that won't change.

UNIDENTIFIED CONGREGATION: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.