Trump border wall would seal off Mexican village from sole means of support

For Americans, Boquillas del Carmen is accessible only by rowboat.

The tiny Mexican village just across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park is a popular place for tourists to visit. Many of the 140 people who call Boquillas home sell hand-painted walking sticks, knickknacks made of beads and copper wire, and other souvenirs from tables set up outside their adobe homes.

But Boquillas residents are concerned that if the Trump administration follows through with plans to build a wall running the length of the international border, their village will be cut off from essentially its only industry — tourism.

The residents are somewhat encouraged that President Trump and Congress have delayed funding for wall construction, although on Tuesday, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney unveiled a 2018 budget that includes $2.6 billion for border security, including $1.6 billion for a wall.

Many federal and Texas officials say they oppose building a 20- to 30-foot wall in Big Bend because of the potentially devastating effect on the pristine, mountainous terrain.

“People here are not that worried about the wall because maybe if he [Trump] does build the wall he won’t be able to build it through the park,” said Edgar Ureste, 39, a Boquillas native who has learned nearly perfect English through daily contact with U.S. citizens. “So maybe the wall won’t affect us as much. But it will bother the rest of the people in Mexico.”

Ureste worked a few years in the Texas oilfields in the mid-2000s, but otherwise has lived most of his life in the place where he was born.

“I make a living by being a town guide,” he said. “I go to the river and bring tourists to town, tell them the history of the town, show them around.”

Cut off from the world

If Boquillas were cut off from the rest of the world, it wouldn’t be the first time.

In May 2002, the U.S. government closed the rowboat crossing at Boquillas as part of a post-9-11 crackdown, arguing that it was a potential loophole in national security that could be exploited by terrorists.

A former Rio Grande outdoor guide named Cynta de Narvaez, wishing to help Boquillas residents find a way to survive without the hospitality industry, began teaching some of the women in the village to quilt.

At the time, the village had no electricity, except for a handful of homes with generators.

First Presbyterian Church in Alpine held quilt shows, and the sale of the fabrics raised thousands of dollars.

Using money made from quilt sales, 12 Boquillas women bought solar panels and electric sewing machines to speed up their manufacturing work.

High-tech solution

In 2013, after years of negotiations, the crossing was reopened. Customs officials set up a system in which inspectors from El Paso could check passports of people entering the U.S. remotely.

Here’s how it works:

When visitors to Boquillas return to the U.S., they enter a one-room building and place their passport (with photo showing) in a machine about the size of an ATM. A surveillance camera is just above the machine.

Visitors are prompted to pick up a handset, and on the other end of the line is a customs officer in El Paso. The officer then asks the visitors to state their name and declare anything they are bringing back from Mexico. A small metal trash can is nearby, so illegal items such as pork can be discarded.

The check-in usually takes two or three minutes.

Throwback crossing

But it’s the trip to the Mexican side of the border that gives Boquillas Crossing its charm.

Guests at Big Bend National Park can drive to the Boquillas crossing and park their cars. They then walk a few hundred feet down a gravel pathway to the river, where for $5 one of several Boquillas residents takes them across the border in a rowboat.

The boaters are members of the Los Diablos volunteer firefighter squad based in Boquillas. The boat trips raise money for the fire department, which often helps fight wildfires in the region and has permission from the U.S. government to cross the border freely.

Once on the Mexican shore, visitors can then ride in a pickup or on a donkey for the nearly 1-mile journey to Boquillas. Once there, visitors check in with Mexican customs at a small white trailer in the center of the village and are free to explore.

Boquillas has two restaurants and a handful of souvenir stands set up outside several homes. Most trinkets are sold for $5 to $10.

Perhaps unusually, the village now has about an acre of solar panels that provide electricity to dozens of tiny homes. One resident said the monthly electric bills are usually $20 to $30. The panels were installed about two years ago with help from the Mexican government, residents said.

Most homes also have indoor water. A few homes have outdoor propane tanks for cooking.

“The tourists like coming over here a lot, and riding the horses and donkeys,” Ureste said, “and we like having them here.”

Unofficial crossings

Boquillas Crossing is open during daytime hours, not unlike a typical business workday in the U.S. For example, on a recent afternoon, visitors were encouraged by a park ranger to get back to the United States before 6 p.m., when the customs building would close.

The unique international crossing is closed Mondays and Tuesdays during the spring. However, on those days, a handful of Boquillas villagers can often be seen walking across the river — which at times is only shin-deep — and placing their souvenirs for sale on a boulder near a popular Big Bend lookout.

It is an illegal crossing, technically, although there are no park rangers or Border Patrol agents within dozens of miles. And the visitors don’t intend to stay but a few minutes.

They place a plastic bottle next to the souvenirs, asking tourists to check the price tags on each item and then leave money for whatever souvenirs they wish to take.

The villagers then quickly go back across the river. They likely will return hours later to see if anything has been sold.

It’s an old-fashioned honor system.

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson