Ranchers in Texas reject a federal government offer to cover property damage caused by illegal immigration and drug smuggling, thinking that the aid will be tied to strings and not help solve the problems at the border.
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Skepticism surrounds a proposed project by the Department of Agriculture to compensate landowners across Texas for losses they suffered due to a surge of trespassers crossing over the border to enter the state from north of the border. President Biden is also being pressed to secure the border.
As part of the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program, farmers and ranchers can now submit claims for reimbursements for more than two dozen different types of expenses, including fencing repairs, livestock deaths, irrigation, and crop planting, until July 5. No information has been released about how much funding will be made available or how many people it expects to apply to the new program.
There seems to be resistance among some of the intended beneficiaries.
“It looks good on paper. It looks good in the media,” declared rancher John Paul Schuster. “But in reality, it’s not servicing us right now.”
Several residents from Kinney and Val Verde counties on the southern Texas border spoke to reporters about their concerns with the program this week. Of the six, five will not apply for reimbursement either because they think it will require more work than it is worth, because they do not trust Washington, or because they have already made the repairs and cannot be reimbursed.
There are 25 miles between John Paul Schuster and his wife Donna’s ranch and the border, but that area has become a hot spot for illegal immigrants attempting to flee law enforcement by traversing the Schusters’ land. Schuster’s fences have been torn down innumerable times, animals have escaped or died, and long-term water supplies have been exhausted because the Schusters’ property has been trespassed continuously for years.
In addition, Donna Schuster said that they have lost their peace of mind since the border has been out of control for the past 14 months. During January, law enforcement officials stopped more illegal immigrants in Del Rio than any other region along the border, a first in the 98-year history of the Border Patrol. Family members frequently surrender to the Border Patrol, but many adults escape across private property in order to avoid getting caught.
Trespassers are almost exclusively male, and some of them wear camouflage to conceal their identities.
A farm bureau chapter in Kinney County has been run by the Schusters for more than three decades. Last week, the Schusters, who had spent thousands of dollars on repairs over the past year, was elated to find out that the USDA was offering to reimburse landowners in 32 Texas counties for their losses during the border crisis.
In an email to NRCS, Dee Ann Littlefield explained that although the program began this month, Texans can still expense damages they sustained before February.
The Schusters’ hopes quickly faded when they realized that because they’d paid out of pocket to repair the fence every time it was damaged, they are no longer eligible for reimbursement since the program only covers unrepaired damages.
Page Day is a hunting guide and outfitter based in Del Rio who gives guided hunts for a living on his 20,000 acres. According to him, he has spent over $60,000 in repairs over the past year. On his property, he has found five holes in fences since Sunday, requiring new repairs. Despite the USDA’s assurances that it’s not a loan, Day intends to apply for reimbursement. However, Day is worried the money may be taxed or that it’s not free money. According to Day, the initiative did not outline all the details clearly, which made him more uncertain about applying.
“I don’t have high hopes we’re going to get money or that it’s going to work because of the way they’ve worded it,” Day said, adding that simply giving money to landowners won’t fix the problem. “I almost want to say it’s a political stunt by the government to say, ‘Look, we are helping the ranchers.’”
It’s more complicated than that, according to Billy Whaley of Val Verde County. Trespassers leaving gates open often result in cattle escaping, and once found, they must be quarantined in case they were exposed to tick fever, a parasite-borne illness known to cause fever in cattle with a high mortality rate.
“It’s probably going to be more trouble than it’s worth [to apply] because nothing is simple with the government. If I have to spend four or five hours filling out stuff and sending it in then have somebody come look at it, by the time they do that, we’ve already fixed another fence,” Whaley explained.
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In Del Rio, Ann Hodge and her husband, Byron, run a multigenerational ranch. According to her, she was concerned that there would be a catch in accepting the money.
“We don’t want anything from the government. There’s going to be strings attached,” Hodge said. “You never know when they’re going to try and say they might need that money back now and have the power to take it away from us.”
Landowners in Val Verde County were asked by Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez at a meeting on Tuesday to report any damage or break-in to local law enforcement, not state troopers or Border Patrol, so that the county can use the incident data as a reason at the end of the year to hire more deputies.