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This Man Owned The Texas Farmland Where Immigrant Boys Are Now Being Housed In Tents

"A week ago there was nothing here."

Posted on June 20, 2018, at 11:50 p.m. ET

Bobby Lettunich
Amber Jamieson for BuzzFeed News

Bobby Lettunich

Bobby Lettunich used to plant alfalfa, cotton, and chili peppers in the dry Texas dirt where boys now sleep in tents.

"A week ago there was nothing here," said the 83-year-old, referring to a detention camp erected by the Trump administration to handle the influx of immigrant children separated from their parents under the president's "zero tolerance" policy.

The detention center, located about 30 miles from El Paso, was built on land Lettunich and his brothers inherited from their father, who came to the United States from the former Yugoslavia.

In 2010, the county acquired around 140 acres of Lettunich's family farmland through eminent domain, paying the family around $1.4 million, to build a new port of entry between the United States and Mexico.

After years of delays, the port, which is run by US Customs and Border Protection, officially opened in February 2016. But the facility has been largely unused, apart from acting as a temporary processing center in late 2016.

Mike Blake / Reuters

On Tuesday, dozens of vehicles — buses, trucks, bulldozers, and cars — were parked just inside the fence, along with newly arrived portable toilets and tents packed with rows of bunk beds. Dozens of contractors have been brought in to staff the center, which the US Department of Health and Human Services calls the "Tornillo temporary facility."

So many members of the news media have descended on the facility this week that staffers have erected "no trespassing" and "private property" signs on Lettunich's land, while the farmer arranged for hay bales to be sprayed with warnings and placed in the road next to the facility.

Amber Jamieson for BuzzFeed News

Lettunich watched Tuesday as teenage boys walked single file in a line between the tents used to shelter children separated from their parents. Around 200 boys were housed in the facility on Sunday night, with plans that it could hold up to 4,000.

"I don’t approve of them using it for that," said Lettunich.

But the farmer's concern isn't the minors being held at the center, at least not in a political sense. He supports a hardline on immigration, and believes anyone crossing the border illegally should be immediately deported.

"They’re got air-conditioning, they’re being fed, they’re probably playing video games or something. It’s better conditions than what they had before," he said.

Lettunich said he doesn't worry about children being forcibly separated from their parents after crossing the border because people should follow the laws of the United States.

Rosa, a 60-year-old woman who works for Lettunich, said she's heard many stories of parents being paid by drug traffickers to send their children to the United States. Rosa, like Lettunich, believes the media coverage of the family separations has been unfair to President Trump.

"The president said if they did it [cross the border], I will separate you. Why did they do it?" she told BuzzFeed News in Spanish.

"They can be sad, but they have everything," said Rosa, speaking about the boys in the nearby Tornillo facility. "People are saying that the president is bad. Bad would be if the children couldn't eat. They have enough food, they don't want for anything."

Lettunich agreed.

"What does concern me is the welfare of this country, and the citizens. We're opening a door, and if it’s not stopped, we’ll overwhelm this country by millions of people and we can’t handle it," he said.

But the farmer expressed frustration at how the government has managed the point of entry project, with the tent detention center just the latest example.

"This is a white elephant," said Lettunich, pointing to the entry facility. When his property was seized by eminent domain, the idea was that the small port of entry that led to the Juarez Valley would be replaced by a large six-lane commercial hub with thousands of trucks expected to pass through.

"It was built for a specific purpose and it has never been achieved," he said. Tornillo is the biggest point of entry to the United States on the Canadian or Mexican borders. The county, state, and federal government spent at least $133 million building the US side. A multilane toll booth was built but never opened. The truck weighing stations remain unused.

Instead, a drug war broke out in the Juarez Valley, making it one of the deadliest places in the world. The Mexican side delayed building roads to the crossing for years. Lettunich said the main "commerce" seen at the point of entry — he lives a mile down the road — are junk cars being imported into Mexico.

Lettunich driving to his crops alongside the point of entry fence.
Amber Jamieson for BuzzFeed News

Lettunich driving to his crops alongside the point of entry fence.

The point of entry facility split Lettunich's property in two — "that was the heart of the farm" — and now he and his two sons, who work the farm, have to drive extra miles each day to access their fields.

Lettunich's property is surrounded in some parts by a border fence, with the Rio Grande flowing next to his home, dividing his property with Mexico.

He fears what the increasing immigrant population means for the Texas town he grew up in.

"The customs and everything here are changing to a Hispanic way, a lot of the Anglos are just leaving," said Lettunich. "I feel it’s a threat to our way of life, and how we have always lived."

Lettunich notes that his Catholic church now reads the sermon in English and Spanish.

Lettunich in his home, which sits just a few hundred feet from the border between the United States and Mexico.
Amber Jamieson for BuzzFeed News

Lettunich in his home, which sits just a few hundred feet from the border between the United States and Mexico.

And while he doesn't think minors should be detained at the Tornillo point of entry, because it doesn't have the proper infrastructure, Lettunich sees illegal immigration as a very real and personal threat to his family's safety.

Drug runners who've fled over the border have been captured in his backyard, just feet from his home, and he's heard machine gun fire from his property.

"They could be hitting the border here and amassing over there by thousands. And then what do you do?" he asked, pointing from his kitchen toward the Rio Grande. "What if 500 people come through here and start grabbing the cars, and the tools and start threatening us? This is the front line."

"I think we’ll be like Rome in 400 AD," said Lettunich. "All the tribes came in and plundered everything."


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