John Burnett | KERA News

John Burnett

Of all the wild places along the U.S.-Mexico border, Big Bend National Park, named for the great curve of the Rio Grande, is the gem.

In Santa Elena Canyon in west Texas, the international river flows between 1,500-foot-tall sheer walls of limestone — a study in light, shadow, water and time.

The Big Bend region — where the ghostly Chisos Mountains rise out of the prickly Chihuahuan Desert — is sacred ground. As writer Marion Winik described, it's "what I imagine the mind of God looks like."

Read a version of this story in Spanish.

As the White House pushes Congress to fund President Trump's U.S.-Mexico border wall, a new wrinkle has emerged that could stymie parts of the massive project.

In the middle of the Texas Hill Country, where barbecue brisket is king, a dinner crowd is throwing back crabcakes, fried oysters, flounder and stuffed shrimp.

Onstage is the establishment's owner, a 68-year-old Greek-American bluesman who's been performing for half a century. He is Johnny Nicholas and this is his Hilltop Cafe.

"Well, I spent all my money on a real fine automobile," he croons. "It's a custom ride, got a pearl-handled steering wheel."

Six times in recent days, Marco Antonio Cabachuela, his wife, Irma, and their 3-year-old, Valerie, walked up to federal immigration officers at the Hidalgo, Texas, port of entry and asked for asylum.

And every night, they returned to an immigrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, where men and women sit listlessly in a shady courtyard.

"They rejected it," he says. "They said there was no room for us."

In his address to Congress last week, President Trump said this about the kinds of people his immigration agents are singling out for deportation:

"We are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens. Bad ones are going out as I speak."

Then why, some Houstonians are asking, did immigration agents target Piro Garcia, the owner of two popular taco trucks on the city's Southside?

President Trump has promised to build a wall along the 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

A third of that border already has a barrier, thanks to the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which was signed by then-President George W. Bush. That initiative ran into issues with landowners near the Rio Grande. If the wall goes forward as Trump promises, more lawsuits may be coming.

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With President-elect Donald Trump's tough talk on immigration, private prisons may be an early winner under his administration.

In the week after Election Day, stocks of GEO and CoreCivic, the two biggest for-profit detention companies, shot up more than 20 and 40 percent, respectively.

Last spring at a town hall meeting on MSNBC, Trump said this about the confinement industry: "By the way, with prisons I do think we can do a lot of privatizations and private prisons. It seems to work a lot better."

Every year in late November, the New Mexican village of Abiquiu, about an hour northwest of Santa Fe, celebrates the town saint, Santo Tomas. Townfolk file into the beautiful old adobe Catholic church to pay homage its namesake.

But this is no ordinary saint's day. Dancers at the front of the church are dressed in feathers, face paint and ankle bells that honor their forebears — captive Indian slaves called genizaros.

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Desperate Haitian immigrants have been massing along the U.S.-Mexico border for months seeking humanitarian relief. In the past year more than 5,000 have sought entry into the United States — a 500 percent increase over the previous year.

After the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, thousands of citizens migrated to Brazil looking for work. But as Brazil has slipped into recession in recent years, many of them have hit the road again, heading north on a 6,000-mile journey to the U.S. border — by every means of conveyance.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection—the nation's largest law enforcement agency—is attempting to reform itself. Washington spends $13 billion on border control and immigration enforcement, more than every other federal law enforcement force combined. Yet the huge agency—with 56,000 gun-toting agents—is dogged by complaints that too many of them will take a bribe or use excessive force and avoid consequences.

Edit note: This report includes some graphic scenes.

The Aryan Brotherhood of Texas originated in prison in the early 1980s as a protection racket for white inmates, but as the tattooed gang members were released into the free world, they became one of the most violent crime syndicates in America.

Two years ago, the Justice Department trumpeted that it had "decapitated" the leadership of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, or ABT. Seventy-three gang members were convicted, including all five regional generals.

On Oct. 2, 1835, a small group of rebellious colonists in what is now South Texas defied Mexican rule with the memorable battle cry: "Come and take it!" The dare referred to a small brass cannon, but it became a declaration of Texas' independence and grit as famous as "Remember the Alamo." Today, you can see a twist of the historic slogan on the Come and Wash It Laundromat and Come and Style It beauty salon, both in the town of Gonzales.

A group of inmates in Texas is suing the state prison system, the nation's largest, arguing that extreme heat is killing older and infirm convicts. The inmates allege it constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" and they're asking the courts for relief.

It's no wonder that in Texas, home to the largest prison system in the nation and the busiest death chamber in the developed world, there's a museum about its prisons.

To find it just look for the sign with the ball and chain on Interstate 45, north of Houston.

Jim Willett, the Texas Prison Museum director, is not your typical museum docent. His deep knowledge of the artifacts of state-ordered punishment comes from the years he oversaw the looming, red-brick penitentiary in downtown Huntsville known as The Walls.

Polls show that the idea of building a wall across the southern border remains unpopular with the general public and especially in the U.S. borderlands.

But not everyone living near the international divide opposes a barrier between the U.S. and Mexico. Donald Trump has a small, zealous following along the southern frontier.

If you watch a watermelon harvest you may never think about the pink summery fruit again the same way.

Two pickers walk the rows. They bend over and grab the 20-pound gourds and pitch them to a man perched on the side of a dump truck, who heaves them up to another catcher in the truck bed. The pickers have arms like Popeye and the timing of acrobats. They like this crop because the bigger the melons the more they can earn.

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The calculated killing of five uniformed officers would be traumatic for any metropolitan police department in America, but it has fallen especially hard in Dallas, where the police force already suffers from low pay and poor morale.

Citizens in Dallas are rallying around their officers in blue, suggesting the events could be a turning point for the embattled department.

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Women who want an abortion in deeply conservative Texas have slightly more choice these days than they had a few months ago. In March, the Food and Drug Administration simplified rules on abortion medication, allowing patients to take the standard regimen of abortion drugs later in a pregnancy.

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Immigrants fleeing gang violence in Central America are again surging across the U.S.-Mexico border, approaching the numbers that created an immigration crisis in the summer of 2014. While the flow of immigrants slowed for much of last year, nothing the U.S. government does seems to deter the current wave of travelers.

There are things that happen in Texas that you just can't make up, such as Diamondback Day at the state Capitol building in Austin. On a cool weekend in February, a dozen of the coiled pit vipers rattle menacingly in an outdoor rotunda where cheerful handlers let visitors pet them.

It's all in good fun. The Jaycees in the West Texas town of Sweetwater bring the snakes down every year as a public relations gimmick to promote their annual rattlesnake roundup, held every March over three days.

The federal government's controversial immigrant family detention camps in south Texas are back in court.

A Texas state judge has blocked a state agency from licensing the childcare facility inside a mammoth, 2,400-bed private lock-up. The detention facility was opened to temporarily confine undocumented mothers and children who have been surging across the Texas-Mexico border fleeing dangerous conditions in Central America.

There is a pistol-packing revolution going on in America. Nearly 13 million Americans have permits to carry concealed handguns — triple the number just nine years ago — and that figure is low because not every state reports.

Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, there is a bronze chest filled with gold and precious gems. The search for this hidden treasure has become a hobby for some, an obsession for others, and for one recent searcher — a fatal pursuit.

The man behind the treasure is Forrest Fenn, an 85-year-old millionaire, former Vietnam fighter pilot, self-taught archaeologist, and successful art dealer in Santa Fe, N.M.

"No one knows where that treasure chest is but me," Fenn says. "If I die tomorrow, the knowledge of that location goes in the coffin with me."

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