They might not know it, but time is running out for some Rio Grande Valley residents who might have a thing or two to say about the government’s plan to build a border wall in their community.
Earlier this month, some organizations and local leaders received a letter from Customs Border Protection (CBP) requesting input on their proposed plan to build 33 miles of border wall in Hidalgo and Starr Counties.
Here’s what they’re considering:
In Hidalgo County, 25 miles of levee border wall to stretch along almost the entirety of the County’s border. The wall would include a “reinforced concrete levee wall to the approximate height of the existing levee, with 18-foot tall steel bollards installed on the top of the levee wall.” The “project,” furthermore, would also include a 150-foot enforcement zone, detection, and surveillance technology that would be incorporated into the levee wall, automated vehicle gates, pedestrian gates, and all-weather patrol road, and enforcement zone lighting.
The proposed plan for Starr County is eight miles of “20 to 30 foot tall” concrete filled steel bollard wall. As in Hidalgo County, detection and surveillance equipment and an enforcement zone would also follow.
Any “vegetation within the 150-foot enforcement zone[s],” the letter states, would be “cleared.” Although it does not detail how, the letter states that CBP will work with “the appropriate stakeholders” to address the excess lighting which the LED lights they plan to install might cause.
The letter received is not dated, but it states that stakeholders have only 30 days to weigh in on what the government is currently considering. Advocates and local residents, however, say that is not anywhere near enough time to seriously study potential effects and issues, much less for community members to provide input.
Now, 43 conservation, immigrant and human rights, public interest, and faith-based institutions are sending a letter to top CBP Headquarters officials with one simple demand: more time. Locally Fuerza del Valle, RGV Chapter of the Sierra Club, La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), Rio Grande Waterkeeper, Neta, and others have signed on to the letter.
In the letter, the groups state that construction of the steel and bollard-style border walls in Hidalgo and Starr Counties would significantly “damage the environment and harmfully impact the culture, commerce, and quality of life for communities and residents located near the identified project areas.”
Among other things, signees fear that the border walls could worsen flooding issues in the Rio Grande Valley, parts of which earlier this month were declared a state of disaster following extensive flooding caused by severe weather.
“The border barrier designs proposed by CBP,” the letter states, “are likely to cause life-threatening flooding, as has occurred in other areas such as Nogales, Arizona, where similar types of barriers have been deployed.”
Given the restrictive effects which past border barriers have had in other locations, the groups also fear that the proposed border wall plans would destroy protected landscape, interfere with conservation efforts, obstruct the movement of wildlife, and severely restrict, if not altogether destroy, access to local spaces.
An image posted by the National Butterfly Center on its Facebook page shows Bentsen State Park, El Morillo National Wildlife Refuge, and 70 percent of the National Butterfly Center lost behind the wall. Losing access to these parks would not just mean that Rio Grande Valley residents would lose access to unique nature parks but also a reliable source of jobs and revenue. According to a 2010 report by the National Recreation and Park Association, Bentsen State Park, renown for its World Birding Center, alone is estimated to attract over 18,000 non-local visitors each year, who annually spend over $835,000 while in the area.
According to the letter, National Wildlife Refuge tracts, Roma and La Lomita National Historic Districts, and dozens, if not hundreds, of private properties would also be impacted.
Signees are also concerned with CBP’s transparency or lack of. According to signees, the 30-day comment period rather than represent an opportunity for input, “strongly suggests a lack of sincere interest in obtaining thoughtful comments and broad engagement with the diverse constituencies.” To them, CBP’s failure to host any public meetings with community members or to issue any notices in Spanish further evidences this. The groups also believe CBP’s failure to inform the public of open commenting via the Federal Register or through publication in local newspapers may constitute a violation of the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA).
For Jordahl, Borderlands Campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, even the manner by which the letters were received raises questions about how CBP’s approach to community consultation. According to Jordahl, some of the notices were received in early July whereas others appear to have been received closer to mid-July. CBP has sent the letter out “in a seemingly erratic manner but also only to individuals of their choosing. We’re not even sure who they’ve completely excluded from the conversation,” Jordahl told Neta.
Jordahl also told Neta that the 30-day windows may be especially exclusionary to individuals who have families or work multiple jobs and may not have enough time to provide input. “This will irrefutably impact many, many, people that live in these communities and will have irreversible effects on the environment,” Jordahl said. “A 30-day comment period is completely inappropriate. We believe that such a short comment period is actually meant to suppress comment.”
In response to CBP’s 30 days, the groups are demanding a 60-day extension. Additionally, they are requesting additional comment invitations be sent out to community members in Spanish and for public forums in McAllen, Mission, and Roma, Texas.
Scott Nicol, Sierra Club Borderland Team Co-chair, expressed that the Sierra Club had been requesting public meetings to be held regarding border walls proposed for the RGV for nearly a year now.
“These [public meetings] should include the latest information and maps, but they should not be restricted to ‘here is what we plan to do,’’’ Nicol told Neta. Nicol and the Sierra Club believe CBP should not only solicit public input but need to also “adjust their plans in response to it”, even if, “RGV residents reject border walls they should respect that.”
Melinda Melo, a member of the Unofficial No Border Wall Coalition and a resident of Mission, agreed with Jordahl’s viewpoints. Although Melo is a member of various groups and email lists organizing around the border wall, she disclosed that she was previously unaware of the open commenting period. She noted she had not yet seen or read anything about the topic on local news either.
Melo was critical of what she sees as CBP’s intentionally restrictive definition of what a community “stakeholder” is. “Some people live right [at the border] and there are other people that live further out, but they’re [all] still part of the Valley,” Melo said. “The impact that the border wall is going to have is going to be Valley-wide. It’s really important that the communities that will be impacted by the creation of the border walls are made aware, for one, that this process is happening and are given the opportunity to share their voices and opinions,” Melo insisted.
She says CBP’s alleged lack of transparency is not surprising. “It appears to me,” Melo continued, “that the lack of exposure to this commenting is intentional because they want to try to get no commenting so that they don’t really have to address any of the issues that are brought up in those comments.”
In March, Congress approved $1.6 billion for 100 miles of border wall and fencing construction in California, New Mexico, and Texas. In April, some cities began receiving CBP requests for right of entry to inspect sites where the proposed wall would be built. Although the government is moving swiftly with its efforts to pilot a border wall in the Rio Grande Valley, Jordahl told Neta a border wall in the Rio Grande Valley is not yet a done deal.
“We really do have a lot of power in terms of pushing back right now against Border Patrol…and we should do that…These walls are not a sure thing, in terms of being built.”
The letter received by some local organizations and leaders states that questions and comments should be referred to firstname.lastname@example.org with email title “RGV Border Barrier Construction.”
Neta reached out to CBP for comment on the sign-on letter. A CBP responded that they would “review the letter, and while we do this CBP via the US Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Sector will continue to communicate the local communities and other organizations in the Rio Grande Valley on this important Border Security project.”
Courtesy of National Butterfly Center’s Facebook page