After almost a month of silence from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), immigrant rights, human rights, and conservation groups achieved a partial victory in their fight against the border wall: a little more time to organize and make their voices heard.
Last month, CBP issued notices to some organizations and individuals unveiling the details for proposed border wall construction plans in the Rio Grande Valley.
At stake? Thirty-three miles of Hidalgo and Starr County, including National Wildlife Refuge tracts, Bentsen State Park, Roma, and La Lomita National Historic Districts, and dozens, if not hundreds, of private properties. Although it did not include a date, the letter required residents to comment or respond within “30 days following the date of this letter.”
Citing concerns about the rushed manner in which comment was requested and transparency issues, on July 20, more than 40 conservation, human rights, and faith-based groups responded to CBP by submitting a 60-day extension request to the commenting period. The groups also demanded issuance of Spanish notifications, publication of the commenting period through an announcement on the Federal Register and local newspapers, and the hosting of public forums in McAllen, Mission, Rio Grande City, and Roma, Texas. Failure to do so, the groups pointed out, could be a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
According to signees, construction of steel and bollard-style border walls, as well as the creation of 150-foot enforcement zones 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.”
Unable to receive a response from CBP officials, on August 5, the groups submitted a second document, a 25-page long comment letter, further detailing environmental, economic, and cultural concerns they believe the border wall will have in the Rio Grande Valley, as well as continued transparency issues.
On Monday, Neta reached out to CBP for comment. On Wednesday morning, CBP responded. Forty signees, two letters, and several articles after, finally a partial response for residents: 30 more days.
Via email, a CBP spokesperson wrote, “CBP initiated outreach with state, local, and tribal governments in August 2017 and has continued throughout the planning and execution of the Fiscal Year 2017 (FY17) and FY18 border infrastructure construction projects. Most recently, CBP sent letters to stakeholders requesting comments and input for FY18 border infrastructure construction projects in Hidalgo and Starr Counties. CBP values the perspective and feedback of these stakeholders and, in response to their request, is currently in the process of notifying stakeholders of the extension of the comment period by an additional 30 days.”
Laiken Jordahl, Borderlands Campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, learned of CBP’s decision for partial extension through Neta. Previously, his organization had yet to receive any responses from CBP, even after follow-up attempts.
Jordahl called the partial extension a “small victory,” which he sees as a testament to the efforts and power of national and local organizations and residents.
“CBP hadn’t even published their notice to comment anywhere so by getting it in the [media]…we actually got the word out that there was a commenting period…CBP is responding to the pressure from the media and from all of our groups. I think that’s really how we’re going to be successful here, by keeping the pressure up,” Jordahl added.
He pointed out, however, that there continue to be several concerns with the current commenting process. Although CBP told Neta that a partial extension would be granted, CBP has yet to comment on whether or not it will issue Spanish notifications or hold any public forums during the extended commenting period.
“CBP really owes it to the people who live in the Rio Grande Valley to hear from all of them,” Jordahl told Neta. “We hope that CBP will consider the serious concerns we’ve raised and think twice before plowing a destructive border wall straight through communities, wildlife refuges, and ranchlands in Rio Grande Valley.”
On the environmental plane, the walls would likely pose severe consequences for the local landscape, interfere with conservation efforts, and severely obstruct the movement of wildlife. According to one letter submitted by the groups to CBP, the proposed border walls would “trap and drown virtually all terrestrial animals present in the riparian corridor, including endangered species that may be present like ocelot and jaguarundi.”
If built, the border wall could have severe effects on local parks and the economies that rely on them. Bentsen State Park, for example, could be left entirely behind the border wall. According to a Texas A&M University study, “nature tourism in the Rio Grande Valley contributed $344.4 million per year to county-level economies and created 4,407 jobs.”
The border wall, as groups pointed out, would likely worsen existing flooding issues in the Rio Grande Valley, parts of which were declared a state of disaster following extensive flooding caused by severe weather in July. The case of Nogales, Arizona, where similar border wall projects have led to millions of dollars in damages and two deaths, was upheld as evidence. In 2010, Hidalgo County levee border walls inundated some wildlife tracts for several months, leaving behind the shells of hundreds of drowned Texas tortoises, a state-listed threatened species.
Furthermore, while failing to lower crossing rates, signees signaled, border walls and fences would likely lead to increased human deaths at the border.
“From its conception,” the groups stated in a letter, “the construction of border barriers and militarization of border communities has been a larger strategy to intentionally push border-crossers into remote desert environments where many die due to harsh conditions.” According to CBP, more than 7,000 people have also died crossing the border between 1998 and 2017.
According to polls, 72 percent of borderland resident oppose construction of the border wall. In the Rio Grande Valley, at least 20 cities have passed resolutions formally opposing construction of a border wall.