In 2007, dozens of Rio Grande Valley families living along the border found themselves facing an incredible behemoth: the U.S. government. The reason? The government wanted to build a border fence that would allegedly stop unauthorized immigration into the U.S. The problem? It would go through their lands.
The feds gave them two options: sell us your land or we’ll sue you for it.
In most cases, lowball offers were made to residents. Most landowners had many questions: where the fence would go, how it would affect their property, etc. But according to an in-depth investigation by Pro Publica and the Texas Tribune, the government did not have time for them or their questions. Thus, amidst the rush to get things done, many landowners found themselves having to make a consequential decision within the span of just a few weeks. The vast majority, unsure of their rights and faced with a likely protracted struggle, felt they had no other choice but to sell.
A decade later, Valley residents and landowners are wading through a similar process once again; This time with the border wall. Although the process isn’t over yet, their experiences to date raise questions about whether or not history is repeating itself.
John-Michael Torres, a Mission resident, was in his early 20s when CBP first announced its plans to erect border fences along the Rio Grande Valley. It didn’t stop the fence construction, but he remembers attending public meetings hosted by the government for feedback. This time around with the Trump administration, no public meetings have happened. Governmental interaction with community members has been restricted instead to a few invite-only, closed-door meetings and some notices sent to people of CBP’s choosing.
According to Torres, who’s now the Communications Director at La Union del Pueblo Unido (LUPE), one of the first interactions came August 2017 when various groups and organizations received a notice announcing a public commenting period. Torres told Neta that the notice did not detail specifically where border walls might be built. It did, however, contain some information regarding the materials that would be used to build it.
LUPE organized its members to submit public comments asking for a public meeting so that CBP and members of Congress could listen and provide immediate feedback to community concerns. But the months passed. To Torres’ knowledge, no response was ever provided.
Almost a year later, in July 2018, LUPE and others received a second notice. This time the notice included a map detailing plans for 33 miles of border wall construction in Hidalgo and Starr County. Although the letter was not dated, it asked recipients to provide comment within 30 days of the notice’s date.
In response, the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a letter signed by over 40 human rights, conservation, and faith groups accusing CBP of a disingenuous effort to acquire community input. For evidence, they pointed to CBP’s failure to issue any Spanish notifications and their refusal to hold any public forums. They also signaled CBP’s failure to distribute the commenting period notice to local media, a potential violation of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). They demanded a 60-day extension, as well as address the other engagement issues and barriers raised. When CBP failed to respond, the groups issued a second, 25 page-long comment letter, detailing the wide variety of their environmental, economic, social, and cultural concerns.
Upon inquiry, a CBP representative informed Neta through email that a decision had been made to extend the commenting period by 30 days. The decision came as news to the groups that submitted the letter. On Aug. 9, upon request for a deadline clarification, CBP informed Laiken Jordahl, Borderlands Campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, that updated letters in English and Spanish would go out to stakeholders within two weeks.
Although LUPE was a signee to the recent extension letter issued to CBP, Torres says he’s unsure what, if any, impact the recent 30-day extension on the current commenting period can have in ensuring community input and concerns are seriously considered this time around. Torres and others have not received new notices in English or Spanish detailing the extension request.
For Jeffrey Glasberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association and founder of the National Butterfly Center, and Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the Center, CBP’s requests for comment and the recent extension represent more theatre than a genuine desire for input. Although the center is slated to lose 70 percent of its property if a border wall is built, Glasberg and Treviño-Wright say they have yet to receive the July 2018 notice that some groups received. To date, they say the only written notifications that the group has received are two right of entry-service requests for CBP to enter and assess the property.
Both fail to specify any details about the dates and times in which visits may be conducted. For Glasberg they are essentially requests for unfettered access. Basically, they ask you to sign a paper that says “you give us the irrevocable right to enter your land, whenever we want, for as long as we want, to do whatever we want to do…I mean it’s not even an agreement…A normal agreement, there are some considerations,” Glasberg told Neta.
Although the center has yet to grant these requests, Glasberg and Treviño-Wright say this has not stopped government contractors from entering the property.
On July 20, 2017, several months before the first right of entry requests were received, Treviño-Wright says she was walking around the property when she encountered government contractors on the property who were clearing the area. When Treviño-Wright confronted them, crew members told her they were there to clear the area for President Trump’s border wall.
Several days later, on Aug. 1, Manuel Padilla, chief of the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector, paid Treviño-Wright an unannounced visit. According to Treviño-Wright, Padilla told her that Border Patrol “would be back and [that] they would return with green uniform presence, [meaning] they would be returning with armed federal agents on private property.”
Scott Nicol, a member of the Executive Committee of the Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club who remembers when the border fences were built, said the community process with the border wall is not exactly the same as in 2007. “They’re behaving even worse this time,” Nicol told Neta.
He doesn’t see the 30-day extension to the commenting period as a bid for transparency. “When they say ‘we value everyone’s comment’ but there is no indication of what they’re going to do with those comments, and they are trampling on the rights of landowners that are in the wall’s path, it really rings hollow,” Nicol said.
For him, CBP’s actions have served as an “opportunity” for CBP officials to “pretend they’re trying to engage with local communities and to be able to tell Congress they’re doing that.” He believes CBP long ago made its mind on the issue.
In August of 2017, Nicol says that he attended a meeting with CBP. According to Nicol, there “wasn’t a tremendous amount of information given, but one thing that was really interesting to come out of it was that there was an individual from Washington D.C. named Loren Flossman who is the one who is actually making decisions.”
When the meeting took place, the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge was still slated to be the first area affected by the border wall. When asked who made the decision to pilot the border wall in Santa Ana, Nicol claims Flossman, director of the Border Patrol and Air and Marine program, was the one to take credit. “What it really shows is that all of these decisions are really being made in Washington, D.C.,” Nicol said.
A comparison of the quick progression with which border wall construction appears to be moving along versus the few and sparse, and even then allegedly issue-riddled, opportunities for community appears to uphold allegations of an intentional lack of transparency. Although landowners in the area meet with CBP regularly, Treviño-Wright, for example, says that the first quarterly meeting with landowners on the topic of the border wall specifically took place just this month on Aug. 9.
The presence of the workmen at the National Butterfly Center, as well as the landowners meeting, also occurred several months before Congressional funding for the wall was even secured in March 2018. While advanced contract bidding notices were issued in February and March of this year, for example, Border Patrol just barely sent notices to an unknown number of groups and individuals in July, detailing where in Hidalgo and Starr County it plans to have 33 miles of border wall built.
Neta reached out to CBP to inquire what next steps, if any, would follow public comment. A CBP representative replied via email: “At this point we’re taking in consideration all the inputs received during this process, we’ll provide updates when we complete the process.”
CBP has previously told lawmakers, however, it may award contracts as early as September.
Despite or in spite of what CBP’s timeline, people in the Rio Grande Valley have still found ways to make their opposition to border walls vocal. Despite CBP’s alleged failure to abide by NEPA regulations, for example, groups in opposition to the border wall have taken the initiative to circulate information through newspapers and media. Just the same, groups like the Texas Civil Rights Project have taken lead in informing landowners that stand to be affected of what their rights are when confronting land-grab attempts by the federal government. In the Rio Grande Valley, at least 20 cities have also passed resolutions opposing construction of the border wall.
In spite of CBP’s process community members and activists say they will not give up. “I have been…given a lot of hope just from the publicity we’ve gotten and the amount of people that have really become outraged by this process,” Jordahl of the Center for Biological Diversity said. “That really does give me hope. Nothing CBP has done gives me hope, but the resistance and folks who are doing the organizing work…has given me more hope.”
“We just have to fight harder,” Nicol told Neta. “These are entirely political projects; they’re not tactical…If we can make enough noise and put enough pressure on politicians that they’ll see building more border walls as politically toxic…there’s not going to be any more border walls.”
Yet, when it comes to the border wall, the question remains: How much do the rights of borderland residents matter to CBP?