Lacking trust in CBP, advocates develop their own platform to track comments against border wall

Earlier this month, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced it was re-issuing comment solicitation notices to reflect a commenting period extension for the 33 miles of proposed border wall construction in the Hidalgo and Starr County.  

With uncertainty on how public comments against the border wall will be tracked or used by CBP, the Center for Biological Diversity developed a bilingual platform that will help advocates tally the exact number of responses submitted to CBP. Citing lack of trust of the immigration agency, the center pressed the importance for the community to be able to have an independent tally of public comments.

The user-friendly platform directs comments directly to the Department of Homeland Security, while also giving the center the ability to track or tally the total number of comments submitted. The platform gives users the opportunity to submit a generic message or a personified one.

Laiken Jordahl, the borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Neta in a phone interview that the comments and the platform will serve as an important tool moving forward.

For one, the “number of comments we receive will clearly indicate how many people are opposed to border wall construction,” Jordahl said. He considers this important because based on past experiences and interactions “we simply do not trust CBP to share accurate numbers based on their track records.”

He’s hopeful that an independent tally will “incentivize” CBP to publish public comments, which Jordahl said is a requirement under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), and that it might push CBP to respond to concerns

A total of 33 miles of border wall construction are under consideration in the Rio Grande Valley. According to a CBP handout, in Hidalgo County, 25 miles of levee-border wall would 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” 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.

Last July, CBP first issued undated letters to an undisclosed number of stakeholders throughout the Rio Grande Valley requiring public comment to be submitted within 30 days of the notice. Immigrant and human rights, conservation, and faith groups, however, insisted more time was needed.

Citing widespread confusion about CBP’s process, the agency’s failure to issue Spanish notices, and a number of other discrepancies and oversights which advocates insisted amounted to a serious violation of the standards set by NEPA, more than 43 organizations signed on to a letter demanding a 60-day extension. The letter also requested CBP address the accessibility issues raised and to hold bilingual townhalls throughout the Rio Grande Valley so that impacted communities could have an opportunity to voice their concerns.

On Aug. 8, CBP told Neta it would be extending commenting period by 30 days. The re-issued solicitation notices which CBP most recently shared with media, however, state that commenting period ends November 6, 2018. Included within the documents CBP shared with Neta were Spanish notifications.

“We’re pleased that they’re finally taking steps to accept public comment, but there are many reasons to be concerned about the agency’s transparency,” Jordahl stated in press release. The release notes that although CBP has met some request, it has yet to address demands for town hall meetings and other issues touching public outreach and comment solicitation as required under NEPA.

Scott Nicol, a member of the Executive Committee of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, emphasized the importance of submitting comment.

“Everyone should submit comments to CBP, and should also write to their US Senators. Silence could be misinterpreted as acceptance of destructive and racist border walls,” Nicol said in a written statement.

Nicol also emphasized the need for public comment to be one, not the only method of community input.

“Customs and Border Protection has been unwilling to provide information about its border wall plans to the border communities that will be most directly impacted. There should be meetings at which the public receives the latest, most complete information about the planned walls, including exactly where they will be built and the damage they are likely to inflict,” he said.

In a previous interview, Jordahl, who called CBP’s public participation record “dismal,” said that it’s not clear how seriously CBP uses public comment.

In past inquiries, Neta has asked CBP for clarification on how public comment from the public will be used and whether responses will be issued. CBP responded that they are taking “into consideration all the inputs received during this process” and that they will  “provide updates when we complete the process.”