Defying border patrol, activists in the Rio Grande Valley prepare town hall against border wall

For over a year, conservation and immigrant rights groups in the Rio Grande Valley have been asking Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to hold a public forum on proposed border wall construction plans in the area. Throughout, CBP has steadfastly refused.

Instead, the agency has focused its outreach and engagement efforts on smaller-scale efforts: closed-doors private meetings with advocates and landowners; commenting periods which, although recurring, are described by conservation and immigrants rights groups as obscure and replete with transparency issues; and the issuing of notifications and right-of-entry “requests,” which, even when left unanswered or unapproved by landowners, have not prevented CBP from entering and clearing private property without authorization.

Local groups and residents, however, are determined to create the spaces needed for Valley residents to make their voices and concerns publicly known. Since CBP won’t hold a public forum, they have decided to organize community members to create their own.

In October, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) essentially cleared the way for imminent construction by waiving 28 US environmental and health protection laws. Among those is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a law which throughout the year advocate groups have repeatedly signaled CBP is violating. Among other things, the law requires federal agencies to hold public forums and to prepare environmental impact statements on the federal projects they seek to move forward.

Photo courtesy of Town Hall Against the Wall event page

With these laws waived, on Saturday, even as CBP’s most recent commenting period for the Rio Grande Valley border wall remained open, news broke that the federal government had already allotted SLSCO, a Galveston-based construction firm, a $145 million federal contract for the first six miles of border wall in Hidalgo County. The first border wall construction is slated to begin in February 2019.

For some border residents, the timeline of such developments illustrates what they perceive as a pattern of disregard and indifference for the thoughts and voices of those living at the border.

“You’re having this commenting period, but you’re not listening to us,” Sheila Patel, a member of the Environmental Awareness Club at the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, told Neta. “You’re not listening to what people to have to say about it because clearly [you’ve already] signed a contract to start building a border wall.”

Patel said she and others opposed to the border wall are determined to make their voices and opposition known. That’s why, in spite of and despite CBP’s resistance to a public meeting, her organization and several others have decided to host their own public town hall.

“We want to send a message to Trump and to the federal government that we the people of the Valley are against this. This is not something that we are supporting, and they should take our voice into consideration,” Patel said.

Beyond the right to have local voices heard, Scott Nicol, a member of the Executive Committee of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, added it’s important “to make sure that people understand what kind of damage these walls are going to do to our communities and to our ecosystems and to the people who are coming to our borders who will be pushed into more deadly terrain.”

To make sure the voices of those in opposition to the border wall are heard, participating groups are taking the town hall to CBP— right across the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas.

The border wall is not the only concern they are seeking to address, however. The broader concern or trend, participating groups said, is border militarization. It’s a reality that has become increasingly difficult to ignore, especially under the Trump administration.

Although there are parts of the Valley, including private property, that have been fenced off since 2007 and locals have become accustomed to seeing Border Patrol everywhere they go, the presence of armed active-duty troops in full combat uniform has shocked many residents.

The deployment of troops has been the Trump administration’s forceful response to an exodus of Central American migrants traverses Mexico toward the US. At its height, the exodus was estimated to be made up of as many as 7,000 migrants, many of which plan to request asylum at a US port of entry.

In a written statement, participating groups indicated that it wasn’t just border communities that suffer the consequences of militarization. Refugees, the statement read, “pay the price not only for the environmental disaster caused by border barriers but pay the price of the militarization that comes with it.”

Thirty-three miles of border wall have been proposed in Hidalgo and Starr County.

According to CBP notices issued to some stakeholders, in Hidalgo County, 25 miles of levee-border wall are slated to be erected 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.” A 150-foot enforcement zone, detection, and surveillance technology will also be incorporated into the levee wall, as well as automated vehicle gates, pedestrian gates, an 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.

Despite what they call a willful resistance to listen to the voices of those living at the border, advocates like Nicol insist local communities cannot give up.

Nicol believes the border wall is an “entirely political project.” In his opinion, that’s what makes it stoppable. On the other hand, without pushback, he said the Valley opens itself to the risk of “more walls on the horizon.” With the next lame-duck legislative session approaching, he stressed it’s critical for border residents to make their opposition known as loudly as possible.

The “Town Hall Against the Wall” will take place Sunday, Nov. 11 from 2 PM to 5 PM at the McAllen Border Patrol station (3000 W. Military Hwy, McAllen, Texas). For more details, view the Facebook event here.