The call for a moratorium comes on the eve of the primary elections in Texas, where there is vehement opposition to the border wall along the Rio Grande, the river that divides the U.S. and Mexico for 1,254 miles. The groups say that the moratorium was prompted in part by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s admission that no potential terrorists had ever been apprehended on the southern border. He told the New York Daily News last month, “I don't see any imminent threat" of terrorists infiltrating from Mexico. (“Michael Chertoff’s Deepest Fears: Terrorists Entering U.S. from Canada,” February 10, 2008)
The groups note, however, that DHS has frequently referred to the imminent threat of “terrorists and terrorist weapons” crossing the southern border in order to justify the breakneck speed of border wall construction. Indeed, DHS has fast-tracked the border wall project and expects to complete 370 miles of walls along the border by December of this year. The groups assert that the deadline of December 2008 is an arbitrary date timed to coincide with the last month of the Bush Administration’s period in office. This deadline, coupled with pressure from far right-wing pundits and politicians, has resulted in what the groups call “a mad rush to build the wall” without regard to any coherent operational strategy.
Citing the Border Patrol’s own statistics, they note that illegal crossing of the southern border has decreased significantly between 2006 and 2007, including a 34% decrease in the Rio Grande Valley Sector and a 46% decrease in the Del Rio Sector. Both Texas sectors are slated to get walls despite this decrease and in spite of intense local opposition. By contrast, the heavily fortified San Diego Sector, where a triple-layer wall divides the border, saw a 7% increase in illegal crossing, suggesting that walls are not a meaningful deterrent for undocumented crossers. Indeed, a June 2007 Congressional Research Service report concluded that the walls in San Diego had “no discernible impact” on the number of people entering the U.S. illegally (“Border Security: Barriers Along the U.S. International Border,” updated June 5, 2007). Border Patrol has also stated repeatedly that a wall only slows crossers down by a few minutes, rather than stopping them.
The groups are also calling for an immediate suspension and repeal of section 102 of the Real ID Act of 2005, which gives Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff the power to waive all laws in order to build the border wall without regard to the negative consequences it will have in the border region. The groups say that such power concentrated in the hands of an unelected official makes a mockery of Democratic processes and places border residents under an undue burden, denying them the same legal protections afforded the rest of America. Secretary Chertoff has invoked this unprecedented power three times in order to build walls in California and Arizona, waiving a host of laws in their entirety, including the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act. Texas border resident Scott Nicol said of Chertoff’s waivers, “The only reason to waive the laws is because you intend to break them.”
The Real ID Act also denies individuals and organizations the right to sue DHS for the damages the border wall will cause, limiting lawsuits only to those based on constitutional grounds. Thus, Chertoff can use the waiver provision as a trump card in the face of almost any legal challenge. The groups claim that this has had a chilling effect on those individuals and entities that have a legitimate case against DHS and has permitted the agency to disregard public safety, environmental protection, and humanitarian concerns whether or not a waiver is formally invoked.
In the hurricane-prone Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the border wall is planned to be constructed on or near the flood control levees that line the bank of the Rio Grande. A levee-wall is also planned for Presidio, Texas in Big Bend. Yet, there have been no studies published that describe what impact the proposed wall would have on flooding or on the integrity of the levee system.
The desertlands of Arizona and the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora are home to the federally endangered Sonoran pronghorn, which must travel great distances back and forth across the border in search of water and forage. In recent years, they have bounced back from the brink of extinction thanks to a federal recovery program. Though miles of wall cutting across their range could have grave consequences for their survival, the wall is going up in Arizona with little analysis of these consequences.
DHS has continued to operate under the false assumption that the harsh conditions of the desert are a deterrent for people seeking entry into the U.S. As DHS build walls in populated areas, desperation drives more people into remote desert areas where they are more likely to die from dehydration and exposure. The General Accounting Office found that as walls have gone up, the number of people who have died attempting to enter the U.S. doubled between 1995 and 2005 (“Border-Crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995,” August 2006). This is an ongoing humanitarian crisis that requires an immediate solution.
The groups note that the border wall is meant to be a permanent structure that will therefore have permanent consequences, and assert that it is irresponsible to erect the wall without full knowledge of what those consequences will be. DHS is pushing ahead with a timeline that is based solely on election year politics. DHS’s blind rush to draw lines on a map, heedless of the consequences on the ground, makes a moratorium on border wall construction imperative. The groups call upon Congress to take the time to evaluate the serious costs of the border wall and to determine whether it is in fact the best way to address the complex issues of immigration and national security.