Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Border Wall Violates Human Rights

On October 22, the two-year anniversary of President Bush's signing ceremony for the Secure Fence Act, the Organization for American States convened a hearing into allegations that the border wall currently under construction violates human rights. A multi-disciplinary working group of faculty and students affiliated with the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at The University of Texas at Austin submitted a series of briefing papers to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an inter-governmental body of the Organization of American States which provide evidence of human rights violations. Their report is available here:

The situation on the U.S. – Mexico border is one in which fundamental human rights, environmental concerns, and the rule of law have been set aside to facilitate the construction of border walls which have, at most, symbolic value. The border wall's construction coincides with a rise in misinformation regarding the situation at the border, as well as the impacts and effectiveness of the border wall. We hope that the hearings that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights holds will help to bring clarity to the situation, and will spur the United States to adopt rational border policies that promote human rights and reverse policies which currently violate human rights.

Border Wall construction in south Texas

The No Border Wall Coalition is deeply troubled by the headlong rush to build walls along the United States’ southern border without meaningful consideration of the walls’ negative impacts on border communities and the environment, and without evidence that such walls will enhance national security or curtail illegal immigration and smuggling. The border wall is a monumental project that will severely impact the entire 1,969-mile southern border and the 11 million US citizens who live along it, as well as those who live in Mexican cities and communities along the border.

Building the border wall in urban areas is a priority for the Department of Homeland Security because they say that in such places it is “easier for an alien…to conceal themselves in a home or business.” In Texas border communities, the edge of the Rio Grande is already crowded with many homes and businesses that will have to be destroyed for a border wall to be erected. Like countless other human societies throughout history, these communities were founded on the banks of a river. In places like Laredo, Roma, and Brownsville, the river is still the heart of the community, its status as an international border notwithstanding. You cannot cut through the heart of a community without causing grave harm.

Border communities will be severely impacted by the border wall. In South Texas, the river that defines the border is also the reason that settlers originally came to the area. Land grants that were parceled out by the King of Spain in the 1760’s are in many cases still held by their original owners’ descendants. These grants included access to the Rio Grande, recognizing that without its water the area would be uninhabitable, and the river remains the source of water for irrigation and municipal use. If farmers along the Rio Grande can not access the river or the intake pumps that bring its water to their fields they will lose their farms.

Border Wall construction in Granjeno, Texas
Approximately one-quarter of the population in the counties along the border live at or below the poverty line. This is more than double the national poverty rate. In addition, most of the counties in the border region have majority-minority populations. Executive order 12898 (Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice [EJ] in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations), provides that “each Federal agency must identify and address, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the U.S.” The Department of Homeland Security has ignored its responsibility to address the Environmental Justice issues raised by the border wall.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley has double the poverty rate of rest of the state of Texas (In 2000, 35.7% vs. 15.4%). In many cases landowners facing condemnation proceedings cannot afford legal representation, so they decide to cut their losses rather than fight for their legal rights. Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid has stepped in to represent many low income property owners, but their resources are limited. The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law is representing other residents in suits against DHS challenging eminent domain proceedings.

Despite the mandate of the Omnibus Spending Bill of 2007, which requires meaningful consultation with local stakeholders before walls are built, the Department of Homeland Security has ignored the comments and concerns of those of us who will be directly impacted by the border wall. Meetings have been held in secret and are closed to the general public. All maps that have been released are claimed to be preliminary, despite the fact that DHS has been contacting landowners to gain access to private property and construction has already begun. DHS has gone so far as to tell members of the public and press that releasing information would endanger national security, because then smugglers and terrorists would know their plans. This is ludicrous, as once an 18 foot wall is built its location will hardly be a secret.

The most glaring abuse of human rights that is directly connected to the border wall is the fact that the wall has caused thousands of deaths. In 2006 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked at the border wall’s human toll since the erection of the first California sections in the mid 1990s. They found that, though the number of border-crossing deaths had been declining in the 1980s and early 1990s,

“Since 1995, the number of border-crossing deaths increased and by 2005 had more than doubled. […] This increase in deaths occurred despite the fact that, according to published estimates, there was not a corresponding increase in the number of illegal entries. Further, GAO’s analysis also shows that more than three-fourths of the doubling in deaths along the southwest border since 1995 can be attributed to increases in deaths occurring in the Arizona desert.”

Migrant trail through the Arizona desert

This increase in deaths occurred because the border walls did not stop people from entering the United States, they only rerouted them. Confronted with an 18 foot high wall near San Diego, desperate immigrants did not turn around and go home. They went around it. Rather than crossing in safer urban areas, thousands instead came in through the desert. As a result, more than 5,000 have died from dehydration and exposure, and it is estimated that thousands of bodies lie undiscovered.

The No Border Wall Coalition would like to thank the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for holding hearings on the abuses of human rights that are associated with the construction of the border wall. The fact that the United States has avoided a similar examination is shameful. We look forward to reading your conclusions regarding the situation on the border, and hope that they will be read by U.S. decision makers as well. So long as the discussion regarding the border and the wall that is being erected along it is dominated by demagogues, rather than a careful examination of the facts, there is little hope of improvement.