Sunday, September 27, 2009

Border War Rhetoric Has Real Consequences for the Borderlands

By Stefanie Herweck

This week Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst addressed an assembly of border residents and community leaders in Harlingen, Texas, less than 15 miles from the Rio Grande, and proclaimed that there was a war going on along the border. His assessment of the border was extreme: “We have two wars everyone talks about going on, one is in Iraq and one is in Afghanistan. We’ve got a third going on and that’s the border.”

Dewhurst made this announcement in the keynote speech for State Senator Eddie Lucio’s State of the District Address. With Senator Lucio looking on, Dewhurst went on to make his case for war on the border, speaking in vague terms about “transnational gangs,” “drug lords killing Americans,” and “border violence,” but providing little in the way of concrete details. He urged that more law enforcement be deployed in order to “close down this border.”

Dewhurst’s comparison of the U.S.-Mexico border region to war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan is offensive and absurd. His characterization of a border at war is based on ignorant hysteria instead of reality. And his portrayal of the border region as the dangerous fount of criminal activity for the rest of the state and the country is categorically false.

When pressed in an interview after the speech to provide the details that would support his claims, Dewhurst said, “We’ve seen incidence of gangs, drive by shootings, in Wichita Falls, which is a long way from the border.” The Lieutenant Governor is right about one thing here: 600 miles between Wichita Falls and the Texas-Mexico border is a long way. But declaring war on the border in order to fight crime in Wichita Falls is ludicrous.

Especially because most Texas border cities are actually safer than Wichita Falls. Although Wichita Falls has 30,000 fewer people than the border city of McAllen, its crime rate in 2008 was higher than McAllen’s. According to FBI statistics, Wichita Falls had 557 incidences of violent crime in 2008, while McAllen only had 371. El Paso was ranked as the third safest large city in the United States in the same year. And all of these cities saw a decrease in violent crime from 2007 to 2008, as did the nation as a whole. Dewhurst’s perverse fantasy of a chaotic crime-ridden border simply does not match the relatively peaceful day-to-day border reality.

In his speech, Dewhurst also cited briefings he has received from the Department of Public Safety and other law enforcement. When asked to elaborate on these briefings after his speech, he cited no official reports or criminological studies, but said “Virtually every city I go into I talk to the DPS and I talk to the local police and they have all seen a pick up of gang activity that they feel is related to drug cartels in Mexico.” While the views of law enforcement officers around the state are valuable, it is irresponsible to make policy recommendations based on their “feelings” rather than hard facts.

Furthermore, Dewhurst has apparently failed to consult with law enforcement officials in the border region. When interviewed by NPR this spring, Brownsville Police Chief Carlos Garcia noted that there had only been 3 homicides in his city in 2008, and that none of them were related to drug cartels. In the same article McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez provided some perceptive analysis that Dewhurst should heed: “The sky is not falling,” he said, refuting unfounded statements by pundits and politicians that cartel violence was spilling over at the border. "What's happening right now is we've got rhetoric that's driving the policy."

When it was pointed out after his speech that his talk of war might not be welcome at the border, Dewhurst quickly wrote it off as just a rhetorical strategy: “I use the word 'war' only in the sense to get people’s attention to understand that there’s a serious problem along our porous southern and northern border.”

Unfortunately, as Chief Rodriguez well understands, rhetoric drives policy. Dewhurst’s declaration of war on the border may be intended as nothing more than a metaphor, but it is likely to have real consequences for the residents of the Texas border.

In his own speech, Dewhurst called for more actual boots on the ground to deal with the war scenario that he later claimed was purely rhetorical. This same border war rhetoric is driving Governor Perry’s call for troops to patrol the border and military predator aircraft to fly up and down the Rio Grande. This month he stationed a specialized team of the Texas Rangers that will reportedly be patrolling the border region carrying automatic weapons, and wearing camouflage, helmets, and bullet-proof vests.

The governor’s action comes despite his own admission that crime along the border has been falling in recent years. And it has been deemed unnecessary by border law enforcement. Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe TreviƱo said, “We don't need the Texas Rangers to come to the border to quell any imaginary disturbance.”

Although sending the Texas Rangers or the National Guard to fight an imaginary war at the border might make for good sound bites in the rest of the state, it sends a shiver down the spine of border residents. Community and business leaders fear that their efforts to develop the border region will be undermined by the false perception of a dangerous, militarized border. Residents know that staging a war in their communities, parks, and farmlands only puts them more at risk.

Border war rhetoric like Dewhurst’s drives policy on the national stage as well. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina introduced an amendment to the 2010 DHS Appropriations Bill calling for more than 300 miles of new border wall. If the amendment passes, hundreds of those miles could be built in Texas. These walls are being proposed despite the fact that the hundreds of miles of border walls already built have not stopped people from crossing the border. Wayne Cornelius, Director Emeritus of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego, say that despite the walls at the border, between 92% and 98% of all those attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally eventually get through. This month, a report by the Government Accountability Office faulted the Department of Homeland Security for having no effective way to gauge the impacts that border walls are having on illegal entry.

But the myth of a border war trumps the reality that walls don’t work. In the press release about his amendment, DeMint says that more border walls are urgently needed because “our southern border has become a battleground.”

Too many walls already blight the Texas borderlands. Texas citizens have had their private property stripped away to make way for walls. Texas cities have seen their landscape forever marred by them. Texas natural areas, wildlife refuges and parks have been irreparably damaged by them. All of this destruction is rooted in the myth of the border war.

Dewhurst’s inflammatory war rhetoric may have been intended only to “get people’s attention,” but the consequences for his constituents along the border are very real. When our borderlands are decreed a war zone, politicians in Austin and Washington forget that it is a place that millions of people call home. They jump on the border war bandwagon, hoping to score political points and to burnish their law-and-order credentials. Like Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, they make the border a scapegoat for crime in the rest of the Texas and the United States. Like Gov. Perry and Sen. DeMint, they dream up absurd, and ultimately destructive, schemes to fight an imaginary war.

Border residents desperately need leaders who will reject the border war scenario, who will refuse to bear false witness against the borderlands and who will work tirelessly to represent the reality of border life at the state and national level. We need uncompromising leaders who will not be complicit in the border war myth, who will actively oppose the schemes based on this myth, and who will not sit silently by as the border region that they were elected to represent is mischaracterized, maligned and damaged.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Environmental Organizations Call Upon Congress to Strip Border Walls from the DHS Appropriations Bill

The following letter, signed by 18 environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and Audubon, was sent to members of the House / Senate conference committee that will be debating the DHS appropriations bill. Currently, the Senate version of the bill contains an amendment requiring hundreds of miles of new border wall. The House version does not require more walls.

Dear Conferees,

On behalf of our millions of members and supporters across the entire country, the undersigned organizations are writing to ask that you remove Sen. DeMint’s amendment #1399 from the Homeland Security Appropriations Act and continue to support efforts to monitor and mitigate negative impacts of border wall construction.

Senate amendment #1399 is the latest attempt to extend the failed policy of building more border walls along our southwest border. In addition to negatively impacting the wildlife and natural resources of the borderlands, the provision would come at great expense to our nation’s border security programs and the American taxpayer. While tying the hands of border security experts by requiring an arbitrary number of miles of wall construction, this language would drain funding from other border security programs in order to cover the growing cost of border wall construction. Taxpayers have paid approximately $2.4 billion for border wall construction to date, and according to the Government Accountability Office, one mile of border wall now costs nearly $8 million.

Nearly one-third of the 1,950 mile U.S.-Mexico border lies within military, tribal, and public lands, including Wilderness areas, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, National Monuments, State Parks and hundreds of miles within the National Park system. Much of this country’s most spectacular and imperiled wildlife, including two of America’s most endangered big cats, jaguars and ocelot, bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn, and bison, depend upon protected public lands along the border for intact habitat and survival.

Numerous studies have highlighted the damage that border infrastructure has caused to the borderlands’ ecology and wildlife. The National Park Service issued a report in August, 2008 confirming that the border wall along the Lukeville Port of Entry has exacerbated seasonal flooding and has caused accelerated scouring and erosion on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. A recent study in Conservation Biology showed that the border wall fractures the habitat connectivity that wildlife like the pygmy owl and bighorn sheep need for survival. As climate change shifts habitats and alters migration routes, establishing wildlife corridors and protecting habitat connectivity becomes even more critical.

The damage that border walls have caused to the unique natural values of the borderlands has been exacerbated by the Secretary of Homeland Security’s authority to waive any applicable laws to expedite border wall construction. This unprecedented authority has prompted the waiving of 37 environmental, historic preservation, tribal protection and other federal laws along with related state and local laws across 563 miles of the border.

In order to help address the negative impacts of border walls that have already been constructed, the House Homeland Security Appropriations bill included $40 million for border monitoring and mitigation. We strongly support keeping this language in the final bill and believe that its inclusion would mark one more step towards repairing the damage done to communities and natural resources along the border.

Again, we support the House version of the Homeland Security Appropriations Act, and as you move to conference we specifically ask that you remove Senate amendment #1399 from the final bill and continue to advance border monitoring and mitigation efforts.


The Arizona Zoological Society
Center for Biological Diversity
Defenders of Wildlife
Frontera Audubon
International League of Conservation Photographers
League of Conservation Voters
National Audubon Society
National Wildlife Federation
Natural Resources Defense Council
Rio Grande International Study Center
Sierra Club
Southwest Environmental Center
Valley Nature Center
Western Lands Project
The Wilderness Society
Wildlands CPR
Wildlands Network

Friday, September 18, 2009

Taxpayers for Common Sense Blasts the Border Wall

Taxpayers for Common Sense has voiced their opposition to the border wall, tossing it into their Weekly Wastebasket. They describe themselves in this way,

"Taxpayers for Common Sense is an independent and non-partisan voice for taxpayers working to increase transparency and expose and eliminate wasteful and corrupt subsidies, earmarks, and corporate welfare."

Border Waste Reruns
Volume XIV No. 38: September 18, 2009

Jimmy Buffet could have testified at this week’s hearing about ongoing federal border protection initiatives. As you watched the same old song and dance about Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending commence before lawmakers, you could almost hear him sing: “Wasting away again on the border wall. Searching for the lost section of fence. Some people say that Boeing’s to blame, but I know – it’s our own damn fault.”

With the benefit of updated numbers and dates, the House Homeland Security Committee learned that seven years and more than $4 billion in, DHS’s Secure Border Initiative (SBI) is (still) broken. SBI is comprised of a system of cameras and sensors known as SBINet and a steel “pedestrian” fence erected on more than 600 miles of the southwestern U.S. border.

Lawmakers heard an all too familiar tale of waste and woe. The average cost of pedestrian fencing has jumped from $3.5 to $6.5 million per mile, and costs for vehicle fencing have doubled. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the sensors used in the SBINet system still suffer from too many false detections and are vulnerable to bad weather despite the fact that the military has effectively used camera and sensor technology to track enemy movements for years at a much lower cost. But it didn’t stop there, the sad song continued:

· Full deployment of SBINet is now projected for 2016—seven years after the original contract with Boeing was scheduled to end;

· The pedestrian fence has been breached more than 3,000 times so far, with each repair costing at least $1,300;

· A long-overdue DHS study estimates the costs of maintaining the fence over a 20-year period at $6.5 billion— which is likely a low ball.

Sadly, even the new price tag may not tell the whole story. As our analysis of fence costs points out, maintenance estimates by the Congressional Budget Office and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put that figure at $8 billion years ago, before the same labor and materials price hikes that have bumped up the cost of fence construction.

Problems with SBINet are due in large part to a contract that even a Boeing spokesman admitted was “awkward.” That’s a bit of an understatement: The delays and cost overruns have made the project a poster child for problems with “lead systems integrator” contracting strategy, where one company acts as a “system integrator” that tries to cobble together several different projects completed at different times and with different subcontractors. Incredibly, DHS just renewed Boeing’s contract for another year, despite a string of failures that has dogged the contract almost since its 2006 inception.

The fundamental question, of course, is whether the fence actually works. The unfortunate answers range between “no” and “not sure”. Because the SBINet technology still isn’t functional, border patrol agents are forced to work with outdated and ineffective technology, decreasing the border’s effectiveness. And the border patrol hasn’t yet created a way to quantitatively measure whether or not the pedestrian fence is actually keeping people out. The number of people caught trying to cross the border actually declined in several sectors before the fence went up, showing only that those numbers are influenced by factors other than the existence of a 14-foot steel wall.

Like too many expensive national security projects, Congressional commitments to the border fence were made in a fiscal vacuum. Yet Senators exacerbated irresponsible spending by inserting a requirement that would add another 300 miles of pedestrian fence at a cost of some $40 billion. Even though they’ve seen this one before, maybe lawmakers should review the hearing transcript: When asked whether the American taxpayer had benefitted from spending on SBI, the GAO analyst replied with an unequivocal “No.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

No Border Wall Calls on Congress to Strip the DeMint Border Wall Mandate from the DHS Appropriations Bill

The No Border Wall Coalition sent the following letter to the members of the House / Senate conference committee that will be deciding on the final language of the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill. While the House version does not include more border walls, the Seante's version includes the DeMint amendment, calling for 700 miles of pedestrian walls. After the letter was sent a new report from the Government Accountability Office on the Secure Border Initiative, which includes border walls, was released. It found,

"A life cycle cost study has been completed which estimates deployment, operations, and future maintenance for the tactical infrastructure will total $6.5 billion. Despite the investment in tactical infrastructure, its impact on securing the border has not been measured because DHS has not assessed the impact of the tactical infrastructure on gains or losses in the level of effective control."

The life cycle cost estimate is on top of construction costs, and does not include the cost of the construction called for by the DeMint amendment.

Here is the text of our letter to the committee members, explaining our opposition to the construction of more border walls:

The No Border Wall Coalition urges you to remove the DeMint amendment (1399), which calls for hundreds of miles of new border wall, from the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill. Further border wall construction will do tremendous damage to private and municipal property, severely impact critical wildlife habitat, and cost our nation billions of dollars. But like the walls that have already been built, the new border walls will have no impact on immigration.

The DeMint amendment changes the Secure Fence Act to require 700 miles of “pedestrian” border walls; vehicle barriers built along the border could no longer be applied to the mile count. As of July, DHS has completed 331 miles of “pedestrian fencing” and 302 miles of vehicle barriers. If DeMint’s amendment is accepted by the House/Senate Conference Committee and is signed into law, the border wall will suddenly be 369 miles short of its new mandate.

To build border walls the federal government has initiated condemnation suits against more than 400 landowners, of which 255 are still unresolved. Landowners and local elected officials have been denied basic information, including how they will access properties and water intake pumps that are walled off. If the DeMint amendment is not removed, hundreds more farmers, ranchers, nature preserves, and municipalities will be hauled into federal court to have their lands taken from them.

Border walls currently slice through National Monuments, National Wildlife Refuges, and preserves owned by the Nature Conservancy and Audubon. Habitats that are critical for the survival of federally endangered ocelots and Sonoran pronghorn have been fragmented, cutting animals off from the resources that they need to survive. Blocked watersheds have led to flood damage in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and ongoing blasting in the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area is filling the Tijuana River with boulders and debris. If more border walls are built, more border ecosystems will be degraded or destroyed.

To date, $3.1 billion has been spent on border wall construction. Last year the Army Corps of Engineers reported that the average cost of building walls had increased to $7.5 million per mile. Some sections of border wall are particularly expensive: walls in South Texas averaged $12 million per mile; in California, a 3.5 mile section that involved filling in canyons cost taxpayers $57 million.

If the DeMint amendment remains in the DHS appropriations bill, we will spend no less than (and quite possibly a lot more than) $2,767,500,000.00 to build 369 miles of new border walls.

Border walls have utterly failed to stop either immigrants or smugglers from entering the United States. The majority enter through ports of entry, so walls erected between the ports have no effect on them. And according to the Border Patrol, even those who find the wall directly in their path are only slowed down by around 5 minutes.

Professor Wayne Cornelius of the University of California at San Diego has spent more than a decade researching undocumented immigration. His work has revealed that, even with border walls,

“all but a tiny minority eventually get through – between 92 and 98 percent, depending on the community of origin. … [T]he eventual success rate is virtually the same for migrants whose most recent crossing occurred before 1995, when the border was largely unfortified, and those crossing in the most recent period. In other words, the border enforcement build-up seems to have made no appreciable difference in terms of migrants’ ability to enter the United States clandestinely.”

The Department of Homeland Security recognizes this fact. After DeMint’s amendment was adopted, DHS spokesman Matt Chandler told the Wall Street Journal that it is, “designed to prevent real progress on immigration enforcement and [is] a reflection of the old administration's strategy: all show, no substance."

Rather than spend billions more on walls that will do tremendous damage to border communities and ecosystems, and which the Department of Homeland Security says will not help them to do their job, the membership of the No Border Wall Coalition urges you to adopt the House version of the DHS appropriations bill. For many of us, the border is our home, and as walls have been erected our needs, concerns, and voices have been ignored. We ask that you listen to us now. Strip the DeMint amendment from the bill, and refrain from building more border walls.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

LULAC Opposes DeMint Amendment in the Senate Version of the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill

LULAC Press Release
September 15, 2009

Washington, DC – The League of United Latin American Citizens, the largest and oldest Hispanic civil rights organization in the country, conveys strong opposition to the DeMint amendment included in the Senate version of the Homeland Security Appropriations bill, H.R. 2892 which would require additional several hundred miles of pedestrian fencing along the southern border costing taxpayers approximately $3 billion.

“Our border security remains a national priority but with our budget constraints we face, I believe we need to go about appropriating our resources where they are most needed," said LULAC National President Rosa Rosales. "The Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has indicated that there are more useful ways of using these resources such as in deploying new surveillance assets, sensors, and tactical infrastructure to the southern border.”

We strongly recommend that the Senate recede to the House on the DeMint amendment, eliminating it from the final bill. Should conferees have the funds available for such a proposal as was approved by the Senate, we recommend that the money be used to strengthen border security at the southern ports of entry, where the nation’s needs are most urgent. There is an investment of $720 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to improve security at land ports of entry, including $260 million for new technology and equipment.

We look forward to working with the Senate and House to reconcile both appropriations bills.

The League of United Latin American Citizens advances the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, housing, health and civil rights of Hispanic Americans through community-based programs operating at more than 700 LULAC councils nationwide.