Friday, December 19, 2008

Civil Disobedience and the Border Wall

After successfully blocking construction of the US-Mexico border wall for 7 hours on December 17, Judy Ackerman was handcuffed and led away from the construction site. She had been on the site since 6:30 that morning, cheered on by a group of enthusiastic supporters while idle workers leaned against their silent equipment.

Ackerman’s civil disobedience sprang from a desire to defend the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, a protected natural area on the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas. Rio Bosque is situated along a stretch of the old, winding river channel in which the Rio Grande flowed before it was straightened and channelized in the 1930s. The park’s wetlands were created in 1997, and, through years of volunteer work, the native wetland habitat was painstakingly restored. Ten years later, it’s one of the few places where one can imagine what the El Paso area must have been like when the river wound freely through the mountains and desert and had ample flow to support rich wetlands and big cottonwood trees. Judy Ackerman is one of the many volunteers who made this vision possible.

But the border wall threatens this rebirth of nature. Its path will cut off Rio Bosque from the river, preventing the movement of species and severely limiting the park's value as habitat. For Ackerman and the other longtime Rio Bosque volunteers who know that the river and the wetlands are intimately and inextricably connected, the border wall is a knife through the heart.

For the simple, nonviolent action of standing her ground on the border wall construction site, Ackerman has been charged with violating the law, but the border wall itself has been placed above all of our nation’s laws. The Real ID Act gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to waive any federal, state, or local law that might slow down construction of the wall. No one else, not even the president, has this sweeping power. On April 1, 2008, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff “waived in their entirety” 36 federal laws all along the southern border, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. There is only one reason to waive these laws: Chertoff knows that the border wall cannot be built without violating them. His waiver is an implicit admission that constructing the border wall means breaking the law.

After her arrest, law enforcement officers brought Ackerman before a judge to be arraigned. But under the Real ID Act, neither she nor anyone else may use the courts to challenge the border wall, regardless of the damage it causes or the danger it represents. Chertoff’s waiver swept aside our legal right to demand in court that the government obey its own laws. The only jurisdiction the courts have is to determine whether or not the Real ID Act waiver provision is constitutional. El Paso County and nine other plaintiffs have claimed that it is not and are asking the Supreme Court to hear their case. In the meantime, the border wall continues to be built, devastating our border communities and natural areas, flouting our nation’s laws, and undermining our constitutionally-guaranteed right to equal protection under the law.

Some would go so far as to say that these are among the freedoms we should willingly give up in exchange for security. But this trade-off is a false one based on the twin myths that our borders are broken and that border walls will protect us.

Our borders are not broken. Well before the new walls started going up there, the El Paso Border Patrol Sector was reporting a decrease in the apprehensions of illegal crossers. From 2005 to 2007, apprehensions in the El Paso sector fell by 38 percent. Even more telling, this year El Paso has been named the nation's third-safest city among cities with populations of 500,000 or more, and it has consistently ranked in the top 3 safest large cities for a decade.

Border walls do not make the United States safer, nor do they stop undocumented immigration or smuggling. A 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service found that existing walls in San Diego “did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens coming across the border.” In fact, during the same period that El Paso experienced a 38 percent drop in illegal crossings, San Diego had a 20 percent increase in crossings despite the presence of a triple-layered border wall there.

Those who say we must give up our freedom for security are in reality asking us to sacrifice one of the founding principles of our republic, the rule of law, for nothing but a false sense of security.

Judy Ackerman trespassed, disrupted border wall construction, and stood her ground. For this she was duly arrested and charged with a crime. But on the same ground where Ackerman made her stand, The Department of Homeland Security is willfully and destructively ignoring the law. One man has decided which laws apply and which do not and has single-handedly dismissed our right to sue for protection under the law. Ackerman’s trespassing charge is a misdemeanor. But the border wall construction that restarted soon after her arrest is a much more serious crime, and Chertoff’s waiver of laws is a flagrant violation of the principles upon which our nation was founded.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Border Wall Harms Wildlife

By Matt Clark

The border wall is a classic example of habitat fragmentation – one of the leading causes of species extinction. As human-created barriers such as highways and walls bisect the land, once intact wildlife habitat patches become fragmented, and less permeable to wildlife movements. One of the insidious consequences of habitat fragmentation is that it creates smaller, more isolated habitat patches and wildlife populations – the negative effects of which may not become apparent for decades. Isolated wildlife populations are prone to more dramatic fluctuations from year to year, are less resilient to natural disturbances, have a higher probability of local extinction, and are robbed of the crucial genetic interchange that keeps wildlife populations healthy. Fragmentation may also preclude access to water sources, seasonally-available food resources, and new territories. The importance of maintaining and/or restoring habitat connectivity is a fundamental principle that has emerged from wildlife conservation sciences in the past two decades.

The border wall is causing habitat destruction, degradation and fragmentation at a regional scale for a wide array of wildlife – creatures that do not recognize arbitrary political boundaries. Numerous cross-border wildlife linkages have already been severed by the wall, and the wall itself is redirecting traffic into adjacent habitats. Clearly, more scientific research is needed to quantify these impacts.

On-the-ground examples:

· 1.9 million tons of dirt is being used to fill Smuggler’s Gulch in southern California in order to construct a wall across this steep canyon. This threatens to increase sediment flows into the ecologically-sensitive Tijuana River Estuary, which provides habitat for four federally-listed endangered birds: the light-footed clapper rail, the California least tern, the least Bell's vireo and the California brown pelican.

· Both deer and javelina have been documented along the wall in the vicinity of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, apparently unable to cross the border because of the wall.

· A Compatiblility Determination for the then-proposed border wall on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge concluded the wall was not compatible with the refuge’s mission and regulations, stating: “The barrier would fragment habitat on the refuge, thereby adversely affecting the ecological integrity of the refuge's natural resources…The barrier would adversely affect endangered species (jaguar), migratory birds (pygmy-owls), and important habitats (Arivaca Creek) on the refuge, thereby conflicting with stated management goals for the refuge...” A controversial land swap was orchestrated and the wall was built anyway. Border Patrol recently documented an aggravated mountain lion on the refuge unsuccessfully attempting to get through the border wall to the Mexican side of its habitat.

Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and the Border Wall. Photo courtesy Matt Clark.

· A recent Biological Opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states, “Shifting IA [illegal alien] activity has already occurred in Arizona and California as a result of fence construction or increased CBP [Customs and Border Protection] staffing”. The wall continues to funnel traffic and disturbance into remote, rugged, and ecologically sensitive areas. The Biological Opinion provides 8 documented examples of this phenomenon, some of which are anticipated to negatively impact threatened and endangered species such as the Sonoran pronghorn, jaguar, Mexican spotted owl and Chiricahua leopard frog.

Matt Clark is the Southwest Representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Obama needs to consign Border Wall plan to the trashcan of bad ideas

By K. Rod Summy

During the past year, numerous articles have appeared in the local and national press regarding problems associated with construction of the Border Fence or Wall along the U.S.–Mexico border.

In one recent article, I expressed my concerns that the initiation of Border Wall construction in Hidalgo County, Texas during the middle of the 2008 hurricane season was inherently dangerous and could predispose our region to massive flooding if we were impacted by a major storm while such construction was in progress.

As examples of levee disturbances caused by Border Wall construction, I included a series of images acquired in the city of Granjeno during early-September of this year which showed firstly, deep unconsolidated (loose and friable) soil on both faces of the flood-control levee, and secondly a five- to six-meter gap between an uncompleted section of the concrete Border Wall and the remnants of the destabilized levee located to the south.

Border wall under construction in the levee in Granjeno, TX 9/21/08

I discussed the ramifications of each type of disturbance, and recommended that major construction of any type which provides a potential to disturb or destabilize flood-control levees should be curtailed or prohibited during the annual hurricane season, which extends from early-June through late-November.

In response to my article, an unknown person (hereafter referred to “Anonymous”) posted the following statement on the No Border Wall blog on Sept. 22, 2008:
“Deceiving commentary on the engineering that is going on here. First the existing levees (small molehills) are raised using fill material. That is what the author calls "unstable" and "friable." Then the flood wall is constructed in front of the raised levees on the side facing the river, with space between so as not to disturb the newly upgraded earthen levee. After the wall is complete, the space is backfilled and consolidated agatinst [sic] the back of the flood wall. Please explain how the upgraded earth levee would provide less protection during a major storm than what was originally there?? (the original earth levee is still there underneath the built up levee). This makes no sense to me and it's a deceptive way to get an audience for this site's border wall bashing.”

Levee / border wall diagram from the Marfa Sector draft Environmental Assessment

The engineering details of the Border Wall provided by “Anonymous” are informative but irrelevant. How effective the Border Wall might be as a flood-control structure once construction is complete has nothing to do with the concerns expressed in my article – the real question is how it may be expected to perform if we are impacted by a major tropical storm or hurricane while construction is in progress.

All phases of Border Wall construction were in progress by September 7, 2008, the beginning of the week in which Hurricane Ike entered the Gulf of Mexico and intensified into one of the largest and most dangerous storms in Texas Gulf Coast history.

This included extensive excavation of the south levee face, the embedding of pilings and metal panels along the top of the levee, and construction of the partially-completed concrete wall which now extended approximately 150 to 200 meters west of its original point of origin.

Levee / border wall construction in Granjeno, TX 8/01/08

All areas of the south levee face located to the east of the partially-completed wall were characterized by numerous gouges and other types of excavations which produced abrupt changes in surface contour of the levee face, and several large openings between the vertical pilings which revealed the earthen levee on the opposite side of the structure. The apparent stability of the concrete wall was a dangerous illusion – it merely concealed from view the existence of a 5 – 6 meter wide “gap” between the inner surface of the wall and the destabilized north wall of the earthen levee.

To suggest that a levee in this condition is storm-worthy and capable of withstanding the onslaught of floodwaters produced by major tropical storms and hurricanes is ludicrous. Tropical storms and hurricanes are typically associated with high winds and torrential rainfall, which generally result in deep water and strong water currents within floodways. Any engineer or hydrologist worthy of the name should recognize that strong water currents developing in this manner will almost certainly obliterate any type of obstruction (earthen or otherwise) causing abrupt changes in surface contour of levee faces.

Moreover, a competent engineer should also recognize that the five- to six-meter “gap behind the wall” provides a means to generate very powerful water currents if any type of breach were to occur in the levee behind the concrete wall, e.g., as a result of overtopping. This is a simple matter of physical principles and hydrology – if a breach in this area should occur, floodwaters under tremendous pressure will tend to flow along the “path of least resistance,” i.e., they will flow through the breach until the system stabilizes as floodwaters subside.

Levee / border wall construction in Granjeno, TX 11/27/08

Since the concrete wall is impermeable to water, it will force floodwaters to enter a restricted channel (i.e., the gap in question) and to flow with increased velocity toward the breach in a direction parallel to the face of the destabilized earthen levee. As water flows through the breach, hydraulic action (erosion caused by moving water) will tend to widen the breach, which in turn will allow more water to enter the restricted channel (gap) which in turn will tend to increase the velocity of water flowing through the channel.

This dangerous situation could be greatly exacerbated if water enters the restricted channel from both ends – this would force strong water currents flowing in opposite directions to converge at the site of the breach, which in turn would tend to generate extremely strong eddies with erosion capabilities far greater than either current alone. In short order, the combined effects of such erosion would very probably obliterate most or all of the “improved” levee system – along with the city of Granjeno and any of its inhabitants unfortunate enough to be “caught in the aquatic crossfire.” In all fairness to “Anonymous,” most or all of the concerns expressed in my original article (and this one) would be irrelevant if the “planners” and “managers” of the Border Wall project had simply initiated construction during a time of year in which tropical storms and hurricanes do not normally pose a threat to south Texas (i.e., during the period extending from late-fall through late-spring). They did precisely the opposite – the construction project at Granjeno was initiated on July 27, two days after the landfall of Hurricane Dolly at Port Isabel and South Padre Island , and while Dolly’s floodwaters were still rising in many areas of Cameron and Hidalgo Counties. Construction at three additional sites in Hidalgo County – southeast of Alamo, south of Donna and north of Progreso - were initiated shortly thereafter.

Despite repeated advisories from NOAA that water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico were highly conducive to the development of tropical storms and hurricanes, Border Wall construction proceeded at a feverish pace without interruption during the peak of the 2008 hurricane season – August and September. During the second week of September, when Hurricane Ike was on an apparent “collision course” with south Texas, one of our local officials stated somewhat arrogantly that construction of the Border Wall (referred to as “levee repairs”) might be “halted temporarily” if Hurricane Ike headed our way. As it turned out, no such delay occurred – during the latter half of the week, Hurricane Ike began to veer northward and made landfall at Galveston on Sept. 13.

Levee / border wall construction behind homes in Granjeno, TX August 1, 2008

It is important for the reader to note that officials of the Department of Homeland Security, our local county officials and their construction contractors made no apparent preparations at Granjeno and three other construction sites in Hidalgo County for the possible landfall of Hurricane Ike along the south Texas coast. On Sept. 13, the day in which Ike was devastating much of southeast Texas and western Louisiana with massive flooding, construction of the Border Wall at Granjeno and three other sites in Hidalgo County was in high gear, with fleets of cranes, backhoes and other heavy equipment gnawing away at our flood-control levees like huge metallic termites.

Lack of money finally accomplished what hurricanes, or the threat thereof, could not. On Sept. 11, the day on which Hurricane Ike began to veer northward towards Galveston, the managers of the Border Wall project announced they were running out of money and needed an additional $400 million to continue. One prominent local official lamented the prospect that the Border Wall might not be completed by the arbitrary Dec. 31 deadline stipulated by Congress, but nevertheless indicated that “… we are moving forward … we are still trying to meet that deadline…” In another article published on the same day, the significance of the term “that deadline” became clear and confirmed what most people here already suspected or knew – i.e., that the DHS, our local officials and their contractors had been working overtime in order to complete their project before the George Bush administration expires in January, 2009. Incredibly, the $400 million request to continue Border Wall construction was approved by the Congress without fanfare or opposition.

The determination by DHS and our county officials to meet “Bush’s deadline” at essentially any cost and/or risk was presumably based on the erroneous logic that if funding for legitimate levee repairs and upgrades is not obtained now (under the Bush administration), it will be very difficult or impossible to obtain in the future (under a new presidential administration). This urgency is somewhat understandable considering the recent findings by FEMA that many areas of the LRGV levee system are not in compliance with federal standards, and will not be recertified unless they are upgraded and brought into compliance with FEMA standards within a period of one year (an additional one-year extension was recently granted).

Regardless of what their motives may have been, however, the decision by DHS and our local officials to initiate Border Wall construction in the Lower Rio Grande Valley during middle of the 2008 hurricane season, and their failure to make adequate preparations for the possible landfall of dangerous storms such as Hurricane Ike (which at one time seemed imminent) is inexcusable and placed the properties and lives of hundreds and possibly thousands of our citizens at considerable risk. We were very fortunate that Hurricane Dolly made landfall before Border Wall construction began in earnest at Granjeno and the other three sites, and that Hurricane Ike veered northward two days before its destructive landfall at Galveston. Had Hurricane Ike maintained its westward course and impacted the LRGV region while large sections of our flood-control system were under major construction, this story would not have ended happily (for us, at least). We cannot afford to allow this to happen again – ever!

Within the next six weeks, the George Bush administration will be history and Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. If our country reenters a period of normalcy and rational thinking, the “Great Texas Border Wall” will hopefully be committed to its rightful place in the “Historical Trashcan of Bad Ideas.” Given our staggering federal deficit – which has increased substantially following the recent $750 billion bailout of the U. S. financial industry – it is very unlikely that the federal government will continue to pour millions (or billions) of dollars into a concrete structure that has become symbolic of tyranny and is despised almost universally by residents along the U.S.–Mexico border.

Levee / border wall construction in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge 11/27/08

Termination of the Border Wall concept would place great pressure on the U.S. Congress to develop real solutions to the problem of illegal immigration (instead of expensive and dangerous concrete placebos) and would allow available funds - including the $400 million “bailout package” for the ailing Border Wall project – to be used much more effectively for repair and upgrades of the Lower Rio Grande Valley levee system and bring it into compliance with FEMA standards for the first time in many years. Of all the options available to us right now, this comes closest to being a true “win–win” situation, and is the only one which will really protect us from disastrous flooding if and when we are impacted by some future storm similar to Hurricane Ike.

As American citizens, we have every right to expect and demand that any government programs implemented in our region be conducted in a manner that is compatible with our culture and environment, and does not unduly jeopardize our economy, our properties and/or our lives.

We were deprived of these basic rights during 2008 because of two federal laws – the Secure Fence Act and the Real ID Act - which were enacted by the U. S. Congress during a period of national hysteria, fear and intolerance. Collectively, these two laws allowed federal, state and local officials involved in the Border Wall project to conduct their business in a reckless and dangerous manner, and deprived the nearly two million American citizens in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of their legal rights to challenge construction of the Border Wall on any virtually any grounds, including public safety issues.

What happened in south Texas during 2008 is a prime example of what happens when too few people are given too much power without an adequate system of checks and balances. In order to ensure that this never happens again, it is imperative that all residents of our border regions with Mexico (and hopefully, all Americans in general) demand that our elected congressional representatives either amend or repeal both of these dangerous laws at the earliest opportunity. The next congressional session would be none too soon.

K. Rod Summy is an associate professor of entomology. He lives in Weslaco, Texas.
This article first appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chertoff’s Billion Dollar Speedbump Should Be Obama’s First Budget Cut

By Scott Nicol

On the day that Barak Obama takes the oath of office workers will be pouring concrete and welding steel to extend the border wall. Today, walls slice through 378 miles of our borderlands. The Secure Fence Act calls for roughly double that amount. As president, it will be up to Obama to decide whether the costs, in terms of billions of dollars spent and homes, farms, communities, and wildlife refuges torn apart, is justified. He recently said that with two foreign wars, hundreds of billions of dollars pledged to the financial bailout, and trillions of dollars in national debt, projects that “bleed billions of dollars” without benefiting the nation will have to be cut. The border wall should top that list.

All of the imagined benefits of the border wall flow from the assumption that if walls are built they will stop illegal traffic from entering the U.S. Some politicians claim that building 700 miles of wall along our 1,933 mile long southern border, while ignoring the 3,987 mile long northern border and 12,479 miles of coastline, will somehow allow the Department of Homeland Security to realize the Secure Fence Act’s goal, to “achieve and maintain operational control over the entire international land and maritime borders of the United States.”

In fact, the Border Patrol’s own statistics show that border walls have not brought about a decrease in illegal entries. The border patrol uses the number of border crossers apprehended in a given sector to gauge the overall number of attempted crossings. Apprehensions dropped dramatically between 2005, the year before the Secure Fence Act was passed, and 2007, the year after. But the decrease did not occur in areas where border walls had been built. On the contrary, the greatest reductions in apprehensions, which according to the Border Patrol would indicate a successful strategy for stopping undocumented immigration, were seen in sectors that did not have walls. Texas’ Rio Grande Valley sector saw a 45.3% decrease in apprehensions, bringing them to a 15 year low. The Del Rio sector saw a 66.5% decrease. Neither sector had an inch of border wall before 2008. In sectors such as Tucson, which saw walls built shortly after the passage of the Secure Fence Act, the reduction in apprehensions began before any cement was poured. The areas that saw an increase in crossings were California’s San Diego and El Centro sectors, both of which have had border walls for over a decade. At the same time that the unwalled border witnessed dramatic decreases in crossings, heavily fortified San Diego saw a 20.1% increase.

Long before the Secure Fence Act was written it was clear that border walls did not reduce the number of people entering the United States. In looking at the number of crossers apprehended by the Border Patrol between 1992 and 2004, when walls were being erected in the San Diego sector, the Congressional Research Service found that there was no change. They concluded that, “While the increased enforcement in the San Diego sector has resulted in a shift in migration patterns for unauthorized aliens, it does not appear to have decreased the overall number of apprehensions made each year by USBP agents.” Would-be immigrants were not stopped by the border wall; they simply went around it.

Two months before the passage of the Secure Fence Act, Wayne Cornelius, Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego told the House Judiciary Committee that,

“tightened border enforcement since 1993 has not stopped nor even discouraged unauthorized migrants from entering the United States. Even if apprehended, the vast majority (92-97%) keep trying until they succeed. Neither the higher probability of being apprehended by the Border Patrol, nor the sharply increased danger of clandestine entry through deserts and mountainous terrain, has discouraged potential migrants from leaving home.”

The assertion that more walls will allow the U.S. to “secure” its southern border is therefore false. Spokespersons for the Border Patrol tend to describe them much more modestly. Del Rio, Texas, Border Patrol Chief Randy Hill said, “We're going to see steel barriers erected on the borders where U.S. and Mexican cities adjoin. These will slow down illegal crossers by minutes.” He says nothing about stopping crossers, or allowing the Border Patrol to “achieve and maintain operational control” of the border, but only slowing crossers down by “minutes.” As Border Patrol spokesperson Mike Scioli said, “The border fence is a speed bump in the desert.”

The false sense of security that the border wall brings comes with a real price tag. In 2007 the Congressional Research Service estimated that the border wall could cost as much as $49 billion to build and maintain. Since then the costs of construction have risen dramatically. Between February and October of 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that the cost of building border walls had increased by 88%, from an average of $3.5 million per mile to $7.5 million per mile. The cost of building vehicle barriers on the border increased by 48%, to $2.8 million per mile. Some sections of border wall are particularly expensive: the walls that are being inserted into the levees in South Texas are averaging $12 million per mile; in California, a 3.5 mile section that involves filling a canyon with 2.5 million yards of earth torn from adjacent mountains so that the wall will not have to dip down into it will cost taxpayers $57 million. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security asked Congress to allocate an additional $400 million for border wall construction, because the $2.7 billion already spent was not enough to finish out the year.

Arizona governor Janet Napolitano has been named as President-elect Obama’s choice for Secretary of Homeland Security. From her first day on the job she must embody the “change” that Barak Obama campaigned on. Napolitano must have the courage to speak truthfully to the American people, to admit that we are not safer for having built hundreds of miles of border wall, and our national security will not be enhanced by building another mile or one hundred miles or even one thousand miles. She should restore the rule of law on the border by rescinding the waivers of 36 federal laws that Michael Chertoff issued in order to build border walls. Thanks to last year’s Omnibus spending bill, she will have the authority to either double the current length of the border wall or immediately halt construction. Chertoff has used these powers to condemn private property, decimate wildlife corridors, and build mile upon mile of useless border wall. Napolitano should shift the Department of Homeland Security’s funds and priorities away from empty gestures and political grandstanding, and bring an end to the border wall.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

DHS Ignoring the Rights of Private Property Owners to Build the Border Wall

Texas RioGrande Legal Aid’s Communications Director Cynthia Martinez was invited to testify on TRLA’s work with border landowners at a hearing held by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus on November 13th. Below is the text of her statement before the committee. A copy is also available in pdf format.

Mr. Chairman and members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus-

Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today. My name is Cynthia Martinez and I am the Communications Director for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, also known as TRLA. TRLA is a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to low-income clients in 68 counties in Texas. We are the largest provider of legal aid in Texas and the third largest in the United States.

For more than a year now, TRLA has worked in Texas border communities where the wall is going to be constructed to educate landowners on their legal rights and fight on behalf of low-income landowners who are at risk of losing their livelihoods. Our work has focused primarily on the Rio Grande Valley and in Eagle Pass.

TRLA does not take a policy position on whether the wall should be constructed. Our focus is solely on the legal rights of border landowners and residents as the wall is being built and once it is complete.

Throughout our efforts, our work has focused on one primary belief - in the process to construct the border wall the federal government has chosen to sacrifice the basic legal rights of border landowners in the interest of meeting an arbitrary deadline.

Almost eighteen months ago it became clear that the Department of Homeland Security was developing plans for the border wall that would require private landowners to give up their land in the name of homeland security. To date, DHS has sued approximately 100 landowners in the Rio Grande Valley alone to survey their property or begin the eminent domain process.

According to their own public statement, Homeland Security anticipates suing more than 250 landowners to construct the border wall.

About a year ago, in an effort to make sure that landowners were aware of their legal rights before the process began, TRLA attorneys organized community meetings throughout the Rio Grande Valley to bring landowners together and inform them of their legal rights.

At these meetings, landowners were clear that they had several concerns. They wanted to know:

- Where the wall was going to be built
- If they could keep the government from taking their land
- If they would be compensated for losing their land or any inconveniences that occur as a result of the wall’s construction
- What a wall meant for their community and their daily life

They had questions and the government was not doing anything to give them answers. So we did our best to help. In fact, many times we brought maps and information to these meetings that the residents had never seen before.

As early as June 2007 federal officials began approaching landowners for permission to survey their land so that they could begin to plan where the wall would be constructed. They would approach these landowners with documents - only available in English - and tell them that the government would sue them if they did not agree to the survey.

Many of these landowners are Spanish - dominant and all of them have a sincere respect for our government and its laws. To be approached by a federal agent, with legal documents only available in English, and to be told that the government will sue you if you don’t sign the forms left many landowners feeling as though they had no choice.

So many of them signed these documents and did so not knowing what they were signing or what their rights were. Other landowners took the request and refused to sign or sought help from an attorney. Many of these families turned to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid for help.

At this point, TRLA has represented nine families in their border wall litigation and provided legal advice to a countless number of border landowners on their legal rights throughout this process.

While all of our clients are determined to keep fighting for their land, you’d be hard pressed to find a couple more willing to fight than Baldomero and Hilaria Muniz.

Baldomero and Hilaria Muniz are an elderly couple who live in Los Ebanos. They spent their entire lives working as migrant workers to save up enough money to buy a small plot of land, build a house, and raise their children. In their old age, they use their land to raise goats which they sell to have a source of income. Their land is literally their livelihood - and the government wants to take it.

Both the Muniz family and the family of Pamela Rivas were approached around June 2007 to sign waivers that would allow the government to survey their land. But both families decided to put up a fight. Neither family wanted to let the government survey their land and certainly neither family wanted to be forced into giving up their land for the wall’s construction. The government never even had a conversation with these families about the issue. So both families refused to sign the waiver - and they were sued.

From the beginning, their defense was simple - the government failed to negotiate a reasonable price for having access to their land - a process it is required to go through by law. Instead, without consulting with these families, the government set its own price - zero dollars. Zero dollars for the inconvenience of having to let federal officials have access to their land and possibly damage it in the surveying process.

The offer was disingenuous and disrespectful. So TRLA represented both families in appeals that took us all the way to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The Muniz family, with few resources, was unable to afford the trip to see our attorneys fight on their behalf.
Unfortunately, our efforts were not successful in stopping the condemnation process and both families are currently being sued by the government for possession of their land. At this time, the future of their property is unclear.

Five of our families in the Eagle Pass area have taken a proactive approach and sued DHS for failing to consult or negotiate with them before taking their property and beginning construction on the border wall. In their lawsuit, the families also pointed out that DHS did consult with wealthy, Caucasian landowners in the area and has avoided using their properties in its final construction plans. This is an allegation that many landowners and even the media have made - but that the government has not addressed.

One of our families, the family of Oscar Ceballos, fought the government’s attempt to take his land, which is located approximately two miles from the border in the Rio Grande Valley, by arguing that Congress intended the wall to be built along the border - not in the border area. We were not successful, but in his decision United States District Judge Andrew Hanen did state that “once again, the nation has placed a burden on the citizens of south Texas that is clearly disproportional to that being borne by other locales.” That statement is the only consolation Mr. Ceballos has as the government proceeds with the condemnation process. It should be noted that originally the government intended to offer Mr. Ceballos $1600 for his property. Because of his determination to exercise his legal rights, a federal appraisal has valued his property at more than $30,000.

Currently many of our families and border residents live in a cloud of uncertainty. Late last week, Homeland Security announced that it would temporarily be halting the construction of the wall in certain border communities. If media reports are true, this could leave room for a new Congress and administration to alter or even eliminate construction plans. However, at this point, this is all speculation. All we know for sure is that the federal government is continuing with its lawsuits against border landowners to condemn their land.

Other border residents have a handful of questions, but no answers. Once the wall is constructed, life for border residents will change in ways that have yet to be explored. Will their land be damaged during the wall’s construction? Will they have to travel several miles to have access to their land if their property is cut in half by the wall? Will they have to become accustomed to border patrol agents asking them if they are U.S. citizens when they are on their own property? If their neighbor’s property is protected by a wall but theirs is not, will they get help to protect their own security? If their land is taken, will they be compensated appropriately?

In a speech in February 2008 at the Kennedy School of Government, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff characterized border landowners as fighting the wall’s construction because they are concerned that the wall will spoil their view or inhibit their cattle’s ability to get to the river.

Such a characterization is wrong, na├»ve, and dangerous. And it is important that policymakers understand that this isn’t about being able to see sunsets or a cow’s freedom.

These families are fighting for their livelihoods and, in doing so, they are only exercising the legal rights that have been guaranteed to them by the laws of this country.

Homeland Security officials have not been silent on the issue - in the press they have made it very clear that the wall will not be finished by the end of the year as planned and that’s largely due to the fight that landowners such as our clients have waged.

As you can imagine, we have not apologized for this.

At TRLA we take our commitment to these communities very seriously and we remain dedicated to fighting alongside them as the construction of the wall proceeds.

If there is one decisive legal victory we have had in this fight it is that all the courts have agreed on one thing - these landowners have the right to question their government and fight for their property. And that’s what they’re going to continue to do, even if it comes as an inconvenience to the federal government.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Testimony on the Environmental Impacts of the Border Wall Given to the Texas State Legislature

On November 13 the Mexican American Legislative Caucus of the Texas State House of Representatives held hearings on the impacts of the border wall. Organized by Representative Eddie Lucio III, it brought speakers from all along Texas' southern border, including landowners, citrus growers, politicians, environmentalists, and residents. “The Texas border with Mexico thrives due to its close relationship with its neighbor to the South; it is imperative that we understand how a border wall would affect Texas’ relationship with Mexico,” Lucio said.

A number of members of the No Border Wall Coalition spoke at the hearing, addressing the impacts of the wall on agriculture, border communities, and the waiving of laws under the Real ID Act. Martin Hagne, Executive Director of the Valley Nature Center and a founding member of the Coalition, described to the legislators the effects that the walls currently under construction are likely to have on the environment.

Here is his testimony:

Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to testify and to give you further information about the border wall in Texas as designed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. My name is Martin Hagne, and I am the Executive Director of the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco, Texas. Today I am representing the No Border Wall Coalition, which was formed in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in May of 2007. And although the No Border Wall Coalition is greatly concerned with all aspects of the border wall, including human rights, immigration, property rights, and economic issues, today my testimony will focus on the impact of the wall to wildlife and the environment.

The border wall is to date the single most detrimental environmental disaster to take place along the Texas Mexico Border in our lifetime. The environmental effects will be far-reaching, long-lasting, and permanent in many areas. There is simply no way to construct such a barrier in such a place without doing irreparable harm to wildlife and the very sensitive habitats along the Rio Grande.

Today I will focus mostly on the Lower Rio Grande, but all areas in Texas slated for the border wall face similarly destructive challenges. Obviously the habitats along such a long border will vary greatly, but the damage will be equally destructive.

Habitat Loss

The easiest issues to describe will be the obvious habitat loss that will occur when the concrete and steel structure is built. As mandated in the Secure Fence Act of 2006, the wall is not just a single wall but two structures spaced apart to facilitate high speed roads between and outside the walls. This in itself will clear a wide swath of habitat up to 350 feet. Granted that DHS seems to be pursuing a single layer wall at this time, but the Act still stipulates the double layered version and still shows such on the "books." We must, therefore, be aware of this and act accordingly.

The thin layer of riparian forest that still exists along the Rio Grande, is often only 100 feet wide or less. Agricultural land has crept up all the way to the rivers edge in many places. The riparian forest made up of tall woody species such as Anacua, Texas Ebony, Rio Grande Hackberry, and Mexican Ash has been slipping away due to clearing for human use, and much of what little is left has been altered due to the river being dammed in 1957 by Falcon Dam. The dams and reservoirs that make the Valley flood-free and inhabitable for humans have also stopped the seasonal flooding which keeps the riparian forests alive. Each year floods would inundate the lowlands of the Rio Grande and keep such ecosystems thriving. Flood control is altering these precious forests into drier thorn forests.

For over 30 years efforts have been made to reclaim some of the lost habitat along the river and to create a Wildlife Corridor. US Fish & Wildlife, along with many other groups, such as Texas Parks & Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, and Audubon Society, to name a few, have been working hard to purchase old farmland and to re-vegetate them back into a natural state of riparian forest. So far over $70 million has been spent of mostly federal funds to purchase land, and about $30 million has been used to plant native plants on these tracts. Tens of thousands of school children have taken part in these planting efforts! Now we are faced with all that work and taxpayer's money being bulldozed.

It has been argued by proponents of the wall that such small areas needing to be cleared are insignificant and that birds can fly over any structure that is put in their path. While it is true that birds can find water by flying a distance, mammals and reptiles will not be able to travel over such a structure. It has also been said that birds can leave an area and adapt to another habitat.

But there are bird species that rely on certain habitats that can't adapt fast enough if their present homes are removed. These are species that live and nest in this riparian habitat that is almost gone and that has little left of its original make-up. These same species are not found north of the Rio Grande Valley, and many are just found along the actual Rio Grande itself. These birds are limited to the riparian remnants along the river.

In these tall, Spanish moss-draped forests we find such bird species as Gray Hawk, Tropical Parula, Clay-colored Robin, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Brown Jay, Muscovy Duck, Common Black-Hawk, and Red-billed Pigeon. These birds rely on the riparian forest along the river, and many rarely stray inland. These birds do rarely if ever utilize other habitats and could therefore be extirpated from Texas and the United States.

It has been estimated, using the maps released for this EIS, that over 80% of USF&W refuge property will be affected along the Rio Grande in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

This does not include the several Texas Parks & Wildlife's Wildlife Management Areas and privately owned sanctuaries by such groups as the National Audubon and The Nature Conservancy located along the river that will be affected. The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Refuge alone in the Lower Rio Grande Valley takes into account eleven (11) different biotic communities. This is arguably the most bio-diverse region in the U.S.

Habitat Fragmentation

Equally destructive to wildlife is habitat fragmentation. A few decades ago this was rarely thought of as a problem. Roads were built crisscrossing our nation's wildlife refuges and wildlands. But now biologists know the very real threat of fragmenting any habitat. The edges created invite new species of plants and animals, changing the make-up of the ecosystem, often driving out the original inhabitants.

Not only does fragmentation affect the habitat in question, but it also has far-reaching effects on entire ecosystems. By changing the makeup of one area, it also affects other neighboring habitats and in the long run changes the entire regional ecosystem. This has not been taken into account in any DHS document or "study" released so far.

The other effect the wall will have is separating animals from each other on both sides of the wall. Ground dwelling mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and other wildlife will not be able to cross 16 to 18 foot tall concrete and steel structure. This will leave them not able to reach water, nor roosting and nesting sites.

Species can become genetically flawed by being cut off from neighboring populations, eventually creating a bottle-neck effect in the gene pool. It has been said that the wall can't cut off species from reaching each other because it is an east and west directed wall. This is not true, as DHS maps shows it clearly meanders south and north and doubles back in many places. Most animal species when faced with such an obstacle cannot and will not find ways around it, leaving them confused and stuck in place. This has already been documented in Arizona, where the wall was built through wildlife refuges.

The Wildlife Corridor was designed for just such travel and will now be severely hampered and made ineffective.

Endangered Species

There are 20 species of federally endangered species in this area, as well as many more threatened and endangered species listed by the state of Texas. The border wall will affect many of these species in negative ways through habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, corridor loss, water being cut off, and loss of eco-tourism dollars that positively help habitat restoration efforts.

Two federally endangered wildcat species are barely hanging on in existence within their U.S. range in the Lower Rio Grande Valley: the Ocelot and the Jaguarundi. The corridor is a must for these species to be able to travel to new territories for mates. As the efforts to restore the populations of these cats succeed, new territories need to be found by males to further the populations. Crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico will be a must for these cats. The border wall will cut off their access to such crossings. These cats will not, and cannot, travel long distances to find "openings" in a wall. Their habitats are now too fragmented to allow for this. Without new genetic populations to breed to, the U.S. population will become in-bred, narrowing its lines, until it can no longer get out of a bottleneck in its genetics. USF&W and other organizations such as Environmental Defense have been working with private landowners and ranchers in deep South Texas to create more habitats for these cats, especially the Ocelot. Land corridors for travel north and south are also being pursued, as this is critical for the cats to reach Mexico. The wall in Cameron County will basically stop this project.

The USFW plan for recovery for the Jaguar was already shelved because of the negative impacts the wall will have in Arizona. If the Jaguar cannot freely travel north and south, it has no chance of recovery in the U.S., leaving the program totally ineffective.

The Wildlife Corridor in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is also a must for other species in peril of extirpation. Long-tailed Weasels, the Mexican sub-species of American Beaver, and others, live in the riparian areas along the Rio Grande. These species, as well as the hundreds of others, must be taken into account.

Wetland Loss and Water Quality Issues
Critical wetlands along the wall will be affected, many of which are ephemeral (drying out during dry seasons). Due to flood control measures, the area in question has lost much of the seasonal wetlands that used to exist. Any and all wetlands removed or negatively affected therefore have an even higher negative impact to area wildlife.

The fact that many of these wetlands are seasonal makes it even harder to identify them, therefore making it easy for DHS to say none existed.

With the removal of any wetlands comes degraded water quality. Wetlands act as natural water cleansers as the water filters though wetland aquatic vegetation. Farm chemicals and other harmful runoff from city lawns and streets have no natural filtration system before reaching the Rio Grande.

Flooding is also negated by natural wetlands. Ponds and marshes slow the rain waters and collect large amounts of flood water.

Flood Levee System and Wall Combo

Last year FEMA announced that the flood levees which are built, maintained and operated by the federal agency IBWC, were not high enough to protect the area from a major hurricane. The area would no longer be certified and, therefore, insurance would go up or be unattainable. Industry would pull out and many other issues would arise. Although this should be a federal issue and fixed by federal dollars and agencies, it has now become a County project. Hidalgo County was "frightened" into signing a deal with DHS to receive some federal funds and then use County bond funds to repair the levees. But under one condition: that the face of the levee be an 18 foot sheer concrete wall that would also act as a border wall.

This scenario has many flaws. First, the County should not have to pay for such repairs. Second, the 22 miles of sections repaired are only in the areas where DHS wanted a wall in the first place, leaving unrepaired gaps in the flood control system. This does nothing for making the system FEMA approved again. Thirdly, cutting into the side of the existing levees during hurricane season is nothing short of asking for a disaster. Fourthly, fixing the levees on the U.S. side at this time will endanger hundreds of thousands of lives on the Mexican side of the border if levees are not simultaneously repaired in Mexico.

And lastly, this levee/wall combo has been touted as a win-win for the environment. Although the levee/wall combo might affect certain areas less as far as habitat removal, it will only slightly improve on that situation. But what it will do is become a solid 18 foot wall of concrete which is totally impenetrable to wildlife. There will be effectively no movement over, under or around this wall. No animal, besides a bird, could get over such a structure. It is less wildlife friendly than the originally designed wall.

Environmental Law and Justice

The Real Id Act of 2005 was passed to give the Minster of Homeland Security broad sweeping powers to secure the nation. It, unprecedented, gave Michael Chertoff powers to waive any and all U.S. laws to build the wall. This was not a well known law by lawmakers and many voted on this passage without knowing enough about it.

This year alone DHS has waived 36 federal and state laws ranging from the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act. Such powers have only if ever been enacted during acts of war towards the United States.

Environmental organizations as well as individuals have tried to sue DHS to stop the wall, to retain their property and not allow the government to take it, but all legal action is made void due to the Real ID Act. The people of the United States have no legal recourse.

The Texas Park & Wildlife Department has already lost land on their Las Palomas Wildlife Management Tracts. A levee/wall combination is dissecting properties owned by TPW and USFW in an area that was before only dissected by a dirt levee which was traversable by wildlife.

The same Act also has rendered the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) void and, therefore, no Environmental Impact Studies (EIS) were needed to be performed. DHS started the NEPA process and eventually did release an EIS document. This 600 some page document was nothing more than a glorious work of copied material taken out of a dictionary. The studies for such an elaborate project should have taken over two years, but instead the document was published in months! Environmental studies on wildlife migration, daily usage, breeding and nesting sites, plant surveys, use during inclement weather, and many other such long-term studies could not be produced in months. The document was the worst example of government bullying.

The Real ID Act must be repealed!

The "fact" being put forth by DHS and BP representatives that a border wall is less environmentally intrusive than the "trash and human waste" left by immigrants is truly such a far-fetched illusion that we cannot believe it has even been brought up! A habitat left with trash and waste is far better than a habitat void of plants. Plants make the habitat. An area with native plants gives life whether it is degraded with trash or not. Trash can be removed, while permanent environmental damage by clear-cutting cannot! These are such simple facts that it is unbelievable that any government agency would state otherwise!

An animal living in the Rio Grande Valley within a riparian area is not one that is much impacted by trash and human waste. Such a statement shows ignorance and lack of understanding of the area's fauna and flora, this fact further showing the true need for a broader and much more thorough EIS. We are not talking about whales swallowing plastic bags. Ocelots do not eat trash! On the other hand, if you remove any habitat from the area which is already in such short supply, you are likely to lose species.

To compare the need for a border wall for national security to the needs of conserving a lizard, as DHS spokespersons have done, we can only say that if DHS believes this wall will only impact one lizard, a complete and broader EIS would show just how wrong such a statement is.

Environmental Economic Issues

Many areas along the Texas-Mexico border have prime natural areas. The Big Bend area in West Texas has tens of thousands of wild areas, river canoe excursions and hiking opportunities.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley is the top bird watching and nature watching destination in the U.S. The Valley is considered the most biologically diverse area within the U.S. 517 bird species have been recorded in this small area. That is more than all other state totals besides Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico. Native plant species number at least 1,100, but if all forbs and grasses were counted, these numbers could easily be closer to 3,000. Over 340 species of butterflies are found here, as well as over 120 species of odonates. There are 80 some species of mammals, and a higher number of reptiles and amphibians. These numbers are staggering for such a small area.

The wall is not only a disaster to our environment, but also a disaster to the local economy, which embraces eco-tourism as an annual income of $125 million, contributed by some 200,000 nature visitors annually. An ecological impact of the wall is the fact that the bird species that depend on this habitat will disappear! That in itself is truly disturbing. The implication the wall has for humans is not only the loss of nature, but the loss of livelihoods. No bird watcher would want to come see a steel and concrete wall where before a native habitat stood.

Other nations have already figured that out! Below is a note from a bird watcher from Sweden who visited the Valley and Santa Ana NWR last year.

"Thanks very much for sending me information about the horrible plans for the Rio Grande; I am reading it with great interest. I just want to say that it is not only an interior matter but also an international one. It would hit the birding business coming from other countries. I mean, if the nice areas around the Rio Grande would disappear, not many birders from others countries will go to Texas in the future, as well as people from other places in the USA. Hopefully there will be a better solution than destroying a unique fauna." Christer Landgren, Sweden

The State of Texas has invested millions of dollars into the three State Parks in the Lower Rio Garden Valley. The fairly new World Birding Center complex with nine (9) sites is also a partnership with the state. Many of these sites, along with the above mentioned USFW refuges, Audubon Sabal Palms Sanctuary, the TNC Southmost Preserve, the NABA Butterfly Park, and others, will be negatively affected.

The National Audubon Society is presently debating what to do with their flagship sanctuary, Sabal Palms. After the wall goes up it will be walled off, and concerns are many. How will staff have access? Who will have keys? What if a fire breaks loose? Will anyone insure us? Do we dare to allow visitors? etc. None of these questions can be answered by DHS when asked.

National organizations such as NAS and TNC are now faced with possibly giving up decade-old work and investments and pulling up stakes from the Valley, taking with them resources and funds.

With these funds also goes many environmental and science funded programs for local school classes. In a day where children need every opportunity to get outdoors to exercise and learn about nature, we will be forced to lose such precious resources.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

TBC Dumbfounded by CBP `Demands for Secrecy' Over Border Fence Talks, Land Acquisitions

The Texas Border Coalition issued the following press release in response to word from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that when they "walk the line" that the border wall will take through South Texas communities, residents of those communities, including the owners of land that the wall will bisect, will be kept out.

EAGLE PASS, Texas (Nov. 10, 2008) – A coalition of Texas border mayors, county judges and economic development associations today slammed a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency decision to shut Rio Grande Valley landowners out of federally-required talks over the border wall in Texas.

Members of the Texas Border Coalition (TBC) also condemned a CBP decision to continue land acquisition near Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos even though the agency announced last week that it would indefinitely halt construction of moveable fencing near the communities.

"TBC is dumbfounded by CBP's continued resistance to consultation with local landowners and the community, and by CBP's unjustifiable demands for secrecy," Eagle Pass Mayor and TBC Chairman Chad Foster said in response to a letter from David Pagan, an agency official.

"Equally disturbing, CBP is continuing to pursue legal action to condemn the land of the people in Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos for a fence that the International Boundary & Water Commission won't support," Foster said. "With our nation adding $1 trillion this year to our $10 trillion national debt, this a gross waste of money at a time when the American taxpayer can least afford it."

Last week, CBP informed coalition members that construction of moveable fencing would be delayed at least until next year because the IBWC had raised concerns that the structure could increase the potential for flooding in those communities.

Meanwhile, TBC and Homeland Security officials agreed in April to participate in a series of fence site tours in the Rio Grande Valley, known as "walk the line," to help satisfy federal requirements outlined in the Consolidated Fiscal 2008 Appropriations Act.
Under the law, homeland security officials are obliged to consult with the Secretary
of the Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, states, local governments, Indian tribes,
and property owners in communities where the wall is to be built. The point is to minimize the barrier's impact on Rio Grande Valley communities and residents from an environmental, cultural and economic standpoint.

The coalition had hoped the tour would take place before the congressionally imposed fence construction deadline of Dec. 31.

But on Nov. 4, Foster said, CBP officials told TBC that attendance would be limited to coalition members only and that individual landowners or their attorneys would not be allowed to "walk the line."

Foster said he believes CBP officials balked because they fear effective consultation
with TBC might be compromised if the agency was forced to show its hand on individual segments of fencing in the presence of opposing landowners. These fears are "inappropriately thin-skinned," he asserted.

"The idea that CBP would expressly prohibit attorneys representing landowners from walking the line when the government's legal actions threaten the rights and liberties of landowners violates the concept of the right to counsel embodied in the Bill of Rights," Foster said.

Foster said TBC will ignore the agency's demands and open its membership to affected Texas landowners who reside along the wall's 270-mile path if CBP insists on shutting them – or their attorneys – out of the consultation process.

"We will not retreat from our insistence that the government consult with our communities and landowners `to minimize the impact on the environment, culture, commerce, and quality of life' as the law requires," he added.

The Texas Border Coalition (TBC) is a collective voice of border mayors, county judges, economic development commissions focused on issues that affect more than 6 million people along the Texas-Mexico border region and economically disadvantaged counties from El Paso to Brownsville. TBC is working closely with the state and federal government to educate, advocate, and secure funding for transportation, immigration and ports of entry, workforce and education and health care. For more information, visit the coalition Web site at

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The No Border Wall Coalition Praises DHS’ Decision to Spare 3 South Texas Communities

The No Border Wall Coalition hails the decision by the Department of Homeland Security to give the South Texas communities of Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos a reprieve from border wall construction in 2008. It is our hope that this will be made permanent by the new administration. We believe that Cameron County and the rest of the border which is slated for wall construction before the end of Secretary Chertoff’s tenure should also be spared.

No Border Wall Coalition protest in Roma, Texas, July 2007

The border wall has already led to the condemnation of farmland and municipal property, and the walls that are currently under construction are devastating wildlife refuges and destabilizing South Texas’ flood control levees. $3 billion has been wasted on walls that the Border Patrol says only slow crossers by a few minutes. With two wars, a deepening financial crisis, and trillions of dollars of debt, our nation cannot afford to throw more money into this bottomless pit.

Levee - border wall construction on the northern border of a US Fish and Wildlife Refuge tract in South Texas October 24, 2008

We hope that the decision to spare these communities signals the beginning of a sane border policy on the part of the Department of Homeland Security and the Bush administration. The border wall is nothing more than a political prop, a backdrop for politicians who want to look tough on national security. With the election behind us, it is time to move beyond hollow symbols.

The No Border Wall coalition calls upon President-elect Obama to appoint a new Secretary of Homeland Security who will reject Michael Chertoff’s failures and refuse to play politics with the lives and property of border residents. He should enact a moratorium on further border wall construction until a non-partisan organization such as the Government Accountability Office can review both the impacts of the walls that have already been built and the foreseeable impacts of proposed walls.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Walkers Remember Migrants on Tohono O'odham Land

By Brenda Norrell

SAN XAVIER DISTRICT, TOHONO O'ODHAM NATION -- Walkers arrived at San Xavier District on the Tohono O'odham Nation on Saturday to remember the 183 migrants who died this past year in the Sonoran desert. Of those migrants, 108 were not identified. Nineteen could not be identified as male or female because so little of their remains were found. A large portion of those deaths were on Tohono O'odham land.

Walkers called out "Presente!" during the reading of the names at San Xavier, remembering those who died walking to a better life. The walk, organized by Derechos Humanos, was an 8-mile walk from Tucson, during temperatures that reached the mid 90s.

Although the elected leaders on the main section of the Tohono O'odham Nation, located to the west of here, have not welcomed humanitarian aid for migrants, the San Xavier District cohosted the Indigenous Peoples Border Summit of the Americas in 2006 and 2007. The border summits were cohosted by the International Indian Treaty Council and organized by Tohono O'odham Mike Flores.

Photos: Walkers arrive at San Xavier. Crosses carry the names of the migrants who died this past year. Photos Brenda Norrell. Please e-mail for reprint permission:

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.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Art Against the Wall

By Scott Nicol

International borders are abstract concepts, little more than lines on maps that we imagine upon the earth. Existing outside of the real world of rivers, mountains, or deserts, political boundaries have no bearing on ecosystems. Ephemeral, the lines shift from decade to decade, century to century, making old maps obsolete. Still, the map and the concept that it represents are privileged over the actual landscape. The wall under construction along the U.S.-Mexico border is an attempt to impose a political fantasy upon living ecosystems, to transform a line on a map into a permanent line of concrete and steel on the land.

The border wall is meant to enforce division, to block the migration of humans based on the national boundary that encircled them at birth. Near San Diego it consists of parallel 18 foot tall steel walls with stadium lights, cameras, and a road in between. In Arizona rusted steel landing mats left over from the Vietnam War have been welded together and driven into the earth. Three hundred and thirteen miles of pedestrian walls and vehicle barriers had been built by March 31, 2008; another six hundred and seventy miles are to be built by January. Walls will slice through parks and National Wildlife Refuges, communities and businesses, farms and homes. They will stop the movement of endangered species such as the Sonoran pronghorn and ocelot, but according to the Border Patrol human migrants will only be slowed by a few minutes.

In the face of something so destructive and absurd, what role can art play?

Migrating from the campuses of South Texas College and the University of Texas at Brownsville to the McA2 Creative Incubator in McAllen, and scheduled to travel on to Monterrey, Mexico, the Art Against the Wall exhibition allows artists living along the border to address this question. Much of the work is didactic, like Monica Ramirez’ painting “International Friendship”, depicting a golden Statue of Liberty obscured by a crude stone wall with the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” written on its impasto surface. Oscar Martinez flirts with abstraction, using bands of paint and scraps of plywood to overwhelm a photograph of a concertina wire-topped prison fence in “Crossing the Dividing Line”. In “Anatomy of a Border Wall” Victor Alvarez and Rachael Brown digitally impose fencing onto landscapes that will soon be scarred by actual walls. These and other works in the show express a mix of fear and outrage at what the artists see as a tremendous injustice, an assault on border communities and American ideals. Political in its inception, this show and these artists want to stop the border wall.

The border wall is actually a series of walls with wide gaps in between, the first of which were built near San Diego, California in 1995. As more walls have been constructed near cities, immigrants have traveled deeper into the desert to get around them. This has lead to hundreds of deaths due to dehydration and exposure, a tragic situation that artists in Tijuana, Mexico wanted to bring to light. In 2003 they bolted coffins to the Mexican side of the border wall. Each was decorated and inscribed with a year and the number of crossers who had died that year. For 1995 the number of confirmed dead was 61; in 2000 there were 499. The artists sought to transform the border wall into a graveyard, a memorial to the dead that its construction had caused.

Like the graffiti that covered the West German face of the Berlin wall, the placement of the coffins both undermines the border wall’s authority and protests the authoritarianism that brought it into being. Removed from the art world of galleries and museums, they occupy the real world where people risk their lives to enter the United States, and where military means are marshaled to stop them. They are both a warning to crossers and a reproach to the United States. Affixed to the border wall the coffins become part of the reality of the wall, mediating the perception of the wall of those who encounter it. But they have not stopped further construction. Three years after their installation, and two weeks before the U.S. midterm elections, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, calling for more than 700 miles of border wall modeled on the barrier from which the coffins hang.

The transformation of the map’s depiction to the reality of miles of walls is currently underway. Can more art reverse this conjuring trick? During the Spanish Civil War, with Franciso Franco attempting to overthrow Spain’s Republic and install himself as dictator, artists were commissioned to make work that would rally world opinion behind the Republican government to stop Franco’s advance. Pablo Picasso’s epic “Guernica”, with its chaotic disfigurement of humans and animals, was a reaction to the bombing of the Basque village of the same name in which 1,600 civilians died. The chaos of Picasso’s composition was meant to capture the raw terror felt by Franco’s victims as they desperately sought shelter. It has shaped our perception of the event and of Franco’s brutality, but it did not prevent him from taking Spain from democracy to fascist dictatorship.

A reproduction of “Guernica” hangs in the United Nations beside the door to the Security Council chamber. In 2003, when Colin Powell made his now infamous presentation to the UN Security Council laying out evidence for the invasion of Iraq, “Guernica” was covered with a blue banner. The United States did not want the backdrop for the call to war to be a depiction of the horrors of aerial bombardment. Picasso’s painting was viewed as a threat to the control of the message. In the intervening years support for the invasion of Iraq has plummeted, from 90% of Americans in favor of the war to 70% opposed. This dramatic shift was not the result of a single news report, act of protest, or work of art. It is the accumulation of all of these that has inexorably pushed the national debate.

The artists of the borderlands who seek to stop the walls hope for a similar result. Whether images on gallery walls or coffins on the border wall itself, the goal is to shape the conversation, moving it from the xenophobia and “broken borders” rhetoric of CNN’s Lou Dobbs to the lives and landscape that the border walls destroy. It is the art of engagement, addressing the world and addressed to the communities that these artists live in. Their hope is that the rest of the nation will engage in this dialogue and perceive the border walls as they do before more is lost.

This article originally appeared in Voices of Art magazine.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Chertoff Pays the Price of the Border Wall in Human Lives

By Scott Nicol

In 2007 a U.S. district court ordered a halt to construction of the border wall through the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff responded to the ruling, “I have to say to myself, ‘Yes, I don’t want to disturb the habitat of a lizard, but am I prepared to pay human lives to do that?’” He then waived 19 federal laws, using the unprecedented power granted him by the Real ID Act to override the judge’s order, and immediately resumed construction of the border wall through the last free-flowing river in southern Arizona. This past April he issued another Real Id Act waiver, which swept aside 36 federal laws to enable the construction of walls called for by the Secure Fence Act along the southern border.

Secretary Chertoff’s statement was intended to mislead the American people into believing that the environmental damage caused by border walls is the necessary cost of protecting U.S. citizens. When confronted with a “lizards vs. humans” choice, anyone with warm blood will defend the latter. Establishing this false dichotomy is therefore a great way to marshal support for the border wall by demonizing border wall opponents as wanting to sacrifice human safety and national security to protect animals. But it is a lie, and Chertoff knows it.

While the walls built along the U.S./Mexico border since the 1990s have done tremendous environmental damage, they have not saved any human lives. Chertoff cannot point to a single terrorist who has attempted to cross the U.S./Mexico border, much less one turned back by a section of border wall. It has not even reduced the number of undocumented immigrants who enter the country each year seeking work. Four months before Chertoff claimed that if we do not build walls we must be “prepared to pay human lives,” the Congressional Research Service issued a report which found that the border wall “did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens coming across the border.”

The border wall has instead 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.”

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 GAO report revealed that funneling immigrants into the desert was not accidental, but intentional. “The strategy assumed that as the urban areas were controlled, the migrant traffic would shift to more remote areas where the Border Patrol would be able to more easily detect and apprehend migrants entering illegally. The strategy also assumed that natural barriers including rivers, such as the Rio Grande in Texas, the mountains east of San Diego, and the desert in Arizona would act as deterrents to illegal entry.”

The GAO concluded, “The increase in deaths due to heat exposure over the last 15 years is consistent with our previous report that found evidence that migrant traffic shifted from urban areas like San Diego and El Paso into the desert following the implementation of the Southwest Border Strategy in 1994.”

These findings were presented to Secretary Chertoff long before he lied to the American people to justify his Real ID Act waiver. Fully aware that existing border walls have caused thousands of deaths, he has decided to erect more walls.

And the decision is entirely his to make. Last year’s supplemental appropriations bill contained a provision which gives Secretary Chertoff absolute discretion as to whether or not to build walls along the border. It changes the Secure Fence Act’s text to read, “nothing in this paragraph shall require the Secretary of Homeland Security to install fencing, physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors in a particular location along an international border of the United States, if the Secretary determines that the use or placement of such resources is not the most appropriate means to achieve and maintain operational control over the international border at such location.'' With ample evidence that the border wall is causing thousands of deaths without slowing the influx of undocumented immigrants or enhancing national security, it should be easy to make that determination.

The border wall does not present the United States with a choice of either saving the environment or saving human lives. The wall takes a terrible toll on both. The real choice is whether or not to build more walls, knowing that if more walls are constructed they will do irreparable environmental damage and cause thousands more to die.

Until Congress acts to amend or repeal the Secure Fence Act and the Real ID Act, only Secretary Chertoff has the power to make this decision. The language in the Omnibus bill gives Secretary Chertoff the power to decide whether or not more border walls are built. The Real ID Act gives him the power to suspend our nation’s laws to build walls that would otherwise be illegal. Numerous reports have spelled out how many people have died, and how many more are likely to die, as a direct result of the border wall. In the face of all of this, Secretary Chertoff continues to build walls. In legal terms, this is a premeditated act, because he knows what the result will be. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has decided that to build the border wall he is in fact “prepared to pay human lives.”