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: