Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Environmental Groups Support Provisions of Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill

The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity have issued the following press release in support of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, introduced by Representative Luis Gutierrez. The bill contains key provisions intended to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security obeys all of our nation's laws when building infrastructure on the border.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill Gets it Right at the Border
Bill Would Help Protect Wildlife from Damage of Border Walls

Washington, D.C, - A new immigration bill introduced today includes important provisions that will help protect wildlife, communities, and natural resources from damage wrought by border walls between the U.S. and Mexico.

The Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, introduced by Representative Luis Gutierrez, includes critical components of the Border Security and Responsibility Act of 2009 (HR 2076), introduced by Rep. Raul Grijalva in April 2009.

To date, at least 633 miles of border walls and barriers have been constructed along the U.S. – Mexico border, and the construction has proceeded quickly and almost entirely without proper consultation or compliance laws.Three dozen environmental, archaeological, religious freedom, historic preservation, cultural, and other laws were waived by former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff for border wall construction.

The legislation would replace the border wall’s one-size-fits-all approach to border security with a strategy based on comprehensive analyses of the effectiveness and costs of various security measures. To address negative impacts from existing border infrastructure, the legislation would establish comprehensive monitoring and mitigation programs. The bill would also ensure full compliance with landmark laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act that were enacted to promote public health and protect our country’s wildlife and natural heritage.

“ Rep. Gutierrez and Rep. Grijalva deserve praise for recognizing the need for a responsible border security policy that minimizes harm to our precious borderlands, wildlife, and border communities,” said Sierra Club representative Michael Degnan.

“Much of this country’s rarest and most spectacular wildlife--including jaguar, ocelot, Sonoran pronghorn, and many other species--depend upon the borderlands for survival. This bill would restore crucial protections to such wildlife and help mitigate the widespread damage that has already been done to important habitat and migration corridors,” said Randy Serraglio, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Laws that protect our wildlife, our water, our air, and our right to a healthful environment should never have been circumvented by the Bush administration," said Bob Irvin, Senior Vice President for Conservation Programs at Defenders of Wildlife. "This bill will restore the rule of law along America's border."

Monday, November 9, 2009

As we celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, border walls are built in Brownsville, Texas

While the world celebrates the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States is continuing construction on its own border wall in the southern tip of Texas. The following photos show the progress of the construction and how the people of Brownsville, Texas are having to learn to live with a wall in their midst.
Construction has been completed through many residential neighborhoods. This one is off Milpa Verde Street in East Brownsville.

A child plays in the shadow of the border wall behind her house.

Looking North into the neighborhood from behind the wall.

A border patrol surveillance tower and the border wall visible at the end of a Brownsville cul-de-sac.

Construction on the wall is quickly approaching Hope Park, a city park that was established on the banks of the Rio Grande in part to commemorate the strong ties between the U.S. and Mexico.

Inside Hope Park. The marker on the left is where the wall will be built. On the right is a state historical marker for the Chisolm Trail.

East of Brownsville is the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary, home of the largest surviving stand of native Sabal Palms. With the border wall's impending construction, the sanctuary has been closed to the public since last spring. The gate on the left blocks the entrance to the sanctuary, and the sign has been taken down.

The border wall reaching the edge of the Nature Conservancy Southmost Preserve. Construction here is delayed while Nature Conservancy fights DHS in court.

Homeowners living across the street from the border wall draw explicit parallels between the border wall and the Berlin wall.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Border War Rhetoric Has Real Consequences for the Borderlands

By Stefanie Herweck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 20, 2009

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

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

Dear Conferees,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, September 18, 2009

Taxpayers for Common Sense Blasts the Border Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 17, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

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

LULAC Press Release
September 15, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Will Ciro Rodriguez Stop a New Round of Border Walls?

By Scott Nicol

U.S. Representative Ciro Rodriguez, whose district stretches from San Antonio to the border communities of Eagle Pass, Del Rio, and Presidio, will play a key role in determining whether or not more border walls are built in Texas. After Congress returns from its August recess, Rodriguez will serve on the Conference Committee responsible for reconciling the House and Senate versions of the Department of Homeland Security’s 2010 Appropriations Bill. The Senate’s version contains an amendment requiring the construction of up to 369 miles of new border walls, while the House version makes no mention of walls.

Ignoring the destructive impacts on municipalities, private property, and wildlife refuges that Texas has already suffered, Senators Hutchison and Cornyn both voted for more border walls.

Based on his record, there is hope that, in contrast to Texas’ Senators, Representative Rodriguez will stand up for his constituents and work to strip the border wall amendment from the bill. But a recent action also gives reason for concern.

Standing up for Texas border communities would certainly be welcomed by those in Representative Rodriguez’ district who live along the Rio Grande. Eagle Pass was the first such municipality that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sued to condemn land for the border wall.

Representative Rodriguez has made efforts to lessen the border wall’s impact and give the Secretary of Homeland Security the latitude to spare Eagle Pass and other border communities. He inserted an amendment into the 2008 supplemental appropriations bill which changed the Secure Fence Act 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.''

Since the Congressional Research Service had already determined that border walls have “no discernible impact” on the number of undocumented immigrants and smugglers who cross the border each year, it should have been easy for then-Secretary Chertoff to decide that walls were not the most appropriate means to control the border. Unfortunately, neither he nor current DHS Secretary Napolitano has been willing to take the political heat and halt the construction of more “expensive and useless” walls.

Rep. Rodriguez also joined the rest of Texas’ border representatives in asking President Obama to “suspend construction of border fencing” until a cost-benefit analysis could be conducted and consultation with local stakeholders could be initiated. He also signed on to a letter calling on DHS to monitor the damage caused by the wall and establish a mitigation fund.

So clearly, Rodriguez can be counted on to remove the border wall building amendment from the DHS appropriations bill, right?

Maybe not. In July, Rep. Rodriguez co-sponsored the Secure America with Verification and Enforcement (SAVE) Act. One provision of the SAVE Act states,

“[T]he Secretary shall construct or purchase […] additional fencing (and aesthetic fencing in business districts) in urban areas of the border; and vehicle barriers, to support, not replace, manpower, in rural and remote areas of the border necessary to achieve operational control of the international borders of the United States.”

So despite his prior record of opposing the border wall, Representative Rodriguez is now co-sponsoring a bill that calls for more wall construction, which may cut through the communities he serves.

This earned Representative Rodriguez and the rest of the SAVE Act’s co-sponsors a congratulatory letter from Roy Beck, president of the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA, who said, “It is with highest enthusiasm and expectation that NumbersUSA endorses your re-introduction of the SAVE Act.”

NumbersUSA has been denounced by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its ties to nativist and racist organizations. Roy Beck himself was a longtime editor of the white nationalist publication The Social Contract, and NumbersUSA shares a Washington, DC office with the anti-immigrant group ProEnglish. One would expect that their enthusiastic endorsement would be as welcome as that of the Ku Klux Klan.

Representative Rodriguez’s support for the SAVE Act muddies his record as an advocate for the border communities in his district and begs the question: what will he do in Conference Committee? Will he work to strip border walls from the DHS bill, or allow them to tear through his constituents’ communities? Will he side with Chad Foster, or Roy Beck?

It is possible that Representative Rodriguez’ support for the walls in the SAVE Act is a response to the right wing’s howls that he and Senator Hutchison “gutted” the Secure Fence Act when they gave DHS the flexibility to decide whether or not to wall off a given refuge, community, or family farm. Senator Hutchison has been unable to stand up to the right’s criticism, and has given the border wall unwavering support ever since.

Ultimately, Representative Rodriguez was not elected to serve Roy Beck. Ciro Rodriguez is in Washington DC to represent the interests of Eagle Pass, Del Rio, Presidio, and other communities that are threatened with border wall construction. If he fails to act on their behalf by removing the border wall amendment from the DHS bill, more of his constituents will see border walls tear through their communities.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Building More Border Walls is Not Effective Immigration Reform

By Scott Nicol

In 2006, both the House and Senate passed Comprehensive Immigration Reform bills. Each contained hundreds of miles of border wall, inserted as a bone to lure conservative support. The bills differed on a number of points, including the number of miles of wall to be built. When a conference committee convened to craft a final bill they were unable to work out their differences, and immigration reform died in committee. From its ashes Congress pulled the one thing that they could agree on: 700 miles of border wall.

The stated goal of the Secure Fence Act was to “achieve and maintain operational control over the entire international land and maritime borders of the United States.” Nearly 3 years later, most of the border walls that it mandated are complete. Time to dust off the “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner and hang it on the border?

Apparently not. This month Senator Jim DeMint, whose home state of South Carolina is closer to Canada than Mexico, inserted an amendment into the Senate’s bill funding the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It changes the Secure Fence Act to say that, “Fencing that does not effectively restrain pedestrian traffic (such as vehicle barriers and virtual fencing) may not be used to meet the 700-mile fence requirement.”

As of July 17, DHS claims to have completed 331 miles of “pedestrian fencing” and 302 miles of vehicle barriers. If DeMint’s amendment makes it through the House/Senate Conference Committee and is signed into law, the border wall will suddenly be 369 miles short of its new mandate. DHS will probably replace many of the 302 miles of vehicle barriers with “pedestrian fence,” inflicting tremendous environmental damage in the process. That leaves at least 67 miles of brand new border wall to be built in places that are currently unwalled. With California, Arizona, and New Mexico largely walled off, those new border walls will most likely be built in Texas.

So far, Congress has given the Department of Homeland Security $3.1 billion for border wall construction. The Army Corps of Engineers reported that between February and October of 2008 the cost of building walls increased by 88%, from an average of $3.5 million per mile to $7.5 million per mile. Some sections of border wall are particularly expensive: the levee-border wall combination in South Texas averaged $12 million per mile; in California, a 3.5 mile section that involved filling in canyons cost taxpayers $57 million.

If the Secure Fence Act succeeded in achieving “operational control” of the border, why should we spend no less than (and quite possibly a lot more than) $2,767,500,000.00 to build 369 miles of new border wall?

First and foremost, the border wall has failed to stop either immigrants or smugglers from entering the United States. The majority enter through ports of entry, rather than crossing the desert on foot or the Rio Grande on an inner tube, so walls erected between the ports have no effect on them. And according to the Border Patrol, even those who find the wall directly in their path are only slowed down by around 5 minutes. As Border Patrol spokesperson Mike Scioli said, “The border fence is a speed bump in the desert.”

Professor Wayne Cornelius, with the University of California at San Diego, has spent more than a decade interviewing immigrants before and after they cross the border. His research has revealed that, even with border walls,

“fewer than half of migrants who come to the border are apprehended, even once, by the Border Patrol. … [T]he apprehension rate found in these studies varied from 24% to 47%. And of those who are caught, all but a tiny minority eventually get through – between 92 and 98 percent, depending on the community of origin. If migrants do not succeed on the first try, they almost certainly will succeed on the second or third try.”

Professor Cornelius goes on to conclude,

“the eventual success rate is virtually the same for migrants whose most recent crossing occurred before 1995, when the border was largely unfortified, and those crossing in the most recent period. In other words, the border enforcement build-up seems to have made no appreciable difference in terms of migrants’ ability to enter the United States clandestinely.”

So why would Senators, ranging from alleged fiscal conservatives such as Texas Republican John Cornyn to New York Democrat Charles Schumer, vote to spend nearly $3 billion on more border walls when those already erected do not work?

Simply put, for those politicians who do not live beside the border, and do not count on the votes of those who do, the border wall is an abstraction. The reality that the border wall has little or no impact on border crossers is irrelevant. The reality that more than 300 property owners have had their property condemned is irrelevant. The reality that federally designated wilderness areas and wildlife refuges have been severely impacted is irrelevant. The Senators who voted for more border walls were voting for a symbol, nothing more.

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

Senator Schumer, who will be introducing a Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill around Labor Day, wrote in an op-ed, “I voted to require the Department of Homeland Security to construct significant fortifications to the border fence” as proof that he is, “serious about securing the border.” He did not bother to defend the effectiveness of the border wall, because that was not the point. The wall that he voted for is simply a symbol, meant to show that immigration reform and border enforcement can go arm in arm.

Senator Schumer seems to think that by voting for more walls, and more than likely including border walls in his Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, he can appease conservatives like Cornyn and gain their votes. If so, he is deluded. No matter how much of the borderlands the bill sacrifices for the sake of empty gestures, immigration reform will not woo conservatives. It is far more likely that Schumer will instead see a repeat of 2006, in which the only part of Comprehensive Immigration Reform that makes it to the President’s desk is hundreds of miles of border wall.

Our nation desperately needs immigration reform. But as Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said this past February, “you cannot build a fence from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, and call that an immigration policy.”

It is a message that Congress sorely needs to hear.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

City Commissioners Vote to Buy Brownsville a Border Wall

By Scott Nicol

On June 2, the Brownsville City Commission finally capitulated to the Department of Homeland Security’s demand that they give away city property to build the border wall. They had attempted to do this twice before, first last July and again this past February. In both instances the commissioners backed down in the face of widespread opposition from Brownsville residents. This time, however, they stuck with DHS, ignoring the will of the people by voting to give away the city’s land and to commit to build a border wall through Brownsville at the city’s expense. No other city has done so much to help build the border wall.

When the City Commissioners considered this deal last February, they issued a press release praising it, saying that
“The City of Brownsville is in the unique position to be the only border city between San Diego, California and the Gulf of Mexico to be offered the ability to remove the federally mandated border fence.” The Commissioners’ spin leaves out the fact that the initial border wall will only be removed after it is replaced with a border wall that will be far more permanent and imposing, and one for which Brownsville taxpayers will foot the entire multi-million dollar bill.

While the contract with DHS has been rewritten, the substance remains the same. The City of Brownsville will give up 15 acres of city property, which DHS valued at $123,100 when it initiated condemnation proceedings last September. The Department of Homeland Security will not pay a dime for the city’s land.

"Floating fence" border wall design in Cameron County, Texas

DHS will then build what they call a “floating fence” on the formerly city-owned property. While the City Commissioners may see the use of this border wall design as a victory, maps of the border wall released by DHS in July 2008 for their Environmental Stewardship Plan (ESP) clearly show “floating fence” on the city’s land. The ESP states, “Floating primary pedestrian fence consists of prefabricated floating fence panels placed on the levee. Floating fences are generally concrete barriers with pickets anchored on top.” This type of border wall has already been erected in parts of western Cameron County. So the floating fence is not a concession on the part of DHS, but what DHS had planned in the first place.

According to the contract, at some indefinite time in the future, the city will pay to build a levee-border wall in another unspecified location to replace the “floating fence.” It stipulates that the city must pay to buy the land for the new levee-border wall, and “construction shall be the responsibility of Brownsville, and shall not be performed by the United States or at any cost to the United States.” The bids for the levee-border walls in Hidalgo County ranged from $12 to $16 million per mile. Placing cost ahead of confidence in the quality of construction of our flood control levees, Hidalgo naturally went with the low bidder. Assuming that Brownsville does the same, the 2-4 miles of levee-border wall that will slice through the city will cost between $24 and $48 million, every dime of which must come from city coffers.

Levee-border wall under construction in Hidalgo County

Once Brownsville constructs the new levee-border wall, DHS will pay to take down the “floating fence.” Maybe. Homeland Security’s promise to pay to take down the first border wall is “subject to the availability of funding.” If they do not have the cash in hand, “then DHS shall provide Brownsville with appropriate access and authority to remove such sections and dispose of the removed material” at the city’s expense.

One new provision in the contract that the City Commission approved states that, “Brownsville shall, at its sole expense, preserve and maintain the Replacement Border Barrier.” So not only will Brownsville’s taxpayers have to pay to build a levee-border wall that none of them want, they must also pay to maintain it for decades to come.

Of course, it is unlikely that Brownsville will be able to come up with all of this money, so the “temporary” border wall will in fact be permanent.

But if they do, and private developers come through with millions more to build a riverwalk, we can look forward to long lines of tourists waiting to show their passports to go through the border wall to reach the trendy restaurants on the other side. What could be more appealing than fine dining in a no-man’s land that the Department of Homeland Security has walled off to keep “terrorists and terrorist weapons” from entering the rest of the United States?

Levee-border wall at the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse World Birding Center in Hidalgo County

Even if everything goes as the City Commission hopes, this deal defies all logic. It is as if someone took away your home, and rather than fight in court to either stop them or force them to pay you its market value of $123,100, you offered to buy them new land and build them a new house that would cost anywhere from $24 to $48 million, and you would then pay to maintain it. Accepting such a deal would certainly put you in a “unique position.”

Yet, this is the deal that Brownsville City Commissioners Anthony Troiani, Edward Camarillo, Ricardo Longoria, and Leo Garza voted to accept. Charlie Atkinson, who is a Border Patrol employee, abstained. Commissioner Carlos Cisneros and Mayor Pat Ahumada voted to reject it.

When public funds are used to build schools, hospitals, or other structures for the benefit of taxpayers, the politicians who approved the project can be counted on attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony and place a plaque telling future generations of their accomplishment. If the City of Brownsville manages to pull funds from schools, hospitals, or other projects to build the levee-border wall, I trust that the City Commissioners who voted for it will be on hand for the dedication ceremony. They can smile and wave and shake hands with the grateful residents of Brownsville, who will sleep better knowing that the border is no longer broken, that floods of terrorists no longer wash over Brownsville, and that it was their City Commission that brought about this shining moment. Engraved on a bronze plaque that will be bolted to the concrete slab of the border wall will be the names:

Anthony P. Troiani

Edward C. Camarillo

Ricardo Longoria

Leo Garza

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Supreme Court Fails to Restore the Rule of Law to the Border

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear arguments that the waiving of all state, local, and federal laws to build the border wall is unconstitutional is a tremendous blow for border residents and the principle of the rule of law. We had hoped that the court would honor its obligation to examine the constitutionality of section 102 of the Real ID Act, which is an unprecedented power grab by the Executive branch, and which creates unequal legal protections for U.S. citizens that are solely dependant upon what part of the country one lives in. In this instance the Supreme Court shirked its duty, leaving the border without the benefit of the rule of law that is enjoyed by the rest of our nation.

Section 102 of the Real ID Act allows for the suspension of all laws to build the border wall, stating, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the authority to waive all legal requirements such Secretary, in such Secretary’s sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section.” No other United States citizen is granted this extreme power under any circumstance. Even the president does not have this power to waive our nation’s laws, no matter what crisis may arise.

When former Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff waived 36 federal laws in April 2008, he knew that in building border walls he would be violating those laws. Obeying the law is not voluntary, it is mandatory. In a nation of laws all laws must be respected, not just those that are convenient. Those laws were enacted to prevent the kind of damage that we see everywhere border walls have been built.

For plaintiffs such as the Frontera Audubon Society, the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, and the Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, the fate of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge is of particular concern. Consisting of individual tracts of native habitat linked by the Rio Grande, it creates a wildlife corridor, providing federally endangered species such as the ocelot and jaguarundi sufficient territory to find food, water, and mates. Migratory birds also rely on it to rest and refuel on their annual journeys, as well as for nesting. The border walls that have been built, and those that are still under construction, slice through many refuge tracts and cut off others from the river. The wall is fragmenting habitat, blocking migratory pathways, denying animals access to fresh water, and isolating breeding populations of endangered ocelot and jagurandi. Because the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act were among the 36 federal laws that the former Secretary swept aside, none of the usual legal protections for these supposedly protected lands remain.

In addition, Texas border communities depend upon the Rio Grande for irrigation and drinking water. But former Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff waived not only the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act, but also “all federal, state, or other laws, regulations and legal requirements of, deriving from, or related to the subject of” those, and 34 other, laws. So where the wall has been built, in El Paso and Eagle Pass and Hidalgo and Brownsville and other border communities that draw water from the Rio Grande, all laws “related to the subject of” water are no longer in effect. This absurd situation prompted the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 and the Hudspeth County Conservation and Reclamation District No. 1 to take part in the challenge to the constitutionality of the Real ID Act’s waiver authority.

Equal protection under the law is meant to be a fundamental right shared by every American, but the Real ID Act makes the legal rights of citizens who live near the border conditional on the whims of an unelected Administration appointee. The Secretary of Homeland Security cannot waive the laws that protect citizens who live away from the border. Only border residents may have their legal protections waived.

When the Supreme Court decided not to hear these arguments without uttering so much as a word as to why, they shirked their duty as the final arbiters of the United States constitution and the principle of the rule of law that it enshrines. This precedent bodes ill for the rest of the nation, as any manufactured crisis may be used to enact a similar waiver. A “broken” northern border may be the pretext for a new bill waiving laws along the Canadian boundary, or an “energy crisis” may provide a convenient excuse to do away with laws that prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Supreme Court’s inaction will likely have repercussions beyond the destruction wrought by the border wall.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

No More Deaths Volunteer Convicted of Littering for Leaving Water in the Desert

The group No More Deaths has been working to save immigrants who are funneled into the Arizona desert by the border wall. In 2006, even before the Secure Fence Act led to the construction of hundreds of miles of Arizona border wall, the Government Accountability Office found that immigrant deaths had doubled as a result of the first walls built in California. A number of No More Deaths volunteers have been charged with littering for leaving water for border crossers. In the Arizona desert, where summer temperatures regularly top 110 degrees, it is virtually impossible to carry sufficient water. No More Deaths issued the following press release regarding the conviction of one of their members for leaving water in the desert for migrants:

Humanitarian Who Left "Life-Sustaining Water" for Migrants Convicted of “Littering”

Walt Staton, a volunteer with the Tucson-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, was convicted today of "knowingly littering garbage or other debris" after he left clean drinking water for undocumented migrants crossing the desert on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

In response to this verdict, No More Deaths released the following statement:

“This is a sad day for human rights and for all of us in southern Arizona. By penalizing life-saving work, the United States is showing callous disregard for the lives of our neighbors to the south, whose only crime is to seek a better life. No More Deaths will continue to provide life-saving aid to those in need, and to do our part to clean up the desert. The era of border enforcement that uses death and human rights abuses as a deterrent must come to an end.”

After more than four hours of deliberation on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, the 12-member jury first stated to the court that they were not able to agree upon a verdict. Magistrate judge Jennifer Guerin then ordered the jury to go back and attempt again to reach a unanimous verdict. Staton's attorney, William Walker, objected to the order, stating that it was coercive to the jury. The jury reconvened and met for less than an hour before returning a guilty verdict.

On December 4, 2008, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officer James Casey cited Staton and three other humanitarians for littering after being contacted by Border Patrol agents who were following the volunteers. The US Attorney’s office later dropped the charges against the other three. Staton refused to accept guilt and pay the original $175 fine. He now faces the punishment of this criminal misdemeanor that could include up to one year of prison time and a large fine. Sentencing is set for August 11.

In Staton's court testimony, he said that he was compelled by his personal experiences of encountering severely dehydrated migrants in distress. He also explained how the organization uses a strategic system of maps and GPS equipment to place the water in strategic locations. "We try to be conscious as an organization to be the most effective in order to save lives," stated Staton during examination.

During closing arguments, defense lawyer Bill Walker held a full gallon jug of water in the air and declared: "When the government tells you this case isn't about water or this isn't about saving lives, they're wrong! This is valuable, life-sustaining water."

During jury selection nearly one third of the original 31 potential jurors were dismissed after stating they had strong emotions about providing humanitarian aid to migrants and would be unwilling to convict someone who was engaged in humanitarian aid. Public support was also evident during the two full days of the trial as the courtroom remained full with 40-50 humanitarian supporters from local groups such as The Samaritans, Humane Borders, American Friends Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, among others.

Dan Millis, a fellow No More Deaths volunteer, received a similar ticket in February, 2008, for leaving water jugs on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Millis was found guilty last September after a bench trial before magistrate judge Bernie Velasco in Tucson. Dan appealed the case to the US District Court, where the original ruling was upheld. It is currently under appeal at the 9th Circuit Court. Staton also plans to appeal his case to the 9th Circuit.

“The Buenos Aires leadership needs to realize that we’re on the same team here,” Millis said. Millis works full-time for the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Protection Campaign. “They need to issue more permits allowing humanitarian groups to provide water and pick up trash on the refuge,” he said.

Letters of support for Walt Staton, Dan Millis and No More Deaths can be sent to media@nomoredeaths. org; they will be posted on our web site.

* Background on No More Deaths:

According to Pima County medical examiner's data, approximately 20 bodies of deceased migrants have been recovered from Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge since 2002. Dehydration is a factor that leads to many of these deaths. More than 5,000 bodies have been recovered from the US/Mexico border as a result of the U.S. Border Patrol’s strategy of deterrence, beginning in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper.

Since 2004 No More Deaths has provided life-saving aid to migrants in distress along the Arizona/Mexico border. Thousands of volunteers have participated in these efforts, which include providing water, food and medical assistance. No More Deaths is a ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson and seeks to work with other religious groups, government, community partners, and individuals willing to work toward an end to the humanitarian crisis occurring in the Arizona desert.

No More Deaths is currently gearing up for its sixth summer of humanitarian action during the hottest, deadliest months of the year. We are accepting volunteer applications for the summer, and welcome any and all donations to support our work!

For an updated list of migrant deaths in Arizona, visit DerechosHumanosAZ. net.

Please take a moment to sign the following e-letter to participate in an international campaign declaring that "Humanitarian Aid Is Never A Crime!” This letter speaks to a case in which the Italian government is prosecuting two Germans for "smuggling" after they rescued a sinking raft in the Mediterranean Sea with 37 African refugees on board. Such prosecutions resonate with the efforts by the United States government, described above, to criminalize life-saving humanitarian work.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Will Congress Restore the Rule of Law or Build More Border Walls?

By Scott Nicol

The walls that are tearing through border communities and wildlife refuges have nothing to do with national security, immigration policy, or drug control. The construction of border walls merely allows for political posturing during election cycles. Politicians and pundits decry our nation’s “broken borders,” and blame undocumented immigrants for all of our nation’s ills, from unemployment to failing schools to municipal budget shortfalls to crime. Scapegoats are convenient, especially when they cannot vote, and scapegoating distracts voters from politicians’ inability to solve any of these problems. And so, two weeks before the 2006 mid-term election, the Secure Fence Act was signed into law. Two an a half years later the walls that it mandated are nearing completion, and we as a nation must decide what happens next.

One path forward was proposed by Representative Raul Grijalva, whose southern Arizona district is now home to mile upon mile of border wall. Last month he introduced the Border Security and Responsibility Act (HR 2076). This legislation seeks to prevent future border security measures from repeating the worst abuses that have accompanied border wall construction.

While the Secure Fence Act established walls as the primary strategy for controlling the border, the Border Security and Responsibility Act would instead, “give first priority to the use of remote cameras, sensors, removal of non-native vegetation, incorporation of natural barriers, additional manpower, unmanned aerial vehicles, or other low impact border enforcement techniques.” Border walls, which have been shown to be largely ineffective, go to the back of the line.

HR 2076 would also require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, comparing the full range of possible strategies for protecting the border. Along with looking at whether border walls actually stop anyone, DHS would have to factor in land acquisition costs, construction costs, maintenance costs over 25 years, impacts on wildlife, impacts on hydrology, and the costs of mitigating adverse impacts to Federal, state, local, and private lands and waters. The costs and benefits of border walls would then be compared to similar analyses of adding more Border Patrol agents, so-called “virtual” fences, natural barriers, removing non-native vegetation, and increasing cooperation with Mexican and Canadian authorities.

Sign on private property near Brownsville, Texas that will be cut off by the border wall.

Rather than shutting out border residents and other stakeholders, Rep. Grijalva’s bill would require the Secretary of Homeland Security to consult with other federal agencies, tribal governments, local officials, and private property owners to minimize the negative impacts of border security measures. Real consultation that allows for meaningful input from those who live and work along the border would be a tremendous change for the better.

Most importantly, it would strike the provision of the Real ID Act that gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to waive any law that he or she sees fit in order to build border walls. No longer would one unelected Administration appointee have the power to sweep aside laws passed by Congress and signed by presidents. The rule of law would be restored along our nation’s southern border.

And this restoration is critical. When former Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff waived 36 federal laws last year, he was not simply cutting red tape. He knew that in building border walls he would be violating those laws. Those laws were enacted to prevent the kind of damage that we see everywhere border walls have been built.

In California’s Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, mountainsides above the Tijuana River are currently being dynamited to build the border wall. When DHS proposed building walls in these rugged mountains the Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns that the dumping of tons of rubble, and the erosion that would follow, would clog the river and violate the Clean Water Act. Normally that would be a moot point, because it is illegal to drive a motorized vehicle in a Wilderness Area, much less plant dynamite. But with the Wilderness Act and the Clean Water Act waived, blasting is occurring today, and will continue through the summer.

Texas border communities rely on the Rio Grande for irrigation and drinking water. But Secretary Chertoff waived not only the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act, but also “all federal, state, or other laws, regulations and legal requirements of, deriving from, or related to the subject of” those, and 34 other, laws. So where the wall has been built, in El Paso and Eagle Pass and Hidalgo and Brownsville and other border communities that draw water from the Rio Grande, all laws “related to the subject of” water are no longer in effect. This absurd situation has prompted the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 and the Hudspeth County Conservation and Reclamation District No. 1 to take part in a lawsuit challenging constitutionality of the Real ID Act’s waiver authority.

"Floating fence" border wall design on top of the flood control levee in Cameron County, Texas

The border wall has been tremendously destructive, both to American lands, American communities and the American tradition of rule of law. But with most of the Secure Fence Act’s 670 miles of border wall close to completion, some might ask why the provisions of the Border Security and Responsibility Act are needed.

The answer came on the same day that Representative Grijalva introduced HR 2076, when Rep. Duncan D. Hunter introduced the Border Sovereignty and Protection Act. Apparently, Hunter Junior inherited the bad politics of his father along with his name and Congressional seat. His father bragged in campaign ads that he had built the border wall, and that it was a stunning success. Ignoring the question of why more walls are needed if the first walls had already done the job, Hunter Junior’s bill requires, “two layers of reinforced fencing along not fewer than 350 miles of the southwest border” in addition to all that has already been built. It also provides a blank check to pay for construction.

"Triple-layer fence" border wall design near San Diego, California

Grijalva’s bill requiring consultation, a cost-benefit analysis, and the restoration of the rule of law currently has 20 cosponsors. Hunter’s bill, requiring another 350 miles of double-layered border wall and providing unlimited funds to pay for them, currently has 26 cosponsors.

When the first sections of border wall were built in southern California in the mid 1990s, the Congressional Research Service found that they had “no discernible impact” on the number of undocumented immigrants who entered the United States each year. Rather than realize that the wall was a failure, border wall proponents, most notably Duncan’s dad, decided that the wall was not long enough. Now that another 600+ miles of border wall have been built, and the Border Patrol routinely refers to them as “speed bumps,” the cry goes up for more walls. In the perverse logic of those who have tied their political careers to the border wall, if the wall is a failure, it is simply because it is too short.

If this logic is allowed to prevail, mile upon mile of new border wall will be built with no concern for the communities or ecosystems that lay in their path. That is why passage of Representative Grijalva’s Border Security and Responsibility Act is so critical. It restores a degree of sanity to border policy, forces the federal government to respect the legal rights of border residents, and gives us a seat at the table when decisions are made regarding our home.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Border Wall vs. Property Rights: Texas’ Senators Support the Wrong Side

by Scott Nicol

To build the border wall the federal government has brought condemnation lawsuits against more than 300 Texas landowners. Homeowners, farmers, nature preserves, and municipalities all face the imminent loss of their property for a patchwork of walls that have “no discernible impact” on the overall numbers of immigrants or smugglers who cross the border, according to the Congressional Research Service. The wall is a rhetorical point used by politicians who do not represent border communities to claim that they are working to protect the homeland. For them, the real impact of the border wall is irrelevant; all that matters is the perception among voters who will never actually see it. Members of congress who do represent Texas border residents should be fighting to defend our lands and our homes, literally the homeland that the border wall is supposed to secure. Instead, Texas’ Senators have worked to fund and build the wall that today stands in Hidalgo County and is tearing through Brownsville.

Land nearest the Rio Grande has always been prized because of the rich soil and the year-round availability of water. Many families along its banks still hold title to lands that were granted to their forefathers by the King of Spain as early as the 1740’s, decades before the United States and Mexico became sovereign nations, and more than a century before the Rio Grande became their shared border. For these owners, the land is a priceless piece of their family’s history.

Eloisa Tamez’ property has been in her family since the King of Spain issued the San Pedro Carracitos Land Grant in 1763. In 2007 DHS demanded access to her property for border wall surveys, then initiated condemnation proceedings. Dr. Tamez enlisted the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law and initiated a class-action lawsuit alleging that DHS has refused to negotiate with landowners before condemning their property, as the law requires. She also demanded that DHS reveal its criteria for citing the border wall, which in places runs for miles through poor and/or minority communities, then ends abruptly at the property line of wealthy property owners and resort communities. David Pagan of Customs and Border Protection responded, "We do not plan to suspend work on the construction of fence in order to hold a series of additional consultation meetings." On April 15, 2009 the court ruled against Dr. Tamez’, allowing the federal government to seize her land. Within a week the border wall had been built across her property.

Last February Eva Lambert awoke to the sound of heavy equipment erecting the border wall’s steel posts on her land. In her case, either through disregard for the law or incompetence, DHS finished construction of the wall before anyone had contacted her to negotiate a price or condemn her property. Denied her day in court as well as her property, Ms. Lambert is still waiting to find out what compensation will be offered. As she told the Brownsville Herald, "In the end, the government does what it wants."

In the low-lying river delta of South Texas, the treaty that established the Rio Grande as the border prohibits construction between the levee and the river. This is because a structure immediately adjacent to the river could deflect floodwaters and shift the river’s course, resulting in a change in the international boundary. So, to comply with the treaty, the border wall is being built into, on, or behind the flood-control levee that parallels the river rather than immediately adjacent to it. This levee is located up to two miles north of the river, leaving thousands of acres of U.S. territory, much of it privately owned, behind the border wall.

The Department of Homeland Security has offered only to pay for the exact footprint of the border wall (typically, a 60-foot wide strip) as it passes through a parcel of land. In their simplistic calculations, the agency has completely issues such as the devaluation of contiguous property, problems accessing land and homes behind the wall, impacts on livelihood, and the importance of cultural heritage. Despite the range and complexity of these issues, DHS has steadfastly refused to enter into meaningful negotiations with property owners.

The Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve maintains one of the last remaining Sabal Palm forests along the banks of the Rio Grande. The border wall will bisect the preserve, cutting off more than 700 acres along with an equipment barn, office, and caretaker’s residence. The property was purchased in 1999 for $2.6 million, but DHS has only offered to pay $114,000 for the wall’s footprint, a strip of land 60 feet wide and 6,000 feet long. DHS has refused to explain how they will access the property that will be behind the wall. They claim that gates will be built, but they won’t say who will get keys or under what circumstances Conservancy staff will be able to access the property. Like Dr. Tamez, the Nature Conservancy is attempting to use the courts to save their land.

Other homes, businesses, and properties that are behind the levees will be walled off entirely, trapped between the wall and the Rio Grande. DHS has refused to grant any compensation whatsoever for properties left on the “Mexican” side of the wall. Indeed, because DHS is focused solely on the wall’s exact footprint, they have failed to even make contact with some of the landowners with property behind the wall.

The Sabal Palm Audubon Center preserves another 557 acres of Sabal Palm forest, which will also be behind the border wall. Because the wall will be built a few feet to the north of their property line, DHS has not offered Audubon any compensation whatsoever. Both Audubon and the Nature Conservancy have said that restricted access for their employees may force them to cut their operations. There is also the concern that uncertain access for emergency personnel may make it impossible to purchase the insurance that allows busloads of local school children to visit the center. With construction of the border wall imminent, Audubon announced that on May 15, 2009 they will close to the public for at least the next 6 months.

The Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly claimed that they have consulted with landowners and local officials regarding border wall construction. But when the Texas Border Coalition repeatedly invited DHS and Customs and Border Protection officials to “walk the line and see the impacts that the border wall will have on specific communities, they responded that they would only do so if the owners of the property that they would be crossing were kept away. Apparently, their preferred method of consultation is a condemnation proceeding.

In the face of these assaults on property rights by the federal government, one would expect Texas’ conservative Senators to stand up for their constituents. Private property and small government are central tenets of both of their stated philosophies. In July of 2007 Senator Cornyn told reporters, "I assure you there will be local consultation. There will not be ... unilateral actions on the part of the Department of Homeland Security without local input."

Senator Hutchison did add an amendment to the 2008 Omnibus Appropriations Bill that gave the Secretary of Homeland Security the flexibility to decide where walls should be built, as well as to spare places where walls do not make sense. The Homeland Security Secretary was also required to, “consult with the Secretary of Interior, the Secretary of Agriculture, States, local governments, Indian tribes, and property owners in the United States to minimize the impact on the environment, culture, commerce, and quality of life for the communities and residents located near the sites at which such fencing is to be constructed.”

Following howls of outrage from right wing pundits and politicians that she had “gutted” the Secure Fence Act, Hutchison backed away from her amendment. She has yet to confront DHS on its refusal to consult with property owners, as epitomized by its demand that landowners be kept away from any DHS employees who walk the line through their property. So long as she is afraid to fight on behalf of Texas landowners, the amendment that she authored is just more empty words.

Senator Cornyn’s statements assuring that there will be local consultation have also proved to be empty. Like Senator Hutchison, he has made no concrete effort to stand up for border residents. Instead, Cornyn sponsored the “Emergency Border Security Funding Act of 2007” which called for 700 linear miles of border wall and 300 miles of vehicle barriers along the US – Mexico border, and provided $3 billion dollars to build it. Cornyn’s bill went nowhere, but even without it DHS has received $3.1 billion to build the border wall.

On April 2, 2009, the one year anniversary of former Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff’s border-wide waiver that swept aside 36 federal laws, both of Texas’ Senators voted to add a motion to the Omnibus Appropriations bill that read, “To provide for a point of order against any appropriations bill that fails [to] fully fund the construction of the Southwest border fence.” The vote fell along party lines and failed, but in voting once again in favor of the border wall Hutchison and Cornyn chose party loyalty over the interests of their constituents.

This should not come as a surprise. When Cornyn looks back at the last election, he will look to the north Dallas suburbs as important to his win, not 540 miles south of Dallas to Brownsville. When Hutchison thinks about her upcoming bid to unseat Governor Perry, she will be counting on votes in Sugarland, not El Paso. Though they claim to represent the entire state, so long as they see border communities as politically irrelevant they will not work on our behalf.

The fact that their neglect is not surprising does not make it acceptable. Our Senators, as well as our U.S. Representatives and our President, were put in office to work for all of us. They can not be allowed to play favorites. When they do we need to speak up.

Some border representatives are working to defend border communities. Representative Grijalva of Arizona has authored HR 2076, The Border Security and Responsibility Act. It would require that the Department of Homeland Security work with border communities and landowners in developing security measures, rather than treat them as the enemy. DHS would also have to obey all of our nation’s laws, instead of sweeping away those which are seen as an inconvenience. Cosponsoring this bill in the House, or introducing a companion in the Senate, would be a concrete demonstration of support for border residents.

With this bill pending and walls under construction, it is critical that our members of Congress hear from their constituents right now. Urge them to support the Border Security and Responsibility Act. Demand that they work to stop further walls from tearing through the borderlands. Though only around 50 miles of border wall remain to be built it is not too late to stop it. If you lived in a home, or owned a farm, or worked at a wildlife refuge that is in the path of one of those miles, you would see every last mile as important.

So long as we sit quietly by and watch the border wall go up, we are irrelevant in the eyes of Congress. If we do not make our voices heard, and make our elected officials listen, mile upon mile of wall will be built. And while we can rail against the politicians who sacrifice our home for political gain, if we are silent we own a portion of the blame.