Thursday, April 23, 2009

Grijalva Introduces Legislation to Protect and Conserve Public Lands along Border

US Representative Raul Grijalva has introduced legislation which would reverse some of the worst abuses of the Department of Homeland Security's implementation of the Secure Fence Act and the Real ID Act. Below is the press release issued by his office.

Washington, D.C. – Today, Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva introduced legislation that will help secure and conserve public and tribal lands along the international land borders of the United States.

The Border Security and Responsibility Act of 2009 will secure and conserve federal public lands along the international land borders of the U.S. and provide the highest protection possible while ensuring that all operations necessary to achieve border security are undertaken.

The legislation will also help mitigate damage to federal and tribal lands from illegal border activity and border enforcement efforts by increasing coordination and planning between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), federal land management agencies and local, state and tribal governments.

The legislation will also correct existing policies and allow flexibility for a local approach to border security, instead of mandating an unrealistic and harmful wall.

“Current policy has driven crossing activity to remote isolated areas along the border which, in Southern Arizona, represent significant public and tribal lands,” said Grijalva. “Many of these lands have suffered extensive environmental degradation as a result of unauthorized activity and border security efforts. This bill is the first step in preserving our unique natural heritage while we protect our borders.”

The Border Security and Responsibility Act of 2009 will:

1. Require the Department of Homeland Security to consult with federal land managers and state, local, and tribal governments in creating a Border Protection Strategy that supports border security efforts while also protecting federal and tribal lands.

2. Provide for flexibility, rather than a “one size fits all” approach, to border security by allowing experts at DHS to decide upon best strategies for border security.

3. Allow land managers, local officials, and local communities to have a say in border security decisions, requiring full public notice and participation.

4. Ensure that laws intended to protect air, water, wildlife, culture, and health and safety are fully upheld.

Under the Bush Administration, the passage and implementation of the Secure Fence Act and REAL ID ignored environmental, health and safety laws that had been in place for decades. The Border Security and Responsibility Act amends the current law, which pursues a “one fence fits all” solution. The legislation ensures that local experts are part of the planning and evaluation of security measures that would be more effective and have a lower impact on the border environment.

“This multi-disciplinary approach is the correct path for addressing a growing crisis in a rapidly changing geopolitical reality,” stated Grijalva. “The Border Security and Responsibility Act will strengthen border security, protect the environment and uphold the health of the border community by allowing all agencies to work together cooperatively.”

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Secretary Napolitano Must End DHS’ Abuse of Texas Border Communities

By Stefanie Herweck

Over the past two years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the organizations that it manages, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Border Patrol, have shown a deep-seated indifference to the welfare of those of us living on the Texas-Mexico border. These agencies have treated our elected leaders with disrespect, they have assumed an adversarial relationship with the public, and they have shown disdain for border communities, culture, and the environment. These actions have seriously undermined DHS’s credibility along the Texas border and have fostered a great deal of antagonism.

The border wall is the clearest example of this. The border wall project has been propelled by a blind determination to build as many miles of wall as possible regardless of cost, safety, effectiveness, and environmental damage. It has been shrouded in secrecy, and DHS has purposely obfuscated time and time again, as though border residents have no right to know what is happening in their communities and even on their own property.

Levee-border wall in Hidalgo County, Texas February 22, 2009

In June 2007, they started with a lie to the Texas Border Coalition. Texas border mayors and other community leaders were assembled to hear details about the border walls that would run through their cities. Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar told them that he could give them few details because even though he had attended the signing ceremony for the Secure Fence Act nine months earlier, the border wall plans were still sketched on “the backs of napkins.” At the exact same time in another location, the Border Patrol held a private meeting with landowners, during which detailed maps of the proposed route of the wall were displayed.

DHS lied again in order to comply with legislation that requires local consultation. When ask to submit proof of the “18 town hall meetings” that they claimed to have held, they listed random phone calls and lunch meetings with single individuals, but no actual town hall meetings.

Then, in the ultimate act of negligence, DHS decided that border residents should not be protected by the laws that govern the rest of the country, and Bush Administration Secretary Chertoff waived 36 federal laws in order to slam the border wall through the Texas borderlands regardless of its impact on public safety and the environment. The Safe Drinking Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and others that protect the rest of the nation no longer apply where the wall is being built.

Border wall "pickets" in front of the wall in El Calaboz, Texas March 14, 2009

Yet another DHS policy revealed this same disregard for public safety. Shortly before hurricane season last year, the news broke that in the event of a hurricane making landfall in the Rio Grande Valley, the Border Patrol intended to check documents of every Valley resident seeking to evacuate or seeking entrance into a shelter. According to Border Patrol’s plans, anyone without the proper documentation would be immediately arrested and placed in a detention facility.

Worried that this policy would cause a bottleneck at the checkpoints and the unjustified arrests of citizens fleeing in haste without documents, border leaders and residents decried the practice. Advocates for colonias complained that it unfairly risked the safety of the poor, elderly, and those with limited English who would be afraid to evacuate. Since many people would be unwilling to leave their undocumented family members, this policy could mean many thousands of people left in the path of a deadly storm.

In the face of criticism that DHS was willing to put so many human lives in jeopardy, and the perception that they might even be taking advantage of a natural disaster to make more arrests, Secretary Chertoff downplayed the policy and said that the Border Patrol would not impede evacuations. However, when Hurricane Dolly bore down on the Rio Grande Valley in July 2008, the Border Patrol continued to arrest undocumented immigrants who tried to pass through the checkpoints.

Although there has been a change in administration, the agency is still primarily staffed by the same officials that crafted and implemented DHS's stance during the last administration. Among them is the CBP employee who in February gave the Brownsville City Commissioners an arbitrary deadline to accept a border wall deal. The deadline was later repudiated by Secretary Napolitano, who had not been informed of it, after U.S. Representative Ortiz intervened on Brownsville’s behalf.

Under the Obama administration, DHS has also maintained its indifference toward the landowners whose properties are being directly affected by the construction of the border wall. Having long refused to provide landowners and their elected officials with a detailed border wall plans, they sabotaged yet another opportunity to explain where and how the wall will be built when they refused to “walk the line” with the Texas Border Coalition in February. DHS said that they were willing to visit a very few of the properties where the border wall would be built with TBC, but the property owners must be kept away.

Border wall behind a home in Cameron County, Texas March 14, 2009

In perhaps the ultimate act of disrespect to landowners, as well as evidence of sheer incompetence and unprofessionalism, last week brought news that DHS usurped one Cameron County resident’s property for the border wall without a contract and without offering compensation. Eva Lambert woke up one morning to find the border wall being constructed across her backyard. It wasn’t until after the wall on her property was finished that she was visited by a DHS official.

Given this track record, it is no surprise that Texas border residents are suspicious of DHS’s latest scheme to eradicate Carrizo cane by aerially spraying an herbicide in Laredo. This proposed spraying project is certainly following the modus operandi of DHS under the Bush Administration. There was a mere one-day public comment period on the Environmental Assessment for the project last summer, and that assessment itself was not made available online until last month, 2 days after the Laredo City Council had granted Customs and Border Protection an easement to spray. CBP attempted to move up the timeline for spraying from June 2009, as stated in the Environmental Assessment, to immediately. And they did not bother to consult with the City of Nuevo Laredo across the border in Mexico, whose drinking water intake is immediately downstream from the spraying area. The rejection of meaningful public input, the headlong push to implement a controversial project as quickly as possible, and the apparent disregard for the health and safety of Texas and Mexico border residents are all hallmarks of DHS’s operations along the border.

This behavior reinforces the widespread notion in Texas border communities that the Department of Homeland Security is an agency motivated by politics and ideology rather than the facts on the ground and the welfare of citizens. Unless and until DHS, CBP and Border Patrol transform the way that they operate on the border, unless and until they show real sensitivity to border communities and real stewardship to border natural areas, their operations and projects will continue to be regarded with a high degree of suspicion and even hostility on the Texas border. This will certainly undermine their ability to fulfill their mission to protect the United States.

Secretary Napolitano must begin immediately to mend the broken relationship between DHS and border residents. This will require an attitude shift across the entire agency: DHS must recognize that for millions of people, the borderlands are the homeland. Instead of viewing the border as the frontline in a war zone, Secretary Napolitano needs to instill in her agency the understanding that the people who live on the border are entitled to the same rights and privileges, and due the same protections, as those who live in any other part of the United States. Proximity to the Rio Grande does not dissolve our constitutional guarantees to private property or equal protection under the law.

Secretary Napolitano will have little success in reversing the Department’s abusive practices until she replaces the ideologues that her predecessor hired. Even as she speaks to Congress and in the press about bringing change to DHS, holdovers from the last administration tell Congress and the press that there will be no change. So long as they are willing to go so far as to issue ultimatums on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security without bothering to inform its new leadership, any positive changes that she wishes to make will dissipate before they make it from Washington, D.C. to border communities.

Tremendous damage to the Texas borderlands has already been done by former Secretary Chertoff, but in a few places it is not too late to stop border wall construction and thereby signal that change is real and profound, rather than just a campaign slogan. Where the wall has not yet been built because condemnation lawsuits are still in court, DHS should drop its court case and enter into meaningful negotiations.

Finally, if Secretary Napolitano truly sees the defense of our nation’s laws as a fundamental part of her new job she should rescind former Secretary Chertoff’s Real ID Act waivers and restore the rule of law to the Texas border. It is absurd to claim that immigration rules supersede every other law that has been passed by Congress or the states. It is offensive to claim that living near the border strips U.S. citizens of legal protections that are enjoyed by the rest of the nation. Secretary Napolitano must defend all U.S. citizens and all U.S. laws, and repudiate Secretary Chertoff’s practice of picking and choosing which to prioritize and which to ignore.

The new Administration has a tremendous opportunity to reverse the Bush administration’s abuses, and to begin to repair the damage that was done. But they must act immediately. Right now, landowners are facing condemnation proceedings. Right now, construction crews from South Texas to San Diego are erecting border walls. Right now, laws that should protect border residents are suspended. We have yet to see the change that we have been promised, and that we so desperately need.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary Will Close to the Public Thanks in part to the Border Wall

The Audubon Society issued the following press release today, announcing that thanks in part to the impending construction of the border wall they will be forced to curtail public access to the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is just downriver from Brownsville, Texas. The entire refuge lies between the Rio Grande and the flood control levee. DHS' current plan is to construct the border wall on the levee, completely cutting off the refuge. Because the wall is in front of the refuge, but does not touch it, Audubon has not been offered any compensation.


Audubon Texas will reduce hours of operation at the Sabal Palm Audubon Center and Sanctuary effective May 15, 2009. Combined impacts of the declining economy and continued uncertainty over the proposed border fence are forcing Audubon to curtail public programs and access at the center outside Brownsville, Texas, in order to continue its primary conservation mission there.

The sanctuary's original mission of preserving one of the nation's last oases of healthy sabal palm habitat had been augmented in recent years by nature education efforts that expanded its role to that of a community nature center. Regrettably, donors buffeted by the recession have significantly cut back support and there is uncertainty about the Homeland Security border fence that threatens to cut off the facility from the community, effectively decimating the sanctuary's operating budget.

"Funding must go first and foremost to maintaining the sanctuary and protecting the habitat, "said Audubon Texas Executive Director, Bob Benson. "Our first priority is to keep the habitat healthy for native wildlife and to ensure that its natural wonders remain intact for the inspiration, sustenance and education of future human generations.


The 557-acre property, owned by The National Audubon Society, is home to the last remaining largest stand of native sabal palms in the nation; and is among the most biologically diverse regions in the Lone Star state. Aside from being a birder's paradise, rare plants and animals are seen here in this unique sub-tropical habitat.

Audubon will focus its resources on protecting and managing the sanctuary through a new schedule that includes months with limited access to the public. The following schedule will be in effect until further notice:


Oct. 15 – Dec. 15 OPEN WEEKENDS ONLY (Saturday & Sunday)

Dec. 15 – May 15 OPEN Tues – Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The sanctuary will still offer scheduled group tours for $10/person during the closed season; they can be arranged through the sanctuary manager. Individual admission during the open season will be $6.00 per person.

"It's unfortunate that we won't be able to maintain the current operation schedule," added Benson, "but Audubon will continue its vital work with the conservation community to protect the last vestiges of the sabal palm forest for future generations to enjoy. That's the mission that brought Audubon to the area, and it's a mission we will accomplish."

427 Sterzing Street #105-B w Austin, Texas 78704-1026
Contact: Bob Benson, Executive Director, 512-469-7891 or