Monday, December 2, 2013

A New Wall Through El Paso’s Historic Heart

By Scott Nicol

The condemnation suit has been filed and construction crews are staging.  Another section of border wall will soon stand beside the Rio Grande. 

El Paso’s new border wall will tear through the city’s historic heart.  It will stand upon the exact spot where Don Juan de Oñate first crossed the Rio Grande in 1598, and New Spain established a road from Mexico City to Santa Fe long before the founding of either Mexico or the United States.  Oñate’s crossing was called “El Paso del Rio de Norte,” the Pass Across the River of the North, and over time it grew into the city of El Paso.

The new El Paso wall will be added to the patchwork of barriers called for by the Secure Fence Act.  Those walls have proved to be largely ineffective at stopping either drug smugglers or migrants looking for work.  Customs and Border Protection spends millions of dollars repairing thousands of breaches each year, and if a crosser forgets to pack a saw the border wall takes less than a minute to climb. 

But efficacy is not the point, and never has been.  Border walls are nothing more than symbols, props for politicians to use as a backdrop in political ads.  Whether or not they actually stop anyone is irrelevant –appearance is all that matters. 

So far as Customs and Border Protection is concerned the actual damage that will be inflicted on a site of tremendous historical significance such as the Oñate crossing is also irrelevant.  Because the Bush administration used the REAL ID Act to waive 36 laws construction can move quickly, with no need to protect historic or archaeological features.  The Antiquities Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and other laws that might safeguard our cultural heritage have been swept aside, along with laws that protect our environment and human health.

Thanks to the waiver other border walls have caused severe erosion in the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, flooding in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and the fragmentation of endangered species habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. 

There is no reason to think that this time Customs and Border Protection will act responsibly.

The stated intent of the REAL ID Act’s waiver provision was to allow for the “expeditious construction” of border walls and patrol roads that might otherwise be slowed down by compliance with laws.  But it has been 7 years since the Secure Fence Act was passed.  Construction was not delayed by lawsuits; Customs and Border Protection simply did not think that this section was a priority.  Now that they have gotten around to building it there is no rush, they just don’t want to be bothered with obeying our nation’s laws.

No agency should be above the rule of law, and it is beyond ridiculous to allow a law enforcement agency to violate laws with impunity. 

El Paso’s U.S. Representative, Democrat Beto O’rourke, and Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn have called upon Customs and Border Protection to rethink this section of wall, to reach out to El Paso residents and listen to the opinions of those on the ground as to whether this wall will be of benefit to the community or if instead it will be, as Brownsville’s Bishop Flores described Texas’ border walls, another “scar” disfiguring border communities.  Customs and Border Protection has refused to listen to border residents, likely because they know that those who will live with this scar through the heart of their community would reject it.

Having been given such tremendous power when Senator Cornyn and his fellow members of Congress voted for the REAL ID Act (in 2005 O’rourke was not yet a member of Congress, so could neither support nor oppose the bill), Customs and Border Protection can ignore the law and lawmakers.  They have a long track record of condemning the property of local landowners and municipalities and erecting walls in the face of local protests. 

Customs and Border Protection should commit to upholding all of our nation’s laws, not just those that it finds convenient.  If it is impossible to erect border walls without violating 36 federal laws those walls should not be built. 

This article originally ran in the Rio Grande Guardian on November 30, 2013.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Another Round of South Texas Border Wall Condemnations is about to Begin

By Scott Nicol

If the Border Patrol knocks on your door you might want to have a lawyer present when you answer.

That is because Customs and Border Protection is gearing up for a fresh round of land condemnations to build border walls in Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos.

According to documents obtained by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act request the new walls won’t just slice through farmland and wildlife refuges.  In Roma “up to 25 residences could be impacted.”  In Rio Grande City the wall’s route will take it through a nursing home, and “If the decision is made to buy the tract out in its entirety, the business will need to be relocated along with 64 residents, potentially up to 90 residents if at 100% capacity.  In Los Ebanos landowners who went through condemnation three years ago will be hauled into court again to have more of their property snatched away.

This new assault on border communities is the result of the US section of the International Boundary Water Commission’s (US IBWC) decision to allow border walls to go up in the Rio Grande floodplain.

When they were first proposed, along with the rest of South Texas’ border walls, US IBWC stated categorically that walls could not be erected in the floodplain because they posed an unacceptable flood risk to communities on both sides of the river.  Walls north of the river might deflect rising flood waters, worsening the damage to Mexican cities and possibly even pushing the river into a new channel, thereby changing the location of the international border.  For this reason walls in Cameron County were erected north of the flood control levees, and in Hidalgo County there were inserted into them.

The new walls will be identical to those built in Cameron County, using six inch wide steel posts that stand eighteen feet tall with four inch spaces in between.  In 2008 Baker Engineering looked at the impacts of this design placed in these locations, and estimated that during a flood the walls would clog with debris, limiting the ability of water to pass between the pillars.  In Roma they estimated an 85% blockage where the walls paralleled the river’s flow; in Rio Grande City a 67% blockage; and in Los Ebanos a 36% blockage.  Where the walls would be erected perpendicular to the flow Baker said CBP should assume that debris would cause the walls to be completely blocked.

In 2011 Customs and Border Protection paid Baker to look at the same wall design placed in the same location, and with no new evidence or explanation they came to a radically different conclusion.  Now A debris blockage of 10% was adopted where the fence is aligned parallel to the flow and 25% at locations where the fence is aligned perpendicular to the flow.”  Not surprisingly the model that this new estimate was plugged into concluded that walls in the floodplain would not deflect or dam flood water, since 75 -90% of the water would supposedly pass right through.

The US section of IBWC accepted this without question.  The Mexican section categorically rejected it. 

One would think that a bi-national organization would require agreement before permitting potentially dangerous projects.  Instead, the new border walls are going up.

In a presentation dated March 1, 2013, Customs and Border Protection laid out a timeline for the construction of these new walls:

Funds:  already received.

Achieve right of entry to survey property for wall construction:  60 days.

Initiate new acquisitions of property, through purchase or condemnation:  180 days.

So if you have property in the path of these walls, now is the time to call a lawyer.

And those lawyers are going to be very busy.  The “gang of eight” immigration bill includes $1.5 billion for new border walls. 

When Congress passed the Secure Fence Act in 2006 Customs and Border Protection walled off big portions of California, Arizona, and New Mexico.  There aren’t too many places outside of inaccessible mountains without walls up there.  What’s left is Texas. 

Unless the bill is changed and the walls are taken out Customs and Border Protection will start filling in the unwalled spaces between South Texas’ existing border walls.  The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and the endangered species that it protects, will be utterly decimated.  And every other landowner with property along the Rio Grande from Roma to Boca Chica will stand in turn before a federal judge, before watching construction crews wall off their land from the river. 

Some, like the 25 households in Roma or the senior citizens in Rio Grande City, may even see the their homes fall to these new border walls.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Border Residents Kept in the Dark about New Border Walls

by Scott Nicol

Four members of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight,” the group charged with crafting comprehensive immigration reform legislation, recently paid a visit to the border wall that separates Nogales, Arizona from Nogales, Sonora.

The trip was little more than a photo-op.  The senators did not meet with locals or hear from others who live on the border, who experience border security daily and will be directly impacted by any border security measures in the coming bill.  But their pilgrimage to the wall did send a message that their bill is likely to be heavy on enforcement, possibly including hundreds of miles of new border walls.

Senator McCain (R-AZ) led the tour, and he chose a striking location to give Senator Schumer (D-NY) his first glimpse of the border wall. 

Maybe he just wanted to show off the nearby section of wall that he used as a backdrop for his “Complete the Danged Fence” campaign ad. 

It is a safe bet that he did not take his colleagues to the spot, a few hundred yards from where they posed for the press, where last October a Border Patrol agent reached through the wall to shoot an unarmed teenager in Mexico 11 times in the back.  He probably also failed to point out the high water mark left on Mexican buildings when, in 2008, the Nogales border wall dammed floodwaters, causing millions of dollars in property damage and the drowning of two men.

Of course those events don’t fit the simple narrative of McCain’s “perfect plan” for border security that he outlined in his TV ad.  Better to stare into the camera and ignore inconvenient facts, then and now.

Senator Schumer likely sees more “danged fence” as the cost of immigration reform, the burden that border communities will have to bear to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.  That was also the idea in 2006, when the Congressional push for immigration reform fell apart and all we were left with was the Secure Fence Act and hundreds of miles of border wall.

As the “Gang of Eight” has been horse-trading behind closed doors Customs and Border Protection has been quietly laying the groundwork for the last of the Secure Fence Act’s walls to go up in Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos, along with neighboring farms and the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Customs and Border Protection wants to build these walls in the floodplain, but over the years the International Boundary and Water Commission repeatedly rejected them, citing “substantial increases in water surface elevations and deflections of flow at several points of all three projects.”  Were the Rio Grande to flood after a hurricane or tropical depression, as it did in 2010, walls in the floodplain would deflect water into Mexican cities like Ciudad Aleman, and would stop water from draining out of communities such as Rio Grande City. 


Last year, after sustained pressure from Customs and Border Protection, the US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission reversed its decision, rejecting the Mexican section’s objections and allowing these dangerous walls to go forward.  They now officially accept the claim that the border wall will allow flood water to pass harmlessly through, even though in 2008 they forced Customs and Border Protection to build walls in Cameron County of the exact same design north of the levees so that they would be out of the floodplain. 

Homes and businesses, farms and wildlife refuges, could be washed away or inundated by floodwaters as a direct result of these walls. 

Customs and Border Protection says that everything will be fine.  Of course they also said that they would pay to mitigate the damage that previous wall construction inflicted upon the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife refuge, but after years of promises not a penny has been provided.

Just like the “Gang of Eight” on their trip to Nogales, Customs and Border Protection has made no attempt to talk to residents or local officials in the Texas communities that the new walls will tear through. 

I contacted Customs and Border Protection last week and asked for an update regarding the Starr county walls.  Daniel Tirado, with the RGV Sector Public Affairs Office, responded that, "the Office of Border Patrol identified these segments as highest operational priorities in Texas. Though construction of these segments has been delayed, Border Patrol’s requirement remains.”

The assertion that these walls, or any border walls for that matter, are a high operational priority is absurd.  Customs and Border Protection knows better than to think that border walls stop anyone. 

While the Senators were doing their press junket in Nogales they watched as a woman laid a ladder against the 18-foot wall and quickly climbed over.  Senator McCain even tweeted about it as it happened.

Visiting Arizona last summer I easily climbed the border wall in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.  I was wearing sandals and didn’t have a ladder, but it only took a few seconds to reach the top.  The San Pedro wall is identical to the ones planned for Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos.
These new walls will go up in Representative Cuellar’s district, and his silence regarding them has been even more striking, and surprising, than Customs and Border Protection’s.  He has not held any town hall meetings to get feedback from, or provide information to, effected communities, and he has not publicly criticized Customs and Border Protection’s plans or their refusal to speak with local residents.

When I asked his office if he had taken any action on behalf of his constituents, he responded,

I initiated a formal inquiry with CBP as a follow up and update on the status of the proposed fence. CBP has advised that there are no plans for building additional fences in FY 2013 due to the lack of funding.”

Customs and Border Protection also told me that, “Construction activities will commence at such time as funds become available.”

Which sounds good.  Until Congress provides funds for border walls maybe residents can relax.  One might expect that with the sequester gutting the budgets of federal agencies and forcing furloughs from the Environmental Protection Agency to air traffic controllers money for border walls won’t come any time soon.

But tucked into the spending bill that Congress just passed to keep the government running is a provision that says, 

“For expenses for border security fencing, infrastructure, and technology, $324,099,000, to remain available until September 30, 2015.”

Existing border walls are very expensive to maintain, so not all of that money is available to build new ones.  But Customs and Border Protection condemned the land and bought the steel for these walls years ago.  All that is left is to hire the crews, gas up the bulldozers, and start tearing up the land.

And if the “Gang of Eight” includes hundreds of miles of new border walls in comprehensive immigration reform, instead of passing a clean bill that focuses strictly on immigration instead of multi-million dollar handouts to government contractors, the rest of the border landowners and wildlife refuge tracts in Congressman Cuellar’s district will likely suffer the same fate as Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

UN CERD Expresses Concern over US-Texas Border Wall Discriminatory Impact on Indigenous Peoples

Press Release – For Immediate Release

UN CERD Expresses Concern over US-Texas Border Wall Discriminatory Impact on Indigenous Peoples;
Addresses US Government and Need to Comply with Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination

Brownsville, Texas – March 25, 2013 – The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedures has expressed “concern regarding the potentially discriminatory impact that the construction of a border wall might have on the Kikapoo, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Lipan Apache indigenous communities,” in response to a petition from the Texas-Mexico Border Wall region which was under review during it’s 82nd session.

In a letter March 1, 2013 to Betty E. King, U.S. Permanent Ambassador to the United Nations, UN CERD Chair Alexei Avtonomov stated, “In particular, the Committee is concerned by the situation of the Lipan Apache, a tribe which reportedly remains Federally unrecognized, given the information received that the construction of the wall through its land has allegedly damaged ancestral burial sites, reduced the tribe’s access to elders and other knowledge keepers, led to severe decline in biodiversity, and may lead to the disappearance of the tribal identity altogether as the community may be forced to leave the land.

“Moreover, the Committee is concerned that... the border wall has been constructed without the free, prior and informed consent of the affected communities, and that no effective judicial remedies or compensation have been provided to date.” The letter continues on to request that the U.S. provides updated and detailed information with regard to the impact of the Texas-Mexico border wall on the rights of indigenous communities, and any measures envisaged to reverse the negative impact of the construction of the the border wall.

Says petition co-author Dr. Margo Tamez, citizen of the Lipan Apache Band of Texas, and Faculty of Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, “As an Indigenous scholar working on this effort to raise critical awareness, and as a first-hand witness to the suffering of Indigenous elders, families and communities in the path of the border wall, the CERD's request to the U.S. government is an affirmation of the importance of Indigenous peoples' efforts to promote paths and transitional spaces of inquiry for truth and justice. Meaningful partnerships of trust and respect are crucial in order for this process to address Indigenous peoples' core concerns and to halt the inter-generational harms they have endured.”

Petition co-author Ariel Dulitzky, Clinical Professor at the University of Texas School of Law, and Director of the Human Rights Clinic of the University of Texas at Austin, says, “CERD has made a clear demand for proper consultation and consideration of the indigenous communities in the border area. We call upon the U.S. Government to pay close attention to CERD’s request in terms of reversing the negative impact of the border wall and securing the rights of indigenous peoples to access their lands, resources and holy sites, to be properly consulted, and to receive compensation.”

A statement issued by Daniel Romero, General Council Chairman for the The Lipan Apache Band of Texas (Ndé) states, “We ask that the Obama Administration and Congress to incorporate CERD’s demands for proper consultation and consideration of the indigenous peoples and communities of the borderlands region. We request that the U.S. Government be inclusive of Ndés’ request in current immigration reform and proposal of the border lands policies that have negatively influenced the Ndé way of life.”


Lipan Apache Band of Texas
Comunicado de prensa - Para publicación inmediata
Comité para la Eliminación de la Discriminación Racial (CERD) de las Naciones Unidas expresa preocupación por el impacto discriminatorio del muro fronterizo de Estados Unidos-Texas sobre los Pueblos Indígenas de esa region.
El Gobierno de los Estados Unidos deberá cumplir con el Convenio sobre la Eliminación de todas las Formas de Discriminación Racial
Brownsville, Texas - 25 de marzo de 2013 - El Comité para la Eliminación de la Discriminación Racial (CERD) de las Naciones Unidas, Alerta Temprana y Procedimientos de Acción Urgente ha expresado su "preocupación por el impacto potencialmente discriminatorio que la construcción del muro fronterizo podría tener en las comunidades indígenas Kikapoo, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo y Lipan Apache ", en respuesta a una petición de la región del muro entre Texas-Mexico que fue objeto de examen en su 82 ª reunión.
En una carta el 01 de marzo 2013 a Betty E. King, Embajadora Permanente de EE.UU. ante las Naciones Unidas, ONU CERD Presidente Alexei Avtonomov declaró: "En particular, el Comité está preocupado por la situación de los Lipa Apache, una tribu que al parecer sigue siendo no reconocida por el gobierno federal, dada la información recibida de que la construcción del muro a través de su tierras ancestrales aparentemente a destruido lugares ancestrales de entierro, a reducido el acceso de la tribu a sus ancianos y cuidadores de conocimiento, y a encaminado a la disminución severa en la biodiversidad, y pude llevar a la desaparición de una identidad tribal como una comunidad que puede ser sujeta abandonar sus tierras.
"Además, al Comité le preocupa que ... el muro se ha construido sin el consentimiento libre, previo e informado de las comunidades afectadas, y que no existen recursos judiciales efectivos o compensación se han proporcionado hasta la fecha.” La carta continúa peticiona que los EE.UU. proporcione información actualizada y detallada en lo que respecta al impacto del muro fronterizo entre Texas y México sobre los derechos de las comunidades indígenas, y todas las medidas previstas para revertir el impacto negativo de la construcción del muro de la frontera.
Dice la Dr. Margo Tamez, co-autora de la petición, ciudadana de la Banda de Lipan Apache de Texas, y Facultad de Estudios Indígenas de la Universidad de British Columbia Okanagan, "Como académica indígena trabajando en este esfuerzo por crear conciencia crítica, y como testigo a primera mano del sufrimiento de los ancianos, las familias y las comunidades en el camino del muro fronterizo, la petición del CERD ante el gobierno de los EE.UU. es una afirmación de la importancia de los esfuerzos de los pueblos indígenas en promover los espacios de transición para la investigación de la verdad y justicia. La creación de redes significativas que creen confianza y respeto son fundamentales para que este proceso pueda abordar las preocupaciones fundamentales de los pueblos indígenas y para detener los daños intergeneracionales que se han sufrido. "
Petición co-autor Ariel Dulitzky, Profesor Clínico de la Universidad de Texas Escuela de Derecho, y Director de la Clínica de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad de Texas en Austin, dice: "El Comité ha hecho una clara demanda de consulta y consideración de las comunidades indígenas de la zona fronteriza. Hacemos un llamamiento al Gobierno de EE.UU. que preste mucha atención a la solicitud de CERD en términos de revertir el impacto negativo del muro fronterizo y así asegurar los derechos de los pueblos indígenas al acceder sus tierras, recursos y sitios sagrados, para ser debidamente consultado y recibir una compensación . "
Un comunicado emitido por Daniel Romero, Presidente del Consejo General de la Banda Lipan Apache de Texas (Ndé), dice: "Pedimos que el gobierno de Obama y el Congreso pudea incorporar las demandas de CERD sobre consulta y consideración de los pueblos indígenas y las comunidades de la zona fronteriza región. Pedimos que el gobierno de EE.UU. incluya a solicitud de Ndés las en la reforma de la inmigración actual y propuesta de las políticas de tierras fronterizas que han influido negativamente la forma de vida Ndé."
# # #
Lipan Apache Defensa de la Mujer
Lipan Apache Band de de Texas

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Security First?

by Scott Nicol

The “gang of eight” U.S. Senators, four Democrats and four Republicans, have released a set of principles that they see as the basis for comprehensive immigration reform legislation.  The fact that they are trying to resolve this issue is a positive step, and has the potential to allow millions of people to finally live normal lives, free of fear and exploitation.  But a key component of their plan calls into question whether that promise will ever be realized.

Immigrants’ advocates have long held that a “pathway to citizenship” must be part of any immigration reform plan, allowing those currently in the United States without papers to earn U.S. citizenship. 

Conservative icon Ronald Reagan agreed with this, saying, "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally."   Today anti-immigrant groups spit out the term “amnesty” as a curse, and many in the current crop of Republican politicians (Texas’ U.S. Senators prominent among them) use it to slander the very idea of allowing the undocumented to become citizens.

Though Cornyn and Cruz present the rejection of earned citizenship as a principled ideological stance, many conservative pundits have pointed out that Hispanics tend to vote for Democrats – 71% voted for Barack Obama – so allowing the 11 million or so mostly, but not entirely, Hispanic undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. to vote might hurt Republicans in future elections.

Alienating Hispanic voters is costing Republicans elections now, but adding more Hispanic voters could hurt Republicans in the future.  What are they to do?

The answer lies in the “gang of eight” principles. 

The recently unveiled framework makes border security a prerequisite for the issuance of green cards to undocumented immigrants.  After that they could apply for full citizenship, going to the “back of the line.”

Of course the length of that line depends on what country they come from since each nation is assigned a quota; whether they are related by blood or marriage to U.S. citizens; and their income and skills.  For a Mexican national with no family in the United States, no money or special skills, the line that they will be going to the back of is over a century long.

But until the border is declared secure, that hundred-plus-year clock will not start ticking.

The principles released by the “gang of eight” do not define a secure border, so it is impossible to know how many years, how many new Border Patrol agents, how many more drones, how many miles of new border wall, it might take to get there. 

The Senate plan calls for a commission made up of “governors, attorneys general, and community leaders living along the Southwest border“ to determine when the border has been secured. 

Immigrants’ advocates cried foul at the notion that Texas governor Rick Perry and Arizona’s Jan Brewer could hold the citizenship of millions hostage indefinitely by refusing to declare the border secure. 

Perry manages to find money for Highway Patrol speedboats with machine guns mounted on the front to patrol the Rio Grande at the same time as he cuts $4.5 billion from Texas’ schools.  Brewer has committed Arizona’s scarce financial resources to defending SB 1070, the state law intended to make immigrants’ lives so hellish that they “self-deport.” 

Neither are particularly objective in their assessment of the border.

The gang seems to have viewed sacrificing the border to get a bill as a given, and they sold us out so quickly that it never occurred to them that making border security a prerequisite could put citizenship in permanent limbo.

Democratic gang members have responded to the criticism with assurances that the Department of Homeland Security would develop a new, workable definition of a secure border tied to concrete metrics rather than the delusions of Perry and Brewer.  They now say the commission will be strictly advisory.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is certainly further form the lunatic fringe than the governors of Texas and Arizona, but the Department of Homeland Security has a terrible record on the border.

Upon taking office Napolitano refused to halt the condemnation of land and construction of border walls in South Texas and elsewhere.  Early last year her underlings finally succeeded in pressuring the US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission to approve walls in the floodplain at Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos, despite the risk to residents on both sides of the river and the damage that the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Roma Bluffs World Birding Center will suffer.

Last week Secretary Napolitano spoke in El Paso, ranked the safest big city in the United States for the third year running, and declared that the border is more secure than ever, and that the idea that immigration reform should be held hostage to border security “suffers from a fundamental flaw.” 

Her argument is backed by the numbers.  Border Patrol apprehensions are at a forty year low, and the Pew Research Center has found that net migration from Mexico is effectively at zero, with as many people heading south as north.

So why has her agency continued to push for border walls?  Politics, of course.

At the beginning of her tenure halting border wall construction would have opened up the newly elected President Obama to attacks in the press.  The “gang of eight” likewise assume that throwing the border under the bus is a political necessity to get a bill through Congress, so they do it without hesitation.

Immigration reform should not be held hostage to “border security”, whether it is Perry and Brewer or Napolitano who decide on what that means.  There will always be conflicting political needs that will prevent the honest assessment and agreement that would allow reform to move forward.

When the Senators draft their bill in the coming weeks border security must not be a prerequisite for anything else.  Otherwise real reform will always be just over the horizon, one more agent, one more drone, one more wall away.

Politics is an abstraction, but the actual border consists of real lives and real landscapes.  We are not a bargaining chip for politicians who have never dipped a toe in the Rio Grande, walked a trail in the LRGV National Wildlife Refuge, or looked a South Texas citrus grower in the eye. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Don't Throw the Border Under the Bus

by Scott Nicol

Congress will soon take up Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  That could be a good thing, if it normalizes the status of millions who are now forced to live in the shadows; reduces the number of immigrants who cross, and sometimes die, in the desert; and allows some of the $18 billion that is spent annually on immigration enforcement to be used for other things. 

But if history is any guide it could also mean a ramping up of border enforcement, with billions more wasted on border walls.

In 2006, the last time Congress made a serious attempt at Comprehensive Immigration Reform, hundreds of miles of border wall were included in competing House and Senate bills.  The two bills were never reconciled and therefore never made it to the President’s desk. 

Instead the provisions calling for walls along the southern border were passed by both houses as a stand-alone bill - the Secure Fence Act.  650 miles of border wall were eventually built, tearing through communities from San Diego to Brownsville and ecosystems from the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area to the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary.

The idea that walls would halt potential crossers in their tracks proved to be more fantasy than reality.  The Congressional Research Service reported that walls near San Diego had “little impact on overall apprehensions.”  Even the Border Patrol said that “The border fence is a speed bump in the desert.

While walls have not reduced the number of immigrants who enter the U.S., they have caused the number of border crossers who perish in southern deserts each year to more than double.  That is because border walls do not stop people from entering the United States, they only reroute them. 

Confronted with an 18 foot high wall near San Diego or El Paso or Brownsville desperate immigrants do not turn around and go home, they go around it.  Rather than crossing in safer urban areas thousands come through rugged mountains and deserts.  As a result more than 5,000 have died from dehydration and exposure, and it is estimated that thousands of bodies lie undiscovered.

Walls and other enforcement measures have also taken a heavy toll on the environment. 

California’s Otay Mountain Wilderness Area saw 530,000 cubic yards of rock blasted from the mountainsides tumble into the Tijuana River.  In Arizona the border walls that cross washes and streams in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument have caused severe erosion and flooding.  Walls built in New Mexico’s Playas Valley block the movement of one of the last wild herds of bison, whose range straddles the U.S. – Mexico border.  And in Texas the walls that slice through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge have fragmented habitat that is critical for the survival of endangered ocelots.

Following the recent election, in which some (but unfortunately not all) of the loudest immigrant-bashers suffered defeat and more than 70% of Hispanic voters rejected Mitt Romney, many politicians have decided that it is in their best interest to pass some version of immigration reform. 

The big concern is that we could see history repeat itself.

Press reports describe the coming bill as mirroring past legislation, pairing work visas and a pathway to citizenship with more border enforcement. 

Once again the border may be sacrificed in a doomed attempt to get conservatives to accept comprehensive legislation.

The idea that members of Congress who have called for making the lives of immigrants so hellish that they “self-deport”, or who voted just last summer to waive federal laws within 100 miles of both borders for all Border Patrol activities, will now support humane immigration legislation is unrealistic.  Sticking walls in the bill will not change that.

Instead, if walls and further border enforcement are allowed in this year’s legislation we run the risk of a repeat of 2006, when hundreds of miles of border walls were the only part of the immigration bill to make it to the president’s desk.

Those of us who live on the border have already seen too much of the enforcement side of that equation.  Last year the federal government spent more on immigration enforcement than the budgets of the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshal Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined.


Members of Congress who were sent to DC to represent the border need to fight for their constituents, but so far they have been silent.  With much of Arizona and California already walled off, Representatives Vela, Hinojosa, Cuellar, Gallego, and O’Rourke could all see new walls tear through their districts if they don’t make sure that border walls are kept out of the bill, but none have told us what (if anything) they plan to do about it. 

This is a critically important piece of legislation for border communities, and border legislators should take the lead in writing it.  That is their job, after all.  Sitting silently in the back of the room and hoping for the best is not going to cut it this time.

Congress needs to come up with a clean bill, dealing with immigration without further militarizing the borderlands.  No new border walls, no more pork for military contractors; instead we as a nation must address our dysfunctional immigration system in a way that is both effective and humane. 

We need immigration reform that doesn’t throw the border under the bus.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Broken Promises and Border Walls Push Jaguarundi to the Brink

by Scott Nicol
The long, low body moves in a permanent crouch as the lithe cat glides through the shaded underbrush.  Not much larger than a house cat, but with a lean, dark body more closely resembling a weasel’s than a tabby’s, the jaguarundi stalks small prey, birds and rodents mostly, in the thornscrub where the Gulf Coast meets the Rio Grande.

Even before farms, towns, and homes devoured 95% of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s native habitat the jaguarundi’s secretive habits meant it was rarely seen.  Now there is scant evidence as to how many cats remain, though they are occasionally spotted.   In 2009 there were two sightings by Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens, though they were officially classified as unconfirmed in the absence of a photograph or carcass.

Loss of habitat and the fragmentation of what forested areas remain is the biggest obstacle to jaguarundi maintaining a healthy population, according to a draft recovery plan recently prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  If a patch of forest is too small, it may not contain enough food, and if patches are too far apart or split by roads or other barriers jaguarundi may not have sufficient territory to survive.  Isolated animals may also be cut off from potential mates, which can lead to inbreeding within a small population.

Ocelots, a slightly larger wild cat whose markings resemble a jaguar’s, inhabit the same South Texas territory and face the same problems as the jaguarundi.  Ocelots are better studied, with radio collared individuals in Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.  They regularly pause in front of motion-activated cameras there and in the nearby Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  Their total population in the United States is certainly less than 100, and possibly much lower.  Even fewer jaguarundi remain, which has led to both being listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The best way to save both species, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, is to provide them with enough habitat to forage and find mates.  The draft recovery plan calls for the purchase of land to replace and reconnect the native forest that they need, creating the wildlife corridor that the river-hugging refuge was originally meant to be.  But with the never-ending “fiscal cliff” crisis and calls to butcher the budgets of federal agencies like U.S. Fish and Wildlife they will be hard pressed to find the necessary funds.

When border walls were erected in South Texas, they repeatedly sliced through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife refuge, fragmenting habitat that had been purchased specifically for ocelots and jaguarundi.  Humans have had no problem climbing border walls, with or without a homemade ladder, but for a small cat that has not evolved thumbs an 18 foot high steel wall is insurmountable. 


In 2008, after the Department of Homeland Security waived the Endangered Species Act and more than thirty other laws so that Customs and Border Protection could build border walls they prepared a so-called “Environmental Stewardship Plan” meant, they said, to demonstrate their continued commitment to the environment.  To address the fragmentation of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge and the loss of endangered species habitat the plan stated that Customs and Border Protection would provide U.S. Fish and Wildlife with the means to purchase 4,600 acres of land to reconnect sections of the refuge that were separated by walls.  These properties would be purchased from willing sellers, because the South Texas refuge complex refuses to condemn land and earn the enmity of its neighbors, in contrast to Customs and Border Protection, who ultimately carried out more than 400 condemnations to build border walls.

In the nearly five years since Customs and Border Protection made that promise how much have they delivered? 


Not one acre, not one foot, not one inch.

It is not as though Customs and Border Protection is strapped for cash.  A report issued this month found that the federal government throws more money at immigration enforcement than it provides to the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshal Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives combined.  Somewhere in the $18 billion pot of cash that immigration enforcement agencies, Customs and Border Protection prominent among them, were swimming in in 2012 surely they could find a few dollars to buy a few acres and fulfill their overdue commitment.

Now Customs and Border Protection wants to build more miles of border wall in South Texas, tearing through Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos as well as further stretches of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  In addition to the further fragmentation of ocelot and jaguarundi habitat that this would bring, these walls would stand in the Rio Grande floodplain, putting communities on both sides of the river at risk from dammed or deflected water during a major flood.

Last summer they assured landowners and mayors that the new border walls would not pose a flood hazard, and that despite the obvious fact that a wall in a river is by definition a dam these walls would be just fine.

But as their unmet commitment to be good environmental stewards has shown, a Customs and Border Protection promise is not worth the paper it is written on.