MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — A request by U.S. Customs and Border Protection for public input on environmental concerns regarding nearly 70 miles slated for border wall construction in and around Laredo, Texas is a way for the Biden administration to slow down the building process, a South Texas congressman recently told Border Report.

But unless Congress rescinds all of the funding, the Department of Homeland Security is required to continue the process, which could include building a border barrier built, as well as other alternatives, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo, said.

“In the Laredo Sector, for example, they put out a notice that we are going to have public input on the wall. It’s the environmentalist part of it. Because remember that (President) Trump waived all the environmental laws. So now what they’re doing is the administration — if I can say this nicely — they’re ‘slowballing’ the wall construction because that order is still there and the money is still there but they’re doing it and instead of waiving the environmentals, they’re doing the environmental input and that’s why and a lot of people are concerned right now,” Cuellar told Border Report.

CBP has issued a notice that it is “seeking input on potential environmental impacts and project alternatives for the proposed border barrier system” in Webb and Zapata counties, around Laredo.

This “Notice of Scoping” letter is similar to a “public scoping” period that the agency held in February, during which time it asked for public input on 86 miles of border barrier slated for the Rio Grande Valley in Starr, Hidalgo and Cameron counties.

After President Joe Biden took office, he promised to halt new border wall construction. But Congress had already appropriated billions of dollars in previous fiscal year budgets that cannot be clawed back by the president. Only Congress can rescind these funds.

President Joe Biden has clawed back about $2.5 billion in funds that had been transferred from the Department of Defense to build the wall. But the president does not have the authority to take back funds that Congress approved.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, on April 12 in Starr County, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“There is still that instruction by Congress to build the wall. So some of us are saying, ‘CBP use that money,’ because if that money is there and then Republicans take over after this November election then what’s going to happen, is they’re going (to be) pushing the wall money again. But if you use this money before. Use it on technology. Use it on facilities, whatever then that money won’t be there,” Cuellar said.

Democrats in the House have rescinded the funds, said Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Committee. But legislative rules in the Senate, which has a thin Democratic majority, require 60 votes to pass laws and Cuellar says there is not enough support in that chamber to claw back border wall money.

“We have rescinded and in fact, I’ve worked on putting language there that that money from the border wall can be used for technology, facilities and now I’m asking that they do a public open spaces, which is the binational park that we’re trying to do in Laredo,” Cuellar said.

(CBP Graphic)

The mayors of Laredo and its sister city Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, last week traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with various high-ranking officials to request a binational river park be developed on 6 miles of the Rio Grande between the two cities to preserve ecological restoration of the river region.

Plans for the binational river park are in very early stages, Tricia Cortez, executive director of the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center (RGISC) told Border Report. But some ideas include building amphitheaters on both sides so concerts can be heard by both countries; a monarch butterfly sanctuary, and miles of river trails.

Cortez and her organization were trying to set up meeting with Border Patrol officials in Laredo, and last week met with Cuellar to try to get more information on what the public scoping announcement really means.

“To really understand what it is. Does that mean we are heading toward a whole new round of condemnation-like round of proceedings? We’re not really clear what this is. We’re not sure,” Cortez said.

In all of South Texas, Laredo has been the only major city spared from border wall construction. But the federal government has condemned many riverfront properties, and with the funds still available it is still very possible that construction will still happen.

According to CBP’s April 29 announcement, “The design of the border barrier could include up to 30-foot high, six-inch square steel bollards spaced approximately four inches apart and fitted with a five-foot anti-climb plate.” This is exactly the specs of the 450 miles of new border wall built under President Donald Trump.

In addition, CBP says these elements also could be built:

  • Up to 150-foot-wide enforcement zone
  • Up to 50-foot-wide maintenance road
  • Lighting
  • Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) towers
  • Gates
  • Cameras
  • Shelters
  • Erosion control and drainage
  • Access Roads

“The action to be analyzed is the proposed construction of up to approximately 69 miles of new border barrier and related system elements within the USBP Laredo Sector,” according to CBP’s April 29 public scoping announcement.” CBP is seeking public input and comments on the proposed action and alternatives, and environmental issues to be addressed in the EA (environmental assessment). The most helpful comments are those that include data or information that could help inform CBP’s analysis of potential impacts.”

CBP’s website says the environmental study process includes: engaging stakeholders; conducting natural, biological and cultural resource surveys; reviewing survey reports and analyzing potential impacts to natural, biological and cultural resources; developing avoidance or mitigation measures or best management practices; developing a NEPA document and using “environmental monitors to ensure compliance.”

Former DHS Secretary Chad Wolf under the Trump administration was among Trump officials on hand Oct. 29, 2020, in McAllen, Texas, to commemorate the completion of the 400th mile of border wall. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

But Scott Nicol, an environmentalist in McAllen, told Border Report that as long as environmental laws have been waived — which occurred under the Trump administration in order to build the border wall — then no border region is really safe from border wall construction.

“With the National Environmental Policy Act waived, CBP is just going through the motions, preparing a fake Environmental Assessment. (Homeland Security) Secretary (Alejandro) Mayorkas needs to rescind the border wall waivers and restore the rule of law so that this process has any credibility,” Nicol said.

Nicol tweeted May 6 maps of the proposed border wall after NEPA was waived showing the wall being built through Lake Falcon in South Texas in Zapata County. Nicol tweeted: “CBP’s maps show the border wall running through the middle of Falcon Lake. The thing about waiving NEPA is, when a fake Environmental Assessment is cranked out it doesn’t matter how absurd the resulting waste of paper, there are no rules or standards that they have to follow.”

CBP is taking public comments on the Laredo project until June 13. Comments can be emailed to: LaredoComments@cbp.dhs.gov and should include the words “Laredo Environmental Planning” in the subject line.

Comments, questions, or concerns may also be provided by calling (800) 561-5109 or by mail by writing to: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol Headquarters, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., 6.5E Mail Stop 1039, Washington, D.C. 20229-1100

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com