Border wall construction must stop during COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say

The Border Wall

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Texas Civil Rights Project along with over 100 advocacy groups are asking federal officials to stop construction of the border wall, at least during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Efren Olivares, the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s racial and economic justice program, said given the current threat to public health, construction crews should not be working on the wall, nor should government-contracted surveyors be continuing to go door-to-door on properties bordering the Rio Grande.

The Alamo-based TCRP and other agencies on Thursday sent a letter asking U.S. Attorney General William Bar, Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to stop border barrier construction at once.

Efren Olivares, racial and economic justice program director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, is seen in his Alamo, Texas office on July 18, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“We were hoping all these activities would slow down or maybe go on pause while these crisis passes,” Olivares said on a call with media Thursday afternoon.

“While communities across the world are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic unlike anything in recent history, your agencies are continuing to divert life-saving resources to further border wall construction. The organizations that co-sign this letter demand that you recognize the life-threatening risks of continuing border wall construction during this crisis and order your Departments to halt it immediately,” the letter reads. “Your actions risk government agents and contractors spreading the coronavirus in Southern border communities, place undue strain on border communities whose main focus is survival, and strip away precious resources from the federal government that should be used to respond to the crisis and ensure that communities are prepared to stop the spread of the virus.”

Over 100 groups joined TCRP in signing the letter, including Proyecto Azteca, the Rio Grande International Study Center, the Sierra Club, the Wildlands Network and La Union Del Pueblo Entero.

TCRP is representing homeowner Nayda Alvarez who lives in the small community of La Rosita in rural Starr County, which today began a shelter-in-place order for all residents. Alvarez has been sued by the government for access to survey her land. And despite Starr County Judge Eloy Vera’s order mandating a lockdown starting today, Olivares said the government has sped up efforts to send surveyors’ to Alvarez’ property by filing an emergency order for possession.

Read a Border Report story on Starr County shelter-in-place order.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced it had awarded a $179 million contract to a Missouri company to build 15 miles of border wall through Starr County. The entire 52 miles of the county, from end to end, are supposed to be walled off, according to CBP.

But the majority of land in Starr County is privately owned, like Alvarez’s, and will require the government to purchase most of the needed property.

“We contacted government lawyers and asked whether they would suspend work and not endanger themselves and Nayda and her family, and much to our surprise they said it is moving forward,” Olivares said.

Nayda Alvarez of La Rosita, in South Texas, is seen on March 7, 2020, on her property that borders the Rio Grande in Starr County. She is being sued by the federal government because she refuses to give contractors access to survey her property for a border wall. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Alvarez, 48, whose home is only 200 feet from the Rio Grande, is scheduled to appear on April 14 in federal court in McAllen, Texas. Olivares said as of today, the court hearing is still on despite a shelter-in-place order in Hidalgo County where the courthouse is located.

“The main message is that while we fundamentally disagree on the usefulness of the border wall, right now it’s all hands on deck trying to contain this crisis. Hospitals need ventilators and yet this administration is wasting useful resources on construction of the border wall,” Olivares said.

He said that construction continued in nearby Fronton, Texas, where 3 miles of border wall are being built on a federal wildlife preserve.

“It appears that it’s almost as if they are using the fact that the whole country is ‘distracted’ with the pandemic to move forward with border wall construction,” Olivares said.

It appears that it’s almost as if they are using the fact that the whole country is ‘distracted’ with the pandemic to move forward with border wall construction.”

Efren Olivares, racial and economic justice program director for the Texas Civil Rights Project

A Border Patrol official confirmed in an email late Thursday: “In the Rio Grande Valley Sector, construction on border infrastructure continues.”

Ricky Garza, a TCRP lawyer from the Rio Grande Valley, said border wall construction at this time is “environmental racism” that is preying on some of the most vulnerable, especially low-income residents in South Texas.

“And yet the government continuing as if it’s business as usual putting people who already have so much to lose at great risk. It’s extremely irresponsible that at a time when the Army Corps of Engineers could be building hospitals and doing things to minimize the crisis that they’re moving forward with this border wall project,” Garza said.

Nayda Alvarez’ South Texas roof in rural Starr County bears a message to President Trump and anyone else who wants to build a border wall through her riverfront property. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Alvarez, whose roof bears giant white block letters reading: “NO BORDER WALL,” says her stance has even distanced her from relatives and a grandchild she is not allowed to see. But she said she will continue to refuse contractors to access the lands that have been in her family for over 40 years.

Alvarez, who is a teacher in Rio Grande City, told Border Report earlier this month that she believes some contractors went onto her property while she left South Texas to testify before Congress to urge lawmakers not to back the border wall on Feb. 27 .

“I did not pick this fight. It came to me. I will not give up. I will fight this till the end till we get our lands back if they take them. Or till I die,” she said.

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