SALINEÑO, Texas (Border Report) — Folks in rural Starr County, on the South Texas border, know each other and their families. They celebrate holidays and special events together, and the Rio Grande is a big part of their lives here.
So when President Joe Biden stopped plans for border wall construction when he took office in 2021, they were elated, believing their borderlands would be free of the 18-foot-tall border barrier.
But now they’re shocked and scared and the county judge says “disappointed,” after the Biden administration this week waived environmental laws in order to more quickly build the federal border wall here.
The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday announced it was waiving 26 environmental regulatory laws in order to build 20 miles of border wall in Starr County.
This is the first time the Biden administration has waived environmental laws to expedite border barrier construction.
“When the Biden administration took over they said, ‘Well, we’re not going to build a single foot of wall anymore’ and now all of a sudden we find out that they are. And not only are they going to build; they waived a bunch of laws to get it done quicker, and that was kind of disappointing because we felt we should have been given more lead time,” Starr County Judge Eloy Vera told Border Report on Thursday from his offices in the county seat of Rio Grande City.
Vera says he was not told about the waivers, and he says he doesn’t know where the federal government plans to build.
A map on the Customs and Border Protection website from August shows segmented areas throughout Starr County where the border wall is slated to go.
But no one here says they know exactly where it will be built, and that scares them.
Vera says there are sensitive lands and arroyos throughout the borderlands here that he worries will be destroyed.
President Biden on Thursday from the Oval Office told reporters that the funding came from Fiscal Year 2019 funds appropriated by Congress for border wall construction. He said he tried to get lawmakers to move the money. When they did not, he said he was forced to go ahead with border wall construction.
An announcement by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in the Federal Register said that the border barrier is necessary in Starr County “to deter illegal crossings in areas of ‘high illegal entry.'”
Starr County is part of the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector, which has seen a sharp rise in migrant encounters of asylum-seekers crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico into South Texas this past year.
The RGV Sector had nearly 300,000 encounters of migrants in Fiscal Year 2023, which ended Sept. 30, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.
But Vera says the numbers are nowhere near the 389,000 encounters that the El Paso Sector had; or the nearly 350,000 in Del Rio, Texas.
And he said western Starr County where the new border wall is slated to begin has very few encounters, according to law enforcement information he’s been told.
“They should be building it in Del Rio, or El Paso — somewhere where they’re crossing by the thousands, not by tens or twenties like they’re doing in that area of Starr County,” he told Border Report.
Teacher Nayda Alvarez lives in a tiny alcove west of Rio Grande City in a little area called La Rosita. This grandmother painted the words “NO BORDER WALL” on her roof after federal officials in the Trump administration first slated the borderlands where her family’s homes are for border wall construction.
She sued to prevent her land from being taken with the help of a nonprofit. And she said she lived a few years stress-free after Biden promised he would not build “another foot of border wall.”
But now she tells Border Report: “At this point, I can’t put my guard down because I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
Alvarez says she fears that because the federal government already has surveyed her property it will be one of the first they go after.
“It makes you even wonder if they’re going to start from square one, or say, ‘We’ve already surveyed your property so we’re ahead of the game,'” she said.
Scott Nicol, a long-time environmentalist who tracks and maps planned border wall development, says the area is being hit not only by new federal border wall construction, but also by border wall construction by the State of Texas through its Operation Lone Star border security initiative.
Whether the two sets of border wall will merge is unknown.
“It’s still going to be a treaty violation and require land condemnations, in addition to the environmental destruction,” Nicol said.
He was among many who wrote to CBP to protest plans to build a border wall when the federal agency solicited comments last month.
Jim Chapman, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, also wrote in. His organization has been trying to connect federally protected wildlife areas within the Rio Grande Valley for years. Now he worries that those areas will be among the first targeted for new border wall construction because the government already controls the lands.
But to Vera and others hearing that a popular birding facility on the far western edge of Starr County is to be spared was the one piece of good news they’ve heard this week.
The Salineño Wildlife Preserve, which is just a few miles downriver from the Falcon Dam, will not have border wall construction, Debralee Rodriguez, executive director of the Valley Land Fund, which owns the preserve, told Border Report on Thursday.
Rodriguez said she received a letter from DHS assuring them that the border wall construction would not be on their property. But she said she still worries that the noise and lights and activity of nearby construction will drive away the rare birds that people travel from across the world to see.
“We will not have a wall on our 2.5 acres. But that’s not to say that there’s not going to be neighboring properties that are going to be so fortunate,” Rodriguez said.
“Anytime there’s construction or fragmentation of any land nearby, it’s going to be detrimental to the wildlife in the area,” Rodriguez said.
Chapman said it’s not only the wildlife, but the people of Salineño who will be profoundly affected.
“Salineño is a really internationally known birding hotspot because there are some bird species that are quite unique and found only in that area. But Salineno is actually more than a birding spot. It’s a community and people live there and have lived there for over 200 years and it’s not the only community like that along the river,” he said.
Starr County, Texas, has a population of 66,000. The small town of Salineño, on the county’s western edge and on the border with Mexico, has a population of 150 and is home to a world-renowned birding preserve. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
Laiken Jordahl of the Arizona-based nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity recently rowed the Rio Grande from Falcon Dam southeast past Salineño to the border city of Roma. He told Border Report that the region is pristine and something to be revered, “not destroyed.” “
“I’m speechless,” he told Border Report. “There’s so much they could have done than to waive so many of these environmental regulations.”
“Every acre of habitat left in the Rio Grande Valley is irreplaceable,” Jordahl said. “We can’t afford to lose more of it to a useless, medieval wall that won’t do a thing to stop immigration or smuggling.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose South Texas district includes Starr County, said Thursday that “a border wall is a 14th-century solution to a 21st-century problem. We need to add resources for more personnel, technologies, and have real consequences at the border.”
The waivers issued by the Biden administration include exemptions from these laws:
- National Environmental Policy Act
- Endangered Species Act
- Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
- American Indian Religious Freedom Act
- Federal Water Pollution Control Act
- National Historic Preservation Act
- Migratory Bird Treaty Act
- Migratory Bird Conservation Act
- Clean Air Act
- National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act
- Eagle Protection Act
- National Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956
- Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act
- Archeological Resources Protection Act
- Paleontological Resources Preservation Act
- Safe Drinking Water Act
- Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act
- Noise Control Act
- Solid Waste Disposal Act, as amended by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
- Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
- Antiquities Act
- Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act
- Farmland Protection Policy Act
- National Trails System Act
- Administrative Procedure Act
- Federal Land Policy and Management Act
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.