ALAMO, Texas (Border Report) — Environmentalists and the South Texas community can now tell U.S. Customs and Border Protection whether they want additional border wall to be built, or alternative infrastructure put on the border, and any concerns they might have.
The agency is asking for input on 86 miles of planned border barrier along the Rio Grande in Hidalgo, Starr and Cameron counties, for which Congress previously approved millions of dollars.
The Biden administration halted border wall construction in 2021 and has asked Congress to permanently cancel this funding, but until lawmakers do, the appropriated money remains. And the Department of Homeland Security is tasked with putting up some form of border barrier and/or related security systems, CBP officials said.
So CBP is asking for public comments — during what is called a public scoping period — to gauge the public’s concerns and infrastructure suggestions. After that, the agency plans to use the comments to conduct an environmental assessment, under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
“The action to be analyzed is the proposed construction of up to approximately 86 miles of new border barrier and related system elements such as roads, lighting, enforcement cameras, and other detection technology within the USBP Rio Grande Valley Sector,” Paul Enriquez, U.S. Border Patrol Real Estate and Environmental Director, wrote in a Jan. 20 community outreach letter.
“We appreciate your feedback and help with evaluating the potential impacts of this project,” Enriquez wrote.
The environmental assessment could take a year, and environmentalists are hopeful that this is a delaying tactic by the Biden administration as it tries to force congressional lawmakers to claw back the money originally earmarked for miles of border wall.
“The Biden administration cannot legally refuse to build border walls that Congress appropriated money for, he can only pause them. This environmental assessment is the justification that he is using to pause border wall construction. It gives Congress time to rescind the border wall appropriations. If Congress fails to take back the money Biden will be required to build these walls,” environmentalist Scott Nicol told Border Report.
“These border walls will be tremendously destructive if they are built, so Congress needs to take immediate action to make sure they never are,” said Nicol, former head of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Campaign.
But many Republican lawmakers remain supportive of a border wall, and Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has even started building a state-funded border wall in Starr County,
Border Report spoke with several environmentalists in the Rio Grande Valley who say they are glad that the federal government is asking for the public’s input, but they also strongly urge that Congress rescind the funding altogether. That is, if the Biden administration wants to hold firm and actually prevent the building of future border wall miles.
The 86 miles of border wall were planned during the Trump administration. Congress approved funding in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 for infrastructure to be built in the Rio Grande Valley in several projects slated throughout the region.
Several miles have been built, but many others are unfinished or have large gaps. This is especially true in Hidalgo County, where large sections of an earthen levee — built decades ago for flood control — were ripped apart for the construction of the border wall.
Now the agency wants to know what “alternatives” for border enforcement could be utilized. But the agency said building a 30-foot-tall metal bollard wall is still a possibility, along with the following in certain sections:
- Up to a 150-foot wide enforcement zone
- Up to 50-foot-wide maintenance road
- Linear Ground Detection System
- Remote Video Surveillance System (towers
- Access Roads
On Wednesday, Border Report walked through a section of the unfinished levee from the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas, with Jim Chapman, who is vice president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a support organization for the refuge.
Congress years ago exempted the Santa Ana Refuge from border wall construction, along with Bentsen State Park and the National Butterfly Center and La Lomita Historical Chapel, and other historical cemeteries.
But if an enforcement zone or maintenance road is built here — which CBP maps indicate is a possibility — then a wide swath of the 2,000-acre wildlife refuge could be decimated, Chapman said.
There is also a small section of border levee — less than half a mile — on the refuge’s eastern perimeter that has long been disputed, with environmentalists saying that section of levee is part of the park and should be exempted from any future border wall construction.
“The latest maps that CBP has put out as part of this public comment is that they will be putting a wall here and clearing what you see behind me, which is refuge, which is Santa Ana. That was established in 1942 and its been wildlife habitat untouched ever since,” Chapman said.
“A lot of wildlife uses the edges of refuges because you’re going from one type of habitat to another and if you take away the edge then you really have a disproportionate impact,” Chapman said about the disputed section. “This is entirely avoidable. This doesn’t need to happen. Congress stuck up for Santa Ana and the Butterfly Center and for Bentsen acknowledging they were too important to wall off and that’s still the case so that’s what we’re going to be telling CBP and telling Congress.”
Chapman urges the public to participate and send comments.
“It is an opportunity for the public to weigh in, give comments and to stand up for wildlife refugees and that’s really what we’re doing,” he said.
Public comments can be emailed until March 7 to: RGVComments@cbp.dhs.gov. Include the subject line: “Rio Grande Valley Environmental Planning.” That also is the email to sign up for two Feb. 8 webinars that CBP is hosting on this issue.
Nicol said the key to preserving the local environment is for Congress to take away the border wall funds altogether.
He also disputed recent comments from U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents part of the RGV, who pledged to prevent future border wall construction.
“Congress needs to rescind the FY 2018 and 2019 appropriations that would pay for border wall construction in the RGV — appropriations that Cuellar actually voted for. But the provisions that would rescind that funding have not yet made it through Congress, so it will take a lot more work to make them secure and to kill this looming border wall construction,” Nicol said.
The thick brush of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, left, in Alamo, Texas, could be cleared if border infrastructure is built south of the earthen levee. Right: A dead snake is seen Feb. 2, 2022, on the levee road where Border Patrol vehicles patrol. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
In a statement sent last week, Cuellar pledged that “the environmental study will not result in any new border barrier system construction. I remain steadfast in my commitment to protecting Starr County residents from any additional border wall construction.”
Cuellar is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security and he said he “helped secure provisions that will permanently remove any funding for border wall activities.”
But he acknowledged that clawing back funds will require Congress to support the Fiscal 2022 omnibus budget and he said he will “encourage my colleagues to vote on it in an expeditious manner.”
However, on Saturday, The Hill reported that lawmakers are not close in negotiations and are in jeopardy of missing the Feb. 18 deadline to pass the omnibus spending measure.
Failure to pass the omnibus spending measure could trigger a federal government shutdown.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.