CBP: South Texas leaders still have say in border-wall plans despite contract being awarded

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CBP 'assured' that 'city would be brought into conversations

ROMA, Texas (Border Report) — Leaders of the small South Texas community of Roma say that despite lengthy talks they’ve had with U.S. Customs and Border Protection over the location of a border wall through town, they have not fully agreed to the federal plans. And although a construction contract has been issued, CBP told Border Report on Friday that city leaders will still have a say in the design-build of the border wall in their area.

Roma Assistant City Manager Freddy Guerra sat down with Border Report on Thursday at his offices at City Hall, just days after CBP issued a statement that all Starr County communities had signed off on plans for 15 miles of new border wall construction through this rural county of 70,000 people. Guerra expressed frustration that six months of negotiations and talks with CBP have left them feeling that their requests were not heard by federal officials. And although CBP earlier this week announced it has awarded a $179 million contract to a New Mexico company to begin construction this year, they still don’t know exactly where the border wall will go, or what it will look like.

This ambiguity is to their benefit, however, as CBP officials confirmed in an email to Border Report that Roma officials can still affect design plans.

Freddy Guerra, the assistant city manager of the town of Roma, Texas, is seen at City Hall on March 5, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The former mayor of this border town of 11,400, Guerra, 32, said he and fellow local leaders don’t like plans for the border wall to cut through the city’s downtown Historic District. This could block a popular observation vista to the Rio Grande, known locally as the Observation Rock, as well as take away views of the river from property owners and residents.

They also want to ensure that the border barrier near the Roma-Ciudad Miguel Alemán International Bridge is set back far enough from the river to allow for expansion plans of the port on the U.S. side, which they hope to begin in order to meet increased vehicular traffic crossing into the Mexican city of Miguel Alemán, Guerra said.

“Primarily, we were concerned with its proximity to the environment and homes in the community. We wanted to ensure wherever that wall was going to be built it didn’t interfere with peoples’ homes and their property wasn’t taken. After that, our next priority became the area just south of the port of entry and south of the Roma Historic District,” Guerra said. “There’s been a lot of concerns as to where the wall will be aligned in relationship to those two locations and what the wall will look like.”

CBP says it and the Army Corps of Engineers have approved preliminary plans for a border barrier similar to other designs along the Southwest, which include a 30-foot-tall metal bollard wall with a 5-foot anti-climb metal plate at the top, an all-weather road beside it, floodlights, cameras, underground sensors and additional technology.

“CBP has requested that the design look like that. Their position is that is the type of design that was appropriated for this fencing. The city of Roma has argued that may be an appropriate design for certain sections of the city but there are areas in relation to our port of entry and historic district where we would like the fence to look slightly different than that,” Guerra said. “The City of Roma hasn’t agreed to and is still in conversations with CBP and now with whoever is awarded the contract on what would be the design fencing.”

On Monday, CBP issued a statement that made it seem as if all Starr County leaders had signed off on the border wall plans. After Border Report wrote a story detailing frustration by local Starr County officials regarding the border wall contract announcement, CBP officials reached out to Border Report and said an official quoted in the story was not in the know, nor represented the views of the four municipalities that Congress required federal officials consult prior to the announcement of border wall plans. Those four municipalities include: Roma, La Grulla, Escobares, the county seat of Rio Grande City and the unincorporated area of Salineño.

Read a Border Report story on the awarding of the Starr County contract and initial reaction from Starr County officials.

CBP officials said Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, had not been involved in talks for over a year and federal officials did not explain to her that consultations were over because they did not consider her part of the mix of county leaders with whom they were working. They also suggested Guerra would corroborate their story.

Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, is seen working in her offices on Dec. 9, 2019 in Rio Grande City, Texas. Benavidez says her office has been the main point of contact between federal officials and municipalities in Starr County regarding the building of a border wall in the county. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But during an hour-long meeting on Thursday afternoon, Guerra said that Benavidez very much headed the talks from the beginning, and her nonprofit organization represents any unincorporated county areas. This includes Salineño, which is home to a popular birding spot about 10 miles from Roma that Guerra says is vital to the area’s its eco-tourism draw, especially during the winter months.

The Industrial Foundation was assigned as the point of contact for Starr County,” Guerra said. “The Industrial Foundation took over negotiations on behalf of the county and the Industrial Foundation has also served as a coalescing force among all the other municipalities.”

“Rose is correct in that we all didn’t get what we wanted. We wanted more assurance that we were going to get a product that we could essentially live with and would be beneficial to our communities,” Guerra said.

We all didn’t get what we wanted. We wanted more assurance that we were going to get a product that we could essentially live with and would be beneficial to our communities.”

Assistant City Manager Freddy Guerra of Roma, Texas

Border Patrol issued the following statement in response to questions by Border Report on who were involved in talks, how municipalities were notified that consultation talks had ended, how talks were conducted, and what role Benavidez and her organization played in the discussions:

“U.S. Custom and Border Protection’s (CBP) facilitated consultation directly with Starr County elected officials from the affected areas in March 2019 and continued, with ongoing in person meetings, conference calls, and emails, through September 2019. The affected areas include the City of La Grulla, City of Escobares, Rio Grande City, the City of Roma and the census-designated place of Salineño, Texas. In October 2019, CBP provided each affected Starr County elected official with a letter that outlined the consultation undertaken, and that documented the areas of mutual agreement. Although the consultation period is now closed, ongoing coordination and dialogue between CBP and the impacted cities will be on going as design and construction progresses. CBP is moving forward with real estate and environmental planning efforts and other planning activities.”

When Congress appropriated millions of dollars for 52 miles of border wall surrounding all of Starr County, it did so with the caveat that the incorporated towns and Salineño would be represented in “consultation talks” between local leaders and federal officials. But critics point out there was no specification about the length of talks, any necessary agreement or how the talks were to be conducted. As such, Benavidez and Guerra said they felt that officials went through the motions to have meetings with locals but did not accept their requests.

Benavidez said her organization was never notified that their counter-proposal border wall plans were rejected and she was shocked when news of the border wall contract was released on Monday.

In December, she told Border Report that she was concerned that federal officials were talking with Starr County communities independently and she felt they needed to show a unified voice in order to get CBP to listen to their requests.

Read a December Border Report story on Starr County border wall negotiations.

Guerra admitted that his town of Roma eventually brokered their own separate talks with CBP officials in hopes they would listen to their specific needs. On April 2, the Roma City Council passed a resolution “Proposing Alternative Border Infrastructure Improvements,” which included:

  • Not displacing residents from their homes.
  • The design not interrupt the flow of flood water into the Rio Grande.
  • Relocation of utilities and public infrastructure be the federal government’s responsibility, including all costs.
  • The wall be built below the Roma Bluffs “in a way that respects the historical and environmental integrity of the area.”
  • A retaining wall “instead of a bollard fence” be built near the bridge to allow for future expansion.
  • Minimize land loss.
  • Provide environmental impact statements to Roma city officials.
  • A hike and bike trail be built along the border fence.

In the meantime, federal officials began building a segment of border wall in the Arroyo Ramirez Tract of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge near the town of Fronton. The new 15 miles of border wall are expected to connect with this segment, but will be taller, Guerra said. The section of wall at Arroyo Ramirez is only 18-feet-tall.

Sections of a border wall being built in the Arroyo Ramirez Tract of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge near the town of Fronton in Starr County are seen on Jan. 9, 2020. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

On Oct. 31, CBP sent a letter to Roma Mayor Roberto Salinas informing them their requests could not be heeded due to hydraulic and flooding concerns. But one sentence in the letter gave Salinas and Guerra hope, he said. It read: “The agreed upon alignment of the proposed barrier could require additional adjustments pending input from the IBWC (the International Boundary and Water Commission), results from environmental and cultural surveys, additional input from stakeholders or findings from subsequent site visits.”

Guerra says city officials believe that although Southwest Valley Constructors Company has been awarded the contract to build 15 miles of new non-contiguous border wall — including over 4 miles in Roma –– the company will still consider their design requests.

“CBP has assured us that the city would be brought into conversations with the contractor and with CBP to determine final alignment and design in certain sections,” Guerra said.

CBP officials late Friday clarified that to be true. Border Report has repeatedly asked for maps showing the exact location for the new border wall in Starr County. This story will be updated if the information or maps are received.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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