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Biden's Stealth Border Wall in Texas
Construction could begin as early as December, but Starr County residents say they haven't been consulted.
Despite his promises to not build “one more foot of wall,” President Joe Biden is now speeding ahead with a contract for 17 miles of new wall in rural Starr County, Texas. Border residents say they were stunned by the stealth $229 million contract issued to Sullivan Land Services Company (SLSCO), a Galveston-based firm. The deal was never publicly announced and was first reported by The Texas Observer on November 2.
In Starr County, residents haven’t been notified that their properties are slated for new wall construction. And a map released online by Customs and Border Protection shows seven sections—from a half mile to two miles long—crudely drawn with a black marker, which makes it difficult for landowners to determine whether their property will be affected.
Nayda Alvarez, a Starr County resident, said the CBP map shows that the new construction will not be built near her property, but there’s been no communication from CBP or DHS with landowners who are being targeted. Alvarez, who has been fighting wall construction for years, also worries about the long-term impacts on the Rio Grande and her community. “How will this impact the environment and the river?” she said. “Biden is waiving the Clean Water Act and other laws to build this wall. Why? What’s the hurry?”
Construction could begin as early as December, according to notes taken by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee during a recent CBP meeting. The document was released in a FOIA to the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. The rural stretch of border in Starr County, in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, has long been considered a high-risk area for border wall construction due to flooding.
Border residents and environmentalists were stunned a month ago when the administration announced it was waiving 26 laws, including the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act. At the time, however, no announcement was made that a contract had already been issued to build the 17 miles. “The speed in which the administration is moving is shocking,” said Laiken Jordahl of the Center for Biological Diversity. “In prior administrations they would have at least put out a press release or some type of public information.”
Previously, the Biden administration had said its wall construction would be limited to finishing or making safe existing wall areas. The Starr County contract will be the first for new wall construction, said Jordahl. “This is a new level, a new magnitude of wall construction than what we’ve seen, at any point during the Biden administration,” he said.
Both Biden and Department of Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have said that although walls don’t work, they have no choice but to build them, because Congress appropriated money for wall construction in 2019. “I tried to get them to reappropriate—to redirect the money,” Biden told reporters after the waiver announcement. “They didn’t, they wouldn’t. And in the meantime, there’s nothing under the law other than they have to use the money for what is appropriated. I can’t stop that.”
While border advocates acknowledge that Biden must abide by the congressional appropriation for wall construction, he doesn’t have to waive laws to do it, they said. “Issuing the waiver was entirely discretionary,” said Jordahl. “We all knew that there was a possibility that the administration might start moving on spending the FY 19 appropriations money. But we never imagined that they would actively strip protections from the borderlands to speed the construction of these walls.”
This makes Biden the first Democrat in the White House to waive laws protecting people and the environment to speed border wall construction. (President Obama built miles of border walls on Bush-era waivers.) As fellow Border Chronicler Todd Miller wrote in October, after Mayorkas announced the waiver, Biden is simply continuing a “decades-long bipartisan effort at running roughshod over the borderlands and its people.”
After the waiver announcement, 120 organizations, including the ACLU, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity, sent a letter to President Biden urging him to cancel the waiver. “There is a disturbing irony in Secretary Mayorkas’ recent statement regarding the resumption of wall construction that ‘we are compelled to follow the law,’ the organizations noted, “while the Secretary has chosen to waive 26 federal laws (and all state and “other laws, regulations and legal requirements related to the subject of these laws”) enacted to protect the communities, the environment, Indigenous interests, archeological and historic properties and wildlife.”
If any stretch of border needs scrutiny, which the waived laws would have provided, it’s Starr County. In 2008, engineers hired by CBP deemed it too dangerous to build wall there because many communities are in the floodplain. A wall would also violate a treaty with Mexico, which states that neither country can build in the Rio Grande floodplain without binational agreement. “The risks associated with the potential flooding on the Mexican side of the fence could range from minor property damage to the loss of life,” one engineer warned.
In the 17 miles under the current construction plan, the city of Roma, and its Mexican neighbor Miguel Alemán, which was one of the highest-risk areas for flooding, will not be getting any wall, said Scott Nicol, a longtime anti–border wall activist in South Texas. “They’re also not going to go through any more federal wildlife refuge tracks,” he said. “But it’s going to be a nightmare for those landowners in those areas that have been chosen.”
Of further concern to residents, said Nicol, is that the Army Corps of Engineers, which typically oversees construction, will not be doing so in Starr County. Instead, CBP will have oversight. “What does CBP know about construction?” Nicol said. “It’s not their job.”
The contractor, the Galveston, Texas–based SLSCO, built walls for the Trump administration in South Texas, Nicol said. “They went way over budget in the past when they had the Army Corps of Engineers looking at their contracts, and now there will probably be even less oversight,” he said.
“It’s just business as usual,” said Jordahl. “With the same exact contractor that the prior administration used.”
According to CBP, the wall in Starr County will include steel bollards in a cement base that looks like a highway median, which CBP calls “jersey barrier.” The height will be 18 feet.
Jordahl said it might be tempting to think that an 18-foot tall “jersey” barrier might be less harmful than Trump’s 30-foot steel bollard wall, previously built in South Texas. But it will be more harmful for wildlife, he said, because the concrete base will stop even the smallest of animals from getting through. “Ground squirrels, jack rabbits, and armadillos, they won’t even be able to cross these jersey barriers,” he said. “There are several sections that are directly adjacent to wildlife refuge lands. It’s some of the last remaining habitat for wildlife in South Texas.”
Equally disheartening, he said, will be the impact on local communities. “So much of life in Starr County revolves around the Rio Grande. These walls will cut off peoples’ access to the river, to swimming and fishing and places to picnic. It’s still not too late for Biden to rescind these waivers,” he said. “Restoring protections to border communities and wildlife is the right thing to do.”
Alvarez, who is a high school teacher, said her students have a fishing club and often go to the river on weekends. “The other day I told my students, ‘You think they’re going to let you go down to the river and fish after the wall is built?’” she said. “The kids don’t understand what this means or what’s coming. This is not about politics. This is about their future.”
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