On May 25, President Obama announced that he would deploy up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border. This followed a White House meeting with Congressional Republicans aimed at attracting support for, or at least blunting opposition to, comprehensive immigration reform legislation. With mid-term elections on the horizon, conservative members of Congress have turned their attention to the border. Or, more precisely, to walling it off. In May two bills and one amendment aimed at building more border walls were introduced. One failed, but the other two are still pending.
Last Monday, Kiewit construction crews began clearing ground for yet another section of border wall on land that was, until last week, part of the Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve. The 18-foot tall steel wall will cut off 95% of the 1,034 acre preserve. As with the more than 400 other landowners whose property the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has condemned, the Nature Conservancy was only offered compensation for the exact footprint of the wall – a strip 60 feet wide and 6,000 feet long – not the land that will be behind the wall. In DHS’ limited view, $114,000 is "just compensation" for walling off lands purchased in 1999 for $2.6 million.
The "virtual fence" of cameras and sensors that is being arrayed along the U.S.-Mexico border to help the Border Patrol apprehend immigrants and smugglers has come in for a great deal of criticism in recent weeks. The Department of Homeland Security has already paid Boeing tens of millions of dollars, but so far they have yet to receive a working system. Mark Borkowski, executive director of the electronic fence program at the Department of Homeland Security, said, "It was a great idea, but it didn't work."
The larger story, which Congress and the press have overlooked, is that the physical border walls have also proven to be utter failures.
In 1996 the United States Congress called for the construction of "triple layered fencing" along the U.S.-Mexico border, beginning in the Pacific Ocean and extending 14 miles into California. This was to consist of parallel 10 to 15 foot high steel walls, with 50 feet of land in between graded and cleared of all vegetation, and the entire expanse lit by stadium floodlights. The Border Patrol also proposed filling in canyons and scalping mountains to give the new walls and road a level path. The California Coastal Commission determined in 2004 that these initial border walls would violate the Coastal Zone Management Act. Of particular concern was the damage that walls would do to the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, the largest of the remaining California salt marshes, which harbors many endangered plant and animal species. The Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and other environmental groups also challenged the border wall in court. Construction came to a halt.
Last week Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst addressed an assembly of border residents and community leaders in Harlingen, Texas, less than 15 miles from the Rio Grande, and proclaimed that there was a war going on along the border. His assessment of the border was extreme: "We have two wars everyone talks about going on, one is in Iraq and one is in Afghanistan. We’ve got a third going on and that’s the border."
In 2006, both the House and Senate passed Comprehensive Immigration Reform bills. Each contained hundreds of miles of border wall, inserted as a bone to lure conservative support. The bills differed on a number of points, including the number of miles of wall to be built. When a conference committee convened to craft a final bill they were unable to work out their differences, and immigration reform died in committee. From its ashes Congress pulled the one thing that they could agree on: 700 miles of border wall.
The stated goal of the Secure Fence Act was to "achieve and maintain operational control over the entire international land and maritime borders of the United States." Nearly 3 years later, most of the border walls that it mandated are complete. Time to dust off the "MISSION ACCOMPLISHED" banner and hang it on the border?
The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear arguments that the waiving of all state, local, and federal laws to build the border wall is unconstitutional is a tremendous blow for border residents and the principle of the rule of law. We had hoped that the court would honor its obligation to examine the constitutionality of section 102 of the Real ID Act, which is an unprecedented power grab by the Executive branch, and which creates unequal legal protections for U.S. citizens that are solely dependant upon what part of the country one lives in. In this instance the Supreme Court shirked its duty, leaving the border without the benefit of the rule of law that is enjoyed by the rest of our nation.
The walls that are tearing through border communities and wildlife refuges have nothing to do with national security, immigration policy, or drug control. The construction of border walls merely allows for political posturing during election cycles. Politicians and pundits decry our nation’s "broken borders," and blame undocumented immigrants for all of our nation’s ills, from unemployment to failing schools to municipal budget shortfalls to crime. Scapegoats are convenient, especially when they cannot vote, and scapegoating distracts voters from politicians’ inability to solve any of these problems. And so, two weeks before the 2006 mid-term election, the Secure Fence Act was signed into law. Two an a half years later the walls that it mandated are nearing completion, and we as a nation must decide what happens next.
To build the border wall the federal government has brought condemnation lawsuits against more than 300 Texas landowners. Homeowners, farmers, nature preserves, and municipalities all face the imminent loss of their property for a patchwork of walls that have "no discernible impact" on the overall numbers of immigrants or smugglers who cross the border, according to the Congressional Research Service. The wall is a rhetorical point used by politicians who do not represent border communities to claim that they are working to protect the homeland. For them, the real impact of the border wall is irrelevant; all that matters is the perception among voters who will never actually see it. Members of congress who do represent Texas border residents should be fighting to defend our lands and our homes, literally the homeland that the border wall is supposed to secure. Instead, Texas’ Senators have worked to fund and build the wall that today stands in Hidalgo County and is tearing through Brownsville.
Over the past two years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the organizations that it manages, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Border Patrol, have shown a deep-seated indifference to the welfare of those of us living on the Texas-Mexico border. These agencies have treated our elected leaders with disrespect, they have assumed an adversarial relationship with the public, and they have shown disdain for border communities, culture, and the environment. These actions have seriously undermined DHS’s credibility along the Texas border and have fostered a great deal of antagonism.
The border wall is the clearest example of this. The border wall project has been propelled by a blind determination to build as many miles of wall as possible regardless of cost, safety, effectiveness, and environmental damage. It has been shrouded in secrecy, and DHS has purposely obfuscated time and time again, as though border residents have no right to know what is happening in their communities and even on their own property.
On January 10th communities along the Texas border will be throwing Retirement Parties to celebrate the end of Michael Chertoff’s tenure as Secretary of Homeland Security. During his illustrious career, Secretary Chertoff has driven a wall through the borderlands, condemned the property of hundreds of Texas landowners, waived the laws that protect us, imprisoned immigrant families, and set a new low in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Border residents will gather in Brownsville and El Paso, where Chertoff’s concrete and steel legacy is being erected along the Rio Grande, to remember the man who has done so much to our communities.
"This is not a protest disguised as a party - this is a party. Chertoff has only been Secretary for three years but he has managed to do a tremendous amount of damage. Texas will be glad to see him gone, and it can’t come soon enough," said Scott Nicol of the No Border Wall Coalition.
After successfully blocking construction of the US-Mexico border wall for 7 hours on December 17, Judy Ackerman was handcuffed and led away from the construction site. She had been on the site since 6:30 that morning, cheered on by a group of enthusiastic supporters while idle workers leaned against their silent equipment.
Ackerman’s civil disobedience sprang from a desire to defend the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, a protected natural area on the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas. Rio Bosque is situated along a stretch of the old, winding river channel in which the Rio Grande flowed before it was straightened and channelized in the 1930s. The park’s wetlands were created in 1997, and, through years of volunteer work, the native wetland habitat was painstakingly restored. Ten years later, it’s one of the few places where one can imagine what the El Paso area must have been like when the river wound freely through the mountains and desert and had ample flow to support rich wetlands and big cottonwood trees. Judy Ackerman is one of the many volunteers who made this vision possible.