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cars at border wall construction site

Parking lot at border wall construction site with cars with license plates from a dozen or more states in the U.S. and Mexico.  Photo by Myles Traphagen.

Note: Although Myles writes here about Arizona border communities, South Texas border communities are just as endangered by ongoing border wall construction.

BY MYLES TRAPHAGEN

As the world ramps ups its effort to self-quarantine and social distance in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, construction of Trump’s border wall moves forward, and it stealthily aids and abets a worsening public health crisis.

The thousands of construction workers that commute weekly to and from all parts of the country have great potential to exacerbate the spread of the coronavirus.

Nebraska-based Kiewit Corporation and its subsidiary Southwest Valley Constructors, and Bozeman, Montana-based Barnard Construction, along with Fisher Industries, hailing from North Dakota, have deployed thousands of construction workers to build the border wall, yet few of the workers are from border-states. A perusal of the license plates in the construction yards and staging grounds in Douglas, Ajo, San Luis, Yuma, Deming, Sunland Park and other border towns, yields plates from Texas, Montana, Colorado, Nebraska, Idaho, Oklahoma, Sonora, Chihuahua, California, Nevada, etc.

The mostly-imported crew of border wall employees and contractors fill the hotels and restaurants of border communities to capacity every day of the week, with non-border towns like Sierra Vista, Gila Bend and Las Cruces picking up the slack because border cities are bloated beyond all capacity. Many of these workers travel long distances home for the weekends. On Monday, the reverse occurs, with workers returning from parts of the country hitherto unknown to the borderlands.

Epidemiologists use the term “vector” to describe the mechanism through which diseases are transported. You do the math.

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Active wall construction site in San Bernardino Valley, Arizona. Many of the workers drive to their homes in various locations each weekend and return every Monday.  Photo by Myles Traphagen.

The U.S.-Mexico border is now closed for entry, and three U.S. states—which harbor nearly one-quarter of the population of the United States—are in lockdown. Most international flights have been cancelled and U.S. flights have been scaled back, with commercial jetliners circling to find space in the long-term parking lots. Corporate America and its citizens have admirably risen to the occasion to flatten the curve of the pandemic and mitigate its spread. This is what a national emergency looks like.

But despite drastic measures instituted globally, construction of the border wall continues. Tens of millions of dollars are being spent every day on border wall construction, yet it is still virtually impossible for many Americans to even get a test for COVID-19. Stealth transmission, or “silent spreaders,” have proven to be a major driver of the coronavirus, and we still have no idea how much of the population is infected.

How long until we see major outbreaks in border communities and other parts of the country (and Mexico) that have been spared up until this point? What will happen to the health care systems of small, rural communities if an outbreak occurs and they are overwhelmed by more cases than they can handle?

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Border wall construction site showing portapotties in San Bernardino Valley, Arizona.  Photo by Myles Traphagen.

In February 2019, Trump used his first national emergency declaration to rob funds from the Department of Defense to build his border wall. This now has the potential to throw fuel on the fire of the real national emergency that all of us are living in. Will the Army Corps of Engineers—who oversees these border wall projects—make the responsible decision and order the contractors to suspend operations until the pandemic passes? Or will they bow to pressure from irresponsible corporate players who serve to lavishly profit off these projects while they endanger public health in the process?

The Corps has a long and illustrious history of projects that have provided countless benefits to the economic security and quality of life to its citizens. We call upon the Army Corps to measure up to their legacy and put a stop to the facilitation of a potentially lethal, entirely unnecessary vector. American lives depend on it.

Myles Traphagen is Borderlands Program Coordinator for the Wildlands Network.

Sabal Palm clearing 4BY STEFANIE HERWECK

About two weeks ago the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) broke the law by destroying  forest growing along the Rio Grande in Audubon’s Sabal Palm Sanctuary. Although the central old growth palm forest was untouched, the agency cut down and reduced to mulch Sabal palm trees, Texas ebony trees and mesquites growing along the river, leaving a 200- to 300-foot-wide swath of devastation all along the more than half a mile long stretch where the Sanctuary fronts the river.

Where a forest once grew, there is now nothing but wood chips, scattered broken logs, and the green points of invasive cane sprouting in the newly opened space.

Where it was once possible for Rio Grande Valley residents to imagine what the wild Rio Grande was like before the coming of agriculture and urbanization, when it was thickly vegetated and bristling with palms, the land is now skinned bare.

Where bobcats and javelina were once able to make their way to drink at the river under cover of brush, they now must run a gauntlet.

Sabal palm stump with one of the few remaining palms left standing

Sabal palm stump in front of one of the few remaining palms

The IBWC is the binational agency that oversees treaty obligations with Mexico, but it is also tasked with managing flood control on the Rio Grande and the distributary channels of its delta such as the Arroyo Colorado. The agency told Sanctuary staff that they would be clearing a strip along the river to facilitate flow during flooding. Staff also said that IBWC agreed to leave the Sabal palms and mature ebony trees. Instead they cleared acres of forest along the river, leaving only a handful of lonely palm trees, while grinding many others down to stumps.

This devastation should never have happened. In 2003 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rendered a Biological Opinion under the Endangered Species Act that limited IBWC to mowing only 75 feet on the river bank and trimming vegetation that overhangs the river. It also requires “the establishment of a minimum 33-foot wide mature/climax vegetated wildlife corridor adjacent to the Rio Grande or mowed areas.”

This restriction recognizes how important the river is as a wildlife corridor, allowing ocelots and other animals to move from one patch of forest to another along its wooded banks. It also reveals how devastating this destruction is in one of the few protected areas of riparian habitat near Brownsville.

A young sabal palm was only just sprouting when the forest around it was cleared

This Sabal palm had just sprouted when the forest around it was cleared

IBWC knows this. The 2003 Biological Opinion is posted on IBWC’s own website.

It is not clear why the Sanctuary staff were not aware of the Biological Opinion and its requirements, or why IBWC chose to radically and negligently expand their clearing and take out even large trees and Sabal palms. What is clear is that this is a loss to the community and another blow to our dream of restoring a contiguous wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande. In this time when our natural lands are threatened by massive LNG facilities and border walls, we didn’t need this unnecessary destruction.

IBWC also apparently failed to comply with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which requires that a survey of active nests be completed by a qualified biologist before projects are begun. If the agency had done so, we would have seen trees that were spared due to the presence of nests, but there is not a tree standing except for the sporadic palms, a sure sign that numerous nests were destroyed and young birds killed by the contractor’s grinding machines. This reckless disregard for environmental protections comes after US IBWC scalped the banks of the Arroyo Colorado through Harlingen, instead of working with city government to find a solution to increasing the floodwater flow out of the city that would leave residents with a natural stream through town. It comes after they issued a threat that they would ticket individuals who used the levees that pass through their own communities for recreation like running and biking, spuriously claiming that these people were responsible for dumping heavy trash like bed mattresses and refrigerators off the levees. It comes after they caved to pressure from Custom and Border Protection and signed off on Customs and Border Protection’s shocking plan to build border walls in the floodplain of the Rio Grande in Starr County, under protest from their counterparts in the Mexican half of IBWC and in direct contradiction of their own earlier warnings that walls in the floodplain could lead to the loss of life and property on both sides of the river.

Clearly in our highly-managed river system we need flood-control, and we need an agency to manage the treaty with Mexico, but actions like these by the US section of IBWC are evidence of a lack of respect for Rio Grande Valley communities and a disdain for the laws that are supposed to protect us.

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The area cleared by IBWC was 200- to 300-feet from the Rio Grande

The IBWC needs reform: they need to be proactive at communicating their intentions, so that the community at large can have input. They need to resist the pressure from CBP and come clean with the dangers border walls in the floodplain pose. They need to stop their efforts to criminalize recreation on the levees. And they need to educate themselves on the ecological value of our native forests and implement flood control techniques that work with natural systems.

This is the Rio Grande Valley, and the Rio Grande is the heart and soul of our communities and our environment. The Rio Grande needs to remain a living river, not a drainage ditch.

A version of this article appeared in the Rio Grande Guardian

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BY STEFANIE HERWECK

Our penchant for borders has led us to do whatever we can to make the Rio Grande seem permanent. On our maps it’s an indelible mark, and in the real world it’s a boundary where we array camera towers and position armed guards and build walls.

But this permanence is an illusion. Rivers move across the landscape over time. And, in river age, the Rio Grande is a youngster, having only been flowing from the Southern Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico for a million years. Before that, tens of millions of years before that, the coastline of what is now Texas and Mexico was farther to the west, and the area where the Lower Rio Grande flows today was covered by sea water.

It was this sea, 45 million years ago in the Eocene Epoch, which harbored giant oysters. The extinct species called Crassostrea gigantissima formed fossilized beds that have now been made visible by the erosion of arroyos flowing into the Rio Grande in Starr County, Texas.

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Los Negros Creek Fossilized Oyster Bed

The beds are extraordinary: the mother of pearl inside the shells glints in the sunlight, you can run your fingers along the striations in the rock and trace the growth of the creatures long ago, and in some places whole shells, which can be up to 20 inches long, have eroded out of the rock. It’s a remarkable experience to sit in a dry creek bed and imagine the marvelous Eocene creatures, otherworldly fish, monstrous sharks and the first sea mammals, that once swam above you in the warm ocean.

This experience is part of our natural heritage here in the Rio Grande Valley, but it’s one we could lose access to permanently in mere months, as border walls go up and cut off the river and the oyster beds. The wall is already under construction in Arroyo Ramirez where the fossils are visible, and Los Negros Creek, the other prime location for viewing the natural feature, has been surveyed for a wall that would run across the creek and the trail down to the beds. Both areas are tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which the federal government is targeting for the first border walls because it already owns the land.

los negros creek survey stake

Customs and Border Protection survey stake in the Los Negros Creek tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Our society has already been suffering from a psychological severing of our ties with the land. Our lifestyle, our dependence on technology, our addiction to consumption have made those ties tenuous. But in the Rio Grande Valley that psychological disconnection has been exacerbated by the loss of nature itself—the destruction of something like 97 percent of the original habitat. The fact that we are losing access to these remaining places—places that have the potential to rekindle the wonder we experience in the natural world—is a tragedy.

HOW TO GET THERE:

Head west on Highway 83 from Roma. Turn left on 650 at the outskirts of town and head toward Fronton. You will cross a bridge, which is Los Negros Creek, and you will turn left just up the hill from the bridge onto a dirt road. The road is well-graded but has a low spot which may have a puddle if it has just rained. Follow the road until you get to the Border Patrol camera tower which is overlooking the river. Take a left on the road in front of the camera tower and drive to the dead end and park. There’s a path that leads down the hill towards the river at the end of the road. Once down the hill, the trail can be a bit hard to find through the grass, but veer left back towards the creek and you’ll see the oyster beds down in the arroyo in a few feet.

los negros map

From the oyster bed you can walk down to the outlet and see where the creek drains into the river when it’s flowing. On the way back, you can check out the road that goes past the ruined structures upriver, because it climbs to a beautiful high cliff above the river with wonderful blooming vegetation after a rain.

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Top of the trail down to the creek. You can see tents across the river in Ciudad Miguel Alemán.

Note: As with any adventure along the border, you may encounter Border Patrol. Be aware that they have no jurisdiction to tell you where you can and cannot be, but individual agents are not always aware of that because of their complete lack of training in civil rights and in interacting with community members. If they require you to talk with them, I have found that the most peaceful engagements occur when you play up your role as tourist—ask if they know anything about the area, if they’ve seen any good birds, etc.

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Box honoring Briseyda Lizeth Chicas Perez and her young son Denilson

BY STEFANIE HERWECK

Among the altars community members have decorated for Saturday’s Día de los Muertos Celebration at the Museum of South Texas History is one dedicated to immigrants and asylum seekers whose lives have been lost recently in the Rio Grande Valley.

Members of the Environmental Awareness Club at UTRGV are using the Día de los Muertos event to highlight the role of climate disruption and environmental devastation in Central America and Mexico in pushing people to flee north to the United States, where they can be safe from gang violence and provide for their families. Students researched the names of people who lost their lives over the past year in the attempt to cross the border in the Rio Grande Valley. They have chosen five individuals to honor on their altar with boxes that they have filled with symbolic artifacts representative of each person.

“The idea was to learn as much as we could about these people who died in our midst and to recognize them with a container for our imagined mementos of their lives or, in some cases, what we wished for them,” Environmental Awareness Club member and computer science major Jesse Saenz said.

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Home by Jesse Saenz

One box, for Briseyda Lisseth Chicas Perez, 20, is framed with dried ceiba tree flowers, the national tree of her country Guatemala, and is draped with a pageant sash emblazoned with the name of her hometown, representing her status as a local beauty queen. Behind other symbols of her life, at the back of the box, is a map of Western Guatemala, a land increasingly overtaken by palm oil plantations and plagued by drought.

It was her young family’s inability to make a living wage from plantation work that spurred them to head north with their two children. It was this past June in the brush near Mission that Briseyda, together with her son Denilson, died of dehydration and exposure.

It is relatively unusual for migrants to die this way in Hidalgo County because of the proximity of towns. Deaths from dehydration and exposure much more common in the vast expanse of ranchlands to the north in Brooks County. But Briseyda and the others got lost without enough water on one of the hottest June days on record here in the Rio Grande Valley, when the heat index was 118 degrees, another blow to their lives dealt in part by climate change.

Two other children that perished alongside Briseyda and Denilson, Juana, 3 and Marleny, 20 months, also have a box on the altar–it holds water in sippy cups and galletitas along with little toys–a wish that the children will never be without these things again. The children were from the same region of Guatemala as Briseyda.

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Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter embrace  under the clouds in this Día de los Muertos box. Made by Rubi Rodea

In addition to agricultural and forested land being absorbed for industrial palm oil and banana operations in Central America and Mexico, climate change is disrupting weather patterns and causing persistent drought and unstable weather patterns. Scholars studying the area have pointed to the ways that these environmental factors contribute to the economic devastation and social unrest that are pushing people to emigrate. In fact, experts at the World Bank believe that climate impacts could displace 2 to 4 million people from Central America by 2050.

Another box honors Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his two-year-old daughter Angie Valeria. A photo of  Oscar and Angie’s drowned bodies  in the Rio Grande near Brownsville circulated around the world, triggering widespread denunciation of the harsh U.S. asylum policies that led to their deaths. Yet the practice of making asylum seekers wait in Mexico continues.

“As a Club we have come to understand that the humanitarian crisis in the Rio Grande Valley is driven by the climate crisis in Central America and Mexico and compounded by industrial agriculture for an export market” said Fatima Garza, Environmental Awareness Club member and anthropology major. “Highlighting the lives of these people can reveal the many injustices that they had to face. It also shows us just how wrong it is for our government to make them run a dangerous gauntlet through metering in Mexico, militarization, and border walls to reach safety in this country.”

The altar will be on exhibit at the Recuerdos y Ofrendas event on Saturday, November 2 from 4 pm to 10 pm at the Museum of South Texas History. In addition, there will be a reception for the community altars on Sunday, November 10 from 2 pm to 3 pm.

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A 2009 fire on petroleum tanks in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This is one of the accidents that researchers looked at to determine that storage tanks can be breached by heavy hydrocarbon explosions.  Photo credit–U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

BY STEFANIE HERWECK

Rio Grande LNG is inviting the public to a “live demonstration” of the properties of liquefied natural gas on Wednesday, October 23 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm at Los Fresnos EMS and Fire Building, 100 Rodeo Dr. in Los Fresnos.

The Houston company wants to build a liquefied natural gas export terminal in the Port of Brownsville, which would be the largest single source of pollution in Cameron County.  Now they have  brought down “an LNG safety expert” to assuage the community’s fears of an LNG-related catastrophe.

In fact, this demonstration is a public relations stunt. In the last such demonstration, in 2015, LNG company representatives used parlor tricks. They dipped a flower in LNG to freeze it, and spilled a little LNG out to show that it’s non-corrosive. They also poured a bit of LNG in a bowl with a goldfish, drank water a short time after LNG was poured into the glass, and then doused a smoldering cigarette in the liquid.

But these tricks were easy to see through.

A goldfish is not harmed when LNG is poured in its bowl because the LNG is lighter than water, so it floats on top of the water rather than mixing with it. But as a Government Accountability Office report notes, because methane must be kept at minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit to remain in a liquid state, any living creature that comes into contact with LNG is subject to freeze burning. So, in the case of an LNG spill in the Gulf, fish are safe as long as they stay under water, but anything above the water line, such as waterfowl, dolphins or swimming humans, is not.

When LNG spills, it begins evaporating immediately, which is why you can eventually drink a glass of water into which LNG has been poured. Because the LNG does not mix with the water, just as the fish is not swimming in liquefied natural gas, the person holding the glass is not drinking LNG. Instead, a small quantity of LNG is used for this trick and allowed to evaporate before the person raises the glass.

When they douse the cigarette in LNG and say that liquefied natural gas (LNG) is not flammable they are simply lying. Liquid fuels do not catch fire below the surface. During any spill flammable liquids such as gasoline and LNG immediately begin to vaporize and mix with air, and it is the vapor rising from the liquid that is flammable. You can see many YouTube demonstrations of people dousing matches and lit cigarettes in gasoline, but we do not pretend that gasoline is not flammable.

Rio Grande LNG’s current demonstration shows community members a selective and sanitized version of an LNG chemistry lesson. In doing so Rio Grande LNG  hopes to squelch the valid concerns about safety that local residents have.

But an expert in a lab coat showing that LNG can only ignite at gas-to-air concentrations of 5 to 15 percent should not make us feel safer. Reaching flammable concentrations is not some sort of rare event. As LNG evaporates a there will be always be a portion of the resulting vapor cloud that is at a flammable concentration. Remember, we use natural gas as a fuel because it burns so consistently. And when it ignites, it burns far hotter than gasoline.

If the vapor cloud evaporating above spilled LNG ignites, it burns its way back to the spill and becomes an intense pool fire. A Sandia National Laboratories report found that LNG vapor clouds could travel more than a mile on the wind before catching fire. This risk of flammable vapor clouds drifting into populated areas led Sandia to recommend that “areas of refuge” and “community warning procedures” be established in communities near LNG terminals.

By limiting their discussion about the safety of the LNG export terminals to the liquefied natural gas itself, Rio Grande LNG may be concealing greater risks to the communities of the Rio Grande Valley.

The LNG export terminal will be handling large quantities of fuel that is much more volatile than methane. Heavier hydrocarbons such as propane, ethane and butane would be refined out of the natural gas at the facilities, and some are used as freezing agents in the liquefaction process. There is a long history of catastrophic accidents where these dangerous fuels are handled, and they potentially account for more risk than the LNG itself.

In fact, it was a hydrocarbon leak into a steam boiler inlet which caused a massive explosion at the Skidka, Algeria LNG Export Terminal in 2004. Twenty seven workers died and 70 more were injured. Fortunately, the Skidka LNG storage tanks were not damaged. But LNG safety experts have expressed concern that the presence of these volatile fuels near such an enormous and concentrated amount of methane could result in a catastrophe that threatens people and property far outside of the facility’s boundaries.

The LNG feeder pipelines pose yet another risk. The Rio Grande LNG export terminal will require two 42-inch diameter pipelines which will slice through South Texas. The gas in these lines will be at high pressure and non-odorized. Pipeline accidents continue to occur with regularity—up to an average of 1.7 incidents per day in 2018 requiring the evacuation of an average of 9 people, while a pipeline catches fire an average of every 4 days. And that includes new lines. In 2015 a Pipeline Safety Trust analysis found that new pipelines are currently failing at the same rate as old pipelines that were built before 1940.

This science lesson will do nothing to address the very real concerns that Valley residents have. Rio Grande LNG is wasting time with demonstrations rather than having honest, adult discussions with residents and stakeholders on the real risks involved in LNG export terminal operations. While pushing the false idea that the facilities will be completely safe, they are not working with our municipalities to develop community warning and evacuation procedures. They are not educating first responders on what will be required in case of an accident.

If Rio Grande LNG wants to operate in the Rio Grande Valley, they need to be honest with South Texans about all the facts, not just the basic chemistry lesson. They need to discuss the real concerns that scientists have about locating LNG export terminals so close to communities and why those concerns have been raised.

A version of this article was originally published in the Rio Grande Guardian.

 

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Rootplowing on University and 10th Street in McAllen

By Stefanie Herweck

In Adios to the Brushlands,  Arturo Longoria weaves together a memoir of his boyhood adventures in the Rio Grande Valley brushlands with an elegy for those same wild places, now mostly lost to clearing for agriculture and urban development. In one chapter called “Bulldozers and Rootplows” he describes the intense period of destruction of native habitat in the early 1970s, when landowners and speculators were paid by a federal program to clear their land, even when they had no intention of farming it. It was at that time and because of this greed that we lost much of our upland thornforest in Hidalgo and Starr Counties.

Among the losses we suffered were remarkable features of our landscape such as natural lakes, wetlands and ramaderos, underground or ephemeral streams which Longoria calls “emerald ribbons” because you can trace them across the land by the trees growing up to three times the height of the surrounding vegetation. These dense, cool, and sheltered areas, Longoria notes, were migratory pathways through the Brushlands, which wildlife from butterflies to ocelots used to travel. (You can follow a trail that crosses a very pronounced ramadero on the Yturria Brush tract of  the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge outside of La Joya, Texas.)

Longoria describes one scene from 1973 where “brushhoggers” set up floodlights so that the machines could work to clear vegetation all night. He tells of sitting and watching acres of forest uprooted, of seeing deer and a whole herd of javelina flee in terror. Watching (and listening) to this video of a rootplow working on University and 10th Street in McAllen can give you a sense of the violence that Longoria saw in that act. It is important to note that this parcel has still never been farmed or developed. The forest was cleared essentially for nothing, just like the forests that Longoria mourns.

Our local soils are clay and without tree roots lacing through it, without a healthy population of burrowing insects that the trees support, the ground becomes hardpan. Water collects, salt leaches out and nothing grows. It is complete destruction and this is in part why it is so hard for us to conceive of the dense brush and riparian jungle that once grew where we walk today. We, or our ancestors, have literally salted the earth of the Rio Grande Valley.

Pickets and border wall at El Calaboz - 3-14-09 - courtesy Scott Nicol

Bollard border walls during construction in El Calaboz, Texas, 2009. Photo by Scott Nicol.

By Stefanie Herweck and Scott Nicol

Today the Trump Administration announced the locations of border walls that will be built using $3.6 billion raided from Department of Defense budgets, including walls that will snake out from Laredo, Texas westward along the Rio Grande.

The Laredo-area border wall would comprise the largest single span of wall to be paid for by raided funds, beginning at the Laredo-Columbia Port of Entry, and running 52 miles upriver towards Eagle Pass, Texas.  This is a stretch of the Rio Grande that has never seen border walls.  The cost of this section of wall would be $1,268,000,000, which averages out to more than $24 million per mile.

laredo mileage from military funds

Defense Secretary Esper rubber-stamped Trump’s request to take $3.6 billion from such projects as housing for military families, schools for the children of U.S. military personnel, and service member pensions.  Almost half of these raided funds would be used to build border walls in the Laredo area.

The new information comes from a memorandum filed with the court today in the case of Sierra Club v. Donald Trump, which challenges Trump’s February Emergency Declaration.  While walls near Laredo have been discussed in broad terms before, this is the first plan for the region that details the location and extent of these walls. 

Although no maps have been released, there are concerns that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will build some of this mileage in the Rio Grande floodplain. CBP’s plans for the border wall in Starr County, Texas 50 miles to the south clearly show the wall snaking in and out of the river’s floodplain leading to fears that CBP is again recklessly ignoring the danger to life and property posed by walls in the floodplain.