Archive for the ‘Borderlands’ Category

Levee-border wall under construction in Hidalgo county 10-12-08

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is accepting comments about their extreme border wall plans in South Texas which include

  • Concrete levee-border walls topped with 18-feet-tall steel bollards which will wall off all of Hidalgo County from the Rio Grande.
  • Border walls built in the Rio Grande floodplain in Starr County that will be 20 to 30-feet-tall.
  • A 150-foot wide enforcement zone on the south/river side of all these walls where they will rip out trees and keep all vegetation from growing.

You can read about their destructive plans in the letter they sent to a handful of organizations.

Please cut and paste the following email addresses  and send a comment in order to express your outrage about this drastic action to both CBP and to Texas Senators Cornyn and Cruz:

commentsenv@cbp.dhs.gov, Ana_Garcia@Cornyn.senate.gov, Casandra_Garcia@cruz.senate.gov

Email Subject: RGV Wall and Gates Construction

Comments are due October 20, 2017.

Sample letter you can copy and paste from:

I am opposed to the construction of the Trump administration’s border walls. I am also opposed to the construction of levee-border walls, bollard walls, 150-ft enforcement zones, border wall gates, massive industrial lighting, and all-weather roads.

These border wall structures are symbols of racism and xenophobia, they involve the condemnation of farms and ancestral lands, and they destroy wildlife habitat and refuges. This border wall project would also violate the treaty that establishes the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo as the United States- Mexico border which forbids either nation from building structures in the floodplain that would worsen flooding.

Levee-border walls would cut off thousands of acres of farmland, put the historic La Lomita Chapel in no-man’s-land between the border wall and the border, and would restrict access to trails at the Bentsen Rio Grande State Park and World Birding Center, the National Butterfly Center, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Bollard walls can act as dams and would worsen flooding conditions in communities on both sides of the river such as Roma and Ciudad Alemán.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should release more information about its border wall plans immediately. They should also host multiple public meetings in the Rio Grande Valley communities that will be impacted by border walls. Undocumented residents attending these public meetings should be assured that they can participate without fear of arrest and deportation. CBP should also comply with all of our nation’s laws, not waive those that it sees as inconvenient.

The Sierra Club has submitted an extensive comment you can read it here.


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LRGV Sierra Club’s Jim Chapman reading the letter before the Hidalgo County Commission

Valley organizations have presented a letter to Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling asking them to rescind their support for levee-border walls in Hidalgo County. The letter comes as a response to letters that both men sent to federal officials suggesting that, although they were opposed to the border wall, Hidalgo County would welcome a combination levee-border wall. The full text and signators of the letter are below.

If you would like to add your name to a petition against the levee-wall plan, you may do so at http://bit.ly/2niBHOH

Dear Judge Garcia and Mayor Darling:

We the undersigned urge you to reconsider your support for the levee-border wall plan, to withdraw your offer to Congress and the Department of Homeland Security to help build them, and to actively and vocally oppose all border walls, including border walls built into levees.

As you have acknowledged numerous times, border walls do not make our communities here in Hidalgo County more secure. The crime rates in Texas border cities are already among the lowest in the nation. Most of the people who cross the border without documents are immigrants and refugees who do not pose a threat to us. Furthermore, walls do not stop people from crossing. The Government Accountability Office recently reported that Customs and Border Protection has never shown that border walls have any impact on rates of smuggling and immigration. But they can push migrants into crossing at more dangerous points along the border where too many suffer tragic deaths from dehydration and exposure.

We have been advised by International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) that all of the flood-control levees along the Rio Grande in Hidalgo County have already been repaired and certified.  They have been or will soon be submitted for certification by IBWC. We do not need the levee-walls that you are proposing in order to keep us safe from floods. The County does have real drainage challenges, including many colonias with localized flooding, but those will not be addressed by building extraordinarily expensive border walls into the river levees.

The map created by Dannenbaum Engineering does not take in account the homes, farms, and nature parks which would be impacted by the levee-wall. It simply draws a levee-wall along every section of the river levee where there is not already a wall. Therefore, you are proposing a plan without determining how Hidalgo County residents’ access to their homes and lands would be affected and how this would impact their property values.

The proposed levee wall also slices through the most visited nature parks in the County: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park. Santa Ana is an ecotourism hotspot and the heart of the wildlife refuge system in the Rio Grande Valley, and Bentsen provides outdoor recreation opportunities for residents and tourists alike. Both parks are major hubs in our $460 million per year nature tourism industry. We already lost some of our parkland to the levee-wall when the Hidalgo Pumphouse hike and bike trail was walled off. Proposing a plan that could cut off these special places is irresponsible.

Levee-walls are especially devastating for wildlife and will strike a blow to the Lower Rio Grande Valley Wildlife Corridor that we have been working for almost 40 years to piece together. Terrestrial animals can move freely up and over levees, but an eighteen-foot solid concrete wall is an insurmountable obstacle. It will block them from access to habitat, water sources and mates. For this reason the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said that levee-walls are not compatible with our wildlife refuge lands.

Our organizations and the Hidalgo County residents we represent are very concerned about what the Trump Administration’s border and immigration policies could mean for our home. We do not want border walls. We do not want to see our communities and nature parks cut off and militarized.

Please respect the concerns of your constituents.  Rescind your letters and resist, not promote, Trump’s border walls.


Jim Chapman

Executive Committee Member

Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club

Juanita Valdez-Cox

Executive Director

La Union del Pueblo Entero

Josué Ramirez

Lower Rio Grande Valley Co-director

Texas Low Income Housing Service

Karen Boward


Frontera Audubon

Sharon Slagle


Friends of the Wildlife Corridor

Lourdes Flores


A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE)

Gerald Brazier

Chapter Leader

Call to Action-Rio Grande Valley

Martha Garcia


Environmental Awareness Club at UTRGV

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Scott Nicol, Sierra Club Borderlands Team chair and LRGV Sierra Club Conservation co-chair, will be speaking at the University of Texas Pan American on April 25 about the flood risks and environmental damage that will come with new border walls slated for the Rio Grande floodplain.  Through Freedom of Infomation Act requests Scott has uncovered documents showing that Customs and Border Protection plans to condemn private lands and take parts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge to build these walls.  For years the US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission rejected these walls as posing too great a flood hazard to communities on both sides of the river, but a year ago they caved in to pressure from CBP and approved walls in the floodplain.

At 6pm on April 25 the Sierra Club will screen the 20 minute film Wild vs. Wall, followed by a discussion of the hazards posed by these new walls.  The event will occur at the UT Pan American Health Auditorium (HSHW 1.404), and is free and open to the public.  You can see a campus map here.

UT Pan American event  poster copy

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By Scott Nicol

Border wall through the LRGV National Wildlife Refuge

Border wall through the LRGV National Wildlife Refuge

I intend to tear this wall down and pass an immigration reform bill that’s an American solution to an American problem.”

Unfortunately, when Senator Lindsey Graham uttered those words a few days after the presidential election he was talking about the metaphorical wall between the Republican Party and Hispanic voters, not the physical walls that tear through the U.S. – Mexico borderlands.

Last summer the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 1505, waiving environmental laws in National Parks, Monuments, Forests, and Wilderness Areas within 100 miles of both borders for walls or anything else the Border Patrol could dream up.  In the run up to the election Republicans from Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket down to candidates for state offices called for making immigrants’ lives so miserable through measures like Arizona’s SB 1070 that they would “self-deport.”


Following the election, in which an overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters rejected Mitt Romney and Republican candidates, these same politicians feel a sudden sense of urgency to pass an immigration reform bill.

That bill will probably look a lot like the proposal that Senators Graham and Schumer were working on a couple of years ago, linking temporary work visas and a pathway to citizenship to increased border militarization.  That may sound familiar because it is the same formula that was used in 2006, when the US House and Senate passed competing immigration bills.  When the two bills could not be reconciled Congress pulled out the border security section and passed it as the Secure Fence Act.

Since then 649 miles of border wall have gone up, slicing through sensitive habitat from California’s Otay Mountain Wilderness Area to Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

As border walls went up in urban areas like San Diego and El Paso, crossers were “funneled” into the remote and fragile ecosystems of the Arizona desert.  Thousands have died there.

In south Texas border walls now roughly parallel the Rio Grande, ranging from a few hundred yards away to as much as two miles north of its banks.  These walls repeatedly bisect Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife refuge tracts and cut off the last vestiges of sabal palm forest protected by Audubon and the Nature Conservancy.  By blocking movement along the wildlife corridor, border walls may prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the ocelot in the United States.

Just this year the US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission caved in to pressure from Customs and Border Protection and unilaterally approved new walls in the Rio Grande floodplain, despite objections from Mexico.  If they are built these walls could have serious flood impacts on the communities of Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos in the United States, as well as their sister cities on the southern bank of the river.  They will also carve up more fragile refuge habitat.

This is why the Lone Star chapter continues to support the Sierra Club’s national Borderlands Team’s efforts to head off new damage, ensure that environmental laws are obeyed, and get mitigation for the harm that has already occurred.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform could either be a blessing or a curse for the borderlands.  Allowing immigrants to enter through the “front door,” paying the federal government  instead of a coyote and passing through a port of entry instead of climbing the wall and trekking through the desert, would reduce both the impacts of traffic on fragile ecosystems and the number of immigrants who die attempting to cross.  But if it repeats the old formula, adding more border walls and boots on the ground, it will exacerbate the damage to our borderlands.

We need a clean immigration bill, without more of the walls or waivers that do tremendous damage to border ecosystems year after year.


To learn more about the environmental impacts of border walls and the work of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team visit www.sierraclub.org/borderlands



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The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club joined more than 60 local and national groups asking Congress to take action to protect America’s dwindling wilderness this year.  The coalition sent a letter warning that time is running out for over two dozen wilderness bills that span from California to Maine.

The 112thCongress has been the most anti-wilderness Congress in history, blocking any wilderness legislation from getting to the House floor.  And if the U.S. House of Representatives stays on its current course, this will be the first Congress since 1966 to not protect a single acre of wilderness.

“Wilderness is a unique American legacy that has always had broad, bipartisan support on the ground and in Congress,” said Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society. “Americans across the country are asking the 112th Congress to continue this incredible legacy and protect wilderness before going home for the holidays.”

After a divisive election, it is clear that the American people want a Congress that will reach across the aisle and work together.  That support showed up during the 2012 elections. All across the country voters passed local measures to protect and conserve land. Of the 57 measures on local and statewide ballots, 46 passed – an approval rate of 81 percent.  The measures in 21 states will provide more than $2 billion overall, including $767 million in new money to support protection of water quality, new parks and natural areas, and working farms and ranches.

“If things don’t change soon, this will be the first Congress in generations to fail to protect a single acre of American wilderness,” said Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. “All across the country, the support for preserving our natural legacy has been loud and clear. Now, it’s time Congress listened.”

The letter states,

“Nearly 50 years ago, the Wilderness Act passed the House with one dissenting vote and passed the Senate 73-12. Protecting our dwindling patches of truly wild areas always gets bipartisan support at the local level – and it used to get bipartisan support in Washington as well.  It is not too late to redeem this legacy.”

To view the letter and signatories: http://wilderness.org/resource/letter-dont-let-congress-go-home-holidays-without-protecting-wilderness

For a complete list of 27 stalled wilderness bills: http://wilderness.org/article/pending-wilderness-bills

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By Scott Nicol

The U.S. half of the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) has finally caved under pressure from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and approved border walls in the Rio Grande floodplain adjacent to Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos.

These three border wall sections, totaling 14 miles, were not built when other parts of the Rio Grande Valley were walled off because of the serious danger they pose to communities on both sides of the river.  On the U.S. side they could block the exit of flood water into the Rio Grande, bottling it up in towns and farm land and exacerbating the damage that they suffer.

They could also deflect flood waters towards Mexico, worsening flooding in Mexican communities.  Deflection might even cause the river to settle into a new channel farther to the south, which would effectively change the location of the border.

In an attempt to lessen the amount of water that these walls will deflect into Mexican cities CBP designed them to channel flood waters north into the U.S. cities that they abut.  The walls will begin close to the Rio Grande, where during a flood water would be split off from the main channel.  As the river bends the mostly straight walls get farther from them, meaning that floodwater, along with all of the debris and garbage it carries, will be channeled into properties in the United States that might otherwise be spared from flooding.

To make certain that water is channeled into the U.S. holes were planned for the middle of two of these wall sections – a 100 foot wide gap in the Roma wall, and a 275 foot wide gap in the Rio Grande City wall – explicitly intended to direct more water into these communities during a flood.

All three of the new border wall sections would also slice through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  Established to create a wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande, the refuge provides habitat for critically endangered ocelot and jaguarundi.  Walls that have already been erected downriver repeatedly bisect and fragment the refuge, putting the future of the terrestrial species that it harbors in doubt.  The new walls would further fragment the refuge and cut off animals from the only reliable source of water in what US Fish and Wildlife has described as “some of the best habitat(s) in the U.S. along the final portion of the Rio Grande.

In a February 15, 2012 letter John Merino, Principal Engineer for the US section of the International Boundary and Water Commission gave CBP the green light to build these walls, saying, “the USIBWC has no objection to the erection of the fence segments within the limits of the Rio Grande floodplain.”  Merino dismissed the possibility that walls would deflect or obstruct flood waters, and stated flatly that USIBWC did not examine potential environmental impacts.  He failed to mention the fact that for the previous five years both the U.S. and Mexican halves of the bi-national International Boundary and Water Commission had rejected the idea of placing border walls in the floodplain.

Throughout 2007 and 2008 CBP tried without success to come up with a wall design for these last three sections that would not impact flooding, and that the IBWC would therefore approve.  Unable to convince the IBWC that walls in the floodplain would not act like dams, a DHS briefing from October 2, 2008, said of these three, “DHS likely to drop fence segments.

It would have made sense for Customs and Border Protection to decide that the Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos walls were not worth risking lives and property to build.  Or, if bureaucracy outweighed humanity in their thinking, they might have called off wall construction in order to comply with the international treaty.

They also could have based a decision to spare them on a June 2008 internal Customs and Border Protection document that stated that “The Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief has determined that operational areas that contain the PF225 fence segments such as O-1 to O-2, O-12 through O-14, and O-17 through O-21 to be in “effectively controlled” level at the current time.”  Segments O-1 and O-2 are the Roma and Rio Grande City walls.

Segments O-12 through O-14 are in Cameron County, near Los Indios.  Segments O-17 through O-21 encompass all of the wall sections in the vicinity of Brownsville, from the neighborhoods near the River Bend Golf Course west of town past the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary and Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve to the east.  Those who live in these areas and had their property condemned for border walls lost their land for nothing, because the local Border Patrol had determined that the area already under effective control before any walls were built.

The year after the assessment that these areas were “effectively controlled,” and before any walls were built, Border Patrol apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley dropped by 20%.  They have continued to decline every year since.

Of course decisions about who will get walls and who will be spared are made in Washington DC, not the Rio Grande Valley.

That simple fact helps to explain why Customs and Border Protection continued to press for these walls, shifting tactics from trying to convince Mexico that walls would not worsen flooding south of the border to pushing the US section of IBWC to allow for “unilateral” action – building walls in the face of Mexican objections, and thereby violating the international treaty.

After hurricane Alex roared into the Rio Grande Valley in 2010, followed by a tropical depression, the flooding Rio Grande forced the mandatory evacuation of Los Ebanos and parts of Rio Grande City.  With homes underwater and the evacuation order still in place, CBP hosted a meeting for the USIBWC and the State Department in Washington DC.

At the DC meeting Customs and Border Protection did not mention the ongoing floods that were inundating the sites of the proposed walls, or the Border Patrol sector chief’s assessment that the area was “effectively controlled.”  Instead, CBP said that the three remaining walls were “critical to our Nation’s security,” and since Mexico continued to insist that they posed a flood hazard “we need [US]IBWC and Department of State’s support for an unilateral decision to proceed with the fence construction.”

Throughout 2010 USIBWC consistently rejected unilateral action, pointing out the likelihood of “substantial increases in water surface elevations and deflections of flow at several points of all three projects.”

But in late 2011 USIBWC reversed itself.  John Merino, the US section’s Principal Engineer, wrote to his Mexican counterpart to say that US IBWC had “concluded that the project will not cause significant deflection or obstruction of the normal or flood flows of the Rio Grande.

The Mexican section of the IBWC responded in December of 2011, saying,

“…the location, alignment and design of the proposed fence represent a clear obstruction of the Rio Grande hydraulic area, since in the towns of Rio Grande City and Roma, TX, the fence would occupy nearly all of the hydraulic area on the U.S. side, causing the deflection of flows towards the Mexican side. If you consider that, given the design characteristics, the fence obstructs 60-70% of the hydraulic area in a direction perpendicular to the flow, and if you add to that the effect of the current retaining trash and debris, the significant length that is located in the floodplain, and the position of the fence relative to the direction of flow, the fence constitutes a serious obstruction and deflection of the Rio Grande flows towards Mexico. […] We reiterate our opposition to the construction of the proposed fence in the Rio Grande floodplain given the impacts stated above.”

Because the IBWC is a bi-national body, the rejection of one party should have brought this project to a halt.  Instead the US half of the IBWC approved the walls, allowing Customs and Border Protection to undertake the unilateral action that it had been pushing for.  This is a clear violation of the treaty that created both the IBWC and the border that Customs and Border Protection is supposed to protect.

But a treaty is just paper.  The real harm will come after the walls go up, when the next big storm roars into the Rio Grande Valley and the river floods.

This is why the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club group are calling upon Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to overrule her subordinates at the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission and reject these border walls.  Sierrans and anyone else who cares about the Rio Grande and its inhabitants and habitats can send her a letter by going HERE.

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By Scott Nicol

Last month, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that net migration from Mexico into the United States was had dropped to zero, with roughly the same number of Mexican citizens heading south across the border as north. 

Just a few days earlier, HR 1505, the misnamed National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, was introduced onto the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.  Aimed at stopping the flood of immigrants that Pew found are, in fact, not pouring over our borders, this bill waives 36 laws on all federally owned lands within 100 miles of both the northern and southern U.S. borders for any Border Patrol activity.   

HR 1505 is a dramatic expansion of the Real ID Act, which gave the Secretary of Homeland Security the power to waive laws to build border walls and roads.  In 2008 former DHS Secretary Chertoff waived these same laws, which include the Endangered Species Act, Farmland Policy Protection Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to build walls that would otherwise have been illegal.   

The resulting damage has been tremendous.   Walls now tear through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, fragmenting habitat set aside for endangered ocelot and jaguarundi.  Up and down the Rio Grande, farmers and ranchers, some of whose families have held title to their land since the 1760’s, have had their property condemned.  And during border wall construction ancestral remains were unearthed and left exposed by bulldozers in the Tohono O’Odham reservation. 

Now Representative Rob Bishop, whose Utah district is hundreds of miles from either border, wants to see this brutalizing of our borderlands expanded to cover lands that are no where near the border. 

The Border Patrol has never asked for the power to ignore our nation’s laws, and they have told Congress that “land management laws have had no effect on Border Patrol’s overall measure of border security.”  The current Secretary of Homeland Security, former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, recently called HR 1505 “unnecessary” and “bad policy.”   

So why would Representative Bishop keep pushing this bill, and why would any other member of the House vote for it?  One would assume that at the very least those who Represent border communities would stand up for the borderlands. 

Why on earth would Representative Francisco Canseco, whose district contains more miles of border wall than any other in Texas, be one of HR 1505’s cosponsors?  The city of Eagle Pass, whose residents are Rep. Conseco’s constituents, was on the receiving end of the very first border wall condemnation.  Big Bend National Park is also in his district, and HR 1505 would sweep aside all of the environmental laws that currently protect and maintain it. 

Some of Texas’ other border Representatives have taken the opposite position, asserting that all of our nation’s laws should be enforced on the border, not just those that pertain to immigration.  Representative Ruben Hinojosa, whose district includes the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, criticized HR 1505, saying, I think we can allow the Border Patrol to do its work and at the same time protect our environment and our rare animals such as the jaguarundi, the ocelot and our migrating birds in deep South Texas. 

It may be that the difference between the two Representatives’ positions comes down to experience:  Hinojosa saw first-hand the harm inflicted upon the border by the waiving of laws, while Canseco did not come to office until the Tea Party’s surge in 2010.  Or perhaps it is a matter of party affiliation, as the GOP tries to use immigrant bashing and charges that President Obama has not done enough to secure the border as a wedge issue in the upcoming election, ignoring the Pew findings. 

Whether he comes to his decision out of ignorance or politics, Representative Canseco needs to think about the on-the-ground impacts of bills like the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act on his constituents and the lands they cherish before he throws his support behind them.  And when the election comes around border residents need to think seriously about whether or not their Representatives in Washington are truly representing them.

To send an email to your US Senators urging them to oppose HR 1505 if it passes the House, use the Sierra Club Borderlands Team’s online action at www.SierraClub.org/nomorewalls

Scott Nicol co-chairs the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Group’s Conservation Committee, as well as the Sierra Club’s national Borderlands Team.

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