As New Border Wall Breaks Ground, Environmental and Immigrant Advocates Push Back

A new segment of Trump’s “big, beautiful wall” is already destroying big, beautiful tracts of land and native wildlife — and potentially human lives — as construction broke ground last week.

The Trump administration is hailing a new bollard-style wall prototype being constructed along a 20-mile stretch at Santa Teresa near New Mexico’s state line with Texas as a “serious structure” that neither humans nor animals can get past.

Construction on the $73 million wall segment is expected to take a little over a year, and will replace existing vehicle barriers as part of a first phase of “border enhancements” toward a more invulnerable wall.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Acting Deputy Commissioner Ronald Vitello told reporters in late March the administration would put $1.6 billion of congressional appropriations for 2018 into the first phase of the border wall project: constructing or replacing nearly 100 miles of wall structures along the southern US border.

The segment currently under construction is going up in an undeveloped, remote area comprised primarily of federal lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management in a Chihuahuan mixed desert and thorn-scrub ecoregion providing habitat for a wide diversity of species. The landscape, however, has proved deadly for vulnerable migrants trekking north with little or no provisions.

The tract is also close to the newly designated Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument established under President Obama in 2014. Following an executive order signed by Trump last April to review recently designated national monuments for potential nullification or downsizing, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended that the Department of the Interior work with the Department of Homeland Security to assess “border safety risks” in the Portrillo Mountains.

The Center for Biological Diversity has sued over the Santa Teresa project, arguing in federal court that the Trump administration overreached its authority in waiving dozens of environmental laws to expedite construction. The administration is using a provision of the 2005 REAL ID Act that allows the secretary of Homeland Security to waive a majority of regulations to construct border barriers or security projects without congressional oversight.

But the Center contends the law does not grant an open-ended license to waive environmental laws for all border projects in perpetuity. It also argues that the 2005 provision violates constitutional principles of separation of powers and states’ rights. Proper environmental assessments mandated under the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws could potentially block or seriously delay construction.

“The impacts of border wall construction are not limited to the precise area where construction occurs and that is because, over the last 30 years, the buildup of border security has been like squeezing a balloon,” said Center Senior Attorney Brian Segee. That’s because, he says, once a barrier is in place, unauthorized crossings shift to other areas, where security buildup follows, and then traffic simply shifts again.

A federal judge in San Diego recently ruled in favor of the Trump administration on a similar border wall project, allowing it to waive environmental reviews to replace and construct new wall prototypes in California. The Center and California’s attorney general filed notices of appeal to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals last week to reverse the decision. “Until we have a final resolution in any case, and we definitively lost, we will litigate every waiver that the Trump administration issues,” Segee told Truthout.

Troops Mobilize as Wall Breaks Ground

The new segment breaks ground as Trump’s deployment of National Guard troops to the southern border is well underway. Immigrant rights activists have denounced the commitment of at least 2,400 Guard members from Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California to the border as undocumented crossings remain at historic lows, with the number of unauthorized border crossings at their lowest rate since 1971.

According to a breakdown from Vox, Border Patrol agents caught 37,393 immigrants attempting to cross the border in March, almost three times fewer than when former President George W. Bush requested governors send National Guard troops to the border in May 2006, and one-and-a-half times fewer than when President Barack Obama requested 1,200 Guard troops in May 2010.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, however, hyped a recent spike in border crossings before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security last week as she pressed lawmakers to approve Trump’s $47.5 billion budget request for her department — including $18 billion for the border wall.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry also mobilized 1,000 National Guard troops in 2014 to help process an influx of unaccompanied children from Central America entering the US, and while this March’s apprehensions increased from historic lows last year, they still remain below the level of apprehensions in March of 2014, according to the CBP.

Nielsen, however, characterized the increase as “a dangerous story” and a threat before lawmakers, even though many migrants crossing into the US are refugees who aren’t trying to evade capture, but are purposefully turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents to legally seek asylum.

Border Residents Resist Trump’s Narrative

While the Trump administration has called the situation at the southern border a “crisis” of drug trafficking, unauthorized entries and crime, activists who live in the borderlands describe a different experience.

Crystal Arrieta, who is of Coahuiltecan descent, organizes with the Frontera Water Protection Alliance in El Paso, Texas, and briefly locked herself to a track hoe that was used to construct Energy Transfer Partner’s Comanche Trail Pipeline in January of last year. Arrieta grew up in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, just 15 miles from El Paso, and said the region’s residents are not living in the “crisis” scenario Trump administration officials are painting.

“A wall is the last thing we need because of what it does obviously to people, and just the divide that it creates, literally and even in a mental sense too,” Arrieta told Truthout. “Also, what it does to the environment and our animals that need to have access [to the land], because for most species there are no borders, and they need to be migrating for their survival, for their habitat.”

She also emphasized the harms to human beings. “A lot of the people coming across the border … are coming to save their own lives or they’re coming to work jobs, so it’s kind of ridiculous what Trump has been saying.”

Arrieta also denounced the cost of the wall segment, comparing the cheaper barrier segments erected under former President Bush’s Secure Fence Act to the $73 million segment under construction in Santa Teresa now. “We’re constantly being told that health care for everyone costs too much, that schools that have everything that they need, where teachers don’t need to pay out of their pockets, cost too much … it’s just mind-blowing.”

Cynthia Pompa is a field organizer for the ACLU of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights and grew up in the border region between Juarez and El Paso. She spent much of last year working within an immigrant rights coalition to campaign against increased federal funding for Trump’s border wall and an increase in the number of beds being added to immigrant detention jails in the area.

“We recognize the border wall as part of Trump’s deportation force,” Pompa said. “The more wall segments that are built, the more migrants are pushed to more dangerous parts of the desert, increasing the number of migrant deaths.”

Pompa echoed that the picture at the border is far from a warzone. “Those of us who live at the border feel we’re being used for this political show,” she said, adding that what contributes more to border residents’ fear is not unauthorized crossings, but an increased presence of Border Patrol and the military in their communities. “The agents in green are the ones who separate our families, are the ones who abuse their power.”

Residents’ fear of Border Patrol agents is not without justification. Just last week, an agent was arrested and charged with murder after the bodies of a woman and a 1-year-old child were found near the banks of the Rio Grande River. CBP agents’ attempts at murder, however, are also institutional. A report released in January documents agents’ systemic destruction of thousands of water jugs left for migrants journeying north through the desert, exposing them to death, and violating international human rights standards. Moreover, a 2016 Department of Homeland Security report found systemic corruption within the CBP was rampant, and that agents who assist cartels in smuggling contraband “pose a national security threat.”

Border residents are so overpoliced that the ACLU’s Border Rights Center recently released a smartphone application called “MigraCam” designed to help residents send video evidence of enforcement actions to their family members and loved ones over email and text.

“It’s really discouraging to see this narrative in the media about places that, for us, are our home, and also data shows that [border] cities are some of the safest around the country, but that doesn’t seem to matter to politicians,” Pompa told Truthout. “It comes with huge consequences. … It justifies adding more agents that have a direct impact on our everyday lives.”