Border Fence Quietly Slated to Expand as Congress Debates “the Wall”

Legislators are moving toward a final showdown over one of President Trump’s central campaign promises: a southern border wall. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations funding will make up part of a year-end spending deal that is expected to dominate the remainder of the congressional session.

The negotiations could spark a partial federal government shutdown in coming weeks, as newly emboldened Democrats seek to push back against the president’s agenda.

Meanwhile, even as debate continues over wall funding, the existing fence at the US-Mexico border is poised to expand. A new section of border fence is slated to come up in South Texas in February, and activists there are already pushing back.

A Shutdown Over Wall Funding?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that a partial government shutdown could help Trump “get what he’s looking for” on the wall.

However, there are signals that both sides may have reasons to concede: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has previously indicated a willingness to negotiate a deal, and dozens of retiring or outgoing House GOP lawmakers are serving their final days.

Both chambers have already moved toward allocating some funding for Trump’s wall in fiscal year 2019. House Republicans have already approved $5 billion. In the Senate, where Democratic support is needed to overcome a filibuster, a bipartisan bill has appropriated $1.6 billion. Upping the ante, incoming House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy introduced legislation in October to fully fund the wall at $23.4 billion, which is certain to face stiff opposition in the Senate.

Republican senators, including Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, are now scrambling to find $5 billion for the wall, after Trump insisted that any must-pass spending bill include at least that much. On Tuesday, Senator Schumer told reporters he plans to stick with the plan of offering Trump $1.6 billion for border security, but stopped short of offering any more detail, saying he is “not going to negotiate in public.” The president has not promised to avoid a partial government shutdown next month if lawmakers exclude wall funding.

Moreover, Trump recently ramped up his calls for Congress to deliver, using the recent violence against migrants at the border to score political points. After border agents fired rubber bullets and tear gas against unarmed women and children approaching the San Ysidro port of entry Sunday, Trump characterized them as criminals and called on Mexico to turn them back. He also threatened to “close the Border permanently.” He ended his tweet with another demand: “Congress, fund the WALL!”

Vicki Gaubeca, director of the Arizona-based Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), was prescient when she told reporters prior to Sunday’s attack that Trump would likely step up his manufactured border crisis once again ahead of December 7, and use demonizing rhetoric against immigrant border communities to make gains on the wall.

“Our communities are fed up with the decades-long assault on our rights and quality of life, all in the name of political theatrics,” Gaubeca said on a press call. “Congress needs to go back to the drawing board on DHS funding and instead cut funding to Trump’s deportation force. Congress should not rubber-stamp Trump’s hateful rhetoric by passing funding for further border militarization.”

Spending on increases in border agents, arrests and detention space has already reached unprecedented levels under the Trump administration, as arrests have spiked nearly 50 percent during fiscal year 2018, according to Ronald D. Vitiello, Trump’s new nominee to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The agency received $7.1 billion from Congress during fiscal year 2018, its highest budget ever. The House Appropriations Committee is looking to give ICE $7.4 billion in the coming fiscal year.

Moreover, DHS, ICE’s parent organization, came under fire earlier this year after transferring nearly $201 million from other areas of its budget, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to pay for detention and deportation operations.

The Appropriations Committee has earmarked another $17.8 billion for US Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency. This is an increase of $3.8 billion above the agency’s fiscal year 2018 budget. If that wasn’t enough, Trump’s deployment of active-duty troops to the southern border is estimated to cost between $60-$200 million.

Advocates hope to push back the debate until after newly elected officials take their seats in January. They anticipate these new Congress members will increase oversight measures over the administration’s border operations. SBCC headed to the nation’s capital with a delegation of border community leaders this month to lobby outgoing Congress members to slash DHS funding, and for increased accountability and community consultation. The activists plan to remain in Washington through the December 7 funding deadline.

“This lame duck Congress should be deferring all of these budget increase requests to the new Congress, … and before the increases are considered, the new Congress should finally exercise what is very long overdue oversight,” said Ur Jaddou, director of DHS Watch, a good governance advocacy project.

Border Communities Fight Back

Meanwhile, nearly 100 border area residents rallied this month across from the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, to protest a new six-mile stretch of border fence slated for construction in February.

Nearly 700 miles of border fencing and other border barriers already exist along many parts of the Southern border in Texas, California and Arizona, much of it erected under President Obama. The newest bollard-style fence segment is set to bisect the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, a national wildlife refuge, and the National Butterfly Center, destroying critical habitat and threatening wildlife in the process. Activists and residents organized the protest to air their concerns and highlight the fact that the federal government has not held a single public meeting about the project.

Congress allocated $641 million for 33 miles of border fence construction in the Rio Grande Valley, but has kept the fence’s exact location and construction timeline under wraps. In September, after public backlash, CBP opened a 60-day public comment period and hosted an online webinar. Earlier this month, though, the agency awarded a $145 million contract to begin construction just southwest of McAllen.

Last month, DHS waived more than two-dozen federal laws to pave the way for the segment’s construction, including requirements for environmental assessments and public consultation.

“Seeing those laws be waived was really unfortunate because those laws exist for a reason, and it is the government’s duty to uphold those laws,” said Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club executive committee member Melinda Melo, who lives in Mission, Texas. She called for the repeal of the 2005 Real ID Act which authorizes the waivers, because the law is “not only putting the lives of people at risk, but the lives of animals and also really vulnerable habitat.”

A coalition of environmental and immigrant rights organizations has organized rallies in Mission and has worked to pressure 36 cities and counties to pass resolutions against the border wall, with Hidalgo County recently highlighting the negative economic and social impacts of the wall and its accompanying militarization.

Advocates also point to the barrier’s flooding potential. In 2008, monsoon rains flooded Nogales, Sonora, in Mexico, drowning two people and causing $8 million in damage. Mexican officials later pointed to a concrete section of the existing border fence there as the primary culprit. Even though the new segment is designed to allow water through, such bollard-style fences have also previously caused flooding. In 2014 in Nogales, Arizona, debris clogged a 60-foot section of the area’s bollard barrier, creating a dam.

Melo also points to the potential for disproportionate impacts on low-income immigrant and Latino communities that will be divided by the wall. Those communities could find themselves cut off from trade or other community services they once had access to.

Even though it’s low-income immigrant communities who could be most impacted, these same communities may also be reluctant to raise their voices against the project, for fear of retaliation. “A lot people might have family members that are undocumented,” Melo said. “They don’t feel comfortable being able to say what they want to say. They also don’t have the resources to be able to travel to our rallies, or they’re just concerned for what the implication could be if they were to speak out publicly.”

Driving Migrants Into the Desert

In addition to the fence’s devastating impact on the environment, advocates also warn that CBP’s practice of turning people away at points of entry is increasingly driving asylum seekers to cross through dangerous desert corridors.

Robin Reineke, executive director of the Arizona-based Colibrí Center for Human Rights, has worked with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner to identify and examine dead migrants found in the Sonoran Desert and support the families of missing migrants.

“Dollars for border militarization means death; it means disappearance; it means suffering,” Reineke said. While billions of dollars have been invested in border enforcement and wall infrastructure along the Arizona border over the decades, basic community infrastructure has meanwhile languished, Reineke says, and the Office of the Medical Examiner has had to raise their own funds to cover the costs of examinations.

The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner has recovered the remains of 2,816 migrants found in the desert since 2000. Moreover, Colibrí has reported more than 3,000 missing people attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert. Increasingly, she says, those found in the desert carry Honduran national ID cards.

“How much longer are we willing to allow the numbers of the dead to accumulate, the suffering of families and local communities to continue, and the expense of billions of dollars to [go to] a strategy that we’ve had decades to recognize is ultimately unsuccessful?” Reineke asked.

Some immigrant rights groups are cautiously optimistic that the answers to these questions may begin to change soon, given the new Democratic majority in Congress. However, there are certainly no guarantees, according to Melo.

“I don’t feel like we’ve had any Democrats that have been standing really strong that they’re against the border, and that they really do not want any of this to happen, so that is a major concern,” she told Truthout.