A federal report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Thursday found that the barriers constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border during the Trump administration adversely impacted wildlife, the environment and Indigenous cultural sites.
The report details the ways in which the 458-mile border barrier that was built from 2017 to January 2021 had a detrimental impact on endangered species, federal lands, water flow and sacred tribal sites. “The construction harmed some cultural and natural resources, for example, by blasting at a tribal burial site and altering water flows,” the report says.
This information confirms earlier watchdog reports which found that border wall construction imperiled threatened and endangered wildlife, impeded migration patterns and exacerbated flooding. The report also confirms Indigenous leader’s concerns that construction crews “blasted” Native American sites, including ancient burial grounds where bone fragments were discovered.
“Nothing is sacred to them, no amount of destruction too grand,” Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Intercept at the time of the blasting. “We’re living a nightmare down here in the borderlands.”
The report was prepared at the request of U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), who is a ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee and whose district includes the reservation of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the tribe whose burial grounds were damaged by construction crews.
“From the start, President Trump’s border wall was nothing more than a symbolic message of hate, aimed at vilifying migrants and bolstering extreme MAGA rhetoric,” Rep. Raul Grijalva said in a statement. “This racist political stunt has been an ineffective waste of billions of American taxpayers’ dollars — and now we know it has caused immeasurable, irreparable harm to our environment and cultural heritage as well.”
The Trump Administration was able to expedite construction of the border barrier by relying on the 2005 Real ID Act, which allows the government to waive laws and regulations that might pose an impediment to border walls and roads. “Federal agencies built about 450 miles [724 kilometres] of barriers along the US southwest border. To expedite construction, they waived federal environmental and other laws,” the GAO report says. This federal waiver allowed the Trump administration to bypass the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“The Trump administration cast those laws aside and ploughed forward with no thought about the consequences,”Jordahl told Al Jazeera.
President Joe Biden promised to end border wall construction during his presidential campaign and immediately halted construction upon taking office. However, the GAO report warns that: “Pausing construction and cancelling contracts also paused restoration work — such as completing water drainage structures and reseeding disturbed areas with native vegetation.”
The GAO report offers multiple recommendations for executive action, including that United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should document a strategy for mitigating impacts to natural and cultural resources with the Department of the Interior (DOI). The GAO also recommends that the Commissioner of CBP, with input from Interior, Department of Defense, tribes, and other stakeholders, should evaluate lessons learned from its prior assessments of potential impacts.
Specifically, the GAO report emphasized that CBP and Interior must consult with tribes moving forward.
“We have also found that effective consultation is a key tenet of the government- to government relationship that the U.S. has with Tribes, which is based on tribal sovereignty,” the report states. “In particular, consultation regarding identifying and selecting mitigation actions could help the agencies benefit from understanding tribal concerns and priorities.”
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