As Trump administration officials tout progress on the 400 miles of border wall state agencies have rammed through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, opponents of the wall are protesting and getting out the vote in borderland states.
The Biden campaign has shifted gears to include a three-stop visit to Texas by Kamala Harris, who in a 30-minute speech in McAllen on Friday linked the decades-long fight for civil rights to issues of human rights violations at the border. “When this administration has orphaned 545 children because of a policy that has been about separating children from their parents at the border, everything is at stake,” she told the socially distanced crowd.” As The Houston Chronicle reports, it’s been decades since Democratic candidates spent time in Texas borderland counties. The campaign was initially hesitant to spend resources there — in a state it didn’t expect to need to win — according to Slate. But Texas, which is second only to California in the number of electoral votes up for grabs, has become a more active battleground in the final days of the election season.
As of Friday, October 30, Texas residents had cast more than 9 million ballots, surpassing the total 8.9 million votes cast in that state in 2016. Analysts say a tight race could lead to success for Democrats for the first time since Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976.
For voters living in border counties, the wall that the Trump administration has brought to their backyards and blasted through sacred land is squarely on the ballot. The wall threatens beloved community gathering spaces, has trapped and killed endangered species heading for the Rio Grande River, and diverted hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per day to mix 797,000 cubic yards of concrete — a process that constitutes a major source of global carbon dioxide emissions.
In spite of continued legal challenges related to the Trump administration’s transfer of 2.4 billion in military spending to finance the wall, in recent weeks, the Department of Defense has strung explosives and detonated parts of Guadalupe Canyon in Arizona. It’s an area that Wildlands Network’s Borderlands Program Coordinator Myles Traphagen, told Border Report is “ground zero for biodiversity in North America.” The Trump administration is also in the midst of ongoing efforts to seize private land in Texas, as well as nature preserves like the Salineño Wildlife Refuge.
A group of community organizations in Laredo, Texas, known as the #NoBorderWallCoalition, has been canvassing in border counties where construction of the wall has not yet begun, to educate residents living near the Rio Grande about how it would impact their neighborhoods and where each of the presidential candidates stands on the undertaking.
For the last three weekends, Juan Manuel Ruíz, an organizer with the coalition, has been canvassing in neighborhoods he says tend to be overlooked in political contests, like Canta Ranas, Azteca and Santa Rita. The thousands of flyers Ruíz and other volunteers have distributed to residents include maps displaying how much land will be cleared to build the wall and a list of impacted places, including numerous city parks and green spaces. The flyers do not explicitly urge residents to vote for one candidate or the other. But they do prominently quote Joe Biden: “There will not be another foot of wall constructed in my administration,” Biden said in August. “End. Stop. Done. Over.”
Ruíz, who lives a half-block from the Rio Grande, in a neighborhood called Santa Rita, told Truthout the wall would be built within the city’s flood plain, separating residents from the river. In addition to concerns over how militarized zones around the walls could lead to human rights violations on the heels of decades of racist U.S. immigration policy and policing, activists are also worried the wall would block waterways like the Chacon and Zacate creeks, which fill with water during major storms, letting out into the Rio Grande. With a barrier trapping water from flowing through its path into the river, water and debris could get stuck at the wall, serving as a dam and inundating parts of the city that already face severe flooding during major rainstorms, which are getting more severe due to the climate crisis. As Scientific American reports, flooding has gotten worse at nearly all of the Customs and Border Protection fences the agency has built over the past 15 years, in part because projects are often exempt from in-depth environmental impact analysis.
While activists deem the wall an overt symbol of racism and xenophobia, Ruíz says that many residents the #NoBorderWallCoalition has reached through canvassing efforts were not aware of how the project would impact the community. “A lot of people have this conception that it’s just going to be the wall,” he said. “But in fact, it’s a 30-foot wall in the middle of a 200-foot enforcement zone that surrounds it,” he says, pointing to the vegetation and structures that the government would clear to build and operate on. “The Rio Grande serves as a corridor for migratory birds, and if we clear away the habitat, they’ll have no place to go,” Ruíz says.
With arguments like these, canvassers are cultivating opposition to the wall among communities concerned about environmental and quality-of-life impacts that had previously not been mobilized solely on the basis of opposition to the anti-immigrant symbolism and implications of the wall.
According to a report by the Center for Biological Diversity, the border wall threatens 2,134,792 acres of critical habitat and 93 endangered or candidate species, including Mexican gray wolves and Quino checkerspot butterflies. For species such as the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, which tends to fly low, the wall will isolate birds in Mexico from populations in the U.S., preventing breeding and heightening the possibility of extinction.
Nadja Lopez has also been canvassing in Laredo, educating residents on the dozens of laws the Department of Homeland security has managed to waive that would impact residents of Webb and Zapata counties, including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Solid Waste Disposal Act. Lopez told Truthout she’s most worried about how clearing the land could lead to erosion and impact the water quality of the Rio Grande — Laredo’s source of drinking water.
Lopez is also upset about the number of city parks the border wall would eliminate from public use, including all of Los Tres Laredos park, 10 square miles of green space that lines the riverbend on the southwest side of the city. She says the park is a community stronghold. “We’ve had birthday parties … and carne asadas, and people go fishing there or just walk and hang out,” she says. The park sits right up against the Rio Grande, close enough that you can see people on the Mexican side of the river having their picnics, Lopez says. “That would be completely walled off from us,” she says.
Like many of the border counties in South Texas, Webb County, where Laredo is located, voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in 2016. Seventy-four percent of the vote went to Hillary Clinton. But the region also has a history of low voter turnout. Lopez says while she has friends and family who have flipped from supporting Trump in 2016 to voting for Biden in this election, she also knows plenty of community members who have flipped in favor of Trump.
As is the case in battlegrounds such as Florida and Pennsylvania, the Latinx vote has the potential to tip the scales in Texas. According to a New York Times/Siena College poll, 57 percent of voters listed as “Hispanic” support Biden, while 34 percent support Trump, which The New York Times reports is “somewhat beneath” estimates of Clinton’s support from that demographic in 2016. President Trump maintains an overall lead in the state of 47 to 43 percent.
But the state is in the midst of a demographic shift — Texas is growing at a rate of 1,000 people per day — and it remains a political wild card. A total of 187,545 people arrived between July 2017 and July 2018. A September poll by the University of Houston found that 9 out of 10 Latino voters were “certain” they’d vote, though many of the state’s newest international migrants are from Asia.
Lopez and Ruíz say talking about the border wall with residents seems to activate potential voters, especially those who were not aware of plans for the wall to go up in their community. “The level of information that is being handed to different communities is different,” Ruiz said. “So we wanted to bridge that gap.”
On October 19, the Supreme Court decided it would review a suit questioning the legality of the Trump administration’s transfer of $2.5 billion in military funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall, which newly appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett will weigh in on. Back in July, the Sierra Club sought a temporary injunction to stop construction as the case moved through the courts, but the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to reject the injunction. As Atmos reports, the addition of Barrett to the bench is unlikely to sway the Court’s decision in favor of opponents of the wall. If Biden is elected, on the other hand, he has said that he would cease all construction on the border wall, pursuing instead a “high-tech” virtual wall — a plan not without its own serious faults. Biden could also squash the suits the Trump administration has brought, in which he would be listed as plaintiff.
Regardless of the outcome of the election, Ruíz hopes the activist alliance that’s sprung up around Laredo will continue to organize actions like a recent 2000-mile long “Rock the Border Stop the Wall” concert promoting voter turnout, and the bright yellow “Defund the Wall” street mural activists painted outside of the U.S. District Court in Laredo. “If that wall goes up, we’ll be here whether we or the river takes it down,” Ruíz said.