Bar­ri­ers to border wall taken down

Fed­eral of­fi­cials put aside en­vi­ron­men­tal laws to ex­pe­dite con­struc­tion in Texas.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Molly Hen­nessy-Fiske molly.hen­nessy-fiske @la­times.com

HOUS­TON — With con­struc­tion of what Pres­i­dent Trump calls the first 40 miles of new border wall al­ready un­der­way across the na­tion’s south­ern bound­ary, fed­eral of­fi­cials have an­nounced this week they’re waiv­ing nearly 30 en­vi­ron­men­tal laws in Texas to ex­pe­dite ad­di­tional build­ing in the in­ter­est of home­land se­cu­rity.

Op­po­nents called the waivers cat­a­strophic.

“Waiv­ing laws meant to pro­tect border res­i­dents and ecosys­tems shows the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s con­tempt for the rule of law,” said Scott Ni­col, co-chair­man of the Sierra Club’s Bor­der­lands Team.

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups an­tic­i­pated the waivers, and are ex­pected to sue to block them in fed­eral court as they have be­fore — so far, un­suc­cess­fully — cit­ing ir­repara­ble dam­age to lo­cal wildlife refuges, home to hun­dreds of mi­grat­ing birds and but­ter­flies, and sev­eral en­dan­gered species.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had al­ready is­sued waivers of the the Clean Air, Wa­ter and En­dan­gered Species acts, among oth­ers, to make way for por­tions of the wall now un­der con­struc­tion in Cal­i­for­nia and New Mex­ico.

The lat­est waivers con­cern stretches of planned border wall and gates in Texas’ Rio Grande Val­ley, the most heav­ily traf­ficked il­le­gal border cross­ing in the coun­try, where 137,000 im­mi­grants were caught last fis­cal year, the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity noted in an an­nounce­ment. Of­fi­cials have said they plan to be­gin build­ing 25 miles of border bar­ri­ers there in Fe­bru­ary.

The waivers came as House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin Mc­Carthy (R-Bak­ers­field) planned to in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion this week to fully fund the $23-bil­lion border wall, a pro­posal con­demned by con­gres­sional Democrats, in­clud­ing Rio Grande Val­ley Rep. Vi­cente Gon­za­lez, who called it waste­ful spend­ing on an “ar­chaic, in­ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion” to border se­cu­rity.

In waiv­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions in Texas, au­thor­i­ties cited the Il­le­gal Im­mi­gra­tion Re­form and Im­mi­grant Re­spon­si­bil­ity Act of 1996, al­low­ing con­struc­tion of bar­ri­ers that “de­ter il­le­gal cross­ings in ar­eas of high il­le­gal en­try into the United States.”

In Cal­i­for­nia and New Mex­ico, of­fi­cials had in­voked the Real ID Act of 2005, passed af­ter the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, which in­cludes a pro­vi­sion al­low­ing them to waive reg­u­la­tions to build border bar­ri­ers with­out con­gres­sional over­sight. Le­gal ex­perts said the rea­son­ing un­der both laws is sim­i­lar.

The waivers are not un­prece­dented: In 2008, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued five waivers un­der the Real ID Act to al­low con­struc­tion — over the ob­jec­tions of en­vi­ron­men­tal groups — of more than 250 miles of fence along the border in Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona, New Mex­ico and Texas.

But the Texas waivers are es­pe­cially wor­ri­some, en­vi­ron­men­tal groups say, be­cause they al­low for im­mi­nent con­struc­tion of about 17 miles of border bar­rier and gates pass­ing through Bentsen State Park, the Na­tional But­ter­fly Cen­ter and near the Santa Ana Na­tional Wildlife Refuge.

“It will truly be cat­a­strophic to Rio Grande Val­ley com­mu­ni­ties” re­sult­ing in “eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion,” said Laiken Jor­dahl, bor­der­lands cam­paigner for the Tuc­son-based Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity, which posted a map of ar­eas af­fected by the waivers.

The Rio Grande Val­ley’s Santa Ana refuge was ini­tially due to be walled off, but af­ter lo­cal protests, con­gres­sional law­mak­ers ex­empted it. In an­nounc­ing the waivers in the fed­eral reg­is­ter Wed­nes­day, Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials re­it­er­ated that they would not be build­ing in the Santa Ana refuge and in­sisted the agency “re­mains com­mit­ted to en­vi­ron­men­tal stew­ard­ship.”

But Jor­dahl dis­missed the agency’s claim to en­vi­ron­men­tal re­spon­si­bil­ity.

“There’s only 5% of na­tive habi­tat left in the Rio Grande Val­ley, and most of that’s right by the river. They’re propos­ing to cut right through that. The grav­ity of this waiver can­not be over­stated,” he said.

Jor­dahl said that the wall will be built with a 150-foot en­force­ment zone that must be cleared, elim­i­nat­ing valu­able habi­tat for birds and other wildlife.

The new border bar­rier would par­tic­u­larly harm en­dan­gered aplo­mado fal­cons, jaguarundi and ocelots, Jor­dahl said, which need to be able to tra­verse the border to breed and main­tain ge­netic di­ver­sity.

“If we put this wall up, any chances of their re­cov­ery we can kiss good­bye,” he said.

His group sued the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in Fe­bru­ary over waivers for border wall con­struc­tion at the Santa Teresa Port of En­try in New Mex­ico, with oral ar­gu­ments sched­uled for Dec. 18 in Wash­ing­ton.

The group is also ap­peal­ing a Cal­i­for­nia fed­eral judge’s rul­ing in March throw­ing out a fed­eral law­suit filed along with Cal­i­for­nia Atty. Gen. Xavier Be­cerra and other en­vi­ron­men­tal groups over waivers to build border bar­ri­ers in San Diego and Calex­ico.

Op­po­nents have two months to file a law­suit chal­leng­ing the Texas waivers. But even if they sue, they’re un­likely to halt con­struc­tion.

Af­ter the cen­ter sued to block the Cal­i­for­nia and New Mex­ico waivers, Home­land Se­cu­rity still broke ground.

Mar­i­anna Trevino Wright, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional But­ter­fly Cen­ter, sued the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to stop the new Texas border wall in Au­gust. Although a fed­eral judge may throw out por­tions of the law­suit ad­dress­ing the wall’s en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts, be­cause of the waivers, she still plans to con­tend crit­ics have grounds to fight the wall based on civil and land rights.

“Our com­mu­nity is go­ing to take an enor­mous hit from this waste­ful pub­lic works project, which is a fleec­ing of Amer­ica,” Trevino Wright said. “This is be­ing shoved down our throats.”

Ale­jan­dro Bringas EPA/Shut­ter­stock

BORDER FENC­ING al­ready marks the Rio Grande Val­ley. Ac­tivists hope to stop con­struc­tion in the area.

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