Will Laredo elude wall?
Construction won’t begin locally unless Biden approves project; local coalition vows to continue to oppose any extension of work
When President Donald Trump visited the Rio Grande Valley last week, he came to tout the construction of the border wall under his administration.
It was a fitting bookend to his presidency, which began with this promise to build a 30-foot-high wall between the U.S. and Mexico. His administration completed over 450 miles of construction in these four years — most of this was replacing smaller vehicle fencing in places like Arizona and California, and some is new construction on private property in places like Hidalgo and Starr counties.
None of this wall, however, made it to Laredo, the first border city Trump visited in the run-up to his election, a place where he was told he would be in “great danger.”
And as Trump’s last days in office wane, Laredo will remain untouched by the wall, unless President-elect Joe Biden allows the project to continue.
Four construction contracts have been awarded to build a combined 70 miles of border fencing in Webb and Zapata counties, and one section is nearing construction.
The 14 -mile span from the railroad bridge north to El Pico Water Plant is 90 percent complete in its design phase. Surveys are still ongoing, along with engineering, environmental and flood plain studies, Laredo Sector Border Patrol Chief Matthew J. Hudak told the Laredo Morning Times.
“As all the stuff going into that design is completed, that probably should be within a month or two at the most,” he said.
The 17-mile stretch from the railroad bridge south to El Cenizo is 60 percent complete in its design, and the 27 miles from El Cenizo south to San Ygnacio is still in its initial design phase, as is the northernmost 13 miles, from El Pico to the Colombia Bridge.
Only once the design is complete will the federal government start taking action to purchase the property that it needs, Hudak said, through negotiations with landowners or through imminent domain.
Meanwhile, there are still several landowners along these 70 miles who have not allowed the government the right to access their property to conduct the initial studies needed to complete the design.
Of the 207 landowners, 191 have signed the right of entry, 14 are battling the issue in court and two are still negotiating with the federal government outside of the courts, according to the Border Patrol.
Although Biden has promised that “not another foot” of the border wall will be built once he takes office, he has not made public how he plans to accomplish this.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar wrote a letter to Biden’s transition team in December, co-signed by 34 other members of Congress, urging Biden to terminate all existing border wall construction contracts, end the national emergency that Trump declared at the border, dismiss all ongoing condemnation proceedings and prohibit the government’s use of waivers to expedite construction while eschewing dozens of federal laws.
Laredo’s No Border Wall Coalition is offering the Biden administration a simpler, temporary option of a six-month moratorium on all border wall construction.
“It’s an easier ask, legally speaking,” said Melissa Cigarroa, a member of the No Border Wall Coalition. “Politically, it’s not as splashy . ... The administration has a boatload of issues on their plate, we just want it to be easier. But the expectation is, within those six months you cancel those contracts.”
The coalition has proffered a resolution to most of the local government entities that own land along the border that lays out their request. The Laredo City Council is the last group to take it up, which they’ll do at a meeting Tuesday.
“We will not breathe a sigh of relief until the Biden administration has put a moratorium on all construction, all condemnation and all contracting,” Cigarroa said.
Lardo Mayor Pete Saenz said he believes it’s only up to Biden at this point whether construction moves forward or not. But he hopes that if federal officials do cancel the contracts, that the investment in Laredo’s border security stays intact. Laredo leaders have long favored an “invisible wall” approach that involves more technology, cameras and Border Patrol agents on the ground.
“There’s a high probability that whatever (Biden) wants, he’ll get,” Saenz said. “It’s more of a Washington decision. Yes, we can express our wishes and desires here, but those come and go. But we’ll see what council decides.”