|McALLEN, July 2 - Another migrant falls victim to the South Texas heat and dies alone in the barren ranchlands of Brooks County.
A Texas farm family struggles to maintain their livelihood despite being forced to live on the wrong side of the border wall.
One of the last endangered ocelots in Texas is trapped in an island of habitat, separated by border walls from mates or the life-giving waters of the Rio Grande.
Here on the southern border we have long suffered the brunt of the irrational border security schemes that Congress has dreamed up in lieu of tackling comprehensive immigration reform. Border militarization and border walls kill the migrants that traverse our lands and endanger border residents; they blight our communities and devastate our natural areas.
When Congress took up immigration reform this year, there was hope that rational reform would mean relief for Texas border communities, along with the 11 million immigrants awaiting legal status. But the immigration bill that the Senate passed will instead mean more death, displacement, and destruction in the borderlands.
In fact, the Senate immigration reform bill makes border militarization a trigger, though its supporters hate that term. No undocumented immigrant can start on the ten-year pathway to citizenship until the Border Patrol doubles in size and hundreds of miles of eighteen-foot- tall border wall are built.
Calling this a ‘border surge’ as if the border were a war zone like Iraq or Afghanistan, when in fact it is home to some of the safest cities in the United States, immigration reform supporters in the Senate showed that they would willingly trade over-the-top militarization of the border to pass some kind of legislation.
And it’s people who live along the border who will pay the price.
The bill hires 19,000 new Border Patrol agents on the southern border. This will mean an unprecedented increase in green, inexperienced recruits in our communities.
And those recruits may not be the best and the brightest. The last time the federal government sought to quickly double the number of Border Patrol agents was in the waning years of the Bush administration. Under pressure to meet aggressive hiring quotas, the Border Patrol stopped requiring that candidates have a high school diploma or a GED, they did not properly vet them, and they significantly decreased the amount of training before deployment, according to a 2008 report by the National Border Patrol Council.
The hiring surge mandated by the Senate bill will likely follow the same pattern. When law enforcement agents are ill-educated and poorly trained, communities suffer and tragedies, abuses, and corruption are inevitable.
The legislation also requires 700 miles of pedestrian wall along the border. Currently there are 351 miles of pedestrian wall and 299 miles of vehicle barrier. Most of the vehicle barriers will be converted to pedestrian walls, though some 70 miles of Native American lands are exempted. Taken together, this means that 120 miles or more of new border walls will be erected. Because most of the rest of the border has already been walled up, we can count on nearly all the new walls being built in Texas.
Since the land along the Rio Grande is mostly privately owned, more border walls will lead to another round of condemnations in Texas border communities. More than 400 landowners had their property seized to erect the walls that have already been built. If the Senate’s immigration bill passes, hundreds more could lose their farms, homes, and businesses.
Along the Rio Grande border walls cannot be built in the flood plain, and instead must go on or in the flood control levees, which can be up to a mile from the river. Walls in South Texas have cut off private property behind the border wall and left homes and family farms in a no man’s land. The walls required by this legislation will mean even more stranded families.
Because condemnation proceedings are lengthy, and the Senate bill makes wall construction a trigger that will hold up the pathway to citizenship, Customs and Border Protection will likely target federal land along the border for walls wherever possible. The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, known as the jewel of the refuge system because of its amazing diversity, could get a wall separating the visitor’s center from its trails.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge is a wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande intended to preserve habitat for the endangered ocelot. Many tracts were already damaged by walls, and now the remaining tracts could be bisected or cut off from access to the river.
Big Bend National Park and nearby state parks could be sliced by border walls as well.
Building more walls and ramping up militarization means doubling down on an intentional strategy to drive migrants into rural and rugged areas. This strategy has lead to the deaths of thousands of human beings since 1990, many of them from dehydration and exposure. A recent report by the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute is just the latest to point out that increased border enforcement has led to an increasing number of migrant deaths, even as fewer people come across the border. It’s simple: as more walls go up and more boots hit the ground, more people die.
As the Border Patrol has escalated its enforcement in south Texas, there has been a sharp increase in migrant deaths. In Brooks County, whose harsh terrain migrants cross to avoid the Border Patrol’s Falfurrias checkpoint, 129 died last year. The migrant death rate across the state rose by 22% from 2011 to 2012. This is a humanitarian crisis that the Senate immigration bill ignores.
The real problems we see on the border—extreme militarization, Berlin-style border walls that blight our communities and destroy our wildlands, and hundreds of men, women, and children dying in search of the American dream—are seen as political solutions in Washington D.C.
We need our Congressional representatives to fight for our communities and bring our border reality to Congress and to the American public.
Real reform needs to solve these problems not make them worse. It should offer a pathway to citizenship without killing ever more migrants and destroying our borderlands and our border communities.
Stefanie Herweck is chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club. She lives in McAllen, Texas.