Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia has offered to help Trump build his border wall.
Last week the judge sent a letter to U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. In it he declared his opposition to the border wall, but then he suggested that Hidalgo County partner with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to build 30 miles of border wall into existing flood-control levees.
Such a plan, according to Judge Garcia, would replicate the County’s 2008 deal with the federal government that resulted in the construction of 20 miles of combination levee-border wall.
That project, negotiated by former Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, was presented as a way to get the federal government to pay for necessary improvements to levees that no longer met the flood control requirements of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
After months of vocally opposing the border wall alongside the vast majority of his constituents, Judge Salinas began pushing for this collaboration with DHS and worked with Dannenbaum Engineering to draw up designs for the levee-wall hybrid. His proposal was accepted by DHS, and 6 separate segments of levee-walls were constructed by Dannenbaum.
So how did things go the first time around?
Salinas’s scheme turned out to be a terrible deal for the County. Levee-border walls were built where DHS had previously planned to build border walls, not based on where levees were in most need of repair, so some walls were built where levee upgrades were not needed, and many miles of decrepit levees were left unchanged.
Since the levee-walls increased the border walls’ price tag, DHS demanded that Hidalgo County pay $44 million of the cost of construction, and the Hidalgo County Drainage District raided bond money that had been raised for drainage improvements. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn assured county residents that he would work to get Congress to reimburse us for the cost of the walls, but the three bills he introduced between 2008 and 2012 got no support, and we have never been paid back.
The year after Judge Salinas spent $44 million to build levee-border walls the incoming Obama Administration provided economic stimulus money for levee repairs. The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) moved to fix the levees that had not been converted to levee-border walls, with the federal government footing the entire bill. If the levee-border wall hadn’t been built, in all likelihood repairs to those levees would have been federally funded as well.
The upshot is that Hidalgo County residents paid a multi-million dollar bill that they didn’t need to pay for a border wall that they didn’t want.
Now it appears Judge Garcia wants to do it all again. He has released maps of his plan, prepared by Dannenbaum Engineering, the same company that made hundreds of millions of dollars building levee-border walls the last time. The maps show walls built into every levee along the river where there is not already a levee-border wall.
This is an astonishing proposal given that all of these levees have already been rehabilitated. The latest IBWC maps show that all of these levee segment repairs have either been completed or that they are currently under construction. Under this plan levees that were repaired just a few years ago would be torn down and replaced to solve a flood control problem that we no longer have.
And it would mean that once again our own county judge would collaborate with DHS against the wishes of his constituents and without regard to the devastating impacts on our environment and economy that his border wall would have.
Dannenbaum’s maps actually call for walling off Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park and World Birding Center. All border walls are bad for wildlife, as they fragment habitat and cut off animals from food, mates, and water sources. But the completely impassable levee-border walls have proved incredibly destructive to the Lower Rio Grande Valley Wildlife Corridor.
Small animals may squeeze through the four inch gaps between bollards (the steel posts used for border walls in Cameron County), though larger animals like endangered ocelots cannot. But only humans, who are able to build ladders, can get over the eighteen-foot high concrete slab of a levee-border wall.
Santa Ana and Bentsen are also important hubs in our $460 million per year ecotourism industry. Judge Garcia should be fighting to keep walls out of those areas to protect them as valuable wildlife habitat and important economic drivers.
This isn’t the only letter that Judge Garcia has written to Congress since Trump took office. Back in January, the judge was one of 29 elected officials representing border communities to sign a letter to Congress that condemned the border wall as “a colossally expensive and ineffective deterrent to undocumented immigration” that would “create the illusion of border security with no economic benefit.”
If Judge Garcia is going to represent his constituents, he needs to hold true to those statements, not help build the wall. He needs to resist, rather than collaborate with Trump in his destructive project to wall up our borderlands.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column was taken by Scott Nicol.