EL PASO, Texas – The condemnation suit has been filed and construction crews are staging. Another section of border wall will soon stand beside the Rio Grande.
El Paso’s new border wall will tear through the city’s historic heart. It will stand upon the exact spot where Don Juan de Oñate first crossed the Rio Grande in 1598, and New Spain established a road from Mexico City to Santa Fe long before the founding of either Mexico or the United States. Oñate’s crossing was called “El Paso del Rio de Norte,” the Pass Across the River of the North, and over time it grew into the city of El Paso.
The new El Paso wall will be added to the patchwork of barriers called for by the Secure Fence Act. Those walls have proved to be largely ineffective at stopping either drug smugglers or migrants looking for work. Customs and Border Protection spends millions of dollars repairing thousands of breaches each year, and if a crosser forgets to pack a saw the border wall takes less than a minute to climb.
But efficacy is not the point, and never has been. Border walls are nothing more than symbols, props for politicians to use as a backdrop in political ads. Whether or not they actually stop anyone is irrelevant –appearance is all that matters.
So far as Customs and Border Protection is concerned the actual damage that will be inflicted on a site of tremendous historical significance such as the Oñate crossing is also irrelevant. Because the Bush administration used the REAL ID Act to waive 36 laws construction can move quickly, with no need to protect historic or archaeological features. The Antiquities Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Archaeological Resources Protection Act, and other laws that might safeguard our cultural heritage have been swept aside, along with laws that protect our environment and human health.
Thanks to the waiver other border walls have caused severe erosion in the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, flooding in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and the fragmentation of endangered species habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
There is no reason to think that this time Customs and Border Protection will act responsibly.
The stated intent of the REAL ID Act’s waiver provision was to allow for the “expeditious construction” of border walls and patrol roads that might otherwise be slowed down by compliance with laws. But it has been seven years since the Secure Fence Act was passed. Construction was not delayed by lawsuits; Customs and Border Protection simply did not think that this section was a priority. Now that they have gotten around to building it there is no rush, they just don’t want to be bothered with obeying our nation’s laws.
No agency should be above the rule of law, and it is beyond ridiculous to allow a law enforcement agency to violate laws with impunity.
El Paso’s U.S. Representative, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, and Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn have called upon Customs and Border Protection to rethink this section of wall, to reach out to El Paso residents and listen to the opinions of those on the ground as to whether this wall will be of benefit to the community or if instead it will be, as Brownsville’s Bishop Flores described Texas’ border walls, another “scar” disfiguring border communities. Customs and Border Protection has refused to listen to border residents, likely because they know that those who will live with this scar through the heart of their community would reject it.
Having been given such tremendous power when Senator Cornyn and his fellow members of Congress voted for the REAL ID Act (in 2005 O’Rourke was not yet a member of Congress, so could neither support nor oppose the bill), Customs and Border Protection can ignore the law and lawmakers. They have a long track record of condemning the property of local landowners and municipalities and erecting walls in the face of local protests.
Customs and Border Protection should commit to upholding all of our nation’s laws, not just those that it finds convenient. If it is impossible to erect border walls without violating 36 federal laws those walls should not be built.
Scott Nicol co-chairs the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team. He lives in McAllen, Texas. For more information visit sierraclub.org/borderlands.