This week Congress passed legislation that averted a government shutdown, keeping the federal lights on through October.
Border walls had been a major point of contention. Trump demanded $999,000,000 for new walls, apparently assuming that the American people would think that since it was less than a full billion we must be getting a great deal, like paying $9.99 for a ten-dollar item at Wal-Mart.
Trump wanted that almost-a-billion to pay for 14 miles of brand new border wall, and the replacement of 14 miles of old border walls, in California.
In Texas, it would have bought 28 miles of new levee-border wall in Hidalgo County, and six miles of border wall in the Rio Grande floodplain near Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos. It also would have paid for the installation of 35 gates in existing Rio Grande Valley walls, and the condemnation of land in the vicinity of those gates.
But when the budget bill was rolled out Democratic leadership sought to reassure border residents that, as Senator Chuck Schumer put it, “The bill ensures taxpayer dollars aren’t used to fund an ineffective border wall.”
Which sounds like the border gets a reprieve, at least for a few months.
If border residents want to make that permanent, instead of just a five month delay, we will need to reach out to members of Congress, especially Texas Senators Cornyn and Cruz, and push them to oppose all new border wall funding.
But the President’s take on the bill that he just signed is somewhat different. Trump claims that the legislation contains “enough money to make a down payment on the border wall.”
In truth, both Schumer and Trump are correct.
Democrats successfully removed funding for border walls in new locations in California and South Texas, and should be commended for doing so. Those walls would have inflicted tremendous environmental damage, and walls in the Rio Grande floodplain would also put local communities on both sides of the river at greater risk during flood events.
But there are hundreds of millions of dollars in the bill that will pay for border wall construction, the “down payment” that Trump and his surrogates want to brag about:
“$341,200,000 to replace approximately 40 miles of existing primary pedestrian and vehicle border fencing along the southwest border using previously deployed and operationally effective designs, such as currently deployed steel bollard designs, that prioritize agent safety; and to add gates to existing barriers.”
That is a significant amount of money, but not a lot of detail about exactly how it will be spent. Luckily Republicans posted a document online that gives more of a breakdown. It has three line items that fit this description, and together they add up to the amount that was approved:
$146,000,000 for “Replacement of primary pedestrian fencing in high priority areas – 20 miles.”
$146,000,000 for “Replacement of vehicle fencing with primary pedestrian fencing in high priority areas – 20 miles.”
$49,200,000 for “Gates for existing barriers- 35 gates.”
The first 20 miles of “primary pedestrian fencing” in this list involves removing some of the earliest walls that were built along the border in California and Arizona, made of corrugated steel panels that had originally been used as helicopter landing mats in the Vietnam War, and replacing them with bollard walls like those that currently stand in Cameron County.
The next 20 miles refers to vehicle barriers that are typically six feet tall and were erected in Arizona and New Mexico to stop Jeeps and ATVs from driving across the border in roadless desert areas. These are areas where pedestrian walls were seen by the Border Patrol as pointless, as a person on foot may take a week to reach a road. It is in these rugged areas that each year hundreds of border crossers die, at a rate that is only surpassed by the ranchlands around the Falfurrias checkpoint.
Because of their design – shorter and with wider gaps between posts – vehicle barriers typically allow wildlife and water to pass through them, so they are less damaging to the environment than bollard border walls. That is not to say that they are environmentally harmless, but replacing them with the bollard design that has elsewhere dammed water and blocked the movement of endangered jaguar and Sonoran pronghorn will inflict a great deal of damage on fragile ecosystems.
It is the 35 gates that will hit the Rio Grande Valley directly. In its bit-shy-of-a-billion-dollars request, the Trump Administration wrote,
“CBP constructed approximately 55 miles of pedestrian fence in the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol Sector. To ensure no obstruction of the flood plain in that area, fencing was constructed north of the physical border, in some cases up to a mile. This required CBP to construct gates to allow both USBP and private land owners access to land south of the fence. Approximately half of the required gates have already been completed. However, the remaining 35 gaps in the fence cannot be gated until such time as CBP receives the funds required to address the real estate requirements associated with this project.”
The 42 gates that have already been built in the RGV averaged $240,000 apiece, a high price but far less than the $1.4 million per gate that was just approved. The difference is almost certainly tied to “real estate requirements.” This does not refer to the footprint of the wall where gates would go, as that land has already been acquired.
It means condemning private property behind the wall so that the Border Patrol will never have to open the gates to give landowners access to their land.
There are currently 35 of these gaps in the Rio Grande Valley’s walls, allowing access to the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary, the Nature Conservancy’s Southmost Preserve, the homes of Pamela Taylor and her neighbors, and hundreds of acres of farmland.
Their lost property will constitute the “down payment on the border wall” that Trump was so excited about. And there will be many, many more if border residents and our elected representatives do not stand up and resist this useless and destructive monument to hatred, xenophobia, and Donald Trump’s ego.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this guest column shows a sign near the home of Pamela Taylor. The home, next to the Rio Grande near Brownsville, would be stranded on the “Mexican” side if a border wall is built. The photo was taken by the author of the guest column, Scott Nicol.