Last week U.S. Representative Michael McCaul, R-Austin, introduced the “Secure Our Borders First” Act in an obvious bid to strike back at President Obama for his executive order on immigration.

Pure politics at its worst, McCaul’s bill will tear apart South Texas communities and our environment and transform our cities into a war zone just to make a political point, at a cost of ten billion taxpayer dollars.

McCaul’s bill requires military hardware and tactics along the entire border, whether or not the Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol think they will be useful.

Scott Nicol
Scott Nicol

When he was interviewed by FOX News on Wednesday McCaul said of his bill, “We’re gonna take the discretion away from the Department [of Homeland Security] and we’re gonna mandate how they get this thing done through the deployment of assets, uh, through the deployment of military assets from Afghanistan and other places to the Southwest border and maritime as well.”

“Secure Our Border First” mandates that ten miles of brand new, double-layered border wall be erected in the Rio Grande Valley in just 18 months.

Currently we have 54 miles of border wall, and all of that is single layered. Imagine two parallel border walls with a patrol road between them. To build the existing single walls in Texas, Customs and Border Protection had to take nearly 400 land owners to court to condemn their property. The proceedings dragged on for years. There are now Texans whose homes are in the “no-man’s land” behind the wall, and East Brownsville homeowners who live so close to the wall that every afternoon its rusting steel posts cast shadows like prison bars on the back of their houses.

The ten mile length is probably an indication that these new double walls are meant to go up in Roma and Rio Grande City, where single walls were proposed seven years ago. Those walls would be in the floodplain, and could worsen flooding in both the US and Mexico – a clear treaty violation, and the reason that they were stalled. If the walls in the floodplain are doubled, as McCaul’s bill demands, the flooding will be dramatically worse. Their wider footprint would also mean that in addition to condemning homes and farmland, and a nursing home in Rio Grande City, Roma’s City Hall will have to be bulldozed.

The bill also calls for ten new miles of double wall in the Border Patrol’s Del Rio Sector, which includes the cities of Del Rio and Eagle Pass. There is no indication as to which town would get new walls added to their existing ones.

McCaul seems to think that the border is a desolate wasteland, devoid of people. His bill includes “forward operating bases” modeled after those used by the U.S. military in Afghanistan: one for the El Paso sector; three for Big Bend; two for Del Rio; two for Laredo; and two for the Rio Grande Valley.  There are currently forward operating bases scattered around the Arizona desert, in places where it takes an agent on patrol four or five hours to get from a station to the starting point for their shift. Agents instead live for a week or two at the bases, which have bunks and showers, along with holding cells and helicopter pads. McCaul seems unaware of the fact that in the Rio Grande Valley we have Military Highway and U.S. 83 that are typically no more than a dozen miles from the river. A substation on the side of the highway might make some sense, but calling for forward operating bases in the space between South Texas towns demonstrates his fundamental ignorance about the region.

“Secure Our Border First” also attacks the environment of the borderlands by suspending environmental laws on all federal lands within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico and the U.S.-Canada borders. This expands the REAL ID Act waivers that were used to build environmentally destructive border walls that otherwise would have been illegal. If McCaul’s bill is signed not only walls and roads, but forward operating bases and routine patrols can ignore the laws that would otherwise protect some of Texas’ most treasured lands, from the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge to Big Bend National Park to the Guadalupe Mountains. South Texas’ dwindling ocelot population could be pushed over the edge to extinction with the Endangered Species Act no longer in place.

Especially offensive is the fact that while South Texans will suffer under the “Secure Our Borders First,” neither Representative McCaul, nor Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, who introduced an identical bill in the U.S. Senate, bothered to speak with border residents about what we think should be done in and around our homes. Last summer McCaul held a Congressional field hearing in McAllen, but Rio Grande Valley residents were given no opportunity to speak. Landowners whose property had been condemned for existing walls, or will be condemned for McCaul’s new border walls, were not permitted to address the Congressman. Biologists from the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge were likewise not consulted.

Then as now McCaul was using South Texas as a prop, a lure to bring in media, a way to get his face on FOX News. And it worked: the parking lot was filled with satellite trucks from national news outlets.

Now Representative McCaul wants to use us again, to get face time on FOX – the most valuable commodity a conservative politician could desire – and to score political points against the President.

When he rolled out “Secure Our Borders First” McCaul posted a promotional video on YouTube. In it he said, “By ensuring that the security of our Southern Border is no longer subject to political games we can guarantee our children, and grandchildren, and future generations know the safety and peace of mind that comes with a secure border.”

But this bill is nothing but a political game, throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at the contractors that have contributed heavily to his reelection campaigns and taking a poke at his political opponent, while accomplishing nothing.

McCaul is either ignorant of the impacts of his bill, or unconcerned. Or both.

I live where Representative McCaul wants to build more walls, fly more drones, waive more laws, and, in his words, deploy military assets from Afghanistan. My daughter will grow up in the prison that he wants to build, the war zone that he wants to create.

I hope that members of Congress who represent border communities, from O’Rourke in El Paso to Vela in Brownsville, will work hard and speak loudly to dispel the myths and counter the false narratives that are driving Michael McCaul’s bill and garnering the support of so many non-border Republicans. I trust that they will stand up for border residents.

Representative McCaul should come to the border and walk the line of his new walls, so that he can look the people whose land he wants to condemn directly in the eye and try to assure them that when they lose their property it will somehow benefit their children and grandchildren.

McCaul needs to look into the eyes of a border resident, instead of a TV camera, when he tries to pretend that this is not just another political game.

Click here to read the Secure Our Borders First Act (HR 399).

Scott Nicol is the Co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team, and lives in McAllen, TX.  Click here to read the Sierra Club’s statement regarding the Secure Our Borders First Act.