Today marks 30 years that the people of East Berlin tore down “that wall.”
November 9, 1989, is remembered by history because it marked the end of the Cold War, definitively discredited Soviet Communism, and allowed for the long-awaited reunification of a city, a people, a community.
The symbolism permeated the Iron Curtain’s implosion—that of a separation barrier dividing the historic city of Berlin and its people by East and West— is a moment in history for which the United States leadership largely takes credit. Ironically, Washington today rushes to erect its own border barrier with Mexico, a continuation of the recent administration’s border policies.
As in Berlin, militarization in the form of a wall along the Southern U.S. border has had disastrous effects on local populations wherever erected and has been a violent plight upon people fleeing persecution.
In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, as in other parts of the Southern U.S. border, Customs and Border Protection is speeding up progress on border wall construction. RGV-02, a $167 million contract, consists of eight miles of levee wall in five segments from Alamo, Donna, Weslaco, Progreso, and Mercedes. According to CBP, construction includes a “reinforced concrete levee wall to the height of the existing levee, 18-foot tall steel bollards installed on top of the concrete wall, and vegetation removal along a 150-foot enforcement zone,” as well as “detection technology, lighting, video surveillance, and an all-weather patrol road.” Additionally, CBP has apparently added a five foot panel onto the 18-foot high bollards — a specification previously unannounced.
As part of the RGV-02 project, a Galveston-based government contractor broke ground in Donna, Texas, at the end of October, marking the first wave of border wall construction since February when the same company, SLSCO, razed La Parida Banco tract—a part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge System—in Mission, Texas, just west of Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park. This land will now be unavailable for recreation purposes like wildlife watching, hunting, and nature photography.
The new segment in Donna, built upon a levee within a stretch of private farm land, is surrounded by small lakes dubbed bancos, where migratory and native birds drink and bathe. It’s also situated near several of the 18 tracts of the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area, a combined 3,000-plus acres of land purchased by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in order to preserve native brush nesting habitat, farmland and wetlands for white-winged doves from Hidalgo to Cameron County. Walls built under the Secure Fence Act of 2006 already cut through the Monterrey Banco tract to the west, and the new wall, standing much higher, will connect to them.
Geese take flight across the Eurestes Banco, immediately east of border wall construction in Donna. It’s a small lake that sits between tracts of the Las Palomas Wildlife Management Area to its north and the Rio Grande River to its south. Just as humans, as much a part of nature, white-winged doves and other migratory species’ migration patterns will no doubt be disrupted by more border walls. No wonder the Migratory Bird Conservation Act was among the laws ‘waived’ by the Department of Homeland Security to expedite construction in this area.
The REAL ID Act of 2005, voted for by RGV Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, gave the Department of Homeland Security Secretary authority to bypass any law that would require careful study of its impacts. These waived laws include the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, as well as dozens of other laws intended to preserve history, culture and religious freedoms. Environmental impact statements, as required by NEPA, for instance, would demonstrate the catastrophic flooding that will undoubtedly ensue as a result of building barriers along the Rio Grande floodplain, as the federal government plans to do in Starr County and Laredo.
Border walls certainly pose a mortal danger to residents who reside nearby as they have actually led to deaths and flood damage in the RGV and other parts of the border. Along with causing environmental devastation, border walls act as a weapon against asylees from Central and South America and many other parts of the world. As in East Berlin, where people died trying to escape Eastern Germany by digging under and even air ballooning over the wall, border walls on the Southern U.S. border do not stop people from trying to cross; they only place people in more dangerous situations.
As both the Berlin Wall and the U.S. wall prove, nothing can stop communities who are forcibly separated from reuniting. Locally, swimming across the Rio Grande has become especially dangerous. Families fleeing persecution are having their right to claim asylum at a port of entry severely limited by policies like metering and the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols – which limit the number of people who can request asylum daily and force migrants to wait in Mexico while their cases move through immigration courts, respectively. This drives them to seek other forms of entry into the U.S., placing them in unnecessary danger. Border walls will only add to the hoops migrants must jump through, but they will not deter those who flee certain death and seek opportunity.
While the U.S. Congress negotiates 2020 appropriations, they must know that border residents are overwhelmingly opposed to the wall and that we reject DHS’s waiver authority. Although we demand that RGV representatives vote against any wall funding, stop the president from taking other agencies’ funds for wall construction, and rescind the waiver authority, civil society and activists in East Berlin, who took it upon themselves to dismantle the wall and the oppressive system it represented, inspire us. Their courage, more than any speech given by any U.S. President at Brandenburg Gate, is the most valuable reflection of that period from which to draw upon today.