ALAMO, RGV – Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security committee have touted an appropriations bill that includes $1.6 billion for approximately 65 miles of pedestrian fencing in the Rio Grande Valley.

The provision came in for immediate criticism from the Sierra Club of the Rio Grande Valley and the Texas Border Coalition.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester

“This bill includes $1.6 billion for approximately 65 miles of pedestrian fencing in the Rio Grande Valley. The bill limits funds in the bill to currently deployed fencing design along the southern border, such as bollard fencing,” the Senate Democrats said, in a summary of the FY 2019 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill. 

“The bill includes a prohibition on building any barrier in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and requires a comprehensive risk-based border security plan no later than 180 days after enactment.”

Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign, says once the 65 miles of border wall are built, the region will have about 150 miles of border wall from Falcon Dam to the Gulf of Mexico.

“If you do the math, depending on how closely the wall hugs the river it is around 150 miles from Falcon Dam to the Gulf of Mexico,” Nicol told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“There are 56 miles of existing border wall in Hidalgo and Cameron counties. The 2018 omnibus paid for 25 miles of new levee-border wall in Hidalgo county, and eight miles of new bollard wall in Starr county. This funds 65 miles of new wall in the RGV. 56+25+8+65=154. All of the Rio Grande Valley sector, from Falcon Dam to the Gulf of Mexico would be walled off except for Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.”

Scott Nicol

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, ranking member of the Department of Homeland Security Subcommittee, said: “This national security bill makes critical investments at our northern and southern borders, provides the Coast Guard with new assets to protect our ports and waterways, bolsters security at our airports, increases support for local law enforcement, and helps stop the flow of dangerous drugs, like opioids, fentanyl, and methamphetamines. By making these responsible investments we will keep our nation safe and tackle some of our country’s most pressing security challenges.”

Nicol responded:

“If the 65 miles of border wall in this bill are added to the border walls that already stand and the walls that Congress funded in the 2017 Omnibus, the entire three-county Lower Rio Grande Valley will be walled off from the Rio Grande, the only exception being one small hole at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

“New border walls will tear through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, dooming the last chance for endangered ocelots in South Texas to avoid extirpation.  Walls will rip apart the communities of Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos, where they will cause tremendous flooding impacts to those who live on both sides of the Rio Grande.  And like walls all along the border, these new border walls will push border crossers deeper into deadly desert landscapes, where hundreds of men, women, and children die horrible deaths every year.  As new walls rise so will the number of deaths.

“The Sierra Club unequivocally opposes border walls in South Texas and along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, and we call upon members of Congress to strip the useless, destructive, and deadly border walls from this bill.”

The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 by conservationist John Muir. According to their website, the club is the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization with about three million members and supporters.

The Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign stands against President Donald Trump’s efforts to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The Sierra Club unequivocally opposes border walls in South Texas and along the entire U.S.-Mexico border,” Nicol told the Rio Grande Guardian. “We call upon members of Congress to strip the useless, destructive and deadly border walls from this bill.”

The Texas Border Coalition, which represents cities and counties up and down the Texas-Mexico border region, was equally critical of the Senate committee’s border wall funding plan.

TBC said the funding would fence all but 24 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border in the Valley. 

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz

“Such fencing is ineffective and constitutes wasteful spending,” Laredo Mayor and TBC Chairman Pete Saenz said. “It is a cynical attempt by Senate Republicans to fence nearly every mile of the U.S.-Mexico border from Falcon Dam to the Gulf of Mexico with little consideration of the human, economic and environmental impact it will have on border communities.”

Saenz said the 65 miles of fencing funded by the Senate bill would bring the total fencing to 152 miles in the Rio Grande Valley sector, which is made up of Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr Counties. That would leave 24 miles in the sector unfenced.

Saenz said that currently, about 55 miles of fencing have already been constructed in the Rio Grande Valley. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is in the process of adding 32 miles (24 miles in Hidalgo County and 8 miles in Starr County) based on 2018 funding.

“The fence installed in San Diego hasn’t stopped illegal immigration; it was intended to re-route immigrant traffic into the Arizona desert where many have died in their attempts to cross the border,” said Cameron County Judge and TBC Chairman-elect Eddie Treviño, Jr.  “A fence throughout the Rio Grande Valley will achieve the same results, while providing Americans with a false sense of security.”

Monica Weisberg-Stewart

Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chairwoman of TBC’s immigration and border security committee, said the Senate funding bill would also add 375 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at border ports of the entry and provide $512 million for State Homeland Security Grants, of which $90 million is for Operation Stonegarden – a $5 million increase.

“While the Senate bill would add more hands on deck, it would result in a less safe border region and a less safe America,” Weisberg-Stewart said.

“For those of us that live, work and raise our families along the border, we demand and deserve better security proposals than a fence.”