The full scope of the Trump administration’s border wall ambitions in the Rio Grande Valley emerged this week with the revelation that the U.S. Border Patrol has plans to build 32 miles of barrier in Starr County, where flooding concerns helped kill off similar plans half a decade ago.
According to a Border Patrol map shown to local officials and stakeholders last week, and obtained by the American-Statesman, the agency has preliminary plans to wall off nearly the entirety of Hidalgo County’s southern edge. In neighboring Starr County, the map shows substantial border wall segments would be built in Rio Grande City, west of Sullivan City and a lengthy stretch from Roma to the southern tip of Falcon Lake.
The U.S. House has approved $1.6 billion to build 74 miles of border wall, more than 80 percent of which is slated for the Rio Grande Valley. But the border wall funding is expected to be the subject of a bruising battle in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats have vowed to fight additional money for physical border barriers.
The Border Patrol’s current budget includes funding for 35 gates to plug gaps in the existing border fencing in the Rio Grande Valley. Dozens of miles of fencing were built last decade in Hidalgo and Cameron counties.
Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal, a longtime wall opponent, said his goal at this point is to “minimize the impact” of the wall on his Starr County city. So far, he said, local Border Patrol officials have been receptive to his concerns, and he said plans he has seen appear to spare his southernmost neighborhoods.
“I don’t want any of our neighborhoods south of the wall,” he said. “Any property south of the wall would be rendered worthless.”
Villarreal said that federal officials have agreed to allow city engineers to work with them on flood analyses, which have proven controversial in the past. “I can’t say I’m 100 percent convinced, but in good faith they are allowing our engineers to look at it as well,” he said. “Hopefully we can address any concerns before construction would begin.”
Border Patrol officials, who told the Statesman it would be premature to comment on specific locations because the project is still in the planning phase, have long sought to build border barriers in Starr County. Along with neighboring Hidalgo and Cameron counties, Starr forms part of the agency’s Rio Grande Valley sector, one of the border’s busiest in terms of immigrant apprehensions and drug seizures.
“The Rio Grande Valley has been an area of exploitation and an area lacking in border infrastructure,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection acting Deputy Commissioner Ronald Vitiello said in June. “These miles will help connect existing segments of wall throughout the area and fill critical gaps.”
Vitiello has said the Border Patrol has ruled out about 130 miles of border, including such Texas locales as Big Bend and Lake Amistad in Del Rio, where “fencing is not practical nor necessary.”
“The natural barrier already slows people down as they’re trying to cross the border in that space,” he said.
The areas targeted for new walls in the Rio Grande Valley make strategic sense, said Victor Manjarrez, retired Border Patrol chief and associate director of the University of Texas at El Paso’s Center for Law and Human Behavior.
“This tells me someone is paying attention to what the (agents) are asking for,” he said. “These areas provide lots of egress to highway systems.”
The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which regulates water flows in the Rio Grande along with its Mexican counterparts, has given conflicting opinions on whether the Border Patrol’s previous plan for 14 miles of border fence in three Starr County segments would exacerbate flooding along the Rio Grande.
In January 2010, the commission concluded that the barriers could cause “substantial increases” in floodwaters and denied approval for the border wall project in the county.
Just a year later, though, the commission reversed course, under apparent pressure from Homeland Security Department officials who made it clear in a July 2010 presentation to the commission that the project needed its support “as soon as possible.”
The commission’s reversal sparked anger among local officials and activists, as well as allegations that politics had invaded the realm of flood modeling.
“The US International Boundary and Water Commission’s reversal is clearly a capitulation, and their lack of spine is not just a treaty violation for diplomats to fret over,” wrote Sierra Club Borderlands co-chair Scott Nicol in 2012. “Property will be damaged and people may drown on both sides of the river if these walls are built.”
But in the ensuing years the issue largely faded from view, as funding — and political will for continued border wall construction — dried up.
Eminent domain cases linger
As in Hidalgo County, where protests at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge are planned for this weekend, the plans in Starr County are sparking concern over impacts on environmentally sensitive lands and locations popular with birding tourists, who annually inject millions into local economies.
Michael Marsden, a birding guide in San Benito, said he particularly worries about the fate of Roma Bluffs, a bird observation spot near downtown Roma separated from the Rio Grande by a narrow spit of greenery. Marsden worries “all of that would disappear” if a border fence ran through Roma’s southern edge as indicated by the Border Patrol map. “The big problem is the big clearance of land for the wall,” Marsden said.
Roma officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In addition to addressing concerns over flooding, the Homeland Security Department will face potentially lengthy battles with private landowners. While some areas sit on federal land, including the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the proposed wall route cuts through the land of dozens of private owners.
About a quarter of the 330 or so legal cases dating back to the last round of wall building are still ongoing, and Efren Olivares, racial and economic justice director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, who is representing several Rio Grande Valley landowners, said he expects more protracted legal battles.
“It’s going to take awhile,” Olivares said. “It’s very possible this president will be gone while (new) cases are still ongoing.”