SOUTH TEXAS BORDER WALL
In South Texas the international boundary is defined by the Rio Grande. A border wall here means walling off a river. Like countless other human societies throughout history, South Texas communities were established on the river bank, and many of them were settled even before the founding of the United States. Land grants that were parceled out by the King of Spain in the 1760s are in some cases still held by their original owners' descendants. For many property owners, this land is their heritage.
Building the border wall in urban areas has been a priority for the Department of Homeland Security because they say that in such places it is "easier for an alien...to conceal themselves in a home or business." The hulking, rusting border wall is now a major landmark in the historic heart of Brownsville, Texas, and it cuts off the city from the river that gave it life. Walls now skirt the city's neighborhoods and shadow the homes of its residents.
Because the Rio Grande is the international boundary, neither the United States nor Mexico is allowed to build any structure that might alter its course. An impermeable barrier like the border wall built on the U.S. side might deflect flood waters into Mexican cities and push the river into a channel further to the south, changing the physical location of the border. For this reason in South Texas border walls cannot be built between Rio Grande and the existing levees, which were built at the same time as matching levees went up in Mexico. Instead walls must be built on, in, or to the north of the levees. Unlike the river, the levees run in straight lines, and can be as much as two miles north of the Rio Grande.
In Hidalgo County, Texas, concrete slabs topped with rusting steel posts have been inserted into the flood-control levee to create a levee-border wall hybrid. No safety studies or hydrological models have been published that describe what impact the wall will have on flooding or on the integrity of these levee systems, and DHS announced that, in order to speed construction, no studies would be done.
Hundreds of people own land and homes behind the wall. HS has not been forthcoming about how these families will access their property. They remain concerned about whether emergency personnel such as firefighters and EMTs will be able to enter and whether gates will accommodate large farming equipment. Homeowners who are unable to access their homes behind the wall will also be unable to sell them and may have difficulty obtaining insurance. Cutting off farmers from their fields nearest the river renders some of the richest agricultural land in the region completely worthless. Nevertheless, DHS has refused to pay farmers and homeowners for the loss of this cut-off property, and has instead condemned only the wall's 60-foot-wide "footprint." More than 400 condemnation suits were filed in federal court against farmers, homeowners, municipalities, the University of Texas at Brownsville, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the Nature Conservancy.
The border wall is devastating the decades-long efforts to establish and protect a wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande. The river that runs between the United States and Mexico nourishes a series of unique habitats that support over 1,100 plant and 700 vertebrate species, including 20 that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Of the original habitat that once supported this enormous diversity, only 5% currently remains. To conserve what is left, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has spent $90 million over the past 25 years to purchase and revegetate land in order to restore a wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande. Dozens of individual refuge tracts link together other preserves along the river, including the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse World Birding Center, the Nature Conservancy's Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve, and the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary.
The border walls currently being built on these tracts undermine the purpose of the wildlife corridor by refragmenting the habitat that was so carefully pieced together. Native terrestrial animals like javelinas, deer, coyotes, and bobcats will find it impossible to climb over or dig under a wall that is 18 feet tall and sunk deep into the earth. The wall will limit their foraging and hunting territories, prevent them from reaching potential mates, and cut them off from the Rio Grande, which in most areas is the only reliable source of water. This fragmentation and loss of habitat may deal the final blow to the ocelot, a federally-listed endangered cat numbering less than 100 in the United States.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security in response to the plan to build levee-border walls in Hidalgo County. It said, "any proposed fence and/or levee segment that bisects lands within the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge cannot be found compatible with the purposes for which the Refuge was established."
Two major migratory flyways converge in South Texas, funneling millions of birds through the area each fall and spring. Migrant species travel hundreds or even thousands of miles on their annual journeys, in some cases crossing the Gulf of Mexico before arriving in the Rio Grande Valley. They use the remaining intact habitat of South Texas to rest and refuel before continuing on. The construction of the border wall is damaging prime habitat near the river, and without sufficient vegetation, birds may be too weak to complete their migration.
The opportunity to witness these migrations, to observe subtropical species found nowhere else in the United States, and to experience the unique wildlands of South Texas draws over 200,000 eco-tourists every year to the Rio Grande Valley. The Old Hidalgo Pumphouse World Birding Center opened in April of 2007, and was the result of a joint effort of the city of Hidalgo, Hidalgo County, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and US Fish and Wildlife. Like other World Birding Centers in the Rio Grande Valley, it is meant to both preserve natural habitat and bring eco-tourists. Eco-tourism contributes $125 million per year to the area's economy, and Hidalgo hoped to attract some of those dollars. But eco-tourists come to see nature, not towering concrete and rusting steel, so the millions that have been invested to develop the birding center have been wasted.