Don’t Mess With South Texas!: growing coalition challenges plan to build more miles of border wall through Laredo

Amidst a global pandemic and increasing COVID cases in Laredo, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol is scheduled to announce plans for another 18 miles of border wall along the Rio Grande, at a staggering cost to taxpayers of nearly $350 million.

In response, a wide spectrum of local and state officials, together with the #NoBorderWall Laredo Coalition, have declared this will only strengthen their efforts to stop the project, saying the wall is “not a done deal.”

“The current administration feels they can do whatever they want. We won’t stand for that,” said Webb County Commissioner Rosaura “Wawi” Tijerina. “They have pushed aside laws left and right. They’re hoping that we all rollover instead of standing up for our rights. But we are too proud of a city with too rich of a history to do that. We’re going to fight and we are going to win.”

No Border Wall Laredo Coalition members, who last week secured a unanimous vote by the Laredo City Council to paint a giant “DEFUND THE WALL” street mural, challenged the CBP’s plan and their lack of transparency and disregard for the community.

Elected officials stood with the growing Coalition and pledged to ramp up their efforts to bring the project to a halt.

“The time has come for our community to take a stand,” District IV City Council memberAlbert Torres said. “We will not allow politicians in Washington back rooms to trample on the legacy of our ancestors. We will defend their courage, their determination to make this land a prosperous home. We will stand up against this wall. We will fight the fight.” Quoting the late Civil Rights icon John Lewis, he added: “We will make good trouble.”

“Critical environmental and flood studies, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers committed to complete and share with public and private landowners during meetings with them, were never done or are hidden in a vault,” Coalition member and riverfront landowner Melissa R. Cigarroa said.

Senator Judith Zaffirini, the second ranking member of the Texas Senate, weighed in. “Count me among the many who oppose a border wall,” she said, describing it as “nothing more than a vile and divisive affront to our community.”

If constructed, the 32 miles of wall would separate Laredoans from their entire riverfront, and carve a path of destruction through every imaginable public space, neighborhood, ranch, and small business along the river - in addition to four international bridges, a college campus, and a Catholic orphanage.

“Laredoans are proud of our binational, bicultural heritage and treasure our international river,” Zaffirini said, adding, “Separating us from our neighbors with an ill-conceived, expensive, deplorable wall is a barrier between our sister cities and sister states is a waste of money that could be spent more productively elsewhere.  It isan assault on the natural wonder around us, and an insult to our culture."

Waste of Public Funds: Walls over Lives

The additional cost to taxpayers for this new Laredo segment is expected to top $350 million, bringing the total cost of 32 miles of wall to a stunning $628 million, about $20 million for every mile.

District V Council member Nelly Vielma decried the government’s decision to prioritize walls over lives. “At this crucial time, when our community is experiencing a significant loss of lives, our City has been urgently requesting state and federal assistance to provide essential ICU care and hospital services to no avail,” Vielma said. “The priority for our region should be to fund a trauma hospital to serve the needs of our tax paying constituents, rather than funding this outlandishly expensive wall. We should not be losing lives due to lack of funding.”

A Monument to Division and Destruction

Other elected officials expressed outrage at the sweeping waiver of federal laws on the border and the harsh symbolism of the wall against a predominately Mexican-American community.

District III Council member Mercurio Martinez III described the wall as “a wall of hostility against us and our neighbors to the south, using our local and federal agents to do its bidding. There are ways to monitor our border, and a wall is not the answer.”

Martinez, whose district runs along the river, added, “People and politicians make promises for political reasons all the time, but when it affects a way of life and destroys the very nature of our existence, then it’s time to quit playing politics and start listening to those that it affects.”

The City Council has voted multiple times against the border wall, to protect millions of dollars of City investment that lies in or near the river vega — critical infrastructure, a developing green belt of parks and trails, and public access to the river. These sections of Laredo would be destroyed if the federal government moves

forwaed to build a 150-foot wide security enforcement zone and roads and surveillance towers along with the proposed 30-foot tall steel wall.

No government plans have been released to mitigate these devastating losses.

“This wall would change us from being the Gateway City into the Walled City,” said educator, military veteran, and Coalition member Maxine Rebeles. “Many parts of Laredo would feel like an open air prison. That’s why we are mobilizing — to stop it and take charge of our future.”

Other Laredoans remained undeterred by the government’s plans.

“They can shake hands with whatever out-of-state contractor they want, but the wall is not a done deal,” said educator and Coalition member Nadja Lopez. “Despite what the government is telling everyone, Trump has built very few miles of new wall. The Administration knows that its time is running out, and all of these last minute announcements before the election make them look desperate.”

A Wall is a False Security Solution

U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar echoed this sentiment and repeated the remarks he made to President Trump at the White House: “The Wall is a 14th Century solution to a 21st Century challenge. There are more effective ways to meet our security goals, including utilizing advanced technology... and giving personnel the proper resources on the border.”

Cuellar, who serves as vice chair of the powerful Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee in Congress, pledged to “fight for our community, our land, and our rights from this ineffective border wall.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General released a scathing report in late July excoriating the CBP for their lack of planning and concluded that the “likelihood that CBP will be able to obtain and maintain complete operational control of the southern border with mission effective, appropriate, and affordable solutions is diminished” (OIG-20-52).

Defund The Wall, Fund Our Future

Hector “Tito” Garcia, Laredo ISD trustee and former City Council member, underscored that the funds should be directed towards things the region actually needs.

“The border wall is a massive and inexcusable waste of public funds,” Garcia said. “At an outrageous price of $20 million a mile, this money could be more effectively used by investing in schools and technology for students, especially given our serious remote learning needs during this pandemic. Washington needs to listen to those who actually live here and redirect those funds to meet very real needs in our community.”

Webb County Commissioner Jesse Gonzalez, whose precinct covers a large swath of riverfront, affirmed his support of the Coalition and repeated that “border wall funds need to be re-invested in Laredo and Webb.”

Zapata County, also a target for the government’s wall plans, has expressed its solidarity against the wall numerous times.

“The County disagrees with the administration that the border wall is the most effective means of controlling the flow of illegal drugs and human trafficking," said Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell, a rancher and riverfront landowner, urging Washington “to work with local governments to protect our Southern border and to respect the property rights of landowners.”

Stealing Land and Rights

Cigarroa described the situation that landowners are facing on the ground.

“The federal government uses intimidation to rob landowners of their Constitutional property rights,” she said.

Cigarroa, who is suing the Trump administration, added, “Speaking on behalf of the government, U.S. Attorney Warner told us, ‘What the 5th Amendment says is, [that because it’s border security], we can do it. We can do it wherever we want to do it.’ As if our livelihoods, our culture, and our history have no value.”

Campaign Politics

Coalition member and San Ygnacio historic preservationist Christoper Rincon called out the administration’s cynical use of the border as a backdrop for a struggling re-election campaign.

“I have a message for this Administration: You have bigger things to worry about,” Rincon said. “Stop forcing your pet projects on cities that don’t want to be used as a campaign photo op. Handle the real crises we are facing, and stop inventing new ones. Don’t Mess with South Texas.”

Rincon, who oversees historic lands and buildings along the river in Zapata County, pointed out his community’s deep connection to the land and painful history with Washington DC.

“The government has betrayed us before,” he said. “They’ve stolen our land and destroyed our communities to make way for projects that benefitted someone else who didn’t live here, at our expense. We have not forgotten. They ignored us before; this time it will be different.”

The Bulkhead

It remains unclear if the coming announcement will include plans for a bulkhead in downtown Laredo.

Previously, CBP has used the concrete bulkhead as a centerpiece for their new plans. However, Coalition members explained that the bulkhead was never an acceptable alternative.

“It's like putting a tiny window in a prison cell and being told we should appreciate it,” said Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center.

“Their plans are to build 32 continuous miles of concrete and steel wall around our city and add a few hundred yards of ‘open space’ with this bulkhead. The feds have never released any maps or renderings to the public,” she said. “All we know is that the bulkhead would replace the riverbank downtown with a concrete seawall and an elevated concrete platform with metal fencing on top. This plan would ruin one of Laredo’s most beloved and scenic riverfront spaces and ignore the destruction of

many other miles of wild riparian habitat and riverfront homes,” Cortez added. “They want you to pay attention to the tiny window, and not the giant oppressive prison around you,” she continued.

(The #NoBorderWall Laredo Coalition is a network of residents, elected officials, and organizations who oppose the border wall.

Website: www.noborderwallcoalition.com | facebook.com/NoBorderWallCoalition | Insta: @noborderwall_ltx “Defund the Wall, Fund our Future” VIDEO: CLICK HERE / SLIDESHOW: “CLICK HERE)

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