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As Border Patrol rebuffs Starr County’s ‘alternative border wall’ proposal, Cuellar obscures record

Updated: Oct 9, 2019

Congressman Henry Cuellar awarding $4.7 million check to Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra. October 3, 2019. Photo by Jonathan Salinas

By Jonathan Salinas

The 2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act ended the longest government shutdown in U.S. history last February. The cost? $1.4 billion for more than 50 miles of border wall construction in Starr County, which is a part of U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar’s 28th district and currently has exactly zero miles of border wall. Cuellar brokered this deal as Vice Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

A curious and ambiguous stipulation was included: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would “seek mutual agreement” with five Starr County municipalities, including Rio Grande City and Roma. Thus, Starr County’s political leadership, with the aid of Congressman Cuellar, sought for months to persuade border patrol that upcoming border wall placements be situated outside of city limits and as near the Rio Grande as possible.

In September, Starr County Industrial Foundation President, Rose Benavidez, submitted ‘alternative border wall’ plans on behalf of Starr’s political leadership. CBP acknowledged receipt of the plans. Judging by CBP’s recent awarding of three construction contracts for 65 miles of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley, 42 of which are designated for Starr, CBP has in effect ghosted Starr County’s political leaders and left their plans on ‘read.' And they are not happy.

“We have been involved in continued dialogue with the Department of Homeland Security and US Border Patrol and offered alternative proposals for security that are intended to protect local land owner's property rights, reduce litigation costs in our overburdened federal court system and combine sound fiscal management with the creation of strong, smart barriers that meet operational needs,” decried Starr County Judge Eloy Vera in a statement released by Cuellar’s office Friday.

“We are profoundly disappointed that while we have been acting in good faith during our negotiations, we learned through media reports today, that contrary to the spirit of the law, contracts have been issued for 42 miles of construction within Starr County,” Vera went on.

Apparently, CBP did not even bother to call Starr County’s political leadership. Ouch.

Last month, Vera threatened lawsuits if CBP did not heed Starr County’s border wall suggestions. No lawsuits have been announced thus far.

The three contracts awarded by CBP on September 30 total more than $800 million, extending to Cameron County — the southernmost tip of Texas. Adjoining legal waivers for some construction areas were also announced.

“I take this matter very seriously and will continue to protect Starr County border communities from President Trump’s wall," said Cuellar. "I have included prohibitions for any border wall construction in all U.S. House passed Appropriations bills and am working with federal agencies to ensure our border communities are heard.”

A view of the sunset by the Rio Grande in La Rosita, Starr County. September 25, 2019. Photo by Jonathan Salinas

Now that Congressional appropriations have been allocated for practically every river - mile of the Rio Grande Valley, it’s unsurprising that Cuellar takes such firm opposition to any and all border wall funding. As the saying goes, ya pa que, what for now? And now that CBP has demonstrated zero interest in Starr County leaders’ suggestions, Congressman Cuellar is touting himself as an anti - border wall warrior.

“Congressman Henry Cuellar . . . continues to fight against the Trump Administration's border wall after U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced the construction of 65 miles of new border fence in Starr County in 2020,” read the release from Cuellar's office.

Congressman Cuellar voted for the REAL ID Act in 2005, which gave the Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security broad waiver authority to expedite border wall construction. He voted for border wall funding in 2018, and again in February 2019.

How does Cuellar's voting record indicate any kind of a “fight” against the border wall?

Cuellar’s declared opposition to the wall and Vera’s lamentations came just one day after Cuellar’s office announced over $7 million in federal funding to local Sheriff’s departments for Operation Stone Garden — a joint operation between local law enforcement and U.S. Border Patrol.

Last week also marked the 25 year anniversary of Operation Gatekeeper, which, under the Clinton Administration, ushered in militarization of the U.S. Borderlands as we know it today.

Border-wide actions are scheduled throughout the month of October.

Jonathan Salinas is an activist and writer in the Rio Grande Valley. He sits on the Executive Committee of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.

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