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In an attempt to pressure CBP, Starr County leaders mischaracterize border wall legislation

Updated: Sep 5, 2019

Starr County leaders offered up its residents, wildlife refuges, to Trump and the border wall, hoping that they would get meaningful input on the wall's placement. Having traded freedom for security, they are beginning to realize that they will get neither.

La Rosita residents, Yvette Gaytan (left) and Nayda Alvarez, stand displeased at a press conference in La Grulla, Texas, Thursday, where their Congressman, Henry Cuellar (right), made remarks. Photo by Omar Coronado

By Jonathan Salinas

While Washington D.C. gears up for a violent struggle to keep the federal government open after September 30, the consequences of the last shutdown has Starr County’s political and business elite worried.

In a Faustian bargain, during a rough time in which almost one million federal workers were unpaid, Democratic Party leadership conceded a fraction of what Donald Trump wanted in order to build the wall, ending the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. That fraction — $1.4 billion for 55 miles of wall in Starr County, Texas — came with a curious stipulation: "consultation areas."

Section 232 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019, which in February ended the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

Prior to use of any border wall funds within Starr County’s city limits, the Department of Homeland Security and local elected officials are to “confer and seek to reach mutual agreement regarding the design and alignment of physical barriers within that city.”

There are four cities and one “census designated area,” also known as a colonia; an unincorporated town. These are La Grulla, Rio Grande City, Roma, Escobares, and the colonia of Salineño. Recently released maps, which layout U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s proposed border wall locations, show the five towns demarcated as “consultation areas.”

Consultations run through September 30, unless an agreement is reached earlier. It may be extended if both parties agree. However, CBP may unilaterally proceed after the 30th — if the government is open.

A map of proposed Starr County border walls. U.S. Customs and Border Protection. June 27, 2019

Starr County presently has no walls because of exacerbated flooding that would undoubtedly ensue and the violations against international water treaties with Mexico that such inevitable flooding would incur, as proposed walls would be built in its levee-less floodplain. Although government flood models commissioned in the early years of border wall construction showed this to be the case, the highly politicized CBP commissioned the fabrication of new models that yielded different, more favorable, results.

Although few details are known about the consultations that have so far ensued, Starr County leaders told reporters Thursday at a press conference in La Grulla, Texas, that CBP has stonewalled their concerns. Placing the wall as near to the Rio Grande as possible, preferably outside city limits, were requests made by the leaders. They have not met with CBP in weeks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded the city $12 million for water plant treatment facility improvements.

In an apparent attempt to bring CBP back to the table, Starr County leaders are emphasizing the language of “mutual agreement” within the legislation. Both parties know that mutual agreement is not required for border wall construction. Nonetheless, leaders are pressuring CBP for meaningful input and employing a misapprehension to do it. That their strategy portrays leaders fighting for their constituents doesn't hurt, but this, too, is an obfuscation.

“Mutual consent areas,” a term not found anywhere in the spending bill, is Starr County Industrial Foundation President, Rose Benavidez, preferred term for the five towns. In talks with CBP, she has represented the consultation areas.

Repudiating the term “consultation area,” Benavidez betrayed unease. She told KVEO Thursday in La Grulla, Texas, that consultations “could be potentially anything from sending you a letter and saying ‘we’re consulting with you on what we want to do.’”

Indeed, they may. Although the law states that DHS shall “confer” and “seek to reach mutual agreement” with the five towns, it does not say that an agreement must be reached with officials. Only an intention to reach mutual agreement is required, which is quite easy to prove, as Benavidez fears.

U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-28), who brokered the deal that offered up part of his Congressional District (Starr County) as a sacrifice to the White House, echoed Benavidez’s coinage of “mutual consent areas" Thursday. He told KVEO that "there has to be mutual agreement" between local and federal officials before border wall construction can begin. He knows this is untrue.

Cuellar told me that shoring up “mutual consent” in 2020 appropriations would be a top priority for him because 2019 appropriations insufficiently require mutual agreement. Having repeated the line of the day, he appears to also share Benavidez's unease.

"My intent is to go back and make [appropriations language] stronger on the 'consultation,'" Cuellar said of his legislative priorities for 2020 appropriations.

"Under the law, for many years, it was 'consultation,' it was a one way street. What I did [in February 2019] was to make sure that we add the 'mutual agreement,' but I want to sit down now and see if I can come up with some language where we say that if there's no agreement, then do an arbitration type of agreement," Cuellar said.

In other words, Cuellar understands that 2019 appropriations language isn't "strong" enough to require mutual agreement. He thinks that stipulating arbitration in upcoming budget talks is necessary.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera isn't fully convinced of mutual agreement terms either. He expressed nothing but frustration with CBP. Vera told me that Starr leaders have made plenty of requests from federal officials, which have gone unanswered. He's the least convinced of mutual agreement conditions, as he went so far as to threaten lawsuits against CBP in an interview with KVEO.

The Department of Homeland Security, which houses U.S. Customs and Border Protection, also understands that mutual agreement is not required.

Recent actions by DHS suggest that the agency is moving forward without heeding Starr leadership’s input. Benavidez submitted alternative wall maps as part of a CBP public comment period. The alternative proposals placed border walls much further south, outside city limits, than CBP's.

Other places without wall, such as La Rosita, would receive “virtual,” surveillance walls. According to Benavidez, the plans were submitted in July. Regardless, DHS issued legal waivers to expedite border wall construction in Rio Grande City and La Grulla Friday. The locations align with CBP’s past maps and statements, not Benavidez’s proposals.

A map laying out locations of Friday's DHS waivers. Center for Biological Diversity

Starr County leaders do have one thing going for them. The Texas Observer wrote an update Thursday, reporting that CBP was reviewing their proposals. The Observer speculates that CBP will likely reject the proposals on grounds relating to international water treaties with Mexico, as the proposed wall would shift the Rio Grande’s flow. Nonetheless, CBP’s acknowledgment of receipt is unheard of. Stating that the proposals are under consideration is unprecedented.

Environmental and human rights organizations in Washington D.C. and across the borderlands submit extensive and scientifically-informed documentation to CBP every comment period. Federal departments and agencies, like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, alongside the advocacy groups, demonstrate time and again the dangers posed and the damage inflicted by border walls. Yet, acknowledgment of receipt is never given, let alone a formal response to their concerns.

Groups recently slammed South Texas border wall proposals. The current comment period was extended to September 25.

Submit your comment against proposed border walls in the RGV.

Federal laws, like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), mandate public engagement and Environmental Impact Statements. Thanks to waivers, which allow DHS to suspend all laws, including NEPA, the government doesn't have to do any of those things.

According to Benavidez, CBP should be hosting public meetings in coming weeks. This is unlikely. CBP has never held a public meeting in the Rio Grande Valley. In the past, they have disallowed public attendance at "stakeholder" meetings. But CBP responded to Starr County’s political leadership.

Pressure from Benavidez, Cuellar, and Vera, insisting on mutual consent, may have elicited the response. Whether any meaningful consultation, or "mutual consent," is reached shall be seen.

“We weren’t consulted.”

Starr County community leaders opposing the border wall Thursday at La Grulla City Hall. Photo by Jonathan Salinas

No matter where CBP actually builds the wall, residents whose homes are under threat of condemnation are not fooled. They understand that CBP does not require mutual agreement and, in any case, have not been consulted by any elected official. La Rosita residents, Nayda Alvarez and Yvette Gaytan, attended the La Grulla press conference Thursday.

U.S. government surveyors, contracted for border wall construction, have targeted Alvarez and Gaytan’s neighborhood. Their homes, which have belonged to their families for generations, are under threat of either being walled off from the river or walled in from the country.

They have received few answers from local, elected officials. Answers they have received, however, are highly unsatisfactory.

Cuellar has astonishingly suggested on numerous occasions that, whether the wall runs through their backyards, or their front yards, the likely condemnation of their property was necessary to “keep the government open.” He boasts of brokering the deal which facilitated this sacrifice.

Ruben Solis, a native son of La Grulla with long family ties to the town, also attended Thursday. He was told by La Grulla mayor, Pedro Flores, before the event, that the city was in favor of "whatever the federal government wants." Solis, a lifelong migrant rights activist, told Flores that residents did not want the wall. Flores shrugged his shoulders and acknowledged Solis’ differing opinion.

Criticizing the federal government as mayor must be difficult. Especially when the feds are awarding $12 million to your city, which, as said by Judge Vera during his remarks, "will attract more business to the city and the region."

La Grulla native, Ruben Solis, confronts Henry Cuellar in his hometown Thursday. Photo by Omar Coronado

While local, federal, officials posed with a giant check for the $12 million after remarks, Congressman Cuellar said to those in the frame, “You have 12 million reasons to smile.” Working-class residents in Starr County, on the other hand, have 76 million reasons to furrow their brows. $76 million in contracts for border wall construction in Starr County, set to decimate national treasures, were awarded just this summer.

Starr County political and business elite pose with giant $12 million check awarded to the city of La Grulla."You have 12 million reasons to smile," said Congressman Henry Cuellar. Photo by Omar Coronado

As Starr County gears up an offensive to attract commerce, it comes as no surprise that cities, not unincorporated towns, have a bit more say in border wall placement, kind of. Border walls decrease property value and pose as eye sores, which are not favorable qualities for cities trying to attract business. Vera stressed to me that trade with Mexico was invaluable. Benavidez’s Industrial Trade Foundation represents these interests.

The whole of Starr County’s political and business elite agree that “border security,” i.e., the militarization of poor communities, is good. As Starr County's sole representative to STC's Board of Trustees, Benavidez also supported the opening of a law enforcement campus in Pharr that could train future CBP agents. Vera said he supported border walls in certain areas, increased surveillance in others.

Although local leaders do not disagree in principle with border wall construction, they may disagree with federal officials on where the walls should go. In so doing, business interests guide their positions. As illustrated by the contrast in treatment of working-class constituents versus powerful political interests, “consultation” or “mutual consent” is a luxury that most Starr County residents cannot afford.

Jonathan Salinas is an activist and writer in South Texas. He sits on the Executive Committee of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club and is part of the No Border Wall coalition.

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