Saturday, May 4, 2013

Feds may acquire more land for new border fence construction, CBP proposal shows

The Monitor
May 1, 2013
by Jacqueline Armendariz

McALLEN — About 100 people in Starr and Hidalgo counties could be impacted under a proposed construction plan regarding the final sections of the border fence, with more than half living at a nursing home, federal documents show.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection draft plan differs from that of the International Boundary and Water Commission, the bi-national agency tasked with regulating the U.S-Mexico border and water releases along the Rio Grande.

The plan also hinges on whether funding is available to finish the job. As recently as March, federal officials said the remaining border fence project was halted due to a lack of funding.

But the border security component of Congress’ comprehensive immigration reform debate opens up the possibility that could change.

The path of the wall likely is not a surprise for residents of the three area communities impacted — Rio Grande City, Roma and Los Ebanos — as federal legislation for the project goes back to 2006.

However, two documents recently released by CBP show a another path for the fence that will likely mean a second round of property condemnations, Scott Nicol, chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team, said.
Nicol warns the fence plan will have serious consequences for humans and wildlife, which roam through the nearby federal refuge, because of the flood plains there.

“It’s an issue of CBP saying the water’s just going to pass right through these walls. The evidence with walls of almost the same design, in the past, shows that’s not the case,” he said. “Basically, if you stick a wall in the middle of a flood plain it’s going to act as a dam.”

He points to examples of the same fence construction in Arizona that, in some instances, have clogged with debris that eventually backed up as high as six feet.

The environmental advocacy group obtained the CBP records through the Freedom of Information Act and released them to The Monitor. One is a proposed fence plan dated November 30, 2012 from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The other is a CBP Facilities Management and Engineering department planning document from March 1 titled “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Planning.”

The bi-partisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight rolled out their comprehensive immigration reform bill last month. While the impact of the federal government’s sequestration is felt, the legislation included $1.5 billion for new border wall construction — the final pieces of which were never constructed in the three towns.

When contacted for this story, CBP cited an email exchange with Nicol that had been forwarded to The Monitor. In the email dated March 29, CBP stated it worked closely with the IBWC on the proposed plan to address flooding concerns.

“On February 2012, IBWC’s Principal Engineer issued a letter approving that the referenced fence segments could be built without adversely impacting the floodplain, so long as CBP follows the proposed alignment and design, as well as provides maintenance and provides any future repairs,” the email reads in part.

However, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers plan from November notes areas of deviation, due to various engineering reasons, from the path approved by the IBWC and developed with flood concerns in mind.

Bill Brooks, CBP branch chief of the agency’s southwest border media division, said CBP’s statement in the email confirming fence construction in the three cities has been delayed due to a lack of funding hasn’t changed.

“The so-called ‘Gang of 8’ immigration bill is proposed legislation and we cannot make decisions on or even speculate on the outcome of proposed legislation,” Brooks said in a statement to The Monitor.

This week, an IBWC spokesperson said the agency had not received the border fence plan from November to evaluate it.

CBP notes in one of the documents that the boundary commission agency warns it’s an international treaty violation if flood waters are pushed away from the U.S. into Mexico.

Nicols said that could to happen if the government’s fence path is followed, while gaps in the wall could also flood even more U.S. lands north of the structure during a substantial rain event.

The CBP document titled “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Planning” outlines a timeline indicating that within the next six months the government will notify property owners it wants their land.

The nursing home within the potential condemnation area, according to maps, is likely Retama Manor Nursing Center in Rio Grande City. A staff member who answered the facility’s phone last week said he was not aware the nursing home may need to relocate. A representative for the nursing home’s parent company in Atlanta said no one would be available for comment on the situation until next week.

In an email dated March 29, sent to the Sierra Club and released to The Monitor, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, also said CBP told him fence construction was on hold because of a lack of funding.

Cuellar’s office sent a statement Friday that has no mention of the phrase “border fence” in response to a series of questions from The Monitor on the subject, including whether he is aware of the proposal that might cause nearly 100 residents in his congressional district to relocate.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that our law enforcement officers have the necessary tools and equipment to keep our communities safe,” Cuellar said, in part. “We ought to pass an immigration bill that that enhances border security and ensures a comprehensive guest worker plan to provide opportunities for those hard working individuals and families who have come to our great country.”

Within one of the documents, the government notes 95 percent of cases result in condemnation, meaning property owners are taken to court for their land. Nicol notes most of those who could be affected by the plan won’t likely have the resources to take the government to court to fight for the best price for their land.
“They’re sort of guaranteed to get shafted,’ he said.

The wall, he said, is nothing more than a political prop, particularly when one considers the number of immigrants entering the country illegally has decreased likely due to an economic downturn and increasing cartel drug violence.

“It’s something you can walk in front of a look tough. The fact that it doesn’t do anything doesn’t matter,” he said. “I think it’s kind of despicable to tear up people’s property and wildlife refuges and potentially cause flooding that could ruin homes and drown people.”

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