McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The announcement this week by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that a New Mexico company has been awarded a $179 million contract to build 15 new miles of border wall in Starr County has angered leaders in South Texas who claim they never signed off on such plans.
Rose Benavidez, president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, which has been coordinating talks between CBP and Starr County community officials, said she was shocked by Monday’s announcement. And she is still quite unsure where the federal government actually plans to erect the new border barrier, all-weather roads, flood lighting, special cameras and underground sensor technology in her rural county.
But what made her most angry, she said, is that the agency made it appear that community leaders are on board with the idea.
A news release sent Monday by CBP states: “CBP completed additional consultation with local elected officials from Starr County who represent the areas of Roma, Rio Grande City, Escobares, La Grulla and the census designated place of Salineño concerning the proposed alignment and design of the planned border wall system in the affected areas.”
Benavidez, who has led these Congress-mandated “consultations” — which required that CBP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discuss their border wall proposals with leaders of the incorporated towns of Starr County — told Border Report on Tuesday that she thought talks were still ongoing. And she added that she was not given the courtesy of a final notification that talks had ended, nor where federal officials decided to place the 30-foot-tall metal border wall.
“From our standpoint, we thought talks were still ongoing,” Benavidez said. “I think that’s what a lot of community leaders and landowners thought.”
Most disturbing, she said, is that she has no idea exactly where they plan to build. She only knows that it will be in four non-contiguous segments.
CBP announced the contract has been awarded to Southwest Valley Constructors Co. of Albuquerque. Construction is to begin this year and “will improve the RGV Sector’s ability to impede and deny illegal border crossings and the drug and human smuggling activities of transnational criminal organizations,” according to the news release.
“It’s hard for us to really get a good grasp on how they’re designing it and what areas they’re eluding to in this new contract,” Benavidez said. “The long stretch of land and geography is still in question. We’re waiting for some more details. So until we know we really don’t know where they have plans for a wall here in Starr County.”
On June 27, CBP sent Benavidez’ office maps showing their proposed course, but the sketches “are grainy and very hard to decipher exact locations,” Benavidez said.
Customs and Border Protection sent these maps to the Starr County Industrial Foundation in June 2019 indicating where they planned to locate 52 miles of border wall in Starr County. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)
The proposals were eerily similar to plans DHS drew up in 2007 after the passage of the 2006 Secure Fence Act to build a border levee wall then, local leaders at the time noted. These plans were scrapped, however, after the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission expressed written concerns that building a border levee system in this flood-prone county would violate the 1970 water treaty with Mexico by causing flooding and water to deflect from the Rio Grande.
Benavidez’ office in August countered with modified plans that included building segments of the border wall much closer to the Rio Grande and away from residential areas and downtown Rio Grande City, and utilizing underground sensors and overhead tethered aerostat radar technology. She said she has repeatedly asked whether CBP would utilize their suggestions, but received no feedback.
In December, Border Report learned that CBP was not incorporating any of those plans into their design. In an email CBP officials wrote: “CBP has reviewed the proposed plans by the Starr County Industrial Foundation and is not able to incorporate the proposed design due to the Government’s treaty obligations with Mexico and the operational requirements of the U.S. Border Patrol.”
Benavidez now questions whether CBP ever really intended to take their proposals seriously, or were just going through the motions, as required by Congress when they appropriated billions of dollars in 2019 for the border wall. She notes that much land that the Department of Homeland Security needs to acquire for the border wall is privately owned, and will require the consent — and trust– of many landowners in these communities.
“We will caution everyone that the conversations that they were having with community leaders was intended, I imagine, to try and build some good will that would then factor into decisions being made by property owners which would then play a part in that property owner making a decision on whether to release the land or not. But doing it this way does not build good will,” Benavidez said.
Scott Nicol, an environmentalist who used to head the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Project, said last weekend he saw wooden survey stakes near a popular birding site in the town of Salineño in western Starr County near Falcon Dam. Volunteers with The Valley Land Fund maintain what they call the “Salineño Project,” a conservation effort that includes the placement of bird feeders along the Rio Grande to attract the many rare and exotic species of birds that frequent the river banks, especially during the winter months.
“CBP has a master map and they still aren’t sharing it and if they were doing real consultation with any of those communities, then those master maps would be made public and they’d ask, ‘What do you think about that?'” Nicol said. “But they’re not. The pretense of consultation is just a formality.”
The pretense of consultation is just a formality.”Scott Nicol, South Texas environmentalist
Border Report has asked CBP for specific site location plans for the border wall in Starr County but has not received any additional information.
Nayda Ramirez, a Starr County landowner who has lived on a plot of riverfront land beside her grandfather in La Rosita for over 40 years, last week testified before the House Border Security, Facilitation and Operations Subcommittee on Thursday in Washington, D.C.,
“I own and live on the land passed down within my family for five generations,” Ramirez said. “My home is now in its path.”
“The federal government has sued me to get access to my land through eminent (domain),” Ramirez told lawmakers. “This is part of my family’s history and the inheritance passed down to me from my ancestors — a tradition I intend to continue, however, this ancestral home will be destroyed by the construction of a border wall.”