26 Laws Waived: Biden Administration Plans to Continue Border Wall in RGV

Words by Melissa Cortes Santiago

Edited by Abigail Vela

The Biden administration announced its decision to waive 26 federal laws to fast-track the construction of an additional 20 miles of barrier to the border. This decision was met with immense disapproval by members of our community and environmental organizations nationwide. 

 

“Those of us who live on the border should have the same protections under the law as everybody else in the rest of the country,” said Scott Nicol, board member of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a non-profit in Alamo. “Waivers only seem to apply to border walls in border communities and border ecosystems, and that’s fundamentally unjust.”

 

This decision comes at a time of increasing tension among the Democrats due to the growing number of migrants trying to enter the U.S. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data; there have been over 290,000 encounters in the Rio Grande Valley Sector this fiscal year. Although the funds for the barrier were approved by Congress in 2019, the current administration decided to waive federal laws to avoid any challenging reviews or lawsuits caused by violating environmental laws. 

 

Amongst the laws waived were the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Clean Water Act— Federal laws originally put in place to protect our environment and our communities. 

 

“It can’t be stressed enough that the Biden administration has choices on this. They could try to build these walls in full compliance with all U.S. laws,” said Nicol. 

Green map of the lower RGV area with black lines outlining potential sites for the new barriers.
Map of proposed barrier along the lower Rio Grande Valley. Photo obtained on CBP’s website.

A large portion of the barriers is planned to be added throughout Starr County, an area that already suffers from over-policing and increased militarization. Even more pressing to local activist organizations is the effect that the construction of the barriers will have on the area’s ecosystem. 

 

“We live in a very sensitive and unique environment that is subtropical and semi-arid, and building the barriers will further dissect these species and divide their populations so that they’re unable to either cross or it’ll outright destroy their habitat,” said Syndey Ribera, communications and social media coordinator of Divest/Invest RGV

A protestor with a pink shirt holding two signs that read “Break Borders Plant Seeds.”
Sydney Ribera in 2019 at the Rio Bravo Action Camp to protest the construction of the border wall in Mission. Photo Courtesy of Sydney Ribera.

Another concern that both Nicol and Ribera shared was the potential for increased flooding in the area. The barriers that would be built in and out of the floodplains have a risk of deflecting water to Mexican communities, which sit lower on the natural levees as compared to the U.S. Additionally, with increased rain in Starr County the water that should naturally be draining into the river will essentially be trapped by the barriers causing flooding that can lead to erosion of farmlands.

RGV Ecosystems at Risk

In addition to the erosion of farmlands, further construction of barriers along the border can destroy irreplaceable wildlife habitats and endangered species of plants and animals.

 

“There’s gonna be less biodiversity, which will allow for fewer species populations to breed. One of the biggest examples of this is what happened to the Ocelots. They’ve become isolated because of the fragmentation of their habitat,” said Fathima Elizondo, a biology major at UTRGV and an active member of the Environmental Awareness Club on campus. 

Ocelot. Photo by Robin Silver/Center for Biological Diversity.

The Ocelot is an endangered species found throughout Argentina and South Texas. However, the construction of the border wall and additional barriers have restricted the animal’s migration. Poaching and habitat loss have dwindled the Ocelot population, and now there are fewer than 120 of them living in the U.S. 

Elizondo voiced her concern and sadness over the waiver and its effects on our community. She volunteers at Quinta Mazatlan and the National Butterfly Center and has witnessed the thriving ecotourism that the RGV’s diverse habitats bring. However, failures on a federal level to recognize how essential these habitats are now threaten that local industry.  

“I feel like people in the valley, or just in general in America, have become so alienated from our natural world that we forget we’re not independent from these ecosystems,” said Elizondo. “We have evolved with these animals for centuries, and we’ve forgotten about that. We’re being robbed of our natural world without even knowing it.”

CBP has yet to announce the precise locations and timeline of the construction.

Currently, local and national organizations continue to condemn the administration’s decision and urge community members to educate themselves on this pressing issue and take action when possible. 

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