Rio Grande communities feel like the ‘sacrificial lamb’ in a political war as climate activists and environmentalists call foul
The Biden administration’s decision to waive environmental, public health and cultural protections to speed new border wall construction has enraged environmentalists, Indigenous leaders and community groups in the Rio Grande valley.
“It was disheartening and unexpected,” said Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), amid concerns of the impact on essential corridors for wild cats and endangered plants in the area. “This is a new low, a horrific step backwards for the borderlands.”
This is the first time a Democratic administration has issued such waivers for border wall construction, and for Joe Biden, it’s a marked departure from campaign promises and his efforts to be seen as a climate champion.
“I see the Biden administration playing a strategic game for elections,” said Michelle Serrano, co-director of Voces Unidas RGV, an immigrants rights and community advocacy group based in the Rio Grande valley. The many rural, immigrant and Indigenous communities that live in the region have become “the sacrificial lamb” for politicians looking to score points, she added.
As the climate crisis fuels ecological decline, extreme weather and mass migration, the administration’s move is especially upsetting, she added. “Building a border wall is counterproductive,” she said.
“This is an inhumane response to immigration,” said Michele Weindling, the electoral director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate justice group. “The right thing to do would be to treat immigrants with compassion and address the root cause of what is forcing people to have to leave their countries, which is the climate crisis.”
Following the administration’s decision to approve the Willow drilling project in Alaska and renege on a promise to end new drilling, the border wall construction will likely further alienate young voters, she said: “Biden has already caused distrust among young voters. This is another and horrendous reversal of promises he made on the campaign trail, which is a dangerous move to make ahead of 2024.”
Among the 26 environmental and cultural protections the administration is waiving are the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
The administration’s proposed 20 new miles of a “border barrier system” in Starr county, Texas, cuts near the lower Rio Grande Valley national wildlife refuge. Construction would bisect fields where the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe and other tribes source peyote for sacramental use. It would also cut through or near old village sites and trails.
“By developing this, they are furthering a genocide,” said Juan Mancias, the chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe, who has been battling border wall construction though tribal cultural sites and graveyards through multiple US administrations. Colonizers “killed our people in the first place, and we had to bury – then you dig them up to build. It’s ongoing genocide”, he said.
The new sections of border wall would cut through “some of the most rural, peaceful sections of the Rio Grande”, said Jordahl, who recently canoed down the stretch of river where the administration plans its construction. “It was one of the most serene experiences I have ever had on the border. There were orioles flapping their wings in the sky, kingfishers, great blue herons.”
CBD believes the construction will set back the recovery of endangered ocelots, and cut off wildlife corridors essential to the spotted wildcats’ long-term survival. Two endangered plants, the Zapata bladderpod and prostrate milkweed, would also be threatened by wall construction, according to the CBD.
The waivers were announced just a month after the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog agency, released a dire report finding that border wall construction during the Trump administration had destroyed towering saguaro cactuses in Arizona, threatened ocelots in Texas and dynamited Indigenous cultural sites and burial grounds. The report urged US Customs and Border Protection and the interior department to develop a plan to ease the damage.
In fueling Donald Trump’s zeal to build a “big, beautiful wall” at the US-Mexico border, his administration issued waivers that suspended 84 federal laws including protections pertaining to clean air and water, endangered species, public lands and the rights of Native Americans. The Biden administration rescinded one of the prior administration’s waivers in June.
In July, the federal government agreed in a settlement to pay $1.2bn to repair environmental damages and protect wildlife affected by sections of border wall construction. Several states as well as the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition had challenged Trump’s use of military construction and of treasury department forfeiture funds to build parts of the wall.
Now, the president who once vowed that “not another foot of wall would be constructed” under his watch has had his administration issue further waivers to speed wall construction. He has argued that his administration is compelled to construct border barriers, because money to fund its construction was already allocated by Congress. “I tried to get them to reappropriate, to redirect that money. They didn’t,” Biden told reporters. Asked if he thought the border wall worked, he responded, “No.”
Environmental advocates have disputed the president’s claim that there was no choice but to move ahead with border wall construction. The administration was not obligated to waive environmental and public health protections to speed the work, they argue.
“It’s absolutely mystifying as to why they thought it was a good idea to issue these waivers,” Jordhal said. “They could have moved forward with the Endangered Species Act still intact, so endangered wildlife and these areas would have had protections.” Keeping environmental, health and cultural protections in place would also have allowed local communities to provide input on the proposed construction and its impact, he added.
“I’m angry,” said Nayda Alvarez, who spent years fighting the Trump administration’s efforts to seize land that her family has held for at least five generations to build the border wall. “Biden didn’t keep his promises – what happened to his word?”
Even after the lawsuit to take her property along the Rio Grande was dropped, Alvarez said, she remained uncertain and uneasy – and continued to voice her concerns about the ecological damage caused by border barriers. “We thought maybe we’d be OK with a Democrat as president, and now Biden did this. We’re being stabbed in the back.”