Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA TERESA – New construction is expected to begin on a border barrier in New Mexico next month despite several lawsuits challenging President Donald Trump’s emergency declaration to fund his wall.
The vast majority of the new wall will be built along New Mexico’s southern border.
The Trump administration’s declaration calls for $1 billion being diverted from military projects to build 57 miles of bollard barriers, with 46 of those miles in New Mexico’s Doña Ana and Luna counties.
Much of the construction will replace vehicle barriers with new structures that are 18 to 30 feet tall. The Army Corps of Engineers in Albuquerque awarded $789 million to SLSCO Ltd, a Texas company, to do the work in New Mexico.
New Mexico has become the latest legal battleground over the wall with the announcement it is the site of one of the first construction projects paid for with Department of Defense funds.
“People need to realize this is extremely harmful to wildlife,” said Kevin Bixby, director of the Southwest Environmental Center. The Las Cruces-based organization joined the Southern Border Communities Coalition, American Civil Liberties Union and Sierra Club in a lawsuit that seeks to halt construction of the wall by having a court find the national emergency declaration an “unconstitutional” attempt to circumvent Congress.
New Mexico is among 20 states that filed suit immediately over diverting military funds to pay for the wall.
President Trump has repeatedly said he needs a wall to stem the flow of illegal drugs and human smuggling crossing the border, as well as the crisis created by the influx of thousands of migrant families and children on their own arriving at the border seeking asylum.
The president declared a national emergency to divert the funds after Congress refused to approve the $5.7 billion the president wanted to pay to wall off other sections of the border.
“We don’t need a wall to deal with that crisis,” Bixby said of the asylum seekers. “We need people at the border to process those asylum requests.”
The organization argues the wall will cut off a critical wildlife corridor, but won’t stop humans from illegally crossing the border or drug smugglers.
Currently, the tall bollard-style barrier continues from El Paso several miles west into New Mexico past Santa Teresa. The $789 million SLSCO Ltd. contract will extend that type of wall – with a few small breaks – west just past Columbus.
A second proposal to use Department of Defense funding would add sections of barriers along the border farther to and into the Bootheel region. Those barriers have yet to be funded.
“They don’t make sense out in these remote areas because people can get over these walls, desperate people or ingenious people, people motivated to make money. These are speed bumps,” Bixby said.
In the El Paso and Sunland Park area, hundreds of migrant families have approached existing border fencing and waited for Border Patrol agents to take them into custody because they are on U.S. soil. All of the barriers are in the U.S. rather than on the international boundary because the federal government needs access to maintain the structures and along much of the Texas border, the U.S.-Mexico boundary is the middle of the Rio Grande.
Hailed by some
But in New Mexico, some farmers and ranchers on the border believe a wall will help them. “I am ecstatic that we’re fixing to get a wall,” said James Johnson, a Columbus-area farmer.
The construction plan includes more than four miles of new barrier on his border land.
“It’s basically going to end just west of our farm,” Johnson said. The fourth-generation farmer said vehicle barriers are not enough to stop the long-standing problem he has with cross border thieves stealing crops.
“We’ve had alfalfa stolen, we’ve had chile stolen, we’ve had onions stolen,” Johnson said.
He worries border security is suffering because Border Patrol agents, rather than being in the field, are busy with the surge in asylum-seeking families and children arriving in New Mexico.
From October through March, Border Patrol agents have taken 53,565 families and 7,565 unaccompanied children into custody in the El Paso sector alone, which includes all of New Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“Now, it’s taken the Border Patrol agents and it’s put them basically baby sitting,” Johnson said.
Border Patrol staffing concerns other border ranchers and farmers. “They’ve got everybody called in processing illegals as they come through,” said Caren Cowan, executive director of New Mexico Cattle Growers and Wool Growers Associations.
“Our main concern is the safety of our members and their families along the border,” Cowan said. Most ranchers in her organization want a wall, but others prefer more “boots on the ground” to secure the border, according to Cowan.
She is in favor of a wall and brushes off concerns about the barrier cutting off a wildlife corridor.
“Some animals may be stranded on one side or the other, but there’s habitat – equal habitat – on one side or the other for them to live,” Cowan said. “To me it’s not a big deal. Wildlife lives on both sides of the border now, and I feel quite confident they will continue to do so.”
“A common misconception I hear a lot is that animals will adapt to the border wall,” said Amanda Munro, field organizer with the Southwest Environmental Center.
“The populations that are on both sides of the wall are then smaller so then they are at a higher risk of going locally extinct,” Munro said.
Habitat fragmentation is among the biggest modern-day threats to wildlife and the wall would prevent animals from going back and forth to find water, food and mates, she said.
The Southwest Environmental Center is especially concerned about a plan to build a wall in the Bootheel area, “one of the most critical wildlife corridors that we have, especially for animals like jaguars, which historically have inhabited that area and have come up in the past through that corridor,” Munro said.
The U.S. and Mexico are working on joint conservation projects for a variety of mammals including wolves and jaguars that need large swaths of borderland habitat.
In Santa Teresa, when construction crews began work last year to extend the border barrier 20 miles west from the port of entry, the Southwest Environmental Center set up motion-triggered cameras that snapped photos and video of a variety animals coming back and forth across the border. Funding for that border project had been approved earlier.
“Mountain lions, javelinas, bobcats, gray foxes, badgers. So there’s all kinds of critters out here and all those species, they can’t pass through that wall,” Bixby said, standing next to where the structure ends and vehicle barriers begin on a remote stretch of border in Doña Ana County.
The Southwest Environmental Center is trying to raise money to again install wildlife cameras on the border in the area where new construction will begin next month to document the animals in the region before they’re walled off.
Even as multiple groups mount legal challenges, construction is quickly moving forward.
“That’s exactly what happened last time with Santa Teresa,” Munro said. “That case we sued on is still going on and the wall has already been completed.”