Environmental Groups Sue Over Border Wall
Three environmental groups have sued the Trump administration this Thursday over a waiver issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that would allow it to ignore major environmental regulations in the construction of the wall on Mexico’s border. The lawsuit filed by the coalition of Center for Biological Diversity, Animal Legal Defense Fund and Defenders of Wildlife declares the waiver to be unlawful on 28 environmental laws and exceeding the department’s authoritative limits.
The DHS announced the waiver “to ensure the expeditious construction of gates” in Texas, that are deemed necessary by the Trump administration to secure the border. The department’s authority to do so is based on Section 102 of 1996’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which states that “all legal requirements” can be waived whenever it is required to build additional infrastructure to prevent illegal crossing over the border.
The region occupied by the future wall - Rio Grande Valley - is considered a high-activity area of undocumented immigration. The U.S. Border Patrol reported that 137,000 people have entered the states illegally and 260,000 pounds of marijuana and 1,192 pounds of cocaine were captured in the Valley in 2017. Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said the construction of the wall would “achieve and maintain operational control of the international land border,” which, according to the section 102, justifies the waiver of Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act or other 26 laws that protect clean air, clean water, public lands and wildlife in the borderlands.
However, the numbers of illegal immigrants are not the only high values at stake in the issue. The 18-mile-long and 30-foot-high levee-style wall is projected to cut through territories of great environmental significance: Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, National Butterfly Center, Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, and the grounds of La Lomita Chapel. The areas serve as a natural habitat for 1200 plant, 500 bird, and 300 butterfly species, including several endangered species such as the ocelot, jaguarundi and aplomado falcon. The construction of the wall, which includes a 150-foot “enforcement zone,” would not only destroy their natural habitat, but would impede the migratory species from crossing the border when necessary to find mates.
Another concern expressed by the environmentalists is that a wall would serve as a dam during floods, which are common in the Valley. It is estimated that the current walls in the area have become a cause of death for hundreds of Texas tortoises and other animals. Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells summarized the environmental concerns: “Building a wall that cuts through the heart of vital parks, wildlife refuges and the National Butterfly Center will have devastating effects on these critical areas and the wildlife that calls these areas their home.”
The plaintiffs of the lawsuit not only present the environmental consequences of the waiver to the court, but also claim that DHS did not have the authority to issue it in the first place. Section 102 of the IIRIRA on which the DHS has based its waiver announcement applies to the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which mandated the construction of hundreds of miles of border barriers. The plan was made years ago, and, according to the lawsuit, the current reference to it is inapplicable. Jean Su, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, explains the environmentalists’ position: “We’re confident in our legal claims — that’s why we’re appealing,” Su said, calling the waivers “an overreach into the legislature’s scope of power and an “unprecedented legal abuse by the Trump administration.”
Despite the plaintiffs’ confidence, the current lawsuit is the third of its kind that appeals to reconsider the construction of the Mexico border wall. The previous two were filed in California and New Mexico and resulted in no change in the existent construction plans. Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife, believes this time would be different: “Ignoring environmental and public-safety laws puts wildlife and borderland communities in the region at unnecessary risk and denies the public due process. We will do whatever it takes to fight these reckless decisions and to protect the Lower Rio Grande Valley for future generations.”