Nearly a year and a half after Texas governor Greg Abbott announced his plans to continue Donald Trump’s border wall, the project is ongoing at great expense to the public. After years of crowdfunding by the Republican governor and a $250 million down payment from Texas taxpayers, the Texas Facilities Commission has announced that construction will begin at multiple border sites in the coming weeks. But communities are not giving up without a fight.
There is far more at stake environmentally than has been acknowledged in the U.S. media, which has treated the border wall primarily as a political football. In reality, the biodiversity of the entire region is at stake. The U.S.- Mexico border, particularly near the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas, is one of the most biodiverse places on the continent. It is home to a number of endangered species, including the ocelot bobcat, the pygmy owl, the jaguarundi cat and several tropical birds. Studies show that barriers create fragmented habitats, which make it difficult for wildlife to find food, water and mates. They also prevent animals from migrating to new areas, contributing to their eventual extinction.
Police and border security agents are reportedly being recruited to provide security at these construction sites, while plans for the barrier’s exact path are being kept secret. In the Laredo region of Webb County, which is considered ground zero for construction of the wall, the No Border Wall Coalition is waging a campaign to convince landowners not to sign land rights over to the state, citing destruction of the ecosystem, further militarization of the border, and a cost to Texas taxpayers of more than $20 million per mile. This is the latest defense in a long history of struggle against the wall which includes residents, indigenous groups, environmentalists, and more.
Wealthy donors are often first in line to receive state contracts
To many activists, Abbott’s bombastic schemes for completing sections of a border wall resemble simple forms of corruption: generous construction contracts for large capitalists, many of whom funded Abbott’s reelection campaigns.
On May 31, 2021, Abbott declared a state of “disaster” at the border in order in order to bypass the Biden administration’s freezing of Trump’s border wall. Incidentally, he declared this from Fort Worth, hundreds of miles from the nearest border. Abbott announced that he would crowdfund some of the costs, with hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds used as an immediate down payment. Since that time, he has raised $55 million from private donors, leaving $17 billion (99.7% of the cost) to be covered by taxpayers.
In two years, less than two miles of the barrier has been constructed. This could change dramatically this year. Negotiations are underway between state officials and property owners, who are being pushed to sign right-of-way easement deals along the path of the proposed border.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts have already been handed out to multiple construction firms, many of which are owned by Abbott donors. One $137 million contract was inked with Sullivan Land Services, whose owners has collectively donated more than $250,000 to Abbott’s election campaigns.
Other Abbott donors are receiving generous deals to sell their land. In one agreement, the TFC paid $1.5 million to build the wall on a ranch in northwestern Webb County. This ranch is owned by multi-millionaire Stuart Stedman, who has given Greg Abbott more than $1.1 million in campaign contributions since 2015. Stedman was later appointed by Abbott to a six-year term to the University of Texas System Board of Regents in 2021. The deal is so far the state’s largest acquisition deal for building the wall, and many are questioning the ethics behind a state agency signing contracts with some of the governor’s top donors.
Even today, Democrats are complicit in building the border wall
Construction of a border wall has long been a part of a right-wing agenda, essentially becoming a monument to racism under Trump, but Democrats have put forth remarkably little opposition. On the federal level, they have even done the opposite. Border militarization first took off in earnest under the NAFTA policies of the Clinton administration. Though it was President George W. Bush who signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, an additional 128 miles of border fence was erected during the administration of Barack Obama. The Democratic President even invoked federal waiver laws to bypass environmental regulations and laws protecting indigenous burial sites and religious practices. In fact, most of the construction in South Texas’s Lower Rio Grande Valley occurred during Obama’s first term.
Biden previously declared there would “not be another foot of wall constructed on my administration,” but in 2022 U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced federal construction would resume. They promptly filled in the gaps in Trump’s border wall in Arizona, where CBP previously used explosives to blast through and desecrate ground sacred to the Indigenous Hia-Ceḍ Oʼodham people. Biden has made it clear that he has no plans to remove any of the 452 miles of border wall built by his predecessor. By filling in the gaps, he is in fact expanding it.
Border residents are pushing back on coercion to sell
Webb County, near Laredo, has become the epicenter for the struggle against the border wall. It is the only “major” border county in the state without a border wall, and its residents have long opposed the construction of one in part due to the militarization of the surrounding area and the destruction of the wildlife it would bring. The No Border Wall Coalition, made up of lawyers, educators, residents and landowners, was formed in 2019 to oppose Trump’s similar moves to push through a wall. As Abbott picked up the plans, they had to change strategy. Abbott’s plan does not rely on eminent domain powers, which was Trump’s primary mechanism for acquiring land. Instead, it relies on signing deals with “cooperative landowners.”
The No Border Wall Coalition has been organizing town halls in the Laredo, El Cerizo and Rio Bravo communities to convince property owners not to sign a right-of-way easement with the state. This has been made more difficult due to TFC’s lack of public records. Coalition members have warned that landowners feel they have no real choice but to sign. A Laredo City Council member claimed the state is “preying on people who don’t, I think, understand the full impact of what a wall would be. They’re offering them what is essentially the sum of an entire year’s income for the right of way.“ With construction on the wall coming to Webb County this year, the coalition is in a race against time to stop the destruction.
Indigenous groups merge the struggles for sovereignty, immigration, and environmentalism
Even before the coalition, indigenous groups have been fighting destruction of their ancestral homes tooth and nail. The border wall is above all else an environmental catastrophe, which has led to a natural merger between the struggles against oil extraction – especially fracking – and the struggles against the wall.
The Esto’k Gna people, commonly known as the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, have been one of the groups at the front of this resistance. In 2016, they began setting up resistance villages and decolonial education sites throughout their homelands along the Rio Grande to push back against intensive fracking, which has caused springs to dry up, and pipelines which threaten to destroy fishing grounds. The ancestors of the Esto’k Gna people are buried along the banks of the Rio Grande and are threatened by the construction of the wall.
In 2019, the Esto’k Gna expanded the villages, strategically placing them to stop the desecration of sacred sites and destruction of the ecosystem caused by Trump’s border wall. Tribe member Isidoro Leal stated, “The idea of borders is a colonizer idea. That’s something that came from Spain. For us that wasn’t really a thing. We mostly traveled wherever we wanted.”
In 2021, they scored a major victory for the environment after the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. ruled against a fracking project that would have destroyed a sacred ceremonial site. Juan B. Mancias, the chairman of the Tribe, remarked at the time, “In a sense, it’s a beginning. With the land claim we have, and with what is happening now, I think they are starting to be aware that our resiliency isn’t going to stop; and that our ancestors are speaking through us; and that our ancestors are saying ‘no more.’”
Stopping the border wall requires our unity
While Abbott’s border wall schemes are putting money in the pockets of his wealthy donors, they have also galvanized the resistance against them. The Democrats have been largely absent or have tacitly endorsed the Trumpian policy of border destruction. But community groups have continued to find common cause, growing the movement and stopping reactionary state governments from “filling in the gaps” wherever possible to protect biodiversity.
Merging Indigenous, environmental and immigrant struggles is not a luxury, but a necessity. If we are to stop the environmental destruction that threatens Texas’s biodiversity, we need to do so on the basis of a united front against this brutal onslaught. Together, we can win!