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New construction on Texas border worries immigration advocates and critics. Here’s why

FILE - In this June 10, 2021, file photo, a pair of migrant families from Brazil pass through a gap in the border wall to reach the United States after crossing from Mexico to Yuma, Ariz., to seek asylum. (AP Photo/Eugene Garcia, File)

FILE – In this June 10, 2021, file photo, a pair of migrant families from Brazil pass through a gap in the border wall to reach the United States after crossing from Mexico to Yuma, Ariz., to seek asylum. (AP Photo/Eugene Garcia, File)

AP

Environmentalists and immigration advocates are concerned about the construction of what seems to resemble a border wall about a half-mile north of the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas.

The structures have been in construction for weeks, The Texas Tribune reported Friday. The federal government said that the structures — 15-foot tall concrete panels with 6-foot steel bollards on top — are intended to act as an upgrade to the existing earthen levee system that protects the Rio Grande Valley from flooding.

But advocates remain skeptical, saying that what the federal government calls a “guardrail” to repair the levees doesn’t look much different than a border wall.

“It’s more than a guardrail. It’s a shorter border wall, that’s all,” Jim Chapman, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, told Border Report. “I have a lot of disappointment with the administration for allowing this to happen.”

President Joe Biden announced on his first day in office in January that “no more American taxpayer dollars” would be diverted to a border wall, signing an executive order officially pausing construction on the wall and calling for a review of the resources spent by the Trump administration on the project.

After the order was signed, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stopped construction on the border. But as hurricane season loomed, local officials began to worry that damage sustained by the levees during construction of the wall would put the Valley in greater danger of flooding.

“Construction under the prior administration blew large holes into the Rio Grande Valley’s flood barrier system to make way for a border wall,” Homeland Security officials said in an April 30 statement. “These breaches have threatened local communities. DHS will start work to quickly repair the flood barrier system to protect border communities. This work will not involve expanding the border barrier.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told The Texas Tribune that the structure “is part of [U.S. Department of Homeland Security] plans announced April 30 to reduce flooding risk to border communities in the Rio Grande Valley near McAllen, Texas. The levee repair does not involve expanding the border barrier.”

But “[i]t pretty much has the same symbolic look as the Trump wall,” Roberto Lopez, a community organizer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for migrants’ rights and other social justice issues, told the Tribune.

“What’s going on behind is continuing border wall construction and that really runs directly counter to President-elect Biden saying there ‘would not be one more foot of border wall construction,’ and where you see behind me the concrete wall without the steel bollards on top, that’s new,” Chapman told Border Report. “What was there a month or so ago was an earthen levee.”

In addition to how the structures look, some of them are being newly placed where there previously was no wall, McAllen environmentalist Scott Nicol said in a Tweet.

Nicol also questioned how Homeland Security could use funds that were set aside for border construction to repair levees, Border Report said.

“I think somebody is using the levee repair as a loophole,” Nicol told Border Report.

“It is pretty clear that contractors have discovered that by calling this ‘levee repairs’ instead of ’border wall construction’ they can finish out the border wall contracts and collect their full payout,” Nicol later told McClatchy News.

DHS stated on June 11 that the agency planned to reallocate funds previously set aside for border wall construction to instead “address and remediate urgent life, safety, and environmental issues resulting from the previous administration’s border wall construction.” The statement named the damage to levees near the Rio Grande Valley as one of those issues.

In another statement issued on June 27, DHS said that their upcoming projects “do not involve building new border barriers.”

But Nicol, who said he’s been visiting the construction sites regularly since July, says they “are absolutely border walls, not levee repairs.”

“They are being built by the same contractors, using the same border wall appropriations, as the nearby Trump walls,” Nicol told McClatchy News. “And rather than fixing damaged levees — the levees left damaged when Biden took office were all repaired by the first week of June — there are now more locations that are in worse shape than back in January, even though we are now in the middle of hurricane season.”

Nicol also worries that the levees will be harmful to local wildlife, cutting off access to the river and trapping animals to drown during a flood.

And Ronald Rael, an architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said although walls can reinforce a levee, the metal bollards at the top could also stop people from crossing it.

“I hate to use cliches, but if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck,” Rael told the Tribune. “If DHS is building it, then it is an extension of the border wall.”

Vandana Ravikumar is a McClatchy Real-Time reporter. She grew up in northern Nevada and studied journalism and political science at Arizona State University. Previously, she reported for USA Today, The Dallas Morning News, and Arizona PBS.

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