A year ago on February 15, 2019, President Trump declared a national emergency on the Southern border, which baffled the residents of border towns who had seen no rise in crime or violence in their jurisdictions and where the security apparatus had been working extremely efficiently to contain the drug and cartel violence in Mexico from entering U.S. territory. After failing to appropriate funding from the Republican-controlled Congress, the National Emergencies Act enabled the President to divert part of the military budget ($3.8 billion and rising) to build a wall on the southern border.
We live in a world where irony has overtaken reality. Now that we are facing a serious emergency with the coronavirus outbreak, the wall seems ridiculous as a defense against any perceived or real threats. ICE agents, however, continue to arrest and deport undocumented people, albeit wearing respiratory masks, using hand sanitizer, and applying all necessary precautions. We seem to be incapable of understanding what ails us even during a global pandemic.
The crisis has brought about rampant confusion, as schools are closed, roads are empty, grocery stores are crowded, and shopping malls are deserted. We are right to criticize the Trump administration for downplaying the risk of the coronavirus and to want to look for direction from local, state, and federal authorities. At the same time, one of the projects of the federal government that has barely paused is construction of the border wall. On March 16, U.S. Customs and Border Protection awarded $175 million to build 15 miles of the border wall in Starr County. Laredo, the largest inland port in the country, in adjacent Webb County, is preparing for a lockdown, as gatherings of more than 50 people have already been banned. The real crisis will occur when the border actually shuts down, halting billions of dollars in trade ($235 billion in 2018). Because of Mexico bashing, in 2019 the city experienced a 1.31 percent decrease in trade and associated revenues from bridge and occupancy taxes.
There is no sensible reason for the monstrous wall, which will cost taxpayers $24 million a mile according to a conservative estimate that doesn’t count maintenance costs. It would do little to address drug trafficking because the bulk of drugs and counterfeit goods pass through legal ports of entry where only a miniscule amount are scrutinized for fear of hampering the trade flow. Likewise, most undocumented residents enter the U.S. legally and become undocumented through visa overstays. We have already made a mess of a working asylum system by turning it into a criminal operation with harsh and inhuman penalties.
The residents of Laredo have come together to appeal to their local, state, and federal representatives by highlighting the hurtful and hateful impact of the wall on their communities—which includes lost access to the Rio Grande River, compromised quality for their only source of drinking water, endangered wildlife, and demolition of historic buildings downtown—along with intangible consequences to the border culture of a city that has existed since before the formation of the United States. Laredo just hosted its eighth international Birding Festival, taking advantage of its situation in the “birdiest” corridor of the Rio Grande Valley. It would be a terrible shame to destroy the habitats and lose these winter guests as well as their admirers who flock to Laredo from distant cities and countries.
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The federal government has already waived 28 environmental laws to construct the wall with immunity from any dire consequences and is practicing the shady method of “quick take” to seize vast amounts of private property along the river rather than applying standard eminent domain procedures. A local environmental nonprofit organization, the Rio Grande International Study Center, has joined with private property owners to support the National Butterfly Center and Earthjustice as they sue the Trump administration. They have even persuaded the Laredo City Council to join their lawsuit. The local #noborderwall coalition remains active and vigilant with marches and community action, but their voices hardly ever reach Washington or resonate there.
What do we do if the border actually shuts down without the Trump wall? The crisis of the hour is not any imagined threat from the porous border, but rather how border cities can survive if trade were to be halted. Senator Elizabeth Warren has suggested buttressing our weak healthcare provisions to fight against the very real pandemic by redirecting funds allocated for the misguided border wall. Sanity and common sense, however, are short in supply in the Trump administration.
To borrow a theme from south of the border from Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera,” we find ourselves imbued with hatred in the time of the coronavirus. The septuagenarians in the novel are afflicted with love, an intense passion as tumultuous as an epidemic. Do we happen to have any septuagenarian leader who can change the language of hate to compassion?
The people of Laredo know that love is stronger than hate and that the twin cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo have preserved their bonds through epic wars and clashes. At this time of crisis, can we finally abandon the senseless wall that will only waste taxpayer money desperately needed for the people, and focus on the real possibility of the border closing down as a dire emergency, not as a useless mechanism of control?