The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has issued a series of waivers for the construction of a border wall section in New Mexico. The department announced that it would be waiving more than 30 laws, most of them environmental, to begin construction on a 20-mile-long stretch of bollard wall near the Santa Teresa port on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Citing the area’s flat terrain and high rates of border crossings, DHS Secretary Kirsten Nielsen successfully petitioned for the waiver on January 22; as a result, the existing vehicle barrier will be replaced with an 18-foot-tall stretch of steel bollards atop concrete. While the shorter barriers, often X-shaped, are effective at stopping vehicles, the widely-spaced posts are easy to pass through or climb over on foot. Under the Bush administration’s REAL ID Act in 2005, the DHS Secretary is permitted to waive all federal, state, and local laws when building in the border region.
According to Vice, some of the regulations waived include the National Environmental Policy Act, which would have required an environmental review of the project, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act. That last waiver is especially damaging as the Santa Teresa port sits within the Chihuahuan Desert, one of the most ecologically diverse, and fragile, desert landscapes in the world.
Environmentalists immediately slammed the administration for granting the DHS the waiver.
“The Trump administration is stopping at nothing to ram through this destructive border wall,” said Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Brian Segee. “Trump’s divisive border wall is a humanitarian and environmental disaster, and it won’t do anything to stop illegal drug or human smuggling.”
While the Center for Biological Diversity considers a lawsuit to block the issuance of the waiver, the conservation organization is also fighting to prevent a similar waiver from taking effect in San Diego. A hearing on the San Diego case is scheduled for February 9, when the Center for Biological Diversity will attempt to argue that the Trump administration lacks the authority to issue waivers that bypass the Endangered Species Act.
The DHS has also opened itself up to lawsuits from cultural activist groups with this move. Secretary Nielsen has also waived the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.
While the department has pledged to “ensure that impacts to the environment, wildlife, and cultural and historic artifacts are analyzed and minimized, to the extent possible,” it remains to be seen how the rollback will affect these goals.
In an analysis of the border wall expansion across South Texas leaked last November, the Army Corps of Engineers bluntly described the cultural and environmental damage that would result from a similar installation. It’s likely any further expansion of a physical barrier across America’s southern border would exacerbate the damage we’ve already done there, as existing sections of the wall have already limited animal migration patterns for dozens of species.