Coalition claims CBP ignored requests to extend border wall public comment period

It remains unclear if a public comment forum on 33 miles of proposed border wall construction will ever take place locally.

Nearly two weeks after a coalition of environmental, public interest and human rights groups sent a letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials requesting an extension on public comments on proposed wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley, officials say they have been ignored by the federal agency.

Laiken Jordahl, an organizer with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations that co-signed the letter along with more than 40 other organizations, said the July 23 letter to CBP officials asked for an extension of 60 days to allow for community members to be involved in the process and provide public comment regarding the proposed border wall projects.

He said that letter was in response to an undated CBP correspondence the center received on about July 10. The CBP correspondence, which was addressed to legal counsel for the center and gave notice of the proposed projects in the Valley, asked for comments regarding within 30 days, Jordahl said.

“It’s a two-page description in really vague terms about (CBP’s) proposed projects,” he added. “And it has a couple of pages of extremely low-resolution maps, showing where they’re proposing to build border walls. It’s not a document CBP has put hardly any time or attention into.

“The notice that they sent out was just requesting comments within 30 days, and we were really concerned because that notice was only sent to select individuals of CBP’s choosing. They didn’t publish it in the Federal Register, which is really the first step for asking for public comments.”

That proposed project outlines construction of 25 miles of levee wall and bollard fencing in Hidalgo County, and 8 miles of wall construction in Starr County — projects already funded in the Omnibus bill passed in March.

The area of proposed border wall construction is slated to cut through national wildlife refuges, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the city of Roma in Starr County, and La Lomita National Historic Districts, as well as dozens of private properties.

Jordahl said aside from a one-line response in an email from CBP thanking him for his “comments,” coalition officials did not receive a response to the letter’s request for an extension to the public comments period.

“We got total radio silence from them,” Jordahl said. “They never responded to our requests despite the fact that more than 40 groups signed on to that request — it wasn’t even dignified with a response.”

He said in addition to the letter signed by the groups, Jordahl personally emailed CBP officials seeking clarification on what the actual deadline for public comment was, but again did not hear back from them.

“..CBP’s notice for comments was actually undated, despite the fact that they requested comments within 30 days of the date of that letter,” Jordahl said.

The letter also addressed what the coalition characterized as a lack of transparency from the federal government in its handling of border wall projects in the area.

CBP spokesman Roderick Kise said in a phone call Friday afternoon that he was unaware of any such letter from the coalition, and said he would forward the request for comment to other CBP officials.

An email to CBP’s media inquiries department requesting comment regarding the coalition’s claim that they were ignored went unreturned as of Friday.

Last October, residents of Roma, where some of the 8 miles of construction is proposed, gathered at a public forum hosted by attorneys and representatives from the Texas Civil Rights Project, and La Union Del Pueblo Entero, a local advocacy group, to provide an update on the proposed project.

Most residents left with more questions than answers regarding how their private property, situated near the U.S.-Mexico border, would be impacted.

Noticeably absent from that meeting were officials from CBP and U.S. Border Patrol, who have instead held closed-door meetings with county and city officials along with other notable “community stakeholders” going back to last July, when contractors and other federal officials began publicly making plans to begin construction in the Valley.

Jordahl said holding these meetings, held without the public’s input, is concerning.

“Who knows what was said behind those closed doors, it’s really concerning that the public doesn’t even have an opportunity to know what’s being discussed,” he said.

The organizer said CBP may not be reaching out publicly because they may already be aware of the opposition they’re facing locally.

Jordahl said the coalition is signing off on a new letter that was to be sent out by the end of day Friday.

In that letter, coalition members restate their reasons for the need to have an extension on the public comments period, as well as reasons why there is opposition to the wall’s construction locally.

The letter, addressed to Paul R. Enriquez, CBP environmental branch chief, outlines the numerous concerns the coalition has in regard to construction in the Valley, including the idea that there has been inadequate public notice or comment allowed, the destruction of habitat and impacts to wildlife, potential flooding risks and the impact construction would have on ecotourism in the area, to name a few.

“We hope CBP will consider the serious concerns we’ve raised and think twice before plowing a destructive border wall through communities, wildlife refuges and ranchlands in the Rio Grande Valley,” Jordahl said. “Throughout this process, CBP has been secretive and unresponsive to the concerns of the public, who overwhelmingly oppose this senseless project. They deserve better.”

lzazueta@themonitor.com