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‘Construction is supposed to be stopped—it’s not’: In South Texas, there's skepticism over what’s being built along the border

Some in the Rio Grande Valley community believe it's evident the government is building a border wall. CBP says it’s building and fixing levees.

HIDALGO COUNTY, Texas — Despite obvious construction going on along the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, whether the federal government is building a border wall is a subject of debate. 

Back when he was still a presidential candidate, Joe Biden vowed to stop construction and, soon after arriving in the Oval Office, he ordered it.

Citing federal inaction, Gov. Greg Abbott started building his own wall and barriers in the Del Rio area and, more recently, in Starr County.

The construction going on in the Rio Grande Valley involves bollards; they’re just shorter than ones that make up former President Donald Trump’s sections of the existing border wall. 

The Biden administration says it’s building and repairing levees. Some are skeptical. 

“What they're doing to (the border), it isn't normal levee design. It's border-wall design,” said Scott Nicol, a concerned citizen and local environmentalist who’s been watching the wall-building for 15 years.

“I've been keeping an eye on border-wall construction since it started under (former President George W.) Bush and throughout the Trump years,” he said.

An art teacher by trade, Nicol said he’s generally against a wall, because, in his words, “they’re a tremendous waste of money.”

He’s taken it upon himself to track construction. He has thousands of photographs to show for it, and several drone videos as well.

“Construction is ongoing on border walls in south Texas,” Nicol told KENS 5. “You've got the tall bollard border walls that were built under the Trump administration. And then the short bollard ones that link up with those that were built since the summer under the Biden administration.”

Nicol says important government actions such as this one, especially operations which are this impactful, should be transparent.

“The federal government has been very bad about providing information to the public,” Nicol said. “So, I take it upon myself to get out and keep an eye on it, take pictures of it.”

“Under the Biden administration, construction is supposed to be stopped. It's not,” Nicol added. “Around the corner there are cranes and crews. They're tearing into the levee. They're pouring concrete. They're putting steel bollards on top. They're basically building the same border walls that Trump called for.”

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversees the building of the barrier. The corps dispersed billions of dollars to contractors to build the southern wall between fiscal years 2018 and 2020.

Over the course of several months, KENS 5 repeatedly asked the Army Corps of Engineers to take us out to the construction site, walk us through what is going on, and participate in interviews on camera or via Zoom .Those requests were never granted. 

Customs and Border Protection officials instead answered our questions via email, saying that current construction was funded by Congress in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. The work, CBP told KENS 5, included working on levees that were “previously compromised due to nearby construction activities.”

CBP said that in the fall of 2019, before President Biden’s proclamation suspending border wall construction, approximately 13 miles of earthen levees in Hidalgo County had already been modified or removed “in preparation for levee barrier construction.”

“The design for the concrete levee with a barrier on top was approved by the U.S. Boundary and Water Commission,” CBP said in an email.

The earthen, by comparison, levees can’t handle the steel barrier and provide adequate flood protection, according to the agency.

CBP told KENS 5 the concrete levees are more resilient and provide better protection than pre-existing earner levees.

The guardrails, CBP said, are designed “to protect agents, first responders and anyone else who needs access to the levee area from accidentally going over the concrete levee, a drop-off of up to 14 feet, particularly at night when it can be very dangerous.”

CBP said while the original levee wall design included 18-foot bollards; the modified design features a  four-to-six foot barrier.

CBP is under the Department of Homeland Security, which announced its border wall plan in June of 2021.

The plan included continuing some projects “needed to avert immediate physical dangers.” This included construction and remediation of approximately 13.4 miles of compromised levee, according to DHS.

KENS 5 asked CBP for a detailed map for the 13.4 miles worth of work. CBP said it wasn’t able to obtain the requested map.

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez told KENS 5 some levees in the region did need repair last year due to Trump-era wall-building, which was halted by Biden–resulting in infrastructural vulnerabilities. 

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez told KENS 5 some levees in Hidalgo County did need repair last year. The result of President Trump’s border wall construction halted by President Biden. 

“All of the contractors abandoned the construction site,s and in doing so there were at least four breaches on those levees left open,” Cortez told KENS 5. “When we learned that this situation existed, we contacted the government. And to our surprise, we really didn't get a response, we didn't get an immediate response. It was shocking to me, because I would think that they would be equally as concerned about the public’s safety as we were.”

“We yelled and screamed for them to fix it,” Cortez said.

Which eventually happened.

“My concern was the safety of our citizens for flooding,” said Cortez.

He told KENS 5 that, after a few months, county officials were given a tour of completed repairs. He asked about the bollards, and received the same answer we did: that they were installed for safety reasons. “Obviously I smiled,” Cortez said. “Because I see those guardrails all over the state of Texas, and they're not spikes sticking up. I can only tell you what it looks like. Yeah, it looks like a wall. And it looks like we’ll have to keep somebody from climbing it as opposed to protecting the vehicle from falling.”

After all these years of fighting against the wall, and still watching construction on the border, Nicol said he’s not deterred.

“I would like to think that the federal government will finally realize that border walls are a tremendous waste of money,” he said. “They're nothing but political props. And we should stop building them and start tearing them down.”

Late last month, CBP announced it is exploring building about 86 miles of new border barrier and supporting infrastructure. 

In its notice inviting public input, CBP said Congress appropriated funds for the construction of border barriers in the Rio Grande Valley. The current administration requested that Congress permanently cancel funding. But while the funds are still appropriated, CBP is conducting environmental planning for the proposed construction.

CBP said it was accepting public comments on the project until March 7. You can email them to RGVComments@cbp.dhs.gov and include “Rio Grande Valley Environmental Planning” in the subject of your email.

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