New border wall project underway in South Texas during pandemic

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Critics say wall funds should be used on COVID-19 research and testing instead

HIDALGO, Texas (Border Report) — Construction workers toiled during the weekend to prepare a section of border levee where they are building a new border wall despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in South Texas.

Crews from Southwest Valley Constructors Company have already cleared the area and poured concrete for the foundation of the 18-foot-tall metal bollard border wall. They also are shoring up the existing earthen levee, which was originally built by the International Boundary and Water Commission, and atop is where the new border wall is to be built, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials told Border Report. However, no border wall bollards have been erected yet.

This 11-mile border wall project consists of three non-contiguous sections and is expected to cost the federal government $304 million when completed. It will include an all-weather road, infra-red cameras and lighting and other sensors, CBP officials said when they first announced this project in August.

Construction began on March 16 — the site now is filled with towering cranes and CAT excavators — and is already much further along than a nearby border wall project that began in early 2019 and does not yet have any concrete laid. That site, located west of Bentsen State Park in Mission, Texas, has had land stripped and easement roads built but no concrete base poured.

This new project is located just south of the Hackney Branch Floodway, a spillway built by IBWC to capture excess water in this flat, flood-prone region. CBP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been generally following the path of the levees as a map for building a complete border wall through the Rio Grande Valley in deep South Texas. Their plan is to connect new border wall with sections of the existing border levee wall, which was built under the Secure Fence Act of 2006 under President George W. Bush.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. (Courtesy Photo).

But critics say the levees are set back too far from the Rio Grande — which is the actual international boundary line — anywhere from a quarter-mile to a mile and a half. They also complain that the construction of a border wall should be curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday morning, U.S. Rep. Benny Thompson, D-Mississippi, criticized the White House for continuing to build a 1,900-mile border wall along the nation’s Southwest during this pandemic. Speaking during a Monday morning town hall conference call hosted by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Thompson, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, urged that billions of funds set aside by Congress for construction of the border wall be re-directed to COVID-19 research and testing, instead.

“We’re trying to stop construction of the wall and facilitate diversion of the resources to address this pandemic,” said Thompson, who along with three other members of Congress last month, wrote a letter to the acting heads of the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice and Department of Defense asking that construction cease during this pandemic.

Scott Nicol, former chairman of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands campaign, is seen on Oct. 19, 2019, at a section of existing border levee wall in Hidalgo, Texas. New border wall in South Texas is being built to hook onto existing wall sections like this. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

On Monday, crews wearing hard hats and yellow construction vests appeared to be working fairly close to one another at the new border wall site, which is adjacent to a corn field and about one mile east of the Rio Grande.

“It is a complete waste of resources,” said Scott Nicol, a wall opponent who is former chairman of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands campaign. “The construction work should be shut down during the pandemic and put in to testing and helping.”

Nicol points out that the levee that crews are dismantling to put up the wall is occurring just at a time when hurricane season is about to begin next month in Texas. And that could leave the region geographically vulnerable to flooding.

He also worries about construction workers coming into the region from other areas bringing coronavirus, and causing an outbreak in South Texas.

“These construction crews are being brought in from all over the country,” Nicol said. “And if they are visiting back and forth with their families that is increasing our odds of having a big outbreak here.”

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