“It’s very scary. My hands are tied because we are quarantined and fighting the federal government, literally.” —Nayda Alvarez, teacher from La Rosita, TX
“They are asking our clients to make an impossible choice: between their health and defending their homes.” —Ricky Garza, attorney leading the legal defense to protect border residents from the wall
These quotes by Ricky, my colleague at Texas Civil Rights Project, and Nayda Alvarez, a life-long resident of La Rosita, TX, capture the absurd situation border residents are living through. For the millions who call the border region home, the coronavirus is not the only giant trouble we are fighting against: We’re also fending off the federal government’s feverish pursuit to build the border wall to kick off Trump’s fourth year in power.
Under non-pandemic circumstances, TCRP staff would be working directly alongside community members, community groups, and our clients to plan our work to stop the wall. Before COVID-19, we envisioned co-hosting a large procession through the small town of Los Ebanos, named so for its ebony trees, to hear stories from residents and celebrate the land which the government wants to seize and wall off. All this in a town where the river bends in all cardinal directions— north, south, and west— before heading back east to the Gulf of Mexico. But for the sake of all our safety, we remain at home.
Photo: View in Los Ebanos, TX, of Rio Grande River’s bending in all directions
But while we do our part to fight the pandemic, the White House is speeding up its destructive agenda in border communities. In the first four months of 2020, the government has more than tripled its monthly rate of suing South Texas families for their land, sent teams of surveyors to several of our clients’ properties, and doubled down on waiving protective laws in small border towns like Salineño and Escobares.
These towns are some of the very places we planned to provide “Know Your Rights” seminars this spring. They’re the towns where Border Patrol agents have reportedly told residents that only a road would be coming through, crudely leaving out their plans to build a wall.
The priorities of the federal government for border communities are clear: Building a useless, racist monument is more important than ensuring our health and safety. These actions endanger the lives of the contractors and border residents alike, many of whom are in higher-risk demographics, and divert precious resources that should be used to keep our towns healthy.
Video: Rey Anzaldua, a border resident, testifying in February in Congress against the border wall construction
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. came on Jan. 21. By March, the President would issue a national emergency declaration, and U.S. deaths skyrocketed. Yet somehow the border wall filings kept coming, almost mimicking the virus’s fatal speed.
Chart: Lawsuits against border residents have increased sharply since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S.
In response to the federal government ignoring its own guidance and continuing business-as-usual, TCRP led more than 100 organizations, including groups like the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and United We Dream, to demand a halt to the wall construction. Together, we sent a letter to the government demanding an immediate halt to all construction. Shortly after our letter, dozens of lawmakers followed our lead. In total, Congress has submitted at least five separate demands to the Trump administration to listen to us. Since then, we’ve expanded our efforts to organizing individuals online, starting with a petition that now has over 2,500 signatures.
Collectively, we’ve made the point clear: Wall construction must stop immediately to save lives. As COVID-19 grips the world, each of us should be spending our energy on our own health, our loved ones, helping our children continue their learning, or just finding time to take a breather from the nonstop feeds of information. Border residents should not be worrying about this racist monument. If the government wants to try to build a wall during a pandemic and impose their agenda on us, we’re showing them we’ll continue defending our communities, just like we’ve done for years.
We must stop this administration that remains hell-bent on fulfilling one of its racist campaign promises and using this public health crisis as a smokescreen to get it done.
Roberto is the outreach coordinator for the Racial and Economic Justice program at Texas Civil Rights Project. He is based in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. @RobertoAleLopez