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As Debate Rages On Border Wall, Construction Is Already Beginning

Reprinted by permission from Alternet.

Krista Schlyer saw the arm of a yellow excavator emerge from the treetops in La Parida Banco National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday morning. Soon, this tract will be bisected by roughly 30 feet of concrete and steel fencing.

In the past week, the conservation photographer and writer has walked past the land multiple times and glimpsed the heavy machinery — but it was never moving. On Thursday morning, as she approached the site, she saw roughly a half dozen vehicles from local law enforcement agencies and Border Patrol surrounding the site.

“It’s really frustrating that taxpayer dollars are being used to build this,” she said. “But taxpayers can’t see the results of what they’re doing.”

On Friday, President Trump said he will declare a national emergency to pump more than $6 billion into constructing more of his long-promised border wall, on top of the $1.375 billion authorized by Congress as part of a budget compromise to head off another government shutdown. To the delight of activists and lawyers, language in the budget bill bars the construction of fencing at several local landmarks – like the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the historic La Lomita chapel and the National Butterfly Center — but it’s unclear whether that protection extends to any construction funded through Trump’s emergency declaration.

Meanwhile, excavators have already begun to clear land for what’s seen as the first phase of the president’s border barrier: 33 miles of steel fencing in the Rio Grande Valley, including 25 miles in Hidalgo County and another 8 miles in neighboring Starr County, that Congress and the president approved last year at a cost of $641 million.

The government has sent letters requesting the right to survey nearly 600 private properties set to fall in the fence’s path — step one in the eminent domain process that allows the government to seize private land. Some landowners have granted temporary entry, but others have gone to court to stop the surveys.

Last fall, Nayda Alvarez received a letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection asking for the right to survey her family’s land, an 8-acre plot in Starr County speckled with mesquite and cacti, but she didn’t grant access. Now, CBP is preparing to sue her in federal district court to gain access. (The agency notified her of this by letter in early January.)

Alvarez, who says she has never seen undocumented immigrants cross the Rio Grande near her property, painted her roof with the words “No Border Wall” in protest.

On Sunday, she stood in an alcove on the banks of the river that she calls her “little paradise” where her family would barbecue on Easter Sundays and go fishing during Lent.

“Do you see a crisis?” she said, looking toward the river.

Also in the path of the new fencing is the 154-year-old Eli Jackson cemetery, an acre-wide resting place for at least 150 people, including many of the indigenous and Mexican descendants of former slave owner Nathaniel Jackson. Now, the cemetery’s graves may be uprooted to make way for the border fence.

A group of about 10 to 15 activists and their allies have camped out on the property for about a month, a diverse crew that includes Carrizo /Comecrudo Tribe members, activists who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and other locals and allies. At the heart of their camp — called the “Yalui village,” which means butterfly in the Carrizo/Comecrudo language — a sacred fire burns day and night.

The cemetery is where 62-year-old Adelina Yarrito last saw her father’s body before he was buried. Next to her father, Yarrito’s great-uncle Daniel and great-grandmother Silveria lay buried.

“If you don’t have respect for the dead, you don’t have respect for no one,” she said.

The Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe isn’t recognized by the federal government, but Juan Mancias, the tribal leader, says his forefathers have been in the area for centuries. In addition to the cemetery, Mancias said he’s concerned about the peyote, an important religious and medicinal plant for many indigenous tribes, that grows along the banks of the river, including areas where the fence is slated to be built.

“This is stolen land. And rent’s due,” Mancias said. “The land doesn’t belong to anyone; We belong to the land.”

Further down the river, the National Butterfly Center and La Lomita chapel have been spared from the fence for now, but are still watching what’s happening in Washington closely.

The butterfly center went to court to stop the fence, arguing that it would cut the center off from as much as 70 percent of its land and threaten native wildlife, including birds, plants, and 237 butterfly species.

After Congress passed the compromise Thursday that barred fence construction through the center, a judge for the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C. dismissed the center’s 2017 lawsuit against the federal government. But Marianna Treviño-Wright, the center’s director, said they are concerned that Trump’s emergency declaration could still threaten the center.

“We will be exercising every option at our disposal to counter this illegitimate state of emergency,” she said.

In ‘Nuestro Texas,’ A Call For Human Rights In Reproductive Health Care

A new report on access to reproductive health care in the Rio Grande Valley highlights the human rights violations happening right in the U.S.

During the past three years, more than 150,000 women in Texas have lost access to reproductive health services, thanks to a relentless barrage of laws and policies that have shuttered 76 family planning clinics across the state. A disproportionate number of those women live in the Rio Grande Valley, a region with extreme health disparities and some of the nation’s highest levels of poverty and unemployment.

A recent report – Nuestra Voz, Nuestra Salud, Nuestro Texas – co-authored by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) illustrates the dire impact that three years of draconian policies have had on women in the valley. During a briefing at the Roosevelt Institute last week, Katrina Anderson, Human Rights Counsel at CRR, and Jessica González-Rojas and Diana Lugo-Martinez, NLIRH’s Executive Director and Senior Director of Community Engagement, shared the report’s findings and conveyed the stories and experiences of the more than 180 local women they have interviewed.

Nuestro Texas stands out because it illustrates the deeply personal impact of the state’s restrictions and regulations, but it is also unique because it frames Texas women’s rights as fundamental human rights issues, using international standards – a framing infrequently used when addressing women’s health in the United States.

Communities across Texas are feeling the acute pain of the rapid destruction of a once-robust public health infrastructure, and the most harm has been done along the state’s Southeast border with Mexico. Nine of the Valley’s 32 health clinics have closed, and those remaining open have curtailed hours, reduced staff, increased fees, and eliminated some services. Before the cuts, public clinics in the valley served nearly 20,000 patients. Today they serve just over 5,000.

Nuestro Texas tells the stories of women who now seek care in Mexico, or purchase black-market medications, or forgo family planning and medical care altogether because the barriers of cost, travel, and immigration status are simply too great. Women live with the anxiety of undiagnosed and untreated breast lumps, cervical pain, sexually transmitted diseases, and a host of other adverse health issues.

Beyond declining access to family planning and a full range of women’s health care services, abortion services have all but disappeared in the Valley thanks to the sweeping anti-choice legislation passed last year by the state legislature in Texas. As a result, reports of incidents of self-abortion are becoming commonplace, because without other options women will take the termination of unplanned pregnancies into their own hands, as they did for decades before abortion was legalized in 1973. Even before the 2011 budget cuts and recent abortion restrictions, the estimated rate of self-induced abortion in Texas was more than twice that of the nation overall, and the rate along the border was more than five times greater than the national rate. Recent articles by Andrea Grimes (RH Reality Check) and by Lindsay Bayerstein (The New Republic) illustrate the dire consequences of regulating reproductive health care into obscurity.

Despite the profound stresses women in the valley now endure, at the Roosevelt Institute briefing González-Rojas maintained that they are not simply “victims of systemic barriers.” They are using their voices to advocate for the health and rights of women and families. Outreach workers help navigate immigration and transportation barriers so that women can access needed care in Mexico, if necessary. They host community meetings where women can share their frustrations, fears, and experiences. They teach self-breast exams and educate about the warning signs of sexually transmitted diseases, even though there are few clinics to see women who may need care.

González-Rojas explained that framing women’s rights as human rights has positioned reproductive health as a family and community issue, one that requires multiple voices and solutions to address. Focusing on human rights has empowered women in the valley to organize and mobilize for policy change. They teach communities about immigration, health, and economic policies and encourage them to fight back by protesting, petitioning lawmakers, and – when possible – by voting. Lugo-Martinez said Valley residents have become engaged and excited about human rights and are routinely sharing copies of the landmark 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights at community meetings.

“Women in the Valley will not rest until they can get care when and where they need it,” González-Rojas said. Nor should we remain complacent, for it would be wrong to assume that what is happening in Texas will stay there. “Texas is the epicenter of bad reproductive health policy, but it is also the incubator of those policies. What happens in Texas really matters,” said Anderson.

States across the nation are now following Texas’s lead in significantly restricting women’s access to reproductive health care. Nuestro Texas demonstrates the urgency of accelerating legal and policy trends across the country, as conservative legislators pursue an unrelenting anti-choice, anti-women’s-health agenda.

Andrea Flynn is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. She researches and writes about access to reproductive health care in the United States. You can follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog.

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Photo: Bill & Heather Jones via Flickr