Feds sued by waiver on environmental reviews for Calexico border wall

A U.S. Border Patrol unit parks along the border wall at Calexico.

The Trump administration has declared rebuilding the border fence along the Calexico border to be of highest priority, according to a statement from Elaine Duke, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security. The administration waived environmental laws and other reviews September 5, for the second time within two months, to continue the forward momentum of securing the border.

The fence replacement will take place along an approximately three-mile segment of the border that starts at the Calexico West Land Port of Entry and extends westward, according to a notice in the Federal Register. The United States Border Patrol’s El Centro Sector is an area of high illegal entry. In fiscal year 2016 alone, the United States Border Patrol apprehended over 19,000 illegal aliens and seized approximately 2,900 pounds of marijuana and approximately 126 pounds of cocaine, according to the Federal Register.

Since the creation of DHS, and through the construction of border infrastructure and other operational improvements, the Border Patrol has made significant gains in border security within the El Centro Sector; however, more work is required, according to DHS. The El Centro Sector remains an area of high illegal entry for which there is an immediate need to construct border barriers and roads.

Because of the illegal traffic of persons and contraband, the DHS said in the Federal Register they were taking immediate action to replace primary fencing. DHS said the existing fence was installed in the 1990s, using an outdated design no longer optimal for Border Patrol operations. The existing 14-foot, landing mat-style fencing will be replaced with an 18 to 25-foot barrier which is more conducive to the Border Patrol’s needs, according to Acting Secretary Duke. DHS has budgeted improvements to the existing patrol road to further enhance their operational standards.

Three national environmental groups sued the federal government Thursday over waivers the Department of Homeland Security granted to circumvent environmental and land management laws to expedite construction of President Donald Trump’s border wall, according to a press release.

The Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Legal Defense Fund, last month had sued the Department of Homeland Security in federal court over the department’s waiving 37 environmental and regulatory laws for building a wall along the U.S. and Mexico border at San Diego.

Sierra Club attorney Gloria Smith said in an interview the conservation groups brought the case because “we want to stop a dangerous campaign slogan from becoming reality.”

“Were the Trump administration allowed to build a wall along the Southern border, it would have devastating impacts on our local border community, wildlife and wildlife habitat and the environment in general,” Smith said.

They seek a declaration that the San Diego and El Centro waivers are unconstitutional as well as an injunction barring the department from constructing any border infrastructure in San Diego and El Centro.

In El Centro, the Yuma clapper rail is listed as an Endangered Species and can be found in that project area in addition to 18 birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Eagle Protection Act, according to the lawsuit.

Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan said by email the department does not comment on pending litigation.