As President Donald Trump’s attempts to reverse the results of the U.S. election continue to make headlines, construction of his signature undertaking—the border wall with Mexico—is ramping up in the final weeks of his presidency.
Along the way, contractors and border patrol agents are bulldozing and dynamiting ancestral and sacred lands, causing irreparable damage along the Texas and Arizona borders with Mexico, which will only worsen until President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, Indigenous leaders say.
Since January 2017, about $15 billion has been earmarked for 738 miles of border wall, much of that siphoned from military construction projects and other programs. As of December 28, approximately 446 miles of border wall had been completed, 205 miles are under construction, and 87 miles are in “pre-construction,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement to VICE News.
“They haven't stopped for about a month now and are working around the clock” along the Texas-Mexico border, said Sarah Burt, a lawyer with EarthJustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization. Burt is leading a legal case that argues Trump’s tactics to build the wall are unconstitutional.
Biden has campaigned to stop construction immediately once he’s in office and said he’d end Trump’s national emergency that has served as the basis for rushed construction. He also said he’d uphold tribal land protections and Indigenous sacred sites, and will give tribes more authority over public lands going forward.
But Biden hasn’t said whether he’d consider tearing parts of the wall down, especially in ecologically sensitive areas such as Quitobaquito Springs. The springs, sacred to the Tohono O'odham tribe, sit within the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southern Arizona, and locals told the Arizona Republic that the water levels have dropped significantly because of construction. The federal government denies this, but reports maintain the work, largely taking place on Indigenous territory and wildlife refuges, is also draining nearby waterways, pulverizing mountains, and further harming countless protected animals and plants.
According to the Washington Post, Customs and Border Protection officials and members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are already preparing for Biden’s likely stop-work order, which will cease further construction. But while Biden can halt further damage to Indigenous lands and border wildlife habitats, much of the damage that’s already been done is permanent.
“The blasting and bulldozing has caused significant, irrevocable desecration of sacred sites and the burial sites of our ancestors,” said Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr., whose community straddles the Arizona-Mexico border. “Halting the border wall construction is the most urgent immediate step to prevent further destruction.”
Several Indigenous nations who live along the U.S.-Mexico border have spoken out against wall construction and the resulting desecration of sacred sites, including graves. They also say the physical wall further separates them from their families and ancestral sites on opposite sides of the border.
“We know border patrol people are finding arrowheads and selling them to collectors,” said Juan Mancias, tribal chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, or Esto’k Gna. “We had an ex-border patrol agent return things he had found while he was in the field.”
VICE News previously reported how members of the tribe have been fighting the border wall along the Rio Grande in Texas by reviving ancestral villages along its route. The villages have doubled as resistance camps, asserting ancestral ties to the land, and offering decolonial education, Mancias said. People have even camped out throughout the pandemic.
Yalui Village was erected to stop the wall from crossing the historic Eli Jackson Cemetery, where Esto’k Gna say their ancestors are buried. CBP decided to build sections of the wall along the nearby levee, about a block away from the cemetery.
Officials behind the border wall are “trying to erase us from existing and that's not right,” Mancias said.
“People were so upset during the Black Lives Matter protests and gatherings right after George Floyd died; they were complaining about looting and breaking up buildings,” Mancias said. “Then we go to deal with our graves, our lands, and nobody is accountable.”
The construction is also altering flood paths, which puts the cemetery and surrounding areas at risk of being washed out, said Burt, who represents Esto’k Gna and others in her case. The region has suffered from extreme weather events before, with Hurricane Hanna touching down in Texas earlier this year.
CBP told VICE News it surveys sites ahead of construction to identify sensitive and culturally significant areas. The department also said it consults with tribes to develop a plan of action when culturally sensitive artifacts or sites are uncovered.
But people on the ground say that hasn’t happened in practice because Trump’s team waived dozens of federal laws, including several that protect the environment, Indigenous burial sites, and Indigenous religious practices, to allow for quick construction of the wall.
The Tohono O’odham Nation, which straddles the Arizona-Mexico border, has been speaking out against the “harmful and useless” wall for months. In March, leaders told the New York Times that border wall construction workers who were blasting ancestral burial sites were committing “crimes against humanity.”
“Tell me where your grandparents are buried and let me dynamite their graves,” Verlon M. José, the governor of Tohono O’odham in northern Mexico and former vice chairman on the nation’s U.S. side, told the Times. “This wall is already putting a scar across our heart.”
Construction went ahead in full force during the pandemic, Norris Jr. told VICE News in a statement. He added that construction workers also put border communities at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.
“It is another example of the Trump administration's total disregard for the impacts this project has on the people living at the border,” Norris Jr. said.
Norris Jr. said that his community is now exploring ways to restore sites damaged by border wall construction, but a lot of the destruction is irrevocable.
In southern California and Mexico, the Kumeyaay Nation says the wall has separated families, and areas where their ancestors are buried are getting blasted. According to the Kumeyaay, a soul can’t rest if their physical remains are disturbed.
Tohono O’odham is ready to work with Biden’s team to prevent injustices like the border wall from happening again, Norris Jr. said, adding that tribes need to have a say over what happens on their territory.
Until then, people are concerned Trump can still do a lot of damage—especially since border wall construction is happening day and night.
“What we see happening before our eyes we have no control over,” said Sylvia Ramirez, a Texan who lives near the Eli Jackson Cemetery and the nearby historic Jackson Ranch Church and Cemetery. She and her brother, descendants of two of the cemeteries’ original founders—a white former slave owner who married an emancipated slave—have been fighting alongside Esto’k Gna.
Ramirez said it’s clear construction is speeding up “as fast as possible to complete as many miles—or feet—as possible.”
Biden hasn’t offered clear details about his plans for the wall apart from halting construction and instead investing in “smart border enforcement efforts” like enhanced screening technology at border entry points.
And even if Biden halts construction, CPB officials have said millions more of taxpayer dollars will be spent because hired companies can charge for “demobilization,” including withdrawing crews and equipment. (Pentagon estimates show the end of the project could actually result in $2.6 billion in savings for the government.)
“I’m hoping they will slow down, so we can have reprieve when Biden comes in,” Ramirez said. “I’m not seeing a possibility that (Biden) will take down the wall once it's up.”
Unless the wall comes down, the damage is done for good, Ramirez said. “That’s why we keep pressing and pressing.”
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