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Border communities begin legal challenges to Trump’s emergency declaration, wall construction

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/16/2019 Robert Moore, Daniel Tyx
Demonstrators take part in the 'March for Truth: Stop the Wall, Stop the Lies' during President Trump’s visit to El Paso on Monday. On Friday, El Paso County sued to block Trump’s emergency declaration. © Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters Demonstrators take part in the 'March for Truth: Stop the Wall, Stop the Lies' during President Trump’s visit to El Paso on Monday. On Friday, El Paso County sued to block Trump’s emergency declaration.

EL PASO —Within hours of President Trump signing a national emergency declaration on Friday, county authorities here filed a lawsuit to block his border wall gambit, beginning what probably will be a parade to courthouses across the country as jurisdictions, organizations and individuals try to challenge his efforts to bypass Congress.

El Paso County joined three nonprofit organizations in filing suit in federal court in Washington on Friday, arguing that the declaration violates the nation’s bedrock concept of separation of powers and that it will unnecessarily damage this border community.

El Paso County Commissioner David Stout said his community has been tainted by “the negative rhetoric and the negative narrative, the racialized stigma that is attached to this community, especially by the president of this country.”

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Friday said his state also plans to file a lawsuit challenging Trump’s emergency declaration; numerous other lawsuits are expected in the coming weeks, and Trump said Friday that he fully anticipates court action.

Numerous residents and organizations along the border already have challenged Trump administration efforts to survey land for the wall, and many others have vowed to fight any eminent domain claims the federal government might make to secure private property for the barriers. Such court fights can take many years.

Several wildlife refuges and parks had thought they were spared wall construction when Congress approved a compromise bill Thursday, and several communities in South Texas felt protected by the bill because it requires the government to “confer and seek to reach mutual agreement” regarding the barriers in their jurisdictions if the $1.375 billion in congressional wall funding would be used for construction. But should Trump use separate funding under an emergency declaration, it is possible the government could ignore the instructions from Congress — and many here worry that could mean the wall will come without those consultations.

“We’re hoping that the clause in the agreement will be able to buy us some time to at least meet with Homeland Security and have some input into the design and placement of the fence,” said Roberto Salinas, the mayor of Roma, a small Texas border town that is excluded from additional barriers in the funding bill. He is concerned that building bollard fencing in the area will damage birdwatching tourism and could create flood dangers for homes and businesses.

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Roma resident Dora Villarreal, who has lived 150 yards from the Rio Grande for 30 years, worries that wall construction could disrupt the natural contours of the river and lead to flooding.

“Already, we’ve had water two feet deep here. If there’s a wall, with all the debris, what will keep the water from getting out?” she said. “The whole neighborhood will be washed out.”

Rosemary Higgs, a retired secretary from Georgia, volunteers with her husband for three months every winter at the Roma Bluffs World Birding Center, which is housed in a hospital building from the 1830s, part of a nine-square-block National Historic Landmarks district overlooking the river.

“We can see what kind of destruction the wall is going to do to the wildlife habitats,” Higgs said. “But I’m also worried about damage to the historic district . . . When you actually spend time here, you realize what a special place it is. There are families that own property that’s been in their family for eight generations. If the wall is built, they could lose it.”

Trump’s depiction of the border as a region in crisis has been sharply criticized by local leaders from Texas to California. Each House member who represents a district on the U.S.-Mexico border — both Democrats and Republicans — has criticized Trump’s portrayal of the border and has opposed his request for $5.7 billion in wall funding.

“El Pasoans and fronterizos across the country know that there is no national emergency,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso, referring to residents who live near the border. “Instead, this administration has manufactured a crisis that has used their communities as Ground Zero to implement President Trump’s cruel policies toward immigrants and asylum-seeking children and families.”

Overall border arrests remain near 40-year lows, but recent months have seen a record surge of families and unaccompanied children — primarily from Central America — seeking to cross the border into the United States. They generally seek out Border Patrol agents, surrender and request asylum. In January, 61 percent of those apprehended crossing the southern border were members of family units or un­accompanied children.

Because the Rio Grande forms the international boundary between Texas and Mexico, previous fences or walls have been built 100 yards to several miles north of the border. Asylum seekers cross the river, walk toward the barriers and wait for Border Patrol agents. That makes barriers useless in stopping asylum seekers, Escobar said.

Escobar said people are essentially running to federal law enforcement directly without trying to evade them.

“By the time asylum seekers make their way to our agents, they have really stepped foot on American soil and are able to ask for help and asylum protection,” she said.

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso, one of the plaintiffs in the El Paso County lawsuit, said the United States is making its southern border one of the most militarized borders in the world.

“We’re not at war with Mexico,” Garcia said. “But it seems that we’re at war with immigrants and refugees and children and families. And that’s what the president is proposing today, to formally be at war with people looking for protection.”

national@washpost.com

Tyx reported from Roma, Tex. Moore and Tyx are freelance journalists based in Texas.

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