Vietnam War veteran Vela Giri recently spent a week camping with other veterans at the Mexican border near Brownsville, Texas, through a program sponsored by Sierra Club. He had previously gone on Sierra Club trips that take veterans to camp in wilderness areas but said this was a far different and more disturbing experience.
“It was like going on the front lines again,” Giri said. “As soon as we arrived, there was a great deal of activity from police vehicles including local police, county police and the border patrol – six to eight vehicles at a time, SWAT teams with automatic weapons. Helicopters were constantly over our heads watching us day and night. It was a hornet’s nest. It was oppressive and frightening.”
Helicopters are big triggers for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by many veterans because of their combat experiences. Giri said it was difficult to understand why there was such concern. There were no migrants in the area. As the group traveled up and down the border, they saw heavily armed police in vehicles at virtually every intersection.
“No immigrant could possibly walk in that area without being apprehended,” Giri said. “So, the wall is ridiculous. There are enough police there to catch anyone. What is going on in the entire area we visited was extremely heavy militarization. There were portable guard towers not only in rural areas, but right in the town of Brownsville. There were red lights flashing, and all kinds of antennae. They are monitoring everybody’s activities and phone calls every day.”
Giri said the border patrol guards are frightening even to adults. But what impacted the group the most was near the end of the trip they saw a border patrol vehicle with wire grate on the windows filled with young Hispanic children. Migrant children taken away from their parents are being taken, in some cases, to tent camps where the temperatures are above 100°.
“Now more and more people are understanding the base reason people suffer from PTS is because of the moral implications,” Giri said. “Your heart and soul have been affected by being involved in an immoral situation. When you see something immoral taking place, it brings you back to your wartime memories and it is hard to cope. That’s hard to get over.
“After we saw the children, we were in shock. There were no more jokes. No one spoke the rest of the day. It is one thing to go to war and fight. As a soldier, you have to protect yourself and your comrades. When you see this kind of abuse of children, there is no moral argument for that. Taking children from their parents is completely immoral. When you see that, it goes right to the heart. When you get down to that level of evil, it is a whole other thing. These children will never in their lives be the same. The situation our country has created is horrific. We are destroying the innocence of youth.”
They also learned first-hand from people who are losing ancestral lands being taken by eminent domain for the wall. In some cases, the land has belonged to their families since land grants from the Spanish in the 1700s.
“These properties include stellar recreation areas on the river,” Giri said. “These are fine properties. That is all going to be taken away, along with their homes. They are not notifying people properly. The government has a real estate firm that will assess your property. They do an assessment before the wall, and an assessment after the wall, add them together and divide by two. So, landowners are not going to get much money. Not only that, their heritage is being taken away.”
The wall could also cause widespread devastation from flooding from tributaries to the Rio Grande River that divides the U.S. and Mexico. Plans call for there to be gates at portions of the wall where tributaries enter the river. But those would quickly fill with debris, leaving the wall to act like a dam causing widespread flooding.
Then there are the damages to wildlife. The veterans camped out at the National Butterfly Center, which consists of about 100 acres of green areas with flowering plants that attract butterflies. There are a lot of migratory birds there, as well.
There are big berms on both sides of the river designed to hold back floodwaters. Plans are to put the taller wall just on the other side of the U.S. berm which would cause the land on the Mexico side to be flooded.
“It would affect everything living in the area,” Giri said. “A lot of plants and animals would be killed. The biodiversity would be diminished. Going upriver from the National Butterfly Center, there are state parks and wildlife refuges. There is a lot of migration of animals to Mexico and back. That is important to genetic diversity from small animals all the way to jaguars. Being able to migrate is needed for genetical stability. All that disrupted.”
There is already a 300-ft. clearcut all across the National Wildlife Refuge. At the Butterfly Center, plans call for all plants to be removed for 150 feet on each side of the wall.
Is there any need for the wall? Giri’s firm answer is no, not in the areas they visited. There are very few people coming across there.
“It is a total fabrication is that there is a problem with people going across that river,” Giri said. “And the major people busted for smuggling drugs have been law enforcement officials from South Texas.”
The veterans took kayaks and canoes up and down the river near Brownsville. On the Mexican side, there were beautiful parks, boat docks, recreational facilities, dancing and music.
“On our side there is destruction of nature and guard towers,” he said. “On their side, there are lifeguard towers. They are looking at us like we are insane.”
Giri believes the “emergency” is being used to militarize local police forces to get Americans accustomed to it so they will accept it anywhere in the country where there is political dissent.
A bigger factor, he said, involves the military-industrial-prison complex making huge sums of money off the imprisoned migrants, an average of $700 to $1,000 per person per day. Most of the prisons are run by the GEO Group, Inc., a multi-billion-corporation that makes large campaign contributions to local elected officials.
Under the Trump administration, a requirement to do criminal background checks for prison guards has been eliminated. According to the U.N. Office of Refugee Settlement, there have been 4,556 incidents alleging sexual abuse of migrant minors in U.S. prisons since 2014.
Giri said work to build the wall is destroying communities and pitting neighbors against neighbors. “On the American side, more than on the Mexican side, the poor, brown people are more affected than anyone,” he said.
Second, he said there are billions to be made by construction companies for putting up a wall that can be easily scaled by a rope or ladder. There are also crossing areas where a gate code is used to get through the wall. The codes can easily be compromised.
Third, this is a smokescreen to cover Trump’s illegal activities.
“If he creates a big enemy for people to worry about, it takes attention away from Trump’s illegal activities,” Giri said. “That is what the wall is for. It is a total lie that there is a need for a wall. Anyone could get the codes. Anyone with any skills could put a rope or a ladder over that wall. It is ridiculous.”