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Border & Immigration

Border Residents, Advocates See Hope But Continued Fight Under Biden Presidency

Marianna Treviño-Wright and Hector Guajardo, a land surveyor, document the erosion and work being done at Fisher's private border wall.
Reynaldo Leaños Jr. | Texas Public Radio
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Marianna Treviño-Wright and Hector Guajardo, a land surveyor, document the erosion and work being done at Fisher's private border wall.

Yira Aldape said she “woke up with a little pep” in her step Wednesday morning. Tricia Cortez said it was “a party” in her house. Juanita Valdez-Cox breathed “a sigh of relief” as she watched President Joe Biden take the oath. But Marianna Treviño-Wright said she was “not yet celebrating.”

Border residents and activists welcomed Biden’s inauguration and his immigration and border security plans, but they say they know their work must continue to ensure Biden’s promises of a pathway to citizenship for millions unauthorized immigrants and ending border wall construction are carried out.

“It's a new day, a new future” said Valdez-Cox, executive director of La Union del Pueblo Entero. “Let's work together and make sure that it does take place.”

Valdez-Cox has advocated for farm workers and immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley since the 1980s and said they’ve “never been this close to an opportunity like what is being offered today,” referring to the day-one, broad immigration legislative proposal Biden planned to send to Congress.

The plan reportedly would allow Temporary Protected Status holders and beneficiaries of Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals to apply for permanent residency, or a green card, immediately. It would also create an eight-year pathway to citizenship for other unauthorized immigrants and promised to tackle the root causes of migration.

“I just think about our communities where we work every day, day in and day out, and the opportunity of an immigration policy that's going to keep our families and our communities safe, that is going to better manage migration across the hemisphere is something that is just sometimes unbelievable,” Valdez-Cox said.

For Aldape, the first citizen in her family, the news of the eight-year pathway to citizenship excited her and her parents, unauthorized immigrants. The Edinburg college student said she plans to petition for her parents to receive citizenship or residency when she turns 21 later this year, but hopes Biden’s plan benefits other immigrants.

“My parents have been exemplary, quote-unquote, citizens to the U.S., and I feel like my parents deserve it very, very much,” she said. “So hopefully, under this new president, it's able to happen.”

In a separate presidential proclamation released Wednesday night, Biden ordered border wall construction to be paused as soon as possible but no later than within seven days. It allows for exceptions "for urgent measures needed to avert immediate physical danger" and "to ensure that funds appropriated by the Congress fulfill their intended purpose."

He also rescinded Donald Trump’s 2019 Southern border emergency declaration, which diverted military funds to wall construction.

"It shall be the policy of my Administration that no more American taxpayer dollars be diverted to construct a border wall," the proclamation said. "I am also directing a careful review of all resources appropriated or redirected to construct a southern border wall."

The proclamation also directs the Department of Homeland Security to "compile detailed information on all southern border wall construction contracts" and develop a plan to redirect wall funding and contracts within 60 days.

"The process of developing the plan shall include consideration of terminating or repurposing contracts with private contractors engaged in wall construction, while providing for the expenditure of any funds that the Congress expressly appropriated for wall construction, consistent with their appropriated purpose," the proclamation said.

Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center in Laredo, said earlier Wednesday that the news of the day-one action was “a huge win” in preventing wall construction in Laredo. She and border activists urged Biden to pause construction on day one of his presidency.

They also asked for Biden to review the Department of Homeland Security’s waiving of environmental, federal and state laws for wall construction, which was included in an outline of Biden’s broad immigration bill.

Treviño-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center, has seen border walls go up in the Rio Grande Valley and said she remained concerned.

“What we fear is that, given there has been bipartisan support for border wall funding in the last four fiscal years, that construction will not stop,” she said. “Rather, President Biden may choose to use the borderlands and border wall as a bargaining chip over the next 100 days as he seeks to get his cabinet officials confirmed as he has to move other priority legislation forward.”

Cortez said they “want to work with the Biden team to make sure that these contracts do get cancelled after this much needed pause on the construction.”

Valdez-Cox said it’s up to voters and activists to hold the Biden administration accountable.

“We're gonna work hard at it so that they don't forget their promises and make sure that he has the support that he needs in the House and in the Senate,” she said.

Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, emphasized the Democratic party’s new majority in the House of Representatives and Senate and called Biden’s actions “historic steps to repair the damage that border communities and immigrant families have faced these past four years.”

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Updated: January 20, 2021 at 9:49 PM CST
Updated with details about Biden's proclamation to pause border wall construction.