UPDATE #1: After press time, the house passed the $788B bill combining Pentagon budget, veterans programs, and $1.6B down payment on U.S.-Mexico wall.
UPDATE #2: A July 28 article from the Texas Tribune reports that construction of the border wall through the Santa ana Wildlife Reguge could begin as early as November.
Local reaction to preliminary border wall construction
As members of the United States House of Representatives prepare to vote on a bill that could add $1.6 billion for construction of the border wall, a local nature center has gained national attention as it joins two other local attractions that could be affected by construction of the border wall.
Last week, Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director for the National Butterfly Center, said she found a work crew on the butterfly center’s property who told her they were on orders from U.S. Customs and Border Protection clearing land for the border wall.
Marianna Treviño-Wright stands between two brush cutters left behind by a construction crew she spotted on property owned by the National Butterfly Center July 20. Progress times photo by Jose De Leon III
Treviño-Wright said the workers had chainsaws and work trucks and had cut and shred brush, trees and plants to create what appeared to be a patrol road that led to the Rio Grande River. Treviño Wright said she found surveyor stakes and “X” marks on the property.
“We were not notified of any work plans, nothing to give us warning about this construction,” she said. “Who knows how long they’ve been here working.
The incident occurred nearly one week after a July 14 article from the Texas Observer magazine first reported that private contractors and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have been conducting similar activity preparing to build an 18-foot levee wall through the federally owned, 2,088-acre Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge that would stretch three miles.
An anonymous official was quoted in the article as saying that if the levee wall is constructed, it will essentially destroy the refuge as land in the area would have to be cleared for the construction of a road south of the wall and for surveillance cameras and light towers on both sides of the wall.
Construction could begin next January, the article said.
Treviño-Wright said such construction on nature centers like the NBC and the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge would create an “environmental disaster.”
Less than five percent of our native habitat remains in Texas for our native wildlife,” she explained. “Birds, butterflies and other animals are looking for natural landmarks as guides when they travel, not unnatural ones that obstruct their movement. Construction will desiccate them.”
In a statement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – who took responsibility for the project – the agency denied that its contractors cleared or removed trees at the center. However, spokesperson Jim Frisinger said the crew placed X markings on the ground for mapping and wooden stakes flagging proposed locations to bore holes for possible construction.
When contacted, neither U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or the Army Corps of Engineers outlined plans for the proposed border wall on the center property.
As of press time, the House has yet to vote on a batch of four spending bills for the United States Department of Defense. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and other Democrats have called out Republicans for adding a border security provision in one of the bills that would fund the Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies.
“They’re making us vote in such a way that they’re asking ‘Do you want to vote against the wall or support the men and women in the military,’” Cuellar explained in a phone interview Wednesday. “They’re being sneaky by not having anyone vote on the issue of the wall.”
Cuellar said building a border wall is useless, anyway.
“A wall is a 14th-century solution to a 21st century problem,” said Cuellar. “There’s other ways to secure the border; technology sensors, cameras, aerostats, working with our Mexican partners to ensure we secure the border.”
And Cuellar said a wall won’t stop the 40 percent of the 11 or 12 million undocumented persons in the U.S. who entered with a legal permit.
“You can build the biggest wall you want but people will fly here, drive across it, go through in a boat and overstay their legal visa. Before we start spending billions, we need to do a GAP analysis, which has not been done,” Cuellar said, referring to a type of study involving the comparison of actual performance with potential or desired performance.
“Those are the things I am looking at and if you’re looking to spend $1.6 billion for this appropriations, all I need is $100 and I’ll buy myself a good ladder and that would negate the $1.6 billion in spending,” Cuellar said.
The military appropriations amendment, sponsored by Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, calls for $498 million to go to 28 miles of “new bollard levee wall” in Hidalgo County according to an article posted on the NBC News website. Bollards are the steel vertical posts secured into the ground.
The amendment also calls for $251 million to repair secondary border fencing in the San Diego area and $38.2 million for planning future border wall construction. Another $784 million is for 32 miles of “border bollard fencing” in Starr County, NBC reported.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, also expressed unease at the amendment bill calling it a “deceptive legislative gimmick.”
“Republicans have taken a nonsensical approach by burying border wall funding in the national security-focused omnibus funding bill,” Vela said in a post on his Facebook page where he attached an open letter addressed to Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Committee on Rules. “Voting against border wall funding will protect hard-working Americans from seeing their tax dollars wasted on a ruse to secure our border.
Vela and 21 other Congress members, including Cuellar, signed the letter.
Another local attraction that could be affected by the border wall is the La Lomita Chapel, a historical landmark in the city.
Built in 1865, the chapel is currently used by Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. Members of the non-profit Lower Rio Grande Sierra Club say if the wall is constructed it could place the chapel on the other side of wall.
The club is hosting a rally at the chapel Aug 12 to protest construction of the border wall. They will also host a similar protest at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge on Aug. 13.
“There’s not any reasons for these people – Americans – to not have access to this land even though it’s still in the country,” said Jacqueline Treviño, who serves on the Sierra Club’s executive committee. “We have this entire wildlife corridor that protects our ecosystems and this plan of walling off the entire river has put all of that at risk of destruction. Even if construction is marginal we’re still losing access to several important natural habitats.”
The border wall was the topic of discussion at Monday’s Mission City Council meeting where Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas said he was following recent evidence that Customs and Border Patrol were making border wall preparations in the area.
Salinas said he planned to meet with CBP officials and voice his opposition to plans to install bollard fencing on top of the existing levees. Though he is not averse to using impediments to stop illegal border crossers, he said he will suggest the same remedy used in Granjeno where the sloping levee is cut into a wall perpendicular to the river bed and reinforced with concrete.
“Those levees are pretty well built,” Salinas said following Monday night’s council meeting. “McAllen spent about $40 million when we fixed them about six or seven years ago and I’m sure if you cut the levees they’ll have enough height that they won’t be able to go over it.”
During the council meeting Salinas urged residents not to worry yet because the wall hasn’t even been funded yet.
“But we will worry if they put the fence on top of the levees. We just want to advise the public that we know what’s happening and that we’re staying on top of it and we’re not going to let it happen,” Salinas said. “We’re going to work something out.”
In the meantime, Treviño-Wright said she is meeting with CBP officials August 1 when she hopes she’ll find answers as to why no one contacted her about the road clearing at the butterfly center. Until then, she said she’ll keep a closer eye on the center’s property to avoid a similar situation.
“I’m going to have to do more frequent welfare checks of the property,” she said. “Border Patrol has an important job to do but this is unnecessary. We know the wall doesn’t stop anyone and they know it too; that’s why there’s gaps and gates. The wall is intended to be a funnel to make it easier for Border Patrol to monitor and apprehend. That’s fine, just don’t put it on my property.”
Editor Joe Hinton contributed to this report.