In the wake of two well-attended protests against President Trump’s plans to add 60 miles of border wall and fencing in the Rio Grande Valley, some activists are calling on Mission’s city council to pass a resolution in opposition to any additional walls in the city.
According to members of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club who attended an Aug. 3 briefing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Sector Chief Manuel Padilla, CBP plans to convert 28 miles of levees in Hidalgo County to concrete-lined border walls and construct 32 miles of bollard fencing in Starr County. Just under three miles of concrete levee walls are planned inside the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, said Scott Nicol, a Sierra Club member who attended the CBP briefing.
Organizers of the Save Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge reported 683 people participated Sunday, Aug. 13 in a human chain atop a levee where a border wall is planned. Pictured above participants hike from the refuge’s Hawk Tower about a half mile to the levee. Progress Times photo by Joe Hinton
Last weekend, just under 700 persons were estimated to have taken part in a protest at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge opposing construction of a concrete wall along the refuge’s levee and more than 1,000 persons were estimated to have participated in a protest at Mission’s La Lomita Mission. (See related report.) Sierra Club members fear both iconic area attractions will be cut off from the public if CBP plans are realized.
Among the participants at Sunday’s Santa Ana protest was state biologist John Maresh, 53, who drove from his home in Austin to participate in the protest with his brother, Ronnie, 59, of Port Comfort. Both brothers said the wall will not stop drugs or illegal immigration and will only damage the environment.
John Maresh, said he has been birding at the refuge since 1983. He is one of 165,000 annual visitors to the 2,088-acre site established in 1943 which has become one of the most popular birding destinations in the nation. Maresh believes building a wall inside the refuge is a bad idea on several levels.
“It’s going to be extremely bad for the wildlife and the little remaining native habitat here at Santa Ana,” Maresh said. “As for the wall, as long as there is a demand for drugs and cheap labor you could put a wall up from the east to west coast, if factories are hiring illegal immigrants for the cheap labor they will find a way to get here.”
Raziel Flores, a 27-year-old biology graduate student at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, was volunteering Sunday passing out event itineraries at the refuge’s entrance. A member of the school’s Environmental Awareness Club, Flores said for the last three years, as part of his graduate work, he has been participating in a study comparing and contrasting vegetation across the Valley. Flores said his studies have given him a heightened awareness of how unique and fragile the refuge is as a pristine and undisturbed natural habitat.
“Pretty much we don’t have any natural habitat along the river anymore,” Flores said. “It’s all been bull dozed or used for things like dams for irrigation. We’re holding onto the last pockets of what we have left. So any efforts we can take to protect them we should. Anything we do against that would be disastrous.”
Friends, Alvaro Medrano, Hector Saenz and Rene Treviño, all 17 and entering their senior year at Weslaco East High School, attended Sunday’s event at the request of their environmental science instructor Jenna Grado. Speaking atop Hawk Tower in the refuge, all three voiced concerns about preserving the refuge for generations to come.
“I want the coming generations to be able to see this place the way it was when I grew up,” Medrano said.
“Like Alvaro said, it’s good to have this nature so when our kids grow up we can bring them to see what we grew up with, to what we knew as children so they can see the environment that we had as children as well.”
“You know a lot of people come out here to take pictures of the views and to see the beautiful animals we have. And many people would be upset if their habitat was destroyed,” Treviño said.
The Sierra Club’s Nicol said CBP plans to build 2.9 miles of wall in the refuge that falls within a 10-mile gap in the proposed wall. He said in the refuge the south side of the existing sloping earthen levees would be excavated with concrete walls erected creating a barrier wall. He said the CBP wants the walls to be a minimum of 18 feet high so any levee walls that do not reach that height would be topped with bollard fencing.
McAllen resident Emmy Pérez is a poet and associate professor of creative writing at UTRGV. On Sunday morning she could be overheard narrating a video she was making of the hike from the Hawk Tower to the levee where the silent protest took place saying, “We are here to protest the wall because it is immoral.”
Asked to elaborate on her feelings she said, “It’s a symbol of hate. I do not want to raise my children in a place where these symbols of hate exist. I love coming to this refuge. It’s a place of incredible beauty.”
Pérez called plans to wall off the southern part of her favorite place in the county, “heartbreaking.”
During Monday’s Mission City Council meeting five area residents used the opportunity for public comment to ask Mayor Norberto Salinas and the council to follow several other entities in the Valley in passing a resolution against the wall.
So far, according to published reports, the Brownsville City Commission, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court and the Hidalgo County Drainage District Board of Directors have all passed resolutions against the wall.
Among the residents who stood to ask for a resolution Monday in Mission was Luciano Guerra, a staff member of the National Butterfly Center on Mission’s south side. He is also a sports reporter for the Progress Times.
Guerra said he and four others met with Mayor Salinas prior to the council meeting and after the mayor met with the butterfly center’s director, Marianna Wright and its founder and president, Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg. Though he said Salinas did not give an unequivocal agreement to sign a resolution, the mayor agreed to meet with the activists again prior to the council’s Aug. 28 meeting.
Guerra said Wright is arguing people should be wary of proponents of additional levee walls in Hidalgo County in light of the FBI’s raid on Dannenbaum Engineering, a firm that has made political contributions to every member of the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court and many state officials. The company received lucrative contracts to plan the levee walls previously installed along county levees.
Several of those who addressed the council Monday noted members of the governing body were sitting under a painting of the city’s namesake, La Lomita Mission. They also said the mission could end up separated from the community by a border wall.
Among those addressing the council Monday was McAllen resident Gary Cooper, who said Mission’s attractions are the first place his out of town visitors want to see.
“There’s a big statue of a Monarch butterfly and Monarch caterpillar right outside the door,” Cooper said, gesturing to the sculptures on the lawn in front of city hall. “The reason I mention this is the very identity itself of the city is under an existential threat from a border wall. So I hope you will vote in the interest of tourism, which is one of the fastest growing centers of our economy. And in the interest of our pride and our history and our heritage I hope you will oppose construction of a border wall between us and the river.”