With just 13 hours to skim through a mammoth federal omnibus bill totaling 2,232 pages, members of the U.S. House on Thursday passed the $1.3 trillion measure, which includes about $1.32 billion in border wall-related funds, much of it to be used in the Rio Grande Valley. The bill was then quickly sent to the Senate where it was expected to be approved to avert a Friday deadline for a government shutdown.
Despite the voluminous size of the bill, however, specifics relating to the border wall listed in the measure were disappointingly scant and failed to detail exactly where, what and how this money is to be used. And that is concerning to us here in the RGV.
But one important provision that was specified, and is most welcomed, is that no border wall funds are to be used in our beloved Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge. That is a definite victory for environmentalists and the thousands of people who have come to the Rio Grande Valley for the past several months to participate in protests and marches to safeguard what is regarded as the “crown jewel of wildlife refuges.”
Much thanks for helping to preserve this wildlife sanctuary goes to U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, whose district includes Santa Ana, a 2,000-acre tract of land in Alamo that is home to over 400 species of birds, endangered ocelots, jaguarundi, coyotes, bobcats, armadillos and more. Rep. Vela told The Monitor’s Editorial Board that he worked hard to get that language inserted into the bill.
“That’s a major consolation,” Vela said. “On the other hand, it (the bill) still provides hundreds of millions of dollars for wall funding.”
That is why, Vela told us, he voted against the bill, which he said appropriates money for 25 miles of border wall in Hidalgo County and eight miles of border wall in Starr County.
He also rightly chastised Republican leadership for not releasing the text of the bill until 9 p.m. on Wednesday evening and then holding a 10 a.m. vote the next morning.
We note that throughout this massive FY 2018 omnibus spending bill, the words “border wall” never appear, although this has been President Donald Trump’s signature promise to the American people since he began campaigning.
We hope the vague language was not an attempt by federal authorities to deceive lawmakers, and ultimately taxpayers.
The bill appropriates $445 million “for 25 miles of primary pedestrian levee fencing along the southwest border in the Rio Grande Valley Sector; $196 million for primary pedestrian fencing along the southwest border in the Rio Grande Valley Sector and $445 million for replacement of existing primary pedestrian fencing along the southwest border; $38 million for border barrier planning and design; $196 million for acquisition and deployment of border security technology.”
This technology, Rep. Vela guesses, will likely include more Aerostats, ground sensors, cameras and other devices that already dot our region. The Monitor’s Editorial Board has heavily advocated since 2014 for the addition of border technology — over the building of a permanent border wall — which we believe would better assist federal agents to curtail illegal immigration.
This vague, open-ended language certainly will allow the Department of Homeland Security great latitude in their design and scope and plans for the Rio Grande Valley. And it keeps taxpayers unfairly in the dark as to how their money will be spent on such a controversial issue.
“For them to pay for these border walls it’s going to be really destructive for our communities and for our environment,” Stefanie Herweck, who is on the executive board of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, told us. “Wildlife have to be able to migrate back and forth through Santa Ana through these other refuge tracks and so Santa Ana — is environmentally in terms of the wildlife corridor — a piece of that. To have every other part of that walled out is still an environmental catastrophe for the RGV.”
Herweck also worries about potential flooding in Starr County that threaten wildlife and homeowners “on both sides of the river.”
How much of a threat is left to be seen. But, according to the bill, the monies must be provided no less than six months from signing the bill into law and so whether we like it, or not, we should soon see construction activity begin here.