In an attempt to avoid a government shutdown Friday, the House passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill Thursday that includes more than a billion dollars for border wall-related funds in the Rio Grande Valley; none of which, however, will be allocated for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
The Omnibus bill, which now heads to the Senate, includes $1.32 billion related to border wall funding, including 25 miles of border wall in Hidalgo County and 8 miles in Starr County.
Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, who voted against the bill, called the refuge’s omission a “major consolation,” but was not pleased about hundreds of millions of dollars for wall funding in the Valley.
“To me, it’s still astonishing that any Democrat would vote for a nickel of funding for any wall whatsoever,” Vela said.
Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, also voted against the bill. Voting in favor were Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso. The bill passed the House Thursday by a vote of 256-167.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose chamber is expected to act as quickly as it can before the government runs out of funding Friday night, said he will vote against the bill.
“It fails to provide sufficient funds to properly secure our border, let alone build the wall that is necessary,” Cruz said in a statement.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he hopes more of the wall funding actually goes toward technology enhancements.
“I personally believe it will be used to repair and replace existing fencing since the Secure Fence Act (of 2006) has been put up,” Cornyn said, “and to the extent Border Patrol feels the need to supplement personnel and technology.”
O’Rourke agreed with Cornyn, but cited the hundreds of millions for new construction in the Valley. Cuellar was pleased with the amount of new money compared to last year’s bill, but equally disappointed in border wall funding.
Cuellar added that he’s happy that the initial proposal of 32 miles of wall in Starr County was reduced to eight in this bill.
The Omnibus package appropriates $445 million “for 25 miles of primary pedestrian levee fencing along the southwest border in the Rio Grande Valley Sector.” Also included in the package is $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.” This is in addition to $38 million for “border barrier planning and design,” and $196 million for “acquisition and deployment of border security technology.”
Many activist groups and officials opposed to the wall voiced a similar sentiment as Vela — somewhat satisfied that the refuge will not be obstructed by a wall but disappointed with the mere existence of any funding for the Trump administration’s long-proposed structure.
“I don’t understand why there is any funding for the wall, quite frankly,” said Scot Nicol, an executive board member of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club and co-chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign. “The idea had previously been to trade border wall funding for something else. In this deal, there’s border wall funding but nothing is included in response to that.”
Wall funding not including the refuge is a major shift from recent wall proposals, which included 3 miles of border wall through the entry to Santa Ana. The 2,088-acre refuge was the expected starting point for the wall in part because it’s federally owned.
“I think it’s a pretty big deal because that was the easiest place for the Department of Homeland Security to begin construction,” Vela said, “because the federal government owns the land and because of the environmental waivers passed years ago. So eliminating that funding, I think, puts a stop to that.
“Now we are at the point that issues of eminent domain come in to play.”
Two U.S. senators have visited the refuge, the most recent being Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
In January, Cornyn toured and posted an Instagram video from atop the observation tower, which would not be accessible if the wall was built in accordance to the previous proposals.
In that video, Cornyn said physical barriers are important in some areas along the border, but technology and personnel improvements are necessary as well. He also noted the care needed for the habitat and wildlife at the refuge.
“I was at the wildlife refuge and it’s a huge economic engine for the area, but it is a vulnerability,” Cornyn said. “I did visit with fish and wildlife folks, and (Border Patrol RGV Sector) Chief Padilla — they’re working together.
“My hope is this is more technology driven than physical infrastructure because I’d hate to see us destroy a tourism and economic engine.”