UPDATE: If unchanged, wall bill may spare environmentally sensitive areas locally

Proposed border deal adds more ‘fencing’ in RGV sector

Local and federal authorities including Mission police, U.S. Border Patrol and military, are seen in the vicinity of the La Parida tract. (Daniel A. Flores | dflores@themonitor.com)

Details of the 1,159-page border wall bill became public just before midnight Wednesday, and will spare environmentally sensitive areas in the Rio Grande Valley if language a local congressman included goes unchanged.

The bill came just days after lawmakers announced a deal to fund the government through the fall and avoid another shutdown. The deal, which the president has agreed to sign, includes more than $1.375 billion for “pedestrian fencing, including levee pedestrian fencing,” in the Rio Grande Valley sector but does not specify the location.

Reports on Monday indicated the proposed legislation would fund a total of 55 miles in the Valley, but that number was not present in the bill released Wednesday evening.

Instead, the number appeared in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s summary of remaining fiscal year 2019 appropriations bills.

“The Homeland Security division of the bill provides $61.6 billion in discretionary funding, including $1.375 billion for construction of 55 news(sic) miles of physical barrier along Border Patrol’s highest priority locations along the southwest border,” the committee’s document stated.

The bill indicates that the new barriers will be of the “steel bollard design” that already exist in Cameron and Hidalgo counties.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and local officials in the affected areas of construction “shall confer and seek to reach mutual agreement regarding design and alignment of physical barriers within that city or the census designated place,” the bill reads in part.

It also states that the consultations between these entities continue until Sept. 30, 2019, or until an agreement is reached, if earlier. No funds from this bill may be used for construction while the talks are ongoing.

The bill also states that DHS “shall issue notices for public comment regarding construction,” no later than July 1, 2019.

The cities listed in the consultation portion of the bill are all in Starr County, including Roma, Rio Grande City, Escobares and La Grulla — all of which were not afforded public comment after the March 2018 omnibus bill, which funded about 8 miles of construction in Starr County, was passed.

Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who was part of the bipartisan negotiations, announced he had secured the inclusion of language in the negotiations that would retroactively prohibit construction on environmentally sensitive areas, including the National Butterfly Center, La Lomita Chapel, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, along with others.

The language states “none of the funds made available by this act or prior acts are available for the construction of pedestrian fencing within” these locations.

The deal comes as government contractors begin their efforts to build border fencing allocated in March 2018’s omnibus bill, in which Congress approved $1.6 billion for wall construction for a handful of locations — 25 miles in Hidalgo County and the 8 miles in Starr County.

A Border Patrol vehicle drives on the levee near the National Butterfly Park on Thursday, Feb.14, 2019 in McAllen. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

That particular language in the bill appears to indicate that the $1.6 billion in funding provided in March 2018 for construction in Hidalgo and Starr counties would not be allowed to be used in these environmentally sensitive locations.

However, heavy equipment and materials for border wall construction arrived near the National Butterfly Center last week.

According its executive director Marianna Treviño Wright, attorneys for the center had filed a temporary restraining order on Feb. 11 in an attempt to stop any planned construction — at least until a court ruled on a December 2017 lawsuit the attorneys filed against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. But late Thursday, the court instead dismissed the center’s lawsuit and rejected its motion for a temporary restraining order.

It is unclear if the construction already set to begin will move forward, or if the prospect of the president signing the bill would cause that construction to be delayed.

CONSTRUCTION

On Thursday, construction crews and U.S. Border Patrol personnel could be seen around the area just west of Bentsen Park, known as La Parida Banco tract.

The crews were clearing vegetation as part of their efforts to build new wall funded in last year’s omnibus bill.

In a Thursday morning social media post from the National Butterfly Center, officials posted photos of Texas Parks and Wildlife and Border Patrol vehicles blocking the center’s road over the levee.

“Markers line the start of the tree line for removal on the El Morillo Banco NWR tract next door. The excavator at the ready at the La Parida Banco NWR tract west of Bentsen Park,” the post read.

Markers are seen on La Parida Banco tract as heavy machinery is heard in a distance to clear vegetation for the proposed Border Wall on Thursday, Feb.14, 2019 in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

The pictures showed heavy equipment and the law enforcement vehicles at the front of the levee road.

Over west of Bentsen Park, Monitor reporters witnessed contractors clearing out vegetation with heavy equipment just south of the levee before Mission police asked media to leave the area.

Along with local police, Border Patrol agents and military personnel were seen escorting contractors onto the levee.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials confirmed the clearing of vegetation began last week in the La Parida Banco area.

“The area to be cleared belongs to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The brush clearing activity is in preparation of Border Wall Project RGV-03 which is expected to begin in mid to late February,” the release stated.

Though some environmentally sensitive locations would be saved, new fencing in the Valley sector could mean continued construction on private property owned by residents of Hidalgo and Starr counties who are already facing the loss and destruction of their land.

Fred Cavazos — the 69-year-old Mission resident who spoke to The Monitor last October about his concerns over his property along the Rio Grande — and other landowners in Hidalgo and Starr counties like him will not be spared from border wall construction as the 25 and 8 miles in those respective counties are still set to progress.

Cavazos, his cousin Reynaldo Anzaldua, and their attorneys were in court Tuesday morning for a status hearing related to a November 2018 lawsuit filed by the government against Cavazos for access to more than 27 acres of land near the river.

The hearing ended with the understanding that the two entities will reconvene in three months to further discuss the government’s progress in its surveying of Cavazos’ land, which began in December 2018.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group based in Tucson, said despite the wording in the bill, there is no distinction between fences and walls as it pertains to construction in Hidalgo County.

“This despicable deal will wall off the Rio Grande Valley. It will permanently destroy spectacular ecosystems and wildlife habitat, and seize private land from Texas families,” Paulo Lopes, the public lands policy specialist at the center, said. “Trump and Republicans have doubled down on their racist agenda to build a monument to hate and fear. Anyone who votes for this is voting for Trump’s border wall, no matter what euphemism they try to hide behind. This is an enormous waste of taxpayer money that will do nothing to stop illegal drugs or human trafficking.”

The group filed lawsuits last year challenging the land waivers the administration executed in its effort to build physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration to challenge the waivers, which ignored dozens of environmental, health and safety laws to speed border wall construction near the Santa Teresa Port of Entry in New Mexico, as well as in California.

Those cases and the one in Texas are still pending in federal court.

Last week, during a status conference hearing, a judge ruled in favor of granting the federal government right of entry to the La Lomita Chapel property for the purposes of surveying its land in an effort to build a barrier on the levee just north of the chapel’s entrance.

U.S. District Judge Randy Crane ruled that the government representatives must negotiate the restrictions with the diocese.

The access to survey and plan is the government’s first step toward taking the property to build the border wall on the chapel’s levee.

Mary McCord, lead counsel for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, said in its case against the government that church and federal government officials would begin talks on entry restrictions later that week.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said earlier in the week after news of the proposed deal broke that he was opposed to any deal that included fencing in the Valley.

“… No matter where the fencing is, I am an absolute no,” Vela said in a statement provided to the Brownsville Herald.

Cuellar categorized the included language as a victory for the Valley.

“I worked hard to include this language because protecting these ecologically sensitive areas and ensuring local communities have a say in determining the solutions that work for them is critical,” Cuellar said Thursday. “I know we can secure the border in a much more effective way, and at a fraction of the cost, by utilizing advanced technology and increasing the agents and properly equipping them on the border.”

By Thursday afternoon, the president declared he would sign the proposed deal to avoid another government shutdown; but said he would also declare a national emergency on the border to build a wall.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, denounced the action after hearing reports of the president’s intentions to declare an emergency.

“Seizing lands across the southwest border for President Trump’s border wall would encroach on private property rights, lead to economic and agricultural losses, inflame U.S.-Mexico relations, infringe on the property rights of Native Americans, endanger public lands and wildlife, create flood hazards, and fail to deter illegal immigration,” Gonzalez said. “President Trump is moving into uncharted territory with his emergency powers utilization, which I am sure will not be met with open arms.”