Conservation groups sue over national emergency

Colorful jugs of water sit near the 900 year old Montezuma Bald Cypress tree on Monday, Feb.18, 2019 in Abram. Over 50 jugs of water were used to water the tree by a group that took part of the RGV No Border Wall Movement. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor dlopez@themonitor.com

The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the Trump administration Saturday over the president’s emergency declaration to pay for border walls.

The president on Friday declared a national emergency to provide nearly $8 billion for construction of a border wall, inching closer to fulfilling a promise he made when he announced his intentions to become president.

Photo Gallery: “Monty” Montezuma Bald Cypress

After weeks of negotiations between lawmakers, the president agreed to sign a spending bill that did not include his request for nearly $6 billion in funds to construct a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, instead the deal allocated $1.375 billion for about 55 miles of fencing.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, argues that the president is violating the U.S. Constitution by declaring the emergency, overstepping his executive authority and sidestepping Congress to appropriate more than $6 billion to construct walls along the southern border, where he said drugs and criminals are pouring into the U.S.

The 39-page filing goes on to state that the president also “illegally invoked the National Emergencies Act and abused the authority given to him by Congress by re-allocating money in a non-emergency situation to fund a policy goal,” court records show.

“The only emergency here is Trump’s assault on the Constitution,” said Brian Segee, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Separation of powers is at the heart of our democracy, and the power of the purse is a critical check on the president. Trump’s authoritarian attempt to build his destructive border wall is a flagrant abuse of that constitutional structure. If he gets his way, it’ll be a disaster for communities and wildlife along the border, including some of our country’s most endangered species.”

Another argument made by attorneys for the respective groups is that since the National Emergency Act of 1976, none of the declarations involved a president using these powers to fulfill a policy goal without getting it approved through Congress.

>> READ THE LAWSUIT 

“Of the 58 times presidents have previously declared emergencies under the National Emergencies Act, none involved using the emergency powers to fund a policy goal after a president failed to meet that goal through foreign diplomacy (having Mexico pay for the wall) or the congressional appropriations process. Never before has a president used the emergency powers granted to him by Congress in such a manner,” the record shows.

Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, argued it is an effort by the administration to push something through without regard for public opinion.

“This declaration is another illegal attempt to avoid public scrutiny of a massive public project,” Wells said. “Many species of animals, including endangered species, are put at risk by this project, and all alternatives that protect wildlife and the environment must be considered by law. We will continue to pursue all legal avenues to assure the law is upheld.”

Mike Senatore, vice president of conservation law at Defenders of Wildlife, said the president continues to show his disdain for the rule of law, referencing the environmental waivers the administration previously used to justify the construction through environmentally sensitive areas.

“President Trump has already displayed his contempt for the rule of law by waiving dozens of environmental laws to build his wall,” Senatore said. “Now he is showing that he is willing to tear up the Constitution itself to get his way. Defenders of Wildlife will fight to protect our communities, our wildlife and now our constitutional rights from this destructive and needless wall.”

In April 2017, the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group based in Tucson, Arizona, filed its first lawsuit against the Trump administration in its efforts to build a wall.

Along with Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the center also sued the Trump administration to challenge waivers that sweep aside public health and safety laws to speed construction of walls in California, Texas and New Mexico. All the lawsuits are pending.

“Beyond jeopardizing wildlife, endangered species and public lands, the U.S.-Mexico border wall is part of a larger strategy of ongoing border militarization that damages human rights, civil liberties, native lands, local businesses and international relations. The border wall impedes the natural migrations of people and wildlife that are essential to healthy diversity,” a news release from the center stated.

Nationally, California’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, along with a slew of other states, including New Mexico, Oregon, New Jersey, Minnesota, Hawaii and Connecticut are expected to file similar lawsuits against the administration over what is being characterized as executive overreach.

Because of the president’s declaration, environmentally sensitive areas, specifically those in the Rio Grande Valley, such as the National Butterfly Center, La Lomita Chapel, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park — all of which were to be spared per the new spending bill which sought to prohibit construction on those specific lands — could now be in danger if the declaration supersedes the new deal negotiated last week.

A day before the declaration, contractors using heavy equipment were seen destroying large swaths of vegetation just west of Bentsen and in the nearby butterfly center in preparation for wall construction there. Both are expected to have wall installed from funds secured in March 2018.

On Saturday, more than 100 protesters gathered near the aforementioned locations, locking hands along the levees where the border walls are set to be erected.

A modest number of protesters were also out protesting border wall construction activity on Monday, this time in Mission at the Montezuma Bald Cypress Tree — a more than 900-year-old tree considered to be the “grandfather” of all trees in South Texas.

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, denounced the president’s declaration, calling it a violation of constitutional authority.

“… He is taking money away from the military, from our law enforcement officials and from many other needed services. His intent is to bypass congressional authority, the power of the purse which belongs to Congress under our constitution, and follow through on his campaign promise,” Gonzalez said in a prepared statement. “I, along with many of my colleagues, disagree with the president’s mischaracterization of the border. The border is a place of opportunity, community and family.”