Language in spending bill would protect historic cemetery from wall

The high noon sun peers through a grave marker in the waist-high grass in overgrown sections near the proposed levee wall on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, in Alamo. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, announced Tuesday they had secured language in the fiscal year 2020 Homeland Security Appropriations bill that would block border wall construction in several areas, including historic cemeteries, according to a news release from Cuellar’s office.

The language would prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from using funds to construct fencing within historic cemeteries, including the Eli Jackson Cemetery in San Juan and other environmentally sensitive areas, the release read.

“This success coincides with earlier appropriation bill language, that Congressman Cuellar ensured, which prevents the use of funding for bordering construction within state parks and wildlife centers,” the release stated.

The bill passed full committee markup Tuesday and will move to the House and Senate for a vote, which is expected later this summer, according to the release.

The bill’s language also prohibits, the release further read, DHS use of funds to construct fencing at environmentally sensitive areas, such as the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, La Lomita Chapel in Mission, the National Butterfly Center, and east of the Vista del Mar tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

“We cannot allow a border wall or fencing to destroy South Texas’s cultural and historical landmarks,” Cuellar stated. “I’ve worked to include this language because I know there are more effective ways to meet our security goals, including utilizing advanced technology, increasing personnel, and giving personnel the proper resources on the border.”

Since last September, Sylvia Ramirez, her brother Ramiro Ramirez, descendants of the aforementioned Eli Jackson Cemetery, began a campaign to bring awareness to the public about the potential impact border wall construction near the cemetery would cause.

Earlier this month, CBP officials confirmed it would try to “avoid” the cemetery located in San Juan, while still adhering to U.S. Border Patrol’s operational requirements.

“I would like to thank Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey and Ranking Member Ray Granger, as well as Homeland Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Lucille Roybal-Allard and Ranking Member Chuck Fleischmann for helping me include this language. I also want to thank my fellow South Texas Representatives, Congressmen Gonzalez and Vela, for their work in protecting private property in the Rio Grande Valley from an ineffective border fencing,” Cuellar said in the release.