Maps released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection appear to show construction near Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which was spared in the border security deal negotiated earlier this year.
In February 2018, a contract worth up to $100 million was published, soliciting vendors to bid on a project that included the construction of 3 miles of wall in Alamo, where the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge is located, as well as the “installation of fiber-optic cable, lighting systems and construction of an all-weather patrol road and enforcement zone,” the notice stated.
Despite plans to have that contract awarded in May 2018, and after several protests from the Rio Grande Valley community, who opposed construction and did not want to see the refuge damaged and seemingly close down, Santa Ana was spared during omnibus bill negotiations, essentially saving it from border wall construction.
U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, introduced language in those negotiations to prevent construction on environmentally sensitive areas, including Santa Ana, the National Butterfly Center, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
Cuellar also voted in favor of the original levee wall fencing that was constructed in the Rio Grande Valley in 2008.
The motivation for everything dates back to March 2018, when Congress approved border wall funding as part of a $1.3 trillion omnibus bill that gave $1.6 billion for border walls along the U.S.-Mexico border — 25 miles of which would be for levee wall fencing in Hidalgo County and 8 or so miles of fencing in Starr County.
Since then, additional miles of wall have been slated for Starr County, which includes appropriations funded in fiscal year 2019.
Although Santa Ana was saved then, the threat of construction on the land once again became a reality when on Feb. 15, President Trump declared a national emergency on the southern border, and ordered billions of U.S. Department of Defense appropriated funds to be diverted for military construction of a border wall.
The maps, released at the end of June, shows areas for proposed construction in Hidalgo, Starr, and Cameron counties.
Scott Nicol, an environmental activist with the Sierra Club who spoke to The Monitor in early July, said the idea of circumventing Congress in order to build on land that has been ruled environmentally sensitive is crazy and nonsensical.
“I can’t comprehend why they’re ramming a piece of wall through Santa Ana when Congress has twice explicitly told them not to. They are forbidden by federal law, from putting a wall through Santa Ana, but this new map shows a piece of wall in Santa Ana,” Nicol said.
“They are saying, they have said, in court, under oath, all the money being used in the (Valley) is 2017, 2018 and 2019 appropriations, none of the emergency declaration, defense department money is supposed to be used down here.”
On July 24, the Supreme Court overturned an appeals court decision blocking the president from using DoD funds for border wall construction, ruling that Trump could divert billions of funds from the Department of Defense in order to construct hundreds of miles of border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Friday, the Trump administration executed 17 new environmental waivers in its efforts to speed construction of about 17 miles of new border wall through the Lower Valley.
The waivers, which were scheduled to go into effect Friday, propose walls that will go through at least six tracts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, up to the edge of Santa Ana, next to the historic La Lomita Chapel in Mission, and near the town of La Grulla, the documents show.
Nicol, who has helped organize protests, and public forums for stakeholders, landowners and those affected by proposed construction, said CBP’s lack of participation and transparency continues to be an issue; leaving those most affected by the construction in the dark, noting that there have only been a handful of group meetings with CBP present.
The public comment period related to the maps, which shows FY2019 appropriations are for 95 miles of wall construction; 24 miles in Hidalgo County, 52 miles in Starr County, and 19 miles in Cameron County, released on June 27 and ended on Monday.
“I think they should be having town hall meetings, they should be presenting even more information, they should be allowing people in an open public forum to bring up issues they think are important, in terms of where a wall goes, or if a wall should go up, and they’re not,” Nicol said. “It really makes it look like they just want to appear to be listening to the public, to appease members of Congress, because they did this a year ago, and what happened to those comments, I mean nobody got any response to those comments.
“Maybe those comments influenced what they’re doing in these (new) maps, or maybe they didn’t, we have no way of knowing because we don’t even get to see the other people’s comments.”
Representatives with the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group based in Tucson, Arizona, who have filed lawsuits against the Trump administration related to wall construction in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, said the president is bypassing the Constitution in his efforts to build his long-promised wall on the border.
The Center for Biological Diversity has sued the Trump administration to challenge border wall construction in Hidalgo and Cameron counties, and near the Santa Teresa Port of Entry in New Mexico as well as for the emergency declaration.
Those lawsuits remain pending.
“Trump is behaving like a dictator. He’s seizing private land, ignoring the law and going around Congress to fulfill a despicable campaign promise,” Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, said.
“Trump’s dangerous obsession with destroying the borderlands must be stopped. It’s a lie that border walls will make us safer, but these beautiful communities, animals and wild places could be lost forever.”