President Donald Trump was in office for less than a week when he signed an executive order to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, but it wasn’t until this month that Texans got their first glimpse of the proposed barrier that would divide the state’s southern perimeter.
For conservationists already troubled by the prospect of further land fragmentation on the boundary line, recently revealed construction plans are causing fresh alarm. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection map obtained by McAllen newspaper The Monitor shows the wall cutting through both the National Butterfly Center and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
The 2,088-acre refuge for more more than 400 bird species and two endangered wildcats is poised to be home to the president’s first border wall segment, which construction starting as soon as November. For at least six months, The Texas Observer reported last month, private contractors and border officials have been readying to construct an 18-foot levee wall that would stretch almost three miles through the site.
Hike It Off
On Sunday, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club will lead objectors on a hike through the refuge protesting plans to bisect the area with a border wall. The organization is among the groups participating in a second rally that will draw members of immigration, environmental, and religious groups the day before to march four miles to the La Lomita Chapel, a mission that was built in 1865. Organizers say the proposed wall segment on a nearby levee could block access to the historical site.
The Sierra Club is encouraging activists to attend both events, “so that we can draw attention to the important cultural as well as natural spaces that Trump’s wall will take from us,” according to a post on Facebook.
For instance, the wall would also deprive wildlife like ocelots that cross the border in search of food, mates, and safety, says Scott Nicol, co-chair of the Sierra Club’s borderlands team. An estimated 50 of the small wildcats remain in the United States and they would suffer, Nicol says, if their territory was blocked by a wall.
“We just see border walls as completely anathema to what the border’s all about,” Nicol says. “They are destructive of communities, destructive of ecosystems, a massive waste of taxpayer dollars and we shouldn’t do them.”
Politicians Take A Stand
Earlier this month, six Democratic congressmen from Texas signed a letter to Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, opposing a border wall at the refuge, which was established in 1943 to protect migratory birds. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez and Rep. Beto O’Rourke were among the lawmakers to question the wall, which they said could do serious environmental and economic damage in the region. More than 400 bird species frequent the refuge, according to the letter, which was also signed by Reps. Filemon Vela, Lloyd Doggett, Henry Cuellar and Joaquin Castro.
“The American public deserves transparency for what could be billions of taxpayers’ dollars spent on a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border,” they wrote.
The letter also poses several questions to Duke, including how the government plans to finance the wall, if Homeland Security will hold a public hearing on construction of any such wall, and if the administration plans to circumvent the required environmental impact study for this project. The 2005 REAL ID Act allows the agency to waive laws for border infrastructure construction, and earlier this month officials announced they would waive 37 environmental laws and regulations to build prototypes of President Donald Trump’s planned wall along a stretch of the border near San Diego.
Roger Maier, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, declined to comment on a possible wall through the refuge because the agency is “in the research and planning process for construction.” While the government is working on 35 gates to close gaps in the wall through the Rio Grande Valley, Maier said, any new wall construction projects would be funded in next year’s budget. A $788 billion spending bill the U.S. House passed last month allocates $1.6 billion for border wall construction but strong Democratic opposition is expected in the Senate and—possibly—a government shutdown over the issue.
An executive order Trump signed in January directs the executive branch to secure the southern border “through the immediate construction of a physical wall.” In June, Ronald Vitiello, acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, discussed efforts to accomplish the president’s plan, including 28 miles of new levee wall and 32 new miles of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley.
“The Rio Grande Valley has been an area of exploitation and an area lacking in border infrastructure,” Vitiello said during a press conference. “These miles will help connect existing segments of wall throughout the area and fill critical gaps.”
Nicol, meanwhile, hopes Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas will listen to border residents when they say they don’t want a wall. “This isn’t a war zone,” he adds.
The battle in Congress over money to build new barriers that will color how more countries than Mexico will perceive the United States, says John-Michael Torres, a spokesman for La Union Del Pueblo Entero (LUPE). Wall construction could take people’s land, destroy natural wildlife, block access to areas along the border and bruise the bottom line, he says.
The Bigger Movement
This weekend’s protest is not unlike the environmental activism borne from pipeline projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline. Activists opposed to the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana are now trying to create an encampment like the one established near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation. Torres expects more protests over the border wall to follow this weekend’s demonstration in South Texas, though nothing concrete is yet planned. Still, he says, the alliance of social justice and environmental groups for these protests was natural, because the impact of a wall will ripple across interests, including financial ones.
“Our communities are very much linked to our neighbors to the south,” Torres says. “It’s not just the ecological livelihood of the area, it’s not just the migrants who are pushed to more dangerous locations to cross. It also impacts our economy, and how visitors from other parts of the world see our region as welcoming or not welcoming—as a place where they should come and spend their money or not.”