Since the 1930s, 95 percent of the native habitat found in the valley has been cleared for agricultural or urban development. But the 2,088-acre federally owned refuge, nestled against the U.S.-Mexico border, teems with life.
It’s home to more than 400 species of birds, half of all butterfly species in North America, rare snakes, coyotes and bobcats. It is one of the last places in the nation where you can find ocelots and jaguarundis.
And it may soon be home to the first piece of President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.
On Sunday, Isaiah and mom Linda joined hundreds of people at the refuge for a protest, where they formed a human chain – too long to be captured in a single photograph – along the levee where the wall could be built.
“I’m very humbled to see the number of people that came out, that we are all in agreement that the wall should not be built,” Linda Soto said. “Corridors and bridges are always a better idea than building walls and keeping people out.”
“The concern is both for the wildlife – I mean, it would be unnatural for them to all of a sudden have a wall and not be able to move freely as they did in the past – and it would be unnatural for us as well, people that have lived here for many generations,” she said.
Border wall plans for Santa Ana
According to a map obtained from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the government proposes 28 miles of new border wall in the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission Metropolitan area in Hidalgo County, including a nearly 3-mile concrete and steel barrier through Santa Ana that would essentially destroy the refuge to make room for an enforcement zone.
Since the border is halfway across the Rio Grande, much of the wall would actually be constructed inland along a levee, putting land that’s technically American soil on the other side of the wall.
The map is labeled as “pre-decisional,” and, according to Customs and Border Protection public affairs specialist Roger Maier, does not reflect “any final decision” as to where the wall will be built.
“I think the most important thing to mention here is that we are in the research and planning process for construction of new wall, so it would be premature to speak about specific locations,” Maier said in an email.
He said at this point the only specific projects his agency is working on are 35 gates which will close gaps in the current Rio Grande Valley wall, projects authorized by the 2017 budget Congress passed this past January.
New wall construction, Maier said, will depend on whether funding is approved in the 2018 budget.
But according to a July 14 Texas Observer report, private contractors and Customs and Border Protection have, for the last seven months, been quietly planning to build the first piece of Trump’s border wall through Santa Ana.
According to Gloria Smith, senior managing attorney for the Sierra Club, the government has selected the refuge because it’s one of the few sections of Texas borderland that’s federally owned, ensuring that the government will avoid the time-consuming legal disputes it has run into in the past after attempting to build portions of a border fence on private property.
Approximately 95 percent of the Texas border wall is privately owned. The government can invoke its eminent domain power, which allows for the seizure of private lands, but such seizures often lead to lawsuits when property owners feel they haven’t been fairly compensated.
Smith said that when construction does officially begin at Santa Ana, the Sierra Club will sue.
The Sierra Club frequently challenges violations of environmental protection laws in court, but because the 2005 Real ID Act gave the government the ability to waive any federal laws that interfere with the construction of border walls, the only legal recourse the club has to prevent the construction of the wall at Santa Ana is a constitutional challenge.
Smith estimates 37 federal laws will be waived to build Trump’s border wall.
“We actually think the scope of this waiver is so broad that that in itself could be unconstitutional,” Smith said. “And right now, that’s about the only avenue that we’re looking at, so it makes it very, very difficult [to prevent construction].”
Workers have already been extracting soil samples and drilling into an existing levee on the refuge where the wall would be built, according to several observers who add that the refuge isn’t the only land in the valley that’s being prepped for border wall construction.
The National Butterfly Center
On July 20, Marianna Trevino-Wright, the executive director of the National Butterfly Center, was shocked to discover workers cutting down trees and clearing other vegetation on the center’s property. She also found “X” markings on the ground and wooden stakes, that appeared to be flags for possible construction.
The center is a private nonprofit organization that runs a 100-acre native plant botanical garden in Hidalgo County where more than 200 butterfly species have been spotted.
Two-thirds of the center’s property lies between the levee and the Rio Grande.
“I went over that levee and I found workmen there – not anyone we had hired and no one that we expected to come,” Wright said.
The crew said they were with an Alaskan-based company called Tikigaq Construction, which had been hired by Customs and Border Patrol to widen the road between the levee and the river.
Wright believes the road is being widened so that heavy construction vehicles can access the levee in order to build the wall.
“The day after I found the contractors on our property, five agents from Customs and Border protection came to visit me unscheduled, unexpected,” Wright said.
She says they told her that was she said she saw hadn’t happened.
“This was a surreal moment for me, where reality is being denied,” Wright said. “So I asked them to get in their trucks and go over the levee with me to see for themselves what had happened. And they were stunned.”
On Aug. 1, Wright says that Manuel Padilla, Customs and Border Protection’s sector chief for the Rio Grande Valley, paid an unexpected visit to the center and told her that the contractors would soon be back – accompanied, this time, by armed federal agents.
“You should be very afraid, wherever you are, because we now officially live in a police state,” said Jeffrey Glassberg, the founder of the National Butterfly Center.
The agency’s spokesman Maier said the work at the center was routine and that Customs and Border Protection has a license with the Butterfly Center to conduct “comprehensive tactical infrastructure and maintenance repairs.”
“Typically, part of the process includes notifying the Butterfly Center about the work before it takes place, which unfortunately did not occur in this instance,” Maier said. “Local officials from the U.S. Border Patrol engaged leadership at the center and are actively working to avoid this issue in the future.”
The X markings and wooden stakes were placed there by another crew, working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also collected soil samples from the area, according to a July 26 NBC news report.
“The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for assistance to meet national security needs along the international border as directed and funded by Congress and the Administration,” Corps spokesman Jim Frisinger said in an email. “We are gathering geotechnical data to help CBP plan its current and future border security program.”
Frisinger said the Corps is allowed to collect soil samples in the Rio Grande Valley within permanent levee easements owned by the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission.
Wright said she believes the government has “undertaken a campaign of deceit and deliberate misinformation,” and isn’t being honest about the purpose of the work being done on center property.
Glassberg said he is looking into what kind of legal action the center might take.
Effectiveness of a border wall
During a visit to the National Butterfly Center on Saturday, Courthouse News spotted several border patrol units driving along the levee wall on the property, and several patrol boats – and armed Department of Transportation boats – zoomed by the section of the center’s property that abuts the Rio Grande.
A surveillance tower loomed overhead in the near distance, and Wright pointed out another government surveillance camera on the center’s property.
An alligator, used to being fed by local residents, emerged from the river’s depths, and Wright said there’s a mountain lion that likes to wander around the property.
Wright thinks it’s already difficult enough for undocumented immigrants to cross the section of the border by the center, and doesn’t believe a wall will make the community she’s lived in her entire life any safer.
Scott Nicol, who lives in the valley and co-chairs the Sierra Club’s borderlands team, agrees.
“They don’t stop people as it is,” Nicol said. “It would basically just be a monument for Trump’s ego.”
At the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, part of the World Birding Center, a border gate constructed a few years ago cuts off access to hikers, bicyclists and nature observers – even though the Department of Homeland Security had promised to let such visitors explore the area freely.
“[The walls] are not being built with any tactical basis,” Nicol said.
According to a February Government Accountability Office report to Congress, border fencing is intended to assist Customs and Border Protection agents in performing their duties. But the agency has not conducted an assessment of how useful fencing is to their border security operations.
The report states that Customs and Border Protection spent $2.4 billion between 2007 and 2015 to deploy “tactical infrastructure” along the 2,000-mile southwest border of the United States, including fencing, gates, roads, bridges, lighting and drainage infrastructure.
“An assessment of border fencing’s contributions to border security operations could help position CBP to identify the cost effectiveness of border fencing compared to other assets the agency deploys, including Border Patrol agents and various surveillance technologies,” the report states. “This information would also help position CBP to justify continued investments in border fencing.”
Last month, the U.S. House approved an appropriations bill that includes $1.6 billion for 60 miles of new border wall in the Rio Grande Valley. The funding awaits approval from the Senate.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, backs a border security plan that would pay for increased technological surveillance and border patrol agents in environmentally sensitive areas, rather than a wall.
“I’ve always believed that it was imperative for federal officials to consult with local leaders on what the appropriate solutions might look like,” Cornyn told the Austin-American Statesman. “It may well be that rather than a physical wall in some of these places that technology will allow the Border Patrol to do its job just as effectively.”
More than a physical barrier
On Saturday, more than 1,000 people gathered before daybreak at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the Hidalgo County town of Mission. Led by Father Roy Snipes, driving a pale blue station wagon tricked out with an elaborate statue of the Virgin Mary, the people walked for four miles to the historic La Lomita Mission to protest the border wall. Since it’s south of the levee, access to the mission would be cut off if the proposed wall is built.
Speakers at the mission rally talked about the environmental damage the proposed wall might cause – including the potential for serious flooding problems, and even a shift of the path of the river and thus, the border itself.
But more than any other point, the speakers – including Roy, a local imam, immigration-rights activists, and U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez – stressed that a wall would symbolize xenophobic and racist values that are not welcome in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
“Today, we’re here to rally against an idea that divides us,” Gonzalez, a Democrat, said at rally. “Today in [Charlottesville, Virginia] they’re having a much different rally – quite the opposite of this.”
Gonzalez said that the anti-immigration, isolationist rhetoric coming from the Trump administration is “the very opposite of everything the Rio Grande Valley and the United States stands for.”
Reggie James, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said the border wall would be a symbol of racism.
“It’s not just a terrible ecological disaster that divides families and causes heartache,” James said. “It’s a symbol just like a burning cross. It’s a symbol just like a swastika. And we can’t abide by that.”