As another government shutdown loomed, Congress passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill in late March, and the omnibus bill included funding for the construction of 33 miles of President Donald Trump’s wall along the border in the Rio Grande Valley. But the legislation spared the federally owned 2,088-acre Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which had been in the path of the wall according to a proposal that was released last August.
The plan to build the wall through Santa Ana had prompted fierce protests from local activists and environmentalists, and it appears as though their efforts have succeeded. While the bill calls for more than $1.3 billion toward border fencing, including 25 miles of border wall funding through Hidalgo County and eight miles through Starr County, it does specifically say the funding may not be used to build a wall through the refuge, which is one of the nation’s top bird-watching sites and home to more than 400 types of birds and endangered species. “None of the funds provided in this or any other Act shall be obligated for construction of a border barrier in the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge,” the bill states.
“Keeping the border wall out of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge was a top priority and the barring of border wall funds at the refuge will ensure that Texans and Texas wildlife can enjoy this habitat for years to come,” U.S. Representative Filemon Vela, a Democrat from Brownsville, said in a statement after the bill was signed by Trump, according to the Texas Tribune. Vela, however, had voted against the bill. “To me, it’s astonishing that any Democrat would vote for a nickel of funding for any wall whatsoever,” he told the McAllen Monitor.
While Santa Ana seems safe, other Rio Grande Valley landmarks and wildlife refuges along the border were left unprotected in the omnibus bill. It’s still unclear what the final route of any wall might be, or what form it might take, but early plans suggest the wall will be a disaster for places like the National Butterfly Center in Mission, which could soon have a wall running directly through it. The wall could also cut off key access trails leading to Mission’s 797-acre Bentsen Rio Grande State Park and World Birding Center and the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Santa Rosa. The 33-mile stretch of wall would also threaten communities and private landowners living close to the Rio Grande.
On Palm Sunday last week, more than 1,000 people made their traditional pilgrimage to La Lomita Chapel in Mission, a historic church that likely sits near the expected path of the wall. “We’ve heard a lot about the wall lately and they say it’s going to wall off La Lomita,” Guadalupe Cortez, a nun at nearby Our Lady of Guadalupe, told the Brownsville Herald as she made what she and many more congregants feared may be their last pilgrimage to La Lomita. “We wouldn’t want that to happen. What would we do on days like today? It has a lot of historical significance to this area. That’s where they started evangelizing this area; it represents the importance of faith. It’s a symbol of our faith, the faith of our ancestors. It’s like taking a piece of our heart; it’s our mother church.” Like Santa Ana, La Lomita was also the site of protests from churchgoers, community activists, and environmentalists last summer after the proposed plan for the wall was released. But there was no mention of the tiny white church in the 2,232-page spending bill.
The omnibus bill drove a wedge between Texas Democrats representing border areas. Vela and U.S. representative Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen voted against it, while U.S. representatives Beto O’Rourke of El Paso and Henry Cuellar of Laredo voted for it, helping the bill pass the House by a vote of 256-167. The language in the bill protecting Santa Ana almost certainly helped appease some Texas Democrats. The legislation was equally divisive among Texas’s senators—John Cornyn voted for it while Ted Cruz did not. Cruz said he felt the bill didn’t go far enough to secure border wall funding. “It fails to provide sufficient funds to properly secure our border, let alone build the wall that is necessary,” Cruz said in a statement, according to the Monitor. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 65-32 and was immediately signed by Trump.
Another factor that may have helped push the wall funding through may have been the compromise to convert existing levees along the Rio Grande into combination levee-walls, instead of building original wall along the 33-mile stretch in South Texas. Cuellar told the San Antonio Express-News that the levee-walls would “probably cause the least amount of headaches” for private landowners. The idea had previously been pushed by Hidalgo County judge Ramon Garcia and McAllen mayor Jim Darling, who wrote letters to the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, touting the supposed flood protection that a levee-wall would provide. Their support for the levee-walls may be how that idea got into the omnibus bill as a wall-related compromise in the first place, even though both Garcia and Darling eventually rescinded their support for levee-walls (or any wall) after facing massive pushback from environmentalist groups, who say the levee-walls would hurt wildlife in the region and could actually make flooding worse.
“Levee-border walls are an environmental disaster,” Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club officials Stefanie Herweck and Scott Nicol wrote in a recent McAllen Monitor column about the wall funding. “While people have little difficulty using homemade ladders to get over them, animals are stopped in their tracks. Not only does this fragment territory that is critical to ocelots and other terrestrial species but when the river swells during a flood, instead of walking up and over the gentle slope of the levee, wildlife—from rabbits to snakes to javelinas to ocelots—will be trapped and drown.”
Trump said when he signed the bill on March 23 that construction on the wall would start “immediately,” though it’s unclear when construction will actually start. But after their small victory in saving Santa Ana, and with battle lines having already been drawn over La Lomita and other border areas affected by the wall, activists in the Valley almost certainly aren’t finished fighting against the wall.