1of16Activists and Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas members are escorted out of the land adjacent to Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park by the Photo: Veronica G. Cardenas
2of16Activists walk out of an area where they say equipment is being used to start the construction of the border wall in Mission, Tex. on Feb. Photo: Veronica G. Cardenas
3of16Police escorts activists and journalists out of an area where they say vegetation is being tear down for the construction of the border Photo: Veronica G. Cardenas
Construction of a section of border wall through natural and historic areas in the Rio Grande Valley was blocked Thursday by a last-minute provision inserted in the budget deal by border-area Congressman Henry Cuellar.
“I know it’s been extremely important to a lot of people,” said Cuellar, D-Laredo, the only border congressman on the House-Senate conference committee that crafted the budget deal to fund the Homeland Security Department and other agencies and avert another government shutdown.
“This will stop any barrier from going within those areas, and that’s a huge victory,” he said.
The Senate and House passed the budget compromise Thursday. President Donald Trump has said he will sign the deal and declare a national emergency in an attempt to bypass Congress to finish his border wall.
The five areas Cuellar protected are the National Butterfly Center, the historic La Lomita Chapel, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the site of the SpaceX commercial spaceport and the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.
Heavy equipment operators began bulldozing trees in recent days near the city of Mission under a contract to build 6 miles of wall that eventually was to cut through the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley park and the butterfly center.
The 6-mile section is part of a project approved by Congress last year to build 33 miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley.
Cuellar’s budget amendment voids wall-construction contracts in the protected areas.
“Whatever they’re doing, surveying … within those protected five areas, that stops,” Cuellar said. “Homeland would have to adjust those contracts (to) say: ‘Don’t touch those designated areas that I listed.’”
Customs and Border Protection, which granted contracts last year for 14 of the 33 miles of new wall, declined to comment on the budget deal.
The Butterfly Center and La Lomita Chapel had sued to prevent construction. Cuellar said the budget deal likely ends the legal proceedings.
The sites hug the Rio Grande and long have preserved the religious history and unique isolated habitats of the Valley.
La Lomita, named for a small hill nearby, was built in 1865 to serve Catholic pioneers, then rebuilt after flooding.
It long was a stop for the Calvary of Christ, the Oblate missionaries who visited widely separated Catholic churches in the Valley, baptizing newborns, performing marriage ceremonies and blessing the dead, according to a description by the city of Mission.
The 100-acre Butterfly Center, which was to lose 70 acres behind the wall, is a lush, wild place of native plants with a dense tree canopy.
The sanctuary was established in 2002 because of the area’s rich diversity of butterflies — it’s in a “liminal,” or transitional, zone where both tropical butterflies and North American butterflies thrive.
About 240 different varieties can be seen there, sometimes in swarms. Nearly 300 species of birds also inhabit the forest.
The swath of land that was to be marooned by the wall is home to more than 5,000 milkweeds, a fishing dock, hiking trails, a wildlife photography blind and a wetland with a boardwalk for educational activities.
It is part of a string of natural areas along the river, including the Bentsen park and the Santa Ana refuge, that provide critical habitat for endangered species, including the ocelot.
The budget deal still calls for 55 miles of additional barriers in the Rio Grande Valley. At least 11 miles will be built on Rio Grande levees, Cuellar said, but the locations haven’t been determined.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, which has opposed the wall, said she was grateful for the protections.
“However, we are extremely disappointed that the negotiated deal will fund wall construction in some of the most important and biodiverse habitat in the world, including other large portions of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Refuge. Funding for 55 miles of additional wall will cause irreparable damage to borderlands wildlife and communities,” she said.
Cuellar’s amendment also requires Customs and Border Protection to work with officials in Starr County to give residents more of a voice in the planning and design of a border wall there. He said he hopes it can serve as a blueprint for other border communities.
But the fight, Cuellar said, isn’t over.
Next year, “we’ll, I’m sure, be talking about more border fencing, and we’ve got to fight this again,” he said. “Every single year (Trump) is president, we have to fight this.”