McALLEN — Six Democratic congressmen expressed concern in a letter addressed to the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security about the expected border wall construction at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.
A week after the U.S. House approved nearly $1.6 billion in funding for border security, the congressmen sent a letter to Elaine Duke stating their concerns about the damage that could potentially be done to the Santa Ana refuge, a more than 2,000-acre wildlife habitat that attracts more than 165,000 visitors from across the globe annually.
The letter was signed by U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville; Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen; Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso; Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio; and Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.
The congressmen expressed concern on the heels of news that DHS would be waiving environmental laws in order to build a section of wall near San Diego, causing many to believe that the refuge, and other borderlands, would be next.
The letter also comes as local elected officials and other interested parties are being shown a map of the proposed location of a border wall in the Rio Grande Valley – a map that multiple sources shared with The Monitor.
“The Santa Ana refuge, located along the Rio Grande in South Texas, is one of the nation’s top bird-watching sites in the nation with more than 400 species of birds. The refuge also is home to two endangered wildcats — the ocelot and jaguarundi. It generates hundreds of millions of dollars through ecotourism every year, and is an irreplaceable treasure to the region,” the letter reads.
“A wall cutting through the refuge could do serious environmental and economic damage, and the American public deserves transparency for what could be billions of taxpayers’ dollars spent on a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.”
The controversial wall was a major campaign promise of President Donald Trump. The appropriation to begin construction is scheduled for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins in October.
As federal officials assess design proposals for a border wall, DHS appears to be moving ahead on plans for construction of more than 74 miles of border wall.
This includes a proposal for 28 miles of new wall in Hidalgo County and 32 miles for Starr County. In addition, there is a proposal for 14 miles of secondary fencing in San Diego, according to the map and other documents obtained by The Monitor.
The map of proposed wall construction shows three miles of border wall running through the Santa Ana refuge and an unknown length of wall traversing the National Butterfly Center in Mission.
The border wall funding must still be approved by the U.S. Senate.
Scott Nicol, an executive member of the Sierra Club, a national environmental organization, said the proposed location of the border wall that is being shown to local officials would essentially “wall off” Hidalgo County.
Nicol attended a closed-door meeting hosted by U.S. Border Patrol Sector Chief Manuel Padilla Thursday, and was able to view the map that outlines preliminary locations for the proposed border wall.
More than $700 million of the House appropriation would be for new border fencing in Starr County, according to the CBP proposal.
Nicol said the proposal for the wall in Starr County was a surprise to him.
“On this map, Rio Grande City’s wall is much smaller than it was in the original version, and (now) there’s a new section that goes from south of Sullivan city, (and) that goes to (near) Garciasville. That section had never been discussed. As far as I know, that’s totally new,” Nicol said.
“The Roma wall has been massively expanded and it would go from downriver in Roma, through Roma, and all the way to Falcon Lake — and so that’s all new. It’s going to be really important for the people living — especially in that area to know, but that will affect everybody.”
The mayor of Rio Grande City, Joel Villarreal, who confirmed he was also shown a map, recently joined U.S. Border Patrol officials on a flyover of the county where he was shown the preliminary border wall construction locations.
Villarreal expressed concern weeks ago about the neighborhoods in the area that would be affected — during a closed-door meeting with Border Patrol officials more than three weeks ago.
“My main concern was were there any neighborhoods that were going to be situated south of the wall. At first it appeared that there might (be) but after conversations we’ve had with Chief Padilla and looking at the proposed wall itself, as far as the route, it does not appear that any of our neighborhoods are going to be affected by this,” Villarreal said.
“We’re going to continue to have that dialogue and see where, if anything, we can work along with them — with Chief Padilla — to ensure the least impact on our neighborhoods.”
Nicol said although he appreciated Padilla holding the meeting with local officials, he and others pressed Padilla about holding public meetings, where the people who will be affected can voice concerns and possibly have input.
“The landowners and the people who live right there next to the wall should be able to show up and give their input and find out what’s coming to their community,” Nicol said. “A lot of these things have much broader impacts. If they wall-off Santa Ana, that has a big impact on our eco-tourism economy — we all have a stake in that.”
That sentiment was echoed in the letter that the members of Congress sent to DHS.
“Do you plan to hold public hearings on the construction of any such wall?” the letter asks. “Can you detail all the opportunities the public will have to officially comment on the impact of this project?”
Nicol said Padilla would not commit to holding such public meetings because the plans were still “preliminary.”
“I think they kept going back to this idea that this is all preliminary because they don’t have funding yet, but we kept saying, ‘But once you have funding — it’s not a consultation if you come and tell us what you’re going do when it’s too late to make any changes.’”
John-Michael Torres, a spokesman for La Union Del Pueblo Entero, a local advocacy group who also attended the Thursday meeting, said he came away feeling like the wall at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge was all but confirmed.
Torres said it appeared to him that despite Padilla’s assurances that the plans and the map were preliminary, it appeared they had a good idea of where these walls were going.
He said he voiced concern during the meeting that this was all done without the public knowing.
“In terms of deciding where to put the wall, putting in the miles, it sounds like they’re pretty far in the process, and the general public hasn’t been involved in that,” Torres said.
Nicol echoed Torres’ concerns about public input and went a step further, asking for independent engineers during the planning process.
“Well, their engineers and hydrologists are paid by them, so they have an incentive to give them the answers they want to hear. As part of the planning they should open it up to experts who do not have a stake in making these walls happen and can say things like, ‘If you stick a wall in the sand beneath the bluff in Roma it’s going to wash away.’ You may not want to hear that but it’s a fact,” Nicol said. “They need to get that kind of expert input in addition to the general public’s input — that’s the big problem from my standpoint.”
He said he left hoping there are more meetings like the one on Thursday, but also bigger meetings that would allow the public to voice their concerns.
Nicol said another concern was that the decision to pick Santa Ana did not come from Padilla, or any official from the local sector. Instead, it came from the Director of Border Patrol Facilities and Tactical Infrastructure and Air Marine Facilities Loren Flossman, — a detail that leads Nichol to believe that politics might be at play.
“When Padilla was asked if he was the one who decided on Santa Ana as a priority location for the wall, there was a pause, then Flossman answered that it was in fact he who made that determination,” Nicol said.
“You have people who are looking at it from D.C. and what they are interested in is primarily the politics, the ‘mile counts.’ That was the problem 10 years ago, was that they came at it with this idea that the wall is the only answer. It doesn’t matter if it works, it doesn’t matter what kind of damage it does, the wall is the only answer that is acceptable,” Nicol said, referring to earlier construction of a wall under the George W. Bush administration.
“So then the only question left is, where does it go? And I think that’s what’s happening now. There’s not the opportunity to say, ‘Why not try something else? Why not do something that doesn’t require taking people’s property, and damaging wildlife refuges? The wall is the only answer.”
Monitor reporter Berenice Garcia contributed to this report.