A truck rolls on the levee road past La Lomita chapel.
A truck rolls on the levee road past La Lomita chapel. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

A proposed compromise bill in Congress would spare the National Butterfly Center and other key areas in the lower Rio Grande Valley from border wall construction, though President Donald Trump signaled Thursday that he plans to declare of a state of emergency to pursue more wall funding anyway.

Language in a proposed federal appropriations bill included $1.375 billion in additional funding for “pedestrian fencing,” including along levees that hold back floods on the Rio Grande River. Congressional staffers said earlier this week the funding would be used for 55 miles of barrier in the Rio Grande Valley.

The bill specifically carves out exceptions for the butterfly center, La Lomita Chapel, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, all important conservation and tourism sites along the Texas-Mexico border in Hidalgo County. It also shields these areas from construction funded by previous acts of Congress.

But on Thursday, White House officials said Trump would sign the bill, but then declare a state of emergency, according to multiple media reports. This might allow him to bypass Congress to get wall funding.

National Butterfly Center executive director Marianna Treviño-Wright anticipated this scenario even before the White House announcement.

“Anyone who’s observed President Trump over the last two years understands that [the compromise bill] may not happen,” Treviño-Wright said in a Thursday morning interview. “First of all, he has to sign the bill, then he has to not declare a state of emergency and try to ride roughshod over Congress.”

Since July 2017, the National Butterfly Center has been in a legal battle with the federal government, most recently asking a judge to grant a restraining order to stop contractors and U.S. Customs and Border Protection from going onto the center’s property. In a legal filing, attorneys for the center accused CBP officials and contractors of driving vehicles and heavy machinery across the center’s property, blocking its southern entrance, and cutting off its gate locks and replacing it with their own, among other allegations.

Under construction contracts previously funded by Congress, contractors working for CBP have begun working on federal wildlife refuge tracts located near the butterfly center. On Thursday, heavy equipment was cutting down vegetation on La Parida Banco National Wildlife Refuge tract less than two miles west of the butterfly center, Treviño-Wright said. One activist and photographer posted a video on Facebook Live showing Border Patrol and law enforcement vehicles gathered on the levee road.

In an email, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, Acting Deputy Director of Media Carlos A. Diaz confirmed that “early construction activities have started, such as site preparation activities,” on the approximately six miles of levee wall for which CBP awarded a $145 million contract in November.

Of the 273 miles of border in the CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector, 55 miles has some form of fencing. Diaz called those 55 miles “only a quarter of the total requirement for impedance and denial” and said that the region “lacks the infrastructure required to meet the operational requirements in this area.”

“Vast patrol area in the [Rio Grande Valley] prevents manpower and technology alone from meeting [Border Patrol’s] operational requirements, necessitating investment in the continuous impedance and denial capability that border wall system provides, particularly in locations where illegal border crossers can quickly vanish into border communities,” Diaz wrote.

Asked whether CBP had considered the wall’s effect on species like the Texas tortoise, Texas horned lizard, and Texas indigo snake that could become trapped on the other side of the wall during floods of the Rio Grande, Diaz said they had.

“CBP has been working closely with the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop and implement design elements into the levee wall that address the potential risk of these species during flood events, as well as identify design elements in levee wall that allow for animal migration,” Diaz wrote. He did not specify which design measures he was referring to.

The bill unveiled late Wednesday would prevent funding this year or in prior years from being used to build border barriers at the butterfly center and four other listed areas, including the Vista del Mar Ranch tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge east of Brownsville. That land is earmarked for SpaceX’s commercial spaceport, according to information from the office of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo).

Cuellar was one of 17 Republicans and Democrats in Congress who hammered out the deal in an attempt to avoid a partial federal government shutdown. The bill would require U.S. Customs and Border Protection to reach agreements “regarding the design and alignment” of barriers with local officials in the towns of Roma, Escobares, Rio Grande City, La Grulla, and Salineño. The five towns are in Starr County and in areas that could see new barrier construction.

Cuellar called the bill a “big win for the Rio Grande Valley” in a statement Thursday.

“I worked hard to include this language because protecting these ecologically-sensitive areas and ensuring local communities have a say in determining the solutions that work for them is critical,” Cuellar continued. “I know we can secure the border in a much more effective way, and at a fraction of the cost, by utilizing advanced technology and increasing the agents and properly equipping them on the border.”

Treviño-Wright said the center would go ahead with its lawsuit despite what happens with the bill.

“We’ve learned that we can’t let our guard down,” she said. “I think we’ve learned how really tenuous our standing is … as private citizens, as a nonprofit organization, that this administration and this Department of Homeland Security has an agenda, whether that’s inflicting maximum trauma on innocent children, or confiscating private property without due process. We’ve got to stay alert. America has to wake up and stand up against this.”

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.