In The News
LMT ONLINE: 'It's such a punch in the gut': Border wall construction could affect wildlife near Laredo
Just a month ago, Marianna Treviño-Wright, the executive director of the National Butterfly Center, scoffed at the mere suggestion that President Donald Trump's border wall threatened the 100-acre preserve.
Now she isn't so sure.
In search of wildlife during a recent stroll through 70 acres of the center, south of a levee that cuts through the property, Treviño-Wright found construction crews clearing trees and brush.
"I'm stunned," she said. "It's such a punch in the gut."
Earlier this month, the Homeland Security Department disclosed that preliminary preparations had begun for segments of the border wall that would cut through a portion of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the "crown jewel" of the wildlife refuge system in the Rio Grande Valley.
Treviño-Wright accidentally stumbled upon another possible segment being eyed for the levee that runs through the butterfly center, which abuts refuge land and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
Even as speculation swirls about Trump's "big, beautiful" wall, a picture has begun to take shape. Sixty miles of levee wall and fence would be strung across the Valley, marooning thousands of acres of wildlife refuge lands, historic landmarks and private property on its southern flank.
"The wall would chop up the habitat for terrestrial animals, like the ocelot, and during a flood it would be impossible for them to escape to dry ground," said Scott Nicol, the co-chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign. "We had hoped that they would respect border residents and our environment this time around, but so far their actions show that they do not."
The Trump administration wants to build 28 miles of new levee wall and 32 miles of new border wall in the Valley. Meanwhile, the administration is preparing to install 35 gates to close gaps in existing sections of fence, with $42 million provided in the 2017 fiscal year budget.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has requested funding for numerous projects, including more miles of wall, under the 2018 fiscal budget. The Republican-led House of Representatives last month approved $1.6 billion for border wall construction under fiscal 2018 appropriations bills that fund defense programs.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been preparing for segments of the wall, using a drilling rig to gather soil samples from levees in several areas across the Valley. A contractor placed wooden stakes with flagging, typically at ramps crossing the levee, prior to July 21. Since then, additional soil samples have been collected from locations along the levee, which is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission.
"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' contractor has not performed any clearing or tree removals in the vicinity of the subject location," according to a corps statement. "The contractor did place X markings on the ground surface as targets to be visible from an airplane to do mapping."
About 650 miles of the U.S. border with Mexico, one-third of the total, already have barriers in place, including steel bollard fencing and levee walls. Customs and Border Protection argues that a wall is critical to securing the border.
But the wall has raised the ire of many local border officials, who fear that it could scare off ecotourists, who pour $463 million into the economy, according to a Texas A&M University study. Environmental groups have planned protests and threatened lawsuits. And not many Texas leaders have embraced Trump's signature campaign promise.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said ahead of the House vote that technology might be better suited in some environmentally sensitive areas than a physical wall. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, offered a harsher assessment of the wall on the House floor.
"President Trump promised the American people that Mexico would pay for a wall, but he's footing the bill to American taxpayers," Cuellar said. "A massively expensive wall would violate the rights of landowners, many of whom have had their land for generations, since before the United States was a country."
Beyond the consternation over property rights and environmental damage is the human cost of ramping up border enforcement. The deaths of 10 immigrants inside a sweltering tractor-trailer parked outside a Walmart in San Antonio put a spotlight on the desperation of immigrants trying to enter the country illegally.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blamed the deaths on open border and sanctuary city policies that enable smugglers to put people in perilous situations. But experts say border walls do not prevent people from attempting to cross borders; rather, they compel them to take greater risks.
"There is a very clear relationship between building walls, adding more security and making it a much deadlier crossing," said Reece Jones, an associate professor in the geography department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the author of "Border Walls: Security and the War on Terror in the United States, India and Israel."
"2016 saw by far the most deaths at borders of any year. Over 7,500 people died who tried to cross borders. The true figure is probably much higher," Jones said.
More than 7,000 immigrants have died crossing the Southwest border since 1998, even as apprehensions plummeted to historic lows. There were 330 immigrant deaths in 2016, compared with 263 in 1998, despite a third the number of apprehensions, according to CBP data.
In 2008, when construction began on 54 miles of fence and wall in the Valley, the Homeland Security Department waived environmental laws to expedite building sections of border fence. The waivers were made possible by the Real ID Act of 2005, which gave broad authority to government agencies to sidestep environmental reviews.