Nomaan Merchant, AP, February 4, 2019
The U.S. government is preparing to begin construction of more border walls and fencing in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, likely on federally owned land set aside as wildlife refuge property.
Heavy construction equipment was expected to arrive starting Monday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said. A photo posted by the nonprofit National Butterfly Center shows an excavator parked next to its property.
Congress last March approved more than $600 million for 33 miles (53 kilometers) of new barriers in the Rio Grande Valley. While President Donald Trump and top Democrats remain in a standoff over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has pushed ahead with building what’s already funded.
According to designs it released in September , CBP intends to build 25 miles (40 kilometers) of concrete walls to the height of the existing flood-control levee in Hidalgo County next to the Rio Grande, the river that forms the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. On top of the concrete walls, CBP will install 18-foot (5.5-meter) steel posts and clear a 150-foot (45-meter) enforcement zone in front.
Maps released by CBP show construction would cut through the butterfly center, a nearby state park, and a century-old Catholic chapel next to the river.
CBP said in its statement that it intends to start construction on federally owned land. Environmental advocates expect the government to use land that’s part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge consists of dozens of parcels of land purchased over the last 40 years to create a corridor for endangered species and other wildlife.
The Department of Homeland Security can waive environmental restrictions to construct a border wall and issued its waiver for Hidalgo County in October. A coalition of environmental groups has sued DHS over its use of waivers, arguing that wall construction would endanger ocelots, rare birds and other wildlife that rely on refuge land for habitat. That lawsuit is still pending.
Land already in the hands of the government becomes an easier place to start construction quickly, said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Cuellar has introduced a proposal that would instruct CBP not to build border walls in several places that have environmental and cultural significance.