How Symbolic—Trump Wall Construction Begins in a Wildlife Refuge

Ignoring impact on fragile ecosystems and waiving environmental regulations, the administration is moving forward


The director of Mission, Texas’ National Butterfly Center, Marianna Treviño-Wright, stumbled upon some unwelcome guests last month: a work crew clearing brush, trees, and native plants from the privately owned refuge. The habitat, painstakingly created over the last 15 years to host some 200 butterfly species, was indiscriminately torn down by work crews who claimed U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had given approval to begin preparing the area for construction of the border wall.

The 100-acre Butterfly Center stretches to the true border, the Rio Grande River, but the border wall will cut through the middle of the property. Much of the proposed border wall will be built about a mile north of the river, because riparian areas are unstable zones in which to do major construction. For the butterfly center, this means the visitor area will be cut off from the majority of the refuge and the many species of butterflies that call it home will have their habitat fractured and destroyed.

When Treviño-Wright called CBP to complain, she met with a wide array of responses. Her local CBP liaison was uninformed of the activity. When five border patrol agents showed up to the property the next day to investigate, they were surprised to find Treviño-Wright was telling the truth. Then, on August 1, the chief of the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, Manuel Padilla, visited the center unannounced. Treviño-Wright told him the center was considering installing a gate to block construction crews, and Padilla informed her that the government can seize control of any land within 25 miles of the border—and that any subsequent work crews to come to the area would be armed.

Despite the fact that funding for the border wall has yet to be voted on in the Senate—the proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 allots $1.6 billion for beginning construction—the Trump administration has been planning and doing preliminary work in secret for the past six months.

In July, the Texas Observer discovered where construction will begin in earnest: the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge. Crews were discovered taking soil samples in the refuge, and federal officials subsequently confirmed that the refuge would be the first site to see construction. This is public land, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it’s one of the most biodiverse areas in the country. The 2,088-acre refuge is home to rare species including the Texas ocelot and the Gulf Coast jaguarundi, as well as half the butterfly species in the United States (300, to be exact). 400 bird species call the the refuge home, many of whom use it as a reliable respite during seasonal migration. The 18-foot-high border wall, which will consist of a concrete base and a fence of steel bollards, will cut through three miles of the refuge, cutting off animals’ access to the riverbed, limiting their mobility, and fragmenting their habitat. It will effectively destroy the refuge.

95 percent of the Texas border is privately owned. The refuge was chosen for construction because it’s federal land, meaning there are fewer hoops to jump through prior to construction. That said, it’s federal land specifically set aside for conservation, so you might think that environmental regulations and protections could waylay construction. However, it’s not looking good. The other site chosen for early construction—a 15-mile stretch of border south of San Diego where prototypes for Trump’s wall will be constructed—has already been stripped of its environmental protections

On August 1, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would be bypassing standard environmental regulations and laws in order to construct roads and barriers. Among the planned projects are the aforementioned prototypes. The waiver allows the DHS to bypass the requisite environmental impact studies they’d typically have to complete before beginning construction. In fact, it gives the Secretary of Homeland Security “the authority to waive all legal requirements that the Secretary, in his sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure the expeditious construction of the barriers and roads” intended to stem the flow of undocumented immigrants.

Since 2007, the majority of undocumented immigrants have entered the country legally and overstayed their visas. The number of undocumented immigrants who overstayed their visas outnumbers those who crossed the border by half a million, according to a report by the Center for Migration Studies.

“The proposed construction of the replacement border wall in San Diego, like many areas along the border lands, has a high concentration of endangered species,” Brian Segee, senior attorney for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, told NPR. “There are a lot of impacts that can occur to the environment — especially in the absence of prior environmental studies. And that’s exactly what these waivers do.They create a lawless situation whereby DHS will undertake this massive boondoggle of a border wall project, and they will do it without the benefit of key environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act — the list goes on and on.”

Fearing the same fate for the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, six Texas Deomcratic congressmen penned a letter to the acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke urging her not to waive environmental regulations in the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge. The DHS has yet to release a response.

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh

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