There’s a corridor within the Lower Rio Grande Valley through which rare and endangered species of wildlife move freely from Mexico into a national refuge and across the rest of South Texas. It’s an oasis for rare birds and butterflies, ocelots, and other wildlife.
It’s also where, this week, construction crews began tearing down forest, between the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, to build part of President Trump’s border wall on a levee high above the river. In the weeks ahead, more than 350 acres will be destroyed to clear a path for 33 miles of concrete and steel wall.
It’s a scenario likely to repeat itself over the next few years.
On Friday, Trump signed a sweeping compromise measure to keep the government funded, but he also declared a national emergency on the U.S. southern border, claiming “an invasion of our country with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.”
The action allows him to commandeer more than $6 billion from the military and other sources—money Congress has refused to give him—to build the border wall that he promised his supporters Mexico would pay for.
“Today they began tearing down the forest in the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, four miles from my house. I have no words.”
That was a social media post on Thursday by Tiffany Kersten, a biologist and board member of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.
“We don’t have a border crisis; we don’t have a security crisis.” The clearing, she said later in an interview, is taking place near where she lives in Mission, Texas, outside McAllen, which has been ranked by SmartAsset as one of the safest cities in the U.S. “What we have is a crisis of misinformation,” Kersten said. “Illegal immigration has not been this low in 46 years. I don’t know at what point in this country we determined that facts no longer matter.” According to the U.S. Border Patrol, there were 303,916 apprehensions of people crossing the border illegally in 2017, the lowest number since 1971.
The real emergency, immigrant advocates say, is the plight of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the U.S. and the separation of immigrant families there. They say the president’s action makes it more imperative state and local governments work to protect immigrant communities.
A chorus of lawmakers from both major parties as well as legal experts are also upset, saying Trump’s emergency declaration usurps the “power of the purse” the Constitution grants to Congress.
Many commentators noted that Trump undercut his own argument by saying he didn’t need to declare an emergency but was doing so to speed up construction. In a Tweet, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked how Trump’s action can be a legitimate national emergency if he himself admits he didn’t need to do it. She and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a joint statement, called the move a clear power grab and urged Republican colleagues to “honor the Constitution by defending our system of checks and balances.”
The president’s “unlawful declaration over a crisis that does not exist does great violence to our Constitution and makes America less safe, stealing from urgently needed defense funds for the security or our military and our nation,” Pelosi wrote on Twitter.
A recent Politico/Morning Consult poll showed voters split over whether the U.S. should build a wall along the southern border: 47 percent support it, and 47 percent oppose it.
This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom pulled most of the 360 National Guard troops from the Mexican border, leaving a few to combat transnational drug smuggling. In his State of the State address on Feb. 12, Newsom called the border emergency a “manufactured crisis” and said his state will “not be part of this political theater.”
His action followed that of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who ordered the withdrawal of the majority of National Guard troops deployed at her state’s Southern border. In fact, at least five states, including two led by Republicans, rejected the president’s call to send troops, with Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan saying his state wanted nothing to do with the Trump administration policy of separating families at the border.
In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, construction equipment started showing up earlier this month, sparking outrage among community members and activists.
In addition to the refuge, land targeted for wall construction also includes the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre nature preserve, as well as the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park—land that the federal government doesn’t own. On Thursday, a judge dismissed a lawsuit by the butterfly sanctuary to block the wall construction. But it and other landmarks may have earned a reprieve in the bill Trump signed to avoid another shutdown.
Meanwhile, a wall through Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the headquarters of the World Birding Center, would divide the visitor center from the rest of the property, including the trails, according to an article in the Sierra Club magazine.
Activists have planned a protest and march for noon Saturday at the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
Lornet Turnbull is an associate editor for YES!, a Seattle-based freelance writer, and a regional freelance writer for The Washington Post.