Funding legislation would spare refuges, local lawmakers opposed to any new wall
Bipartisan legislation to fund the government and avert a shutdown includes financing for 55 new miles of border barriers in the Rio Grande Valley, but language in the bill spares a tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge adjacent to SpaceX.
Details of the 1,169-page bill published early Thursday morning includes $1.375 billion for pedestrian fencing, including levee pedestrian fencing in the Rio Grande Valley.
Despite not being the $5.7 billion President Donald J. Trump initially called for in border wall funding, as of Thursday afternoon, it appeared the president would sign the bill, but would declare a national emergency.
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump indicated he would sign the bill, but would declare a national emergency on the border, the Associated Press reported.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders confirmed that in a statement saying the president is delivering on his promise to build a wall.
"President Trump will sign the government funding bill, and as he has stated before, he will also take other executive action - including a national emergency - to ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border," Sanders said in the statement. "The President is once again delivering on his promise to build the wall, protect the border, and secure our great country."
By declaring a national emergency, the president could secure funding for border barrier construction without congressional approval, though it would likely face legal challenges, the Associated Press reported.
Congress had not voted on the legislation by deadline.
Language in the bill secured by Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, will protect Ocelot Coastal Corridor in the Vista del Mar Ranch tract of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge from border barrier construction, and language secured by Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, would protect and retroactively protect the National Butterfly Center, La Lomita Historical Park, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge from border barrier construction.
"None of the funds made available by this Act or prior Acts are available for the construction of pedestrian fencing," the legislation states.
Heavy machinery has arrived in the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park to clear land for border wall construction, work that continued Thursday.
Vela noted he has concerns with technical language in the bill for the protection of these areas.
"I have serious concerns with the technical language as it relates to the areas the budget deal purports to protect from wall construction and in light of tonight’s pending vote am working on these issues," Vela said.
If approved by Congress and signed by the president, leaders in Washington D.C. will have approved $2.975 billion to finance the construction of 88 miles of border barrier in the Rio Grande Valley since March 2018.
Vela said he would vote against the package.
"Although I appreciate the effort to include language to exempt the Ocelot Coastal Corridor, the SpaceX launch site, and to continue the exemption for the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, these exclusions are of small consolation to all of the parties who will be affected by the 55 miles in newly funded fencing," Vela said in a press release. "The trampling of private property rights, the destructive isolation of historic family cemetery sites, and the erosion of other environmentally precious and unprotected lands will have a long-term devastating impact on our border communities."
Representative Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, said the bill is not a victory for border residents and that he will vote against it.
"I am disappointed to see South Texans’ private property rights and perspectives discarded and disregarded. I have personally visited with the President to promote border security alternatives and explain the safety – backed by FBI statistics −of communities like McAllen, Texas. This has yet to be acknowledge by him or his Administration."
In a press release, Cuellar characterized the deal as a win but did not indicate how he would vote.
"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 said in a press release. "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."
The Texas Border Coalition endorsed the legislation.
Laredo Mayor and Texas Border Coalition Chairman Pete Saenz said in a statement that it fits the Texas Border Coalition model’s best by funding the minimum amount of fencing while protection parks and some wildlife refuges.
"While (Texas Border Coalition) does not support funding for more fence construction, this agreement includes $1.375 billion for additional pedestrian fencing, all or almost all in the Rio Grande Valley," Saenz said in the statement. "The bill authorizes 11 miles of levee pedestrian fencing and 44 miles of primary pedestrian fencing, mostly in Hidalgo and Starr Counties."
The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group opposed to border barrier that has taken the administration to court, called the deal despicable.
Paul Lopes, public lands policy specialist for the organization, said any new barriers are an enormous waste of taxpayer money that won’t stop drug or human trafficking.
"This despicable deal will wall off the Rio Grande Valley. It will permanently destroy spectacular ecosystems and wildlife habitat, and seize private land from Texas families," Lopes said in a press release.