As stories and coverage of border security have dominated the media landscape lately; pundits, politicians and the public alike are all seemingly divided over the proposals.
Regardless of the media outlet, debate over the the proposed wall or – more specifically – the of financing and placement for the border wall, is inescapable.
Although the government has temporarily reopened after a 35-day-shutdown—the longest in history—over lack of funding for this barrier. With no monies granted as requested by the President for this “new” border security measure, there is a side to this story that many do not know.
As reported by our partners at the Texas Tribune, the 2018 Omnibus Spending Bill was initially slated for veto by the President for failure to meet the amount he requested. However, after the government reopened on Friday, President Trump gave the go-ahead on the Bill that allocated $1 billion total for construction of new sections, and repairs of existing parts of the border wall.
According to Lorri Burnette, CEO of We are the Wall, some of that money has already been allocated for the wall in the Mission, Texas area. Lorri, a native El Pasoan, sat down with Steven Cottingham and myself for an interview on Saturday evening. That audio is available above.
She had been down in the Rio Grande Valley region since December, on a 3 month contract with the Defenders of Wildlife.
Returning to the Sun City specifically to attend Veronica Escobar’s Town Hall with the hopes of getting answers from legislators, she also joined up with Border Network for Human Rights in their march against the border wall that was held here in El Paso on Saturday afternoon.
What Lorri wants everyone to understand is that the wall construction is slated to run through land that belongs to the National Butterfly Center, Bensten-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Historic La Lomita Mission, as well as the Jackson Family Cemetery that dates back to a time before the Civil War.
“The border between Mexico and the United States runs right through the center of the river,” says Lorri, “But the wall needs to be straight.” In order to accomplish this, the government has decided that it will begin wall construction two miles north of the river, on American soil. This grants the rest of the land, extending from the wall to the river, itself, to no one, making it a veritable “No-Man’s Land.”
How will this specifically affect those properties?
The wall will run through the 100 acres of the Butterfly Center, dividing it into two separate areas. The first 30 acres will remain on the United States side of the wall, and the remaining 70 acres will now be on the other side.
In order to continue to access the entirety of this Center, the wall will have gates that will be accessible via key code. A visitor to the Center needs only to go in and sign a paper, pay $5, and the code is given to them with no further check into their identity or citizenship status.
The same code is then used to return to the American side of the barrier. Of course, to many people, this not only seems an odd use of funding, but may also prove less secure than the Border Patrol boats, helicopters, and trucks that already constantly survey and secure the river.
For the Bensten-Rio Grande Valley State Park, things are about to change. This includes land that is used by the Girl and Boy Scout troops for camping and earning badges. The land will now end right behind the main office building of the site, with the remainder of the Park sitting in “No-Man’s Land.”
La Lomita Mission is due to be completely demolished. Built in 1889, La Lomita Chapel is named for the hillock upon which is was built. Originally, this mission served as a home base to the Oblate Missionaries that rode horseback through the Rio Grande Valley in the mid-1800s, and is the cornerstone of Mission, Texas.
Today, the chapel stands as a religious shrine and a reminder of the region’s past.
Paul Navarro, Senior Representative for Texas with the Defenders of Wildlife, was able to later verify what many are alleging: the government has bypassed or ignored laws set in place regarding construction and eminent domain.
According to Paul, studies of an area’s ecology and historical significance need to be done prior to the start of construction of any government project.
Paul alleges that no such studies have yet been done.
This leaves protected species, like the Ocelot, with no way to reach higher ground during times of massive flooding that happen during heavy monsoon months because of the new barrier. With some town’s location right next to the river, a border wall could potentially cause the runoff from yearly storms to back up into those towns, causing flooding and potential massive damage to homes and businesses.
Local residents and others say that another fact that hasn’t been taken into consideration is the land as Native America burial grounds.
If work begins in a particular area known to have once been inhabited by Native Americans and bones are found, digging is supposed to cease until it can be determined if those bones are that of Native Americans.
At that point, the bones must be carefully excavated and presented to the First Nations for proper relocation onto Native Lands.
Because these lands are considered sacred by the Native Americans, especially since bones have indeed been found, they believe many of their ancestors are buried in the Jackson Family Cemetery that is also scheduled for demolition.
In order to try to defend and protect the environment – as well as the sacred lands – the Carrizo-Comecrudo tribe of Texas, among other Native Nations, have joined in to do all they can to stop this destruction.
Currently, many other First Nations tribesmen and women are on their way from Tucson, Arizona. They will join with those already in the Rio Grande Valley at a camp that is being set up on land owned by the Jackson family, near the cemetery.
According to Lorri, many tribes from the Dakota Pipeline protest are due to arrive, as well.
“It’s history in the making, and no one is reporting about it,” she says. Between 28-30 tribes are due to arrive in the next week or so, perhaps more.
To reinforce the significance and importance of protecting the land better than Native Americans. They have created a video, shared on their Facebook page, to bring more attention to the current situation.
Retired Army Veteran Sam Williams, Chairman of the El Paso Grassroots Coalition and Independent Candidate for the 16th Congressional District, has stated that he doesn’t understand why the government wants to build a wall in an area that already has a natural barrier.
The Rio Grande river is more than 200 feet across in this area, and the water runs wild and deep. In fact, he has started a GoFundMe to raise money in order to save the La Lomita Mission.
Sam explains other ways he intends to help, “The El Paso Grassroots Coalition, in conjunction with the Defenders of Wildlife, propose to file an injunction in Federal Court to stop all construction activities until studies of the historical and ecological impact can be done.”
He is currently in touch with Paul Navarro to do just that.
All of this brings to mind places within driving distance to the Borderland.
An entire area that holds both cultural and historical value – Native American village sites, natural habitats spanning the rio and the Chihuahuan Desert as well, and countless other sites as yet unknown.
A quick drive eastward to Fort Hancock, where the river alone marks the border, through near-identical farms and small towns on both sides of the river.
The same goes for locations west of El Paso, from Mount Cristo Rey all the way to Columbus and beyond; areas that have had literally decades of unfettered access – and security – all under threat of division, destruction and disappearance due to ‘the wall.’
This is why so many are making the journey to the Rio Grande Valley area near Mission: to have their voices heard, and to increase the volume of voices already there.
Author – Amy Cooley | Audio: Steven Cottingham – El Paso Herald Post | Photos: Lorri Burnette