Activists and landowners called on Rio Grande Valley residents to resist construction of a wall and protect property rights and wildlife.
Around 100 people gathered across a highway from the Border Patrol station in McAllen Sunday to denounce a 6-mile stretch of border fence that the Trump administration plans to begin building in February. The stretch of wall, which will consist of 18-foot-tall steel bollards atop the existing earthen levee, would slice through land belonging to a national wildlife refuge, the National Butterfly Center and the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park — destroying habitat and threatening wildlife. Activists billed Sunday’s protest as a “town hall” to highlight the federal government’s eschewing of transparency laws and public meetings.
“We’re holding this town hall because Border Patrol has refused time and time again to meet face-to-face with the public, and they’ve gone to extreme lengths to suppress public input and to throw our communities and our wildlife under the bus for Trump’s vanity wall,” Laiken Jordahl, borderland campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the crowd as they huddled against a chilly drizzle.
In March, Congress allocated $641 million for 33 miles of border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley, but activists and residents say they have remained largely in the dark about where and when the fence will be built. CBP has not held any public forums. Under pressure from human rights and environmental groups, the agency opened a 60-day public comment period in September and hosted a listen-only webinar. Then, last month, the Department of Homeland Security waived more than two dozen federal laws in order to move ahead with border wall construction, including requirements for public meetings and further environmental assessment. Last week, CBP announced it had awarded a $145 million contract to begin construction just southwest of McAllen in February.
Marianna Treviño-Wright, director of the National Butterfly Center, which would be bisected by the wall, called for protesters to resist construction on her 100-acre property. “I’m here to invite all of you to the National Butterfly Center, when the [contractors along with Border Patrol] return, because only we can stand against them — against the bulldozers and the usurpation of our land,” she said, prompting cheers and whoops from the crowd.
The demonstrators spoke English and Spanish and ranged from elementary school children to the elderly. Xandra Leal, a 9-year-old from McAllen, said she came out to protest because she opposes the wall and family separations. “And I don’t believe in deportations, because this was Mexico once,” she added. Sulema Hernandez, 76, from nearby Pharr, said that she was there to oppose Trump’s agenda. “What’s his problem? Now he even wants to do away with our plants and animals,” she said.
Protesters cheered when passing cars honked in approval and carried signs that read “Fight ignorance, not immigrants,” “Border Walls Kill,” and “Save Ecotourism.”
One speaker, Jonathan Salinas, pointed across the highway to the Border Patrol station. “Let’s remember that it’s the border walls [not asylum-seekers] that are illegal,” he said. “They waived dozens of laws to be able to build these.”
Scott Nicol, a volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team and longtime wall opponent, said he doubts the federal government will meet legal requirements by February to begin construction on private land that it hasn’t yet acquired.
Another hitch could be a lawsuit currently pending in Washington, D.C. The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the many organizers of Sunday’s protest, has sued to halt wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley and in New Mexico, and there will be a hearing next month. A California judge, however, ruled against the environmental organization in a similar suit over border wall in San Diego earlier this year.