After threatening a veto earlier in the day, President Donald Trump signed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill Friday that gives his administration significantly less money for border wall construction than it sought and prohibits wall building on a beloved wildlife refuge on the Rio Grande.
The $1.6 billion in border security infrastructure money will build about 33 miles of new fencing in the Rio Grande Valley, about half of what U.S. Border Patrol officials had been pushing for. Trump said he was “very disappointed” in the bill and signaled he will seek more border wall funding in coming years.
The budget deal represented a major victory for local residents, birding enthusiasts and environmentalists, who for months had protested plans for a border wall across the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The spending bill specifically exempts the 2,000-acre refuge, considered the crown jewel of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s chain of refuges in the lower Rio Grande Valley.
Thanks to the handiwork of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, the provision specifically protects the eco-tourist area that runs along the Rio Grande River south of Alamo in Hidalgo County. Customs and Border Protection officials had begun surveying the area for a wall or barrier last summer.
“This is a big victory,” Cuellar told the American-Statesman. “This is something I wanted excluded.”
For three miles where the refuge winds along the river, the Border Patrol will look at using technology and personnel instead of a wall, Cuellar said. He was able to influence the process because he is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.
“Keeping the border wall out of the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge was a top priority and the barring of border wall funds at the refuge will ensure that Texans and Texas wildlife can enjoy this habitat for years to come,” U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said in a statement.
Outside of Santa Ana, the money will go towards 25 miles of new border wall in surrounding Hidalgo County and eight miles of fencing in Starr County to the west, Vela’s office confirmed Friday.
The total number of miles of physical barriers was cut nearly in half for Texas from earlier legislation — from 60 miles of new barriers to 33 miles, with 25 miles going to extend Hidalgo County’s levee wall system and 8 miles for rural sections of Starr County where officials say illegal crossings have increased.
Border Patrol agents have called Starr County the most “volatile” stretch of border. There, flooding concerns and local opposition have stymied previous plans to build a border barrier. The county’s largest cities sit in flood plains and local officials worry that border fencing could trap floodwaters in places like Roma after heavy rains.
It’s not clear where in Starr County the border wall would go, but Border Patrol leaders have told the Statesman that the 500 or so agents who patrol the county are woefully understaffed.
“Starr County wanted 32 miles” for a barrier, Cuellar said. “They ended up with eight miles.”
In Hidalgo County, the 25 miles of new fencing would go on top of flood levees and connect to 30 miles already built during the last round of border wall construction a decade ago. That would nearly seal off the entire county, which had been targeted for increased enforcement by state and federal authorities after a surge in immigrant apprehensions, mostly of Central Americans, in recent years.
The spending bill also calls for nearly $200 million in border security technology. While border area officials have argued a “virtual” wall would be preferable to a physical barrier, civil liberties groups say the suite of new technology being developed by Customs and Border Protection — including drones equipped with facial recognition cameras and artificial intelligence systems that can scan social media accounts — represents a threat to the privacy of millions of border residents.
A Statesman investigation last month found that the proposed border surveillance tools have the power to capture reams of personal data from immigrants and U.S. citizens alike, raising privacy questions that neither lawmakers nor department officials have fully answered.