Shutdown deal includes language to protect a butterfly sanctuary and other landmarks from border barrier

A 1,159-page spending package would shield major cultural sites like the National Butterfly Center from border fencing — but it would also pump $1.375 billion into additional barriers along the Rio Grande.

The bill would prohibit fencing at the National Butterfly Center in Mission and four other landmarks.
The bill would prohibit fencing at the National Butterfly Center in Mission and four other landmarks.  Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Correction appended

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said Thursday that he's added language to a compromise bill aimed at avoiding another government shutdown that would prohibit border fencing at five major landmarks in the Rio Grande Valley.

On Thursday, the House and Senate approved a 1,159-page spending package that the House and Senate are expected to vote on Thursday. It includes $1.375 billion for 55 miles of physical barriers in the Rio Grande Valley — far less than the $5.7 billion that President Donald Trump demanded when he refused to sign an earlier bill and triggered a 35-day partial government shutdown.

To avoid another shutdown, Trump must sign it by midnight Friday.

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The five cultural sites lie in the path of $641 million worth of planned border fencing that was funded in the 2018 federal budget. Construction started earlier this month at a federal wildlife refuge, sparking outrage among community members and activists.

The landmarks include major wildlife areas like the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre nature preserve that attracts hundreds of butterfly species. The center filed a restraining order late Monday night to prevent the federal government from building a barrier on its property or crossing through it to build elsewhere — but a judge dismissed their case on Thursday.

Other places that would be off-limits for fencing are:

  • Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, an internationally recognized spot for bird watching
  • The Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which was exempted from border barriers in last year’s budget
  • La Lomita, a historic Catholic chapel that lost a court fight a week ago to prevent the government from surveying the chapel’s land
  • A tract of land that will soon be home to the commercial spaceport for SpaceX, a space transportation company in which Tesla founder Elon Musk is the lead designer

“For La Lomita, that would be the answer to our prayers,” said the Rev. Roy Snipes, the parish priest of the historic chapel. “But our poor neighbors wouldn’t be spared.”

Cuellar is the only border-area member of the congressional committee that has been working for weeks to draft a proposed border security compromise.

“This is a big win for the Rio Grande Valley,” Cuellar, D-Laredo, said in a statement. “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.”

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The bill also requires the Department of Homeland Security to reach “mutual agreements” with Starr County, the second-poorest county in the state, about the design and alignment of any future barriers — another provision that Cuellar says he added.

Protections for 154-year-old Eli Jackson cemetery, an indigenous burial ground also in the path of planned fencing, were not included in the bill. Activists have been camped at the cemetery for about four weeks to protest potential construction. Additionally, the bill makes no mention of roughly 600 private landowners in the path of the barrier.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed Thursday that Trump will sign the deal, then declare a state of emergency — usually invoked during natural disasters or crises to broaden the president's powers — to build more border barriers.

Marianna Treviño-Wright, the director of the National Butterfly Center, called the bill’s extra border fencing a “travesty” and warned that the battle isn’t over — the proposed budget only funds the government through September.

Mary McCord, the lawyer representing La Lomita, was hopeful but similarly hesitant.

“It’s obviously a very good sign,” McCord said. “That’s a big relief for La Lomita.”

However, even if the bill passes in its current form, the legal battle may not be over. While the bill prevents fencing around the chapel, it may leave room for further government intrusion, said McCord, a lawyer with Georgetown University Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

Plans by the Diocese of Brownsville, owner of the chapel, to pursue further litigation would depend on how the government interprets the language in the shutdown deal, she said.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the budget for border fencing in the Rio Grande Valley in the 2018 federal budget. The correct amount is $641 million.