MISSION — Krista Schlyer saw the arm of a yellow excavator emerge from the treetops in La Parida Banco National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday morning. Soon, this tract will be bisected by roughly 30 feet of concrete and steel fencing.
In the past week, the conservation photographer and writer has walked past the land multiple times and glimpsed the heavy machinery — but it was never moving. On Thursday morning, as she approached the site, she saw roughly a half dozen vehicles from local law enforcement agencies and Border Patrol surrounding the site.
“It’s really frustrating that taxpayer dollars are being used to build this,” she said. “But taxpayers can’t see the results of what they’re doing.”
On Friday, President Donald Trump said he will declare a national emergency to pump more than $6 billion into constructing more of his long-promised border wall, on top of the $1.375 billion authorized by Congress as part of a budget compromise to head off another government shutdown. To the delight of activists and lawyers, language in the budget bill bars the construction of fencing at several local landmarks – like the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the historic La Lomita chapel and the National Butterfly Center — but it's unclear whether that protection extends to any construction funded through Trump's emergency declaration.
Meanwhile, excavators have begun to clear land for what's seen as the first phase of the president’s border barrier: 33 miles of steel fencing in the Rio Grande Valley, including 25 miles in Hidalgo County and another 8 miles in neighboring Starr County, that Congress and the president approved last year at a cost of $641 million.
The government has sent letters requesting the right to survey nearly 600 private properties set to fall in the fence's path — step one in the eminent domain process that allows the government to seize private land. Some landowners have granted temporary entry, but others have gone to court to stop the surveys.
Last fall, Nayda Alvarez received a letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection asking for the right to survey her family’s land, an 8-acre plot in Starr County speckled with mesquite and cacti, but she didn’t grant access. Now, CBP is preparing to sue her in federal district court to gain access. (The agency notified her of this by letter in early January.)
Alvarez, who says she has never seen undocumented immigrants cross the Rio Grande near her property, painted her roof with the words “No Border Wall” in protest.
On Sunday, she stood in an alcove on the banks of the river that she calls her “little paradise” where her family would barbecue on Easter Sundays and go fishing during Lent.
“Do you see a crisis?” she said, looking toward the river.
Also in the path of the new fencing is the 154-year-old Eli Jackson cemetery, an acre-wide resting place for at least 150 people, including many of the indigenous and Mexican descendants of former slave owner Nathaniel Jackson. Now, the cemetery’s graves may be uprooted to make way for the border fence.
A group of about 10 to 15 activists and their allies have camped out on the property for about a month, a diverse crew that includes Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe members, activists who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, and other locals and allies. At the heart of their camp — called the “Yalui village,” which means butterfly in the Carrizo/Comecrudo language — a sacred fire burns day and night.
The cemetery is where 62-year-old Adelina Yarrito last saw her father’s body before he was buried. Next to her father, Yarrito's great-uncle Daniel and great-grandmother Silveria are buried.
“If you don’t have respect for the dead, you don’t have respect for no one,” she said.
The Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe isn’t recognized by the federal government, but Juan Mancias, the tribal leader, says his forefathers have been in the area for centuries. In addition to the cemetery, Mancias said he's concerned about the peyote, an important religious and medicinal plant for many indigenous tribes, that grows along the banks of the river, including areas where the fence is slated to be built.
“This is stolen land. And rent’s due,” Mancias said. “The land doesn’t belong to anyone; we belong to the land."
Further down the river, the National Butterfly Center and La Lomita chapel have been spared from the fence for now, but are still watching what's happening in Washington closely.
The butterfly center went to court to stop the fence, arguing that it would cut the center off from as much as 70 percent of its land and threaten native wildlife, including birds, plants, and 237 butterfly species.
After Congress passed the compromise Thursday that barred fence construction through the center, a judge for the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C. dismissed the center’s 2017 lawsuit against the federal government. But Marianna Treviño-Wright, the center's director, said they are concerned that Trump's emergency declaration could still threaten the center.
“We will be exercising every option at our disposal to counter this illegitimate state of emergency," she said.