Rural South Texas county to new DHS head: Don’t build border wall here

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'The construction of the border wall in the Laredo Sector entails wholesale destruction'

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Zapata County Commissioners Court has passed a resolution with a message to President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security: Back off from any wall-building in this rural South Texas county located on the border with Mexico.

Commissioners on Monday unanimously passed the resolution, which accuses DHS under the Trump administration of having “targeted private properties in Zapata County for permanent condemnation for the purpose of constructing a border wall, without the requisite congressional authorization.” It also claims that building a 30-foot-tall border wall through one of the county’s most beloved historic townships and its birding preserve “would cut through the township of San Ygnacio, dividing it in two, and cause the demolition of homesteads and historic buildings.”

This isn’t the first time the gutsy county of just 16,000 residents has pushed back against wall construction. Zapata County commissioners in July filed a lawsuit against the federal government to prevent it from taking over the 2-acre San Ygnacio Bird & Butterfly Sanctuary. And their outspoken efforts are getting cheers from anti-border wall activists in South Texas who want other neighboring counties to follow suit.

“The border wall would actually impact Zapata County in a very negative way,” Zapata County Commissioner Olga Elizondo, who proposed the resolution, told Border Report on Tuesday. “So it’s very important we make sure they don’t.”

Elizondo’s district includes the bird sanctuary and the historic town of San Ygnacio, where gun turrets built into the roof of Fort Treviño (now is called the Treviño-Uribe Ranch) and are still visible from this 19th-century sandstone structure.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell told Border Report the measure quickly was passed and supported by the five-member commissioner’s court, which opposes any border wall construction.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell on Nov. 16, 2020, points out historic buildings in San Ygnacio, Texas. The old Fort Treviño, below, overlooking the Rio Grande still has gun turrets on its roof that was used to protect the town in the 19th century. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“They just immediately and without any hesitate they passed it without batting an eyelash,” said anti-border wall activist Elsa Hull, who lives near San Ygnacio and who sent the resolution to Elizondo and requested her support by the commissioners court.

Rathmell said that although Donald Trump has lost the election, DHS officials appear to be ramping up land condemnations and pushing forward to aggressively start construction efforts along the Southwest border. He has been warned by county lawyers that Zapata County could very soon be targeted and that pushed them to pass the resolution.

A marker placed by the Texas Historical Commission detailing the history of San Ygnacio, Texas, is located in a park square. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“We haven’t received official notice,” Rathmell said. “But it appears the Trump administration might have attained more attorneys to move aggressively with the remaining days they have so we may be facing that.”

It appears the Trump administration might have attained more attorneys to move aggressively with the remaining days they have.”

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell

Hull, a riverfront landowner whose property is a couple miles from San Ygnacio said: “There’s a lot of history in that town so I’m really thankful that Zapata County is demonstrating its leadership in fighting and setting the example. They’ve never hesitated in this fight against the wall. They’re the example.”

The resolution is being sent to Alejandro Mayorkas, whom Biden has tapped as secretary of Homeland Security, and who would be the first Hispanic to lead this agency. Last week, he promised the new administration would aggressively tackle immigration reform, but he has been relatively quiet on what will happen to border wall construction or current ongoing building projects.

Biden has promised not to add any additional border wall miles once he takes office on Jan. 20. But he has advocated for retaining some of the border infrastructure, such as flood lighting and high-tech cameras that are part of the border wall system. His campaign website calls this “smart border enforcement efforts.”

The No Border Wall Coalition, which is a grassroots organization comprised of activists in Zapata and Webb counties, want Laredo city officials to also adopt this resolution, Hull said. The resolution condemns President Donald Trump’s administration for waiving 27 statutes under the Real ID Act of 2005, to facilitate faster border wall construction in this region, including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan has said that a border wall system is a critical tool for Border Patrol agents because it helps slow or stop those who attempt to illegally cross into the United States, giving border agents time to respond and make an arrest.

This map supplied by the No Border Wall Coalition shows the projected construction of border wall through the historic town of San Ygnacio.

“The construction of the border wall in the Laredo Sector entails wholesale destruction of critical habitat in the Rio Grande floodplain,” the resolution reads.

The resolution also calls for “the incoming administration (to) issue an immediate moratorium on construction of the border wall in Zapata County.”

Zapata County Commissioner Olga Elizondo, second from left, and Judge Joe Rathmell, fourth from left, are seen on Nov. 12, 2020, in the front row of the Zapata County Courthouse during a special meeting. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Elizondo says the border wall “would be dividing in half” the town of San Ygnacio if built.

“That would force several residents to move their homes and we also have some historical buildings and markers that would have to be removed and moved to another place. You cannot move a historical site and go and build it somewhere else,” Elizondo said.

The No Border Wall Coalition is pushing hard for neighboring Laredo to endorse the same resolution there.

“Spare us the ‘riverwalk’ sales pitch,” No Border Wall Coalition activist Amy Gamboa told the Laredo City Council on Monday evening, urging the council there to take up similar action. “This would be just a half-mile in the 71 miles of prison wall. That means 99% of Laredo’s riverfront would still be replaced by a 30-foot wall.”

Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, said the Laredo City Council needs to act quickly and urges they call a special meeting to discuss a recent lawsuit filed Thursday by the U.S. federal government against El Azteca Housing Development to condemn land for the border wall where the Zaragoza Apartments are located. 

“Residents in our city, particularly the most vulnerable, are under attack. One of Laredo’s most historic residential areas, with buildings dating back to the 1870s, is now under threat,” Cortez said in a statement.

Said Hull: “Hopefully the city of Laredo and others will follow suit.”

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