President Trump’s border wall expansion is the least regulated mega-project in modern American history.
In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress gave the executive branch the authority to waive all environmental laws when erecting border barriers.
Ever since, contractors building the wall have been able to ignore impacts to critical habitat, migratory pathways, and cultural resources. They also have been reckless about building in floodplains. Barriers and blockages of drainage tunnels have worsened flooding in border communities. In 2008, two people died in Nogales, Mexico, from one such flood.
Enter Trump. When he declared a national emergency to seize funding for the wall, he overstepped presidential authority and opened the door to new legal challenges.
“Earthjustice has been warning all who will listen that the construction of Trump’s wall would be a disaster outside of the confines of the law,” says Raul Garcia, an Earthjustice legislative director. “Trump doubled down on his lawlessness when he declared a state of national emergency. Congress rejected the plan with overwhelming bipartisan votes. Trump’s defiance means this fight moves from Congress to the courts.”
Ramiro Ramirez stands in his family graveyard in McAllen, Texas, and remembers time spent here with his grandmother. When he was a kid, she would take him by the hand to ring the cemetery chapel bell before Sunday services.
It has been more than half a century since he walked across the cemetery with his grandma. The one-room chapel no longer hosts public ceremonies, but Ramirez still loves to ring that bell every time he shows the place to visitors.
“Without being overly demonstrative,” says the 70-year-old, as the peals break the stillness of a warm March day, “[this place] means my life.”
His family still uses the 154-year-old cemetery and the chapel that their ancestors, the Jacksons, established on this land, lush with green and yellow retama trees, just a mile from the Rio Grande, where Texas ends and Mexico begins.
On the tombstones, the names and surnames shift from Anglo to Latino over the generations, as the Jackson clan married and grew large in this borderland.
But the chapel, the cemetery, and all its history could soon be desecrated. Trump’s long-promised border wall is slated to stand just north of the Jackson Ranch Cemetery. Wall construction could damage the Jackson Ranch church, a state-designated historical site. It may also require the digging up of human remains.
In March, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Ramirez family and others. Some of the clients are fighting the ecological devastation the wall would cause by cutting wildlife off from their habitat and disrupting the river’s natural floodplains. Others, like the Ramirezes, are fighting to keep the wall from severing their ties to the land, the generations who lived on it, and the cultures they shared.
All are fighting to preserve the land that sustains them.
“We won’t defeat this hateful border wall if we talk about it through a single-issue lens,” says Luis Torres, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice. “We need to bring the voices of immigration advocates, Latinx communities, wildlife and conservation leaders, indigenous leaders, and faith communities to stand together.”
The Ramirezes aren’t the only ones whose deep roots in the land and way of life are threatened. The border wall would tear up the sacred lands of the Carrizo/Comecrudo, a local Native American Tribe that has joined the suit. Ancestors of the Carrizo/Comecrudo (Esto’k Gna) Nation have inhabited the Rio Grande for centuries or more, living, trading, and worshiping up and down the river. Tribal members have descendants in another nearby historical cemetery imperiled by the wall.
“These are our ancestral homelands,” says Dr. Christopher Basaldú, a scholar and member of the Carrizo/Comecrudo. “It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when and where they are going to encounter Native American remains.”
Uncertainty about the government’s plans has deepened concerns here. Already, the lawsuit has helped get information for the clients.
In response to the suit, Customs and Border Protection officials said that while there are indeed plans to build a wall near the chapel and two cemeteries, the wall “will not be located through either cemetery.” CBP claims they’ve decreased the wall’s proposed enforcement area so there won’t be a need to acquire and move any burial grounds. “The project will not prohibit anyone from visiting the cemeteries,” the agency claims.
Earthjustice attorney Sarah Burt notes that to avoid disturbing these sites, the wall will need to be built further to the north, trapping the chapel and cemeteries in a mile of no man’s land stretching between the wall and the Rio Grande.
She says that while CBP is saying the project won’t prohibit visitation, it will almost certainly inhibit it. Other areas stranded between the wall and the border have locked gates. If that were to be replicated here, the Ramirez family would have to find a border guard willing to open a gate in order to access the places where their ancestors rest.
Expanding the border wall may cause irreversible damage to wildlife, experts and environmentalists say, since it severs landscapes, creating roadblocks in the migration paths of endangered butterflies, wolves, bighorn sheep, ocelots, and other critters. The wall would also impede the natural flow of waterways.
In places like Laredo, Texas, the border wall would cut through the city and hinder the flow of the Rio Grande, in part because the river depends on runoff from land and vegetation now in the crosshairs, says Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, another client on the case. The Rio Grande is this region’s lifeblood, providing water for more than 6 million people and 2 million acres of land.
“We are talking about creating a wall that is going to cut through ecological assets … nature trails, parks, low-income and middle-income neighborhoods, and just this rich river vega — the floodplain that lines our entire city,” says Cortez as she holds back tears.
“We stand so proudly with other plaintiffs and with Earthjustice, that has the guts to speak up for us, and to speak up for our community, and to speak up for this river that can’t speak for itself,” she says.
The full list of plaintiffs also includes border landowner Elsa Hull, GreenLatinos, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and the California Wilderness Coalition.
Earthjustice’s lawsuit argues that the president has overstepped his constitutional powers by trampling on Congress’ power to decide how our tax dollars are spent. In February, Trump declared a national emergency at the border. This false narrative is a cynical ploy to divert emergency funds for the wall after Mexico and Congress both refused to pay.
His attempt to build the wall using money appropriated for other things — when Congress has explicitly said “no” — is illegal, says Burt, lead attorney for Earthjustice on the case.
“President Trump’s abuse of emergency powers is a blatant power grab,” she says. “It is illegal, it goes against our basic form of government, and harms those who live, work, and worship along the border.”
Earthjustice’s litigation is now making its way through the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has already begun awarding contracts for some construction in the Rio Grande Valley.
The area is being watched by members of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe. They have camped out on the Eli Jackson Cemetery grounds since January 12 to protect the site from future construction. More than a dozen tents make up the encampment that its inhabitants call Yalui, named for the Carrizo/Comecrudo word for the native butterflies that live and migrate in the vicinity.
A neighbor provides Yalui’s residents with water to wash, and they have electricity from a solar generator — when it works. They nonetheless struggle to get ice and drinking water to endure the sweltering days and firewood to withstand the cool dry evenings.
But on a starry night in April, Yalui residents are in good spirits as they eat curry with sweet potatoes cooked directly on the campfire, their faces lit by phone screens. They spend dinners divvying up watch duties — they often see suspicious cars nearby — or planning trips to town to get supplies, charge their phones, and use the internet.
“It’s family style, so jump in. Don’t be shy,” says one camper named Doug.
Meanwhile, a Border Patrol helicopter flies nearby, guarding a border that just a few centuries ago used to be native land.
“For us, there is no border,” says Juan Mancias, chairman of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe. “The narrative has got to change.”