The Biden administration pledged to halt wall construction. So why is the government still trying to seize land for it?
A federal judge is set to decide whether the government can seize a prominent birding preserve in southern Texas to allow for Donald Trump's long-promised border wall, months after President Joe Biden pledged to halt construction of the barrier.
The U.S. government filed a lawsuit in December against the Valley Land Fund Inc., which owns the Salineño Wildlife Preserve, to take the land as federal property, in order to construct the wall.
"The public purpose for which said property is taken is to construct, install, operate, and maintain roads, fencing, vehicle barriers, security lighting, cameras, sensors, and related structures designed to help secure the United States/Mexico border within the State of Texas," the lawsuit stated.
Thousands of visitors and bird watchers from all over the world visit the birding preserve each year to spot rare species. Experts say handing the land over to the government could result in damage to the local environment and hinder wildlife permanently.
As Jeffrey Gordon, president of the nonprofit American Birding Association, told Border Report on Wednesday, "One of the things that is so remarkable of that part of southern Texas it is kind of like a funnel, so you have Gulf Coast stuff and coastal stuff and desert all a phenomenon in this concentrated area, and the diversity of it is what makes the Rio Grande Valley so special."
For the moment, the court case in the Southern District of Texas in McAllen has been paused until Aug. 4. U.S. District Judge Randy Crane is expected to oversee the proceedings, according to the Border Report.
It's unclear why the current administration is still seizing land after President Joe Biden vowed to stop border wall construction. The administration had said previously they would try to postpone all court proceedings related to the matter.
But it appears that the administration recently stopped interfering to halt those cases, allowing the federal government to take the land regardless of Biden's pledges, according to the Washington Post.
The White House and the Department of Homeland Security did not answer the Post's requests for comment about the contrast between Biden's words and the administration's actions.
The disparity in messaging has left some anxious about the future of the Salineno Wildlife Preserve.
"Even though the Biden administration has said 'not another foot' there have been some condemnation proceedings occurring still," Victoria Guerra, a Texas lawyer and former Valley Land Fund board member, told Border Report. "That’s an indication that some condemnations are still occurring and some portions of the border wall are still being built and those things concern me."
During the Trump administration, the Valley Land Fund had initially agreed to sell the land but later rescinded its agreement after widespread public outcry from birders.
"Today, we believe the best outcome will be achieved by rescinding any and all agreements with US Government that we have regarding the Salineno Preserve and hold strong in the hopes that we will be able to preserve this land for future generations," the group said in a statement on Facebook in November.
That reversal prompted the ensuing December lawsuit from the government, which can't take possession of the land, Border Report noted, until a judge says so.
Debralee Garcia-Rodriguez, executive director of the Valley Land Fund, told KRGV 5 News at the time that the group, like many others fighting government lawsuits, had secured representation, free of charge, to help fight its case in court. "As of right now I can tell you that my budget did not include a legal defense fund," she said.
Environmental advocates have pushed back on the border wall for years, citing its detrimental impact on wildlife and tribal lands.
"This new construction has bulldozed a huge amount of desert habitat, blasted rugged mountains, destroyed cultural sites," Laiken Jordahl, a Borderlands Campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Audubon Society in late 2020, when the Trump administration was rushing to install or replace as much wall as possible before Biden took office.
He added, "It’s absolutely devastating."
The Audubon Society has also said that border barriers could continue to adversely affect the ecosystem, even after construction is halted.
"Fencing cuts off animals like ocelots and bighorn sheep from food and mates across the border. Ground-hugging birds like Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls, Greater Roadrunners, and Scaled Quail are unlikely to fly over the wall ... while floodlights may disorient migrating species and disrupt pollinators," the Audubon Society wrote.
The concept of a border wall itself is counterproductive, experts say, as the kind of drug smuggling Republicans have warned about while arguing for a barrier typically takes place at legal ports of entry and through elaborate tunnel systems. Videos have also shown that people are able to scale the barriers regardless of their height.
Ultimately, birders and environmental advocates who are fighting for the Salineño Wildlife Preserve hope the court eventually rules in their favor, in line with Biden's promise — allowing it to remain open and leaving the terrain and fauna untouched.
"The folks who live down there, they really have a front-row seat to an amazing spectacle throughout the year and Salineño is part of that ... we're in favor of anything that keeps that all going that's for sure," American Birding Association president Gordon told Border Report.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.