AP NEWS

Landowners make outcry: Congressman faces concerns from residents fighting for property rights

March 24, 2019

MISSION — What was scheduled to be a brief media availability session with a local congressman and members of the media on Friday turned contentious as local landowners and those against the wall voiced their discontent with his record on voting for border walls in the area.

Standing in front of the historic La Lomita chapel, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who was flanked by Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, attempted to engage with border wall protestors and landowners from both Hidalgo and Starr counties who said they felt ignored by the congressman in the latest negotiations on border security in the region.

Father Roy Snipes of the Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Mission also attended the brief event.

Cuellar, who made time to speak with the media Friday, stopped at the historic chapel as part of visits to four Rio Grande Valley locations: Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the National Butterfly Center and Santa Ana National Refuge. These habitats, all located in Hidalgo County, are temporarily protected by a spending bill related to border security.

But the congressman was met with some criticism as members of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club also attempted to hold Cuellar accountable for playing “both sides.”

In a Sierra Club news release, they chastised the congressman for seemingly wanting a “pat on the back” for “saving” the chapel from border wall construction that he himself voted to fund in 2018.

“ Levee-border walls and the ‘enforcement zone’ would have obliterated La Lomita chapel, and they will inflict the same damage upon private lands and wildlife refuges,” the release stated. “In 2018 and 2019, Rep. Cuellar voted to give President Trump nearly $3 billion to build border walls, including mile after mile that will tear through his own district.”

Despite Cuellar’s efforts to save these areas, the anti-wall group stressed that local residents and landowners will still be severely impacted by wall construction expected in Hidalgo and Starr counties.

“ Rey Anzaldua and Fred Cavazos, who are Rep. Cuellar’s constituents, face the condemnation of land that has been in their family since the 1760s. Nayda Alvarez, another of Rep. Cuellar’s constituents, could lose the home where she raises her children,” the release stated. “Cuellar should fight for all of the people and communities who sent him to Washington. He needs to stop voting to give Trump billions for border walls, and fight to rescind the funding for the walls that threaten Nayda, Rey and Fred.”

Cuellar last month secured the inclusion of language that would retroactively prohibit construction on these habitats, and others.

The chapel, which was founded by Oblate Missionaries in the mid to late 1800s, is the mother church to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mission. It stands just yards away from the banks of the Rio Grande, and is also where thousands of Our Lady of Guadalupe parishioners have made pilgrimages to every Palm Sunday for generations.

The congressman was part of the bipartisan negotiations to strike a spending bill deal to avoid another government shutdown in February, which ultimately helped prohibit the inclusion of some of the Valley’s most environmentally sensitive locations.

The language states “none of the funds made available by this act or prior acts are available for the construction of pedestrian fencing within” these areas; the historic chapel included.

Congress approved in March 2018’s omnibus bill $1.6 billion for wall construction covering 25 miles in Hidalgo County and 8 miles in Starr County. The aforementioned language in the bill appears to indicate that the funding cannot be used at these environmentally sensitive locations.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane dismissed a lawsuit between the government and the Catholic Diocese, which owns the La Lomita land. This suit was related to the government’s request to access the La Lomita property for the purposes for surveying.

However, since the spending bill was approved with language that stipulates that physical barriers cannot be erected at La Lomita, the government did not oppose the suit’s dismissal.

Attorney John A. Smith III, who represented the government in the suit, told the court the government may sue in the future for the purposes of surveying for construction of a patrol road at La Lomita, which would help U.S. Border Patrol agents navigate areas where there would be no wall.

Still, the president has since declared a national emergency that may undo the language Cuellar secured during the spending bill’s negotiation, leaving the protected areas under a cloud of uncertainty as the validity of Trump’s emergency is decided in courts.

Though some protected locations could potentially be saved, new fencing in the Valley sector could mean continued construction on private property owned by residents of Hidalgo and Starr counties, who are already facing the loss and destruction of their land.

Cavazos, a 69-year-old Mission resident, shared his concerns with The Monitor last October that his property along the Rio Grande, and that of other landowners across both counties, will not be spared from border wall construction.

He and members of his family were on hand at the event and had hoped to speak with the congressman, but Cavazos said he felt like he wasn’t heard.

Anzaldua, Cavazos’ cousin, and their attorneys were in court in February for a status hearing related to a November 2018 lawsuit filed by the government against Cavazos for access to more than 27 acres of land near the river. A status hearing is scheduled for May, where they will be updated on any future government plans.

“ We talked to the U.S. attorney, Border Patrol agents, and some engineers — more or less they were telling us how much land they were going to take…” Anzaldua said. “‘We might be able to work with you on the buildings and the barns,’ and this sort of thing. But the assistant U.S. attorney was pretty adamant we will lose the land, and he says: ‘There’s very little you can do. What you can do is negotiate on the price.’ Basically, that’s what he told us.”

Scott Nicol of the Sierra Club believed the brief visit by the congressman was disingenuous and not meant to actually address his constituents’ concerns.

“ It was a complete brush off,” Nicol said. “When he was coming up to the chapel, he shook people’s hands and gave three-word brush offs, I think this was just a photo-op for him. He wanted a pat on the back for ‘saving’ the chapel, but at the end of the day he threw Nyda and Rey and Fred, and hundreds of other landowners, under the bus.”

Nicol said the congressman should be just as concerned with saving the private property of locals as with La Lomita and environmentally sensitive places.

lzazueta@themonitor.com