Santa Ana and NBC
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A group of teachers work on an exercise on butterfly migration during an educator camp Wednesday July 19, 2017 at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo. A proposed border wall could pass though the refuge along a levee that exists just south of the visitors center. Federal officials also confirmed that federal contractors began gathering soil samples as part of preliminary border wall construction at and near the National Butterfly Center in Mission.

Nathan Lambrecht |

Members of Congress are preparing for a vote this week that could add $1.6 billion for border security construction. Meanwhile, federal contractors began gathering soil samples as part of preliminary border wall construction at and near the National Butterfly Center in Mission.

The package of security appropriations bills would include funding for border wall construction.

U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., on Monday called out Republicans for adding the border security element to a “minibus” bill that includes funding for the Defense Department and other agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Once again House Republicans have decided to employ a very deceptive legislative gimmick in order to avoid a 'clean' up or down vote on funding for the border wall,” Gallego said Monday during a conference call. “The reason they’re doing it is because they know it is deeply unpopular, especially in border communities.”

Gallego said the vote would put a lot of members of Congress in a tough position.

“They don’t want to vote on the border wall, but at the same time they want to make sure our troops get fed, clothed and paid,” Gallego said.

He said the only way to strip the border-funding element would be to vote no on defense — something he doesn’t think is feasible.

U.S. and Customs and Border Protection officials said last week that preliminary work had commenced at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge, considered the “jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System,” featuring some of the most diverse ecosystems in North America with more than 400 bird species and more than 450 plant species — has been designated as a priority location for border wall construction by the government.

In a closed-door meeting last week, CBP officials met with several local city leaders and administrators to provide an update on current preliminary construction activity in the Valley.

Damage to the region’s prestigious lands and species is of major concern to several local advocates.

Scott Nicol, who serves on the executive committee for the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club and as co-chair for the Sierra Club’s National Borderlands Campaign, which studies the environmental impact of border walls in the U.S., said that in addition to the work in the Santa Ana refuge he received reports from officials at the National Butterfly Center in Mission that work crews were on site last week working on what appeared to be a patrol road next to the center.

CBP spokesman Roderick Kise declined comment but referred questions related to the butterfly center to officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Public Affairs Specialist Jim Frisinger confirmed some preliminary preparation had started at the butterfly center.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ contractor has not performed any clearing or tree removals in the vicinity of the subject location,” Frisinger said in an emailed statement.

Frisinger said crews placed markings on the ground “as targets” to be visible from an airplane to do mapping.

“The contractor also placed wooden stakes with flagging at proposed boring locations prior to July 21," Frisinger said. “Boring locations are typically located at ramps crossing the levee. Since July 21, the contractor collected two soil samples from the levee, but at a different location, farther from the Butterfly Center.”

Nicol said this border wall construction does tremendous environmental damage in the area.

“They’ve fragmented endangered species’ habitats and damaged dams. They’ve torn through wildlife refuges, through wilderness areas, and through national monuments,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, both co-chairs of the Border Caucus, last Friday expressed opposition to the FY18 Department of Homeland security bill which funds construction of the border wall.

“Making American taxpayers pay $1.6 billion for a portion of the wall is asinine,” said Vela, Ranking Member of the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee. “I understand Republicans want to give President Trump one win due to his failed six months in office, but this is just irresponsible. The border wall will rip our community apart, stomp on landowners’ rights, and on the wildlife of the Rio Grande Valley, including the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.”