The Trump administration has broken ground on the construction of an 18-foot steel and concrete border wall next to the oldest Protestant church in South Texas and two historic cemeteries, which are part of an important yet little-known chapter in the history of slavery and the Underground Railroad.
Congress exempted the Eli Jackson Cemetery and the Jackson Ranch Church and Cemetery from border wall construction in the 2020 appropriations bill, but the administration has chosen to go ahead with building the wall there anyway, skirting congressional intent and “not following the spirit of the law,” according to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who authored the language protecting the sites.
The church and cemeteries are part of a ranching settlement founded in 1857 by Nathaniel Jackson, a white plantation owner, and Matilda Hicks, a former slave, along with the couple’s adult children, their relatives, and 11 freed slaves. The Jacksons provided refuge to escaped slaves in the small town of Pharr, near McAllen, Texas, and helped ferry them across the river to freedom in Mexico, where slavery had been abolished.
For the past three years, Sylvia Ramírez, a Jackson family descendant, and her brother Dr. Ramiro Ramírez, as well as relatives of other families buried in the two cemeteries, have been lobbying members of Congress to save the sites, which are registered with the Texas Historical Commission. In March 2019, the Ramírez family joined with other border residents and advocates in a lawsuit against the administration to stop wall construction from disturbing or destroying the cemeteries.
“We filed the lawsuit, and then we got the good news about the exemption,” said Ramírez. “And we were hoping that that meant the property would not be touched.”
Still, Ramírez said that she and others kept a close eye on the cemeteries and church, watching for any signs of construction starting in the area. “We’ve been observant and vigilant,” she said. “Because the government doesn’t tell us anything.”
Their worst fears came true when a family member noticed heavy machinery staged near the cemeteries.
In the last two weeks, she said, their worst fears came true, when a family member noticed heavy machinery staged near the cemeteries and large swaths of land nearby that had been bulldozed and cleared. Alarmed, Ramírez asked their lawyer, Sarah Burt, an attorney for Earthjustice, to contact the government.
Burt said she received an email reply on Monday, August 17, from the Justice Department saying that construction would begin “in the next two weeks.”
The Justice Department wrote that the wall wouldn’t pass through either cemetery, Burt said, but would be built on a levee that abuts the two cemeteries and on land being acquired from private owners. According to the email, the government had “nearly completed the land acquisition process.”
Despite these assurances, Burt said the government has not shared a finalized plan or spoken to the Ramírez family and other landowners about how the wall will impact the cemeteries, the church, and several homes nearby. Of greatest concern is a 150-foot enforcement zone that runs alongside the wall, which consists of an all-weather road, light towers, cameras, and other technology. The Eli Jackson Cemetery backs up against the levee, while the Jackson Ranch Church and Cemetery is about 100 feet away.
Sylvia Ramírez said she reached out to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection liaison about the enforcement zone and he told her that the government was considering a reduced enforcement zone in the area of the cemeteries. But Ramírez said she hasn’t seen anything official. And she’s worried about the digging and heavy machinery around old burial sites, many of which, due to their age, have no headstone or marker. “It’s horrifying to think of,” she said. “And for whatever reason, they’re just not willing to share information with us.” CBP did not respond to requests for comment from The Intercept.
On Tuesday, before a campaign rally in Yuma, Arizona, Trump received an update on the border wall. Flanked by the Army Corps of Engineers and CBP, he touted his construction of nearly 300 miles along the southern border. “You know, you don’t hear about the wall anymore because we won,” Trump said. “When you win — if you’re us — you never hear about it again. And we have page after page of achievement that you never hear of anymore.”
At the event, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite of the Army Corps of Engineers claimed the administration was currently building at a pace of “over 10 miles a week; over 2 miles a day.”
After Congress passed a bipartisan agreement for $1.375 billion to fund 55 miles of new wall in February 2019, Trump declared a national emergency, requiring the Department of Defense to reallocate $6.1 billion in funds to the wall’s construction, and the Treasury Forfeiture Fund to provide up to $600 million.
“Three hundred … are already in right now, basically,” said Semonite during the event in Yuma. “There’s another 300 that are being built right now in every — all along places across these four states. Forty-nine different projects are all going in the ground. And then the last 133 are in design and acquisition. We’re writing the contracts; we’re designing it.”
Trump is in a hurry, Cuellar said, because with the exception of 5 miles, all of the wall Trump has built has either replaced or reinforced border fences constructed under Bush and Obama.
With the election looming, the Trump administration has escalated its construction timeline, Cuellar said, in many cases granting lucrative contracts to construction companies without having rights to the land on which the wall will be built, and abusing the Real ID Act to waive environmental assessments and other federal requirements to speed up construction.
“I’m the vice chair of Homeland Security Appropriations and I have requested the contracts many times and never seen them.”
“They’re trying to meet the president’s goals of building new miles,” Cuellar said. “And trying to obligate the next administration by entering into these contracts now. You can see what they’re doing. In my hometown of Laredo, they don’t own the land. They haven’t condemned the land, but they have already awarded the contracts.”
Because of a binational treaty with Mexico that prevents building any type of structure in the Rio Grande floodplain that would push floodwaters into either country, much of Trump’s new construction can only happen north of the Rio Grande levee, which is up to a mile from the actual river in Texas. This means that the wall’s construction not only directly impacts homes and businesses, but also nature preserves and important cultural and heritage sites like the Eli Jackson Cemetery and the Jackson Ranch Church and Cemetery.
In January 2019, during the longest government shutdown in U.S. history spurred by Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to build the border wall, Cuellar was appointed to help negotiate a bipartisan solution. Cuellar, who is vice chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said he fought to exempt five important environmental and historical sites in the path of the wall, including La Lomita, a 19th-century Catholic chapel, and the Rio Grande Valley-Bentsen State Park. “Literally, the last thing that got negotiated on that agreement was my language,” he said. “I was getting calls from the chief of staff at the White House and from the secretary of homeland security saying, ‘Hey, you’re holding up the process.’”
There was a lot of pressure to let the exemptions go, he said, even from some Democrats, who did not represent border communities. “I said no, we gotta have this language to protect these areas.”
In the next appropriations bill, Cuellar said, he added “historic cemeteries” to the list. He wanted the exemption language to apply to “within one mile” of the exempted sites, but he could not get Republicans to agree to it. “That would have solved a lot of our problems today,” he said.
What the Trump administration is doing now, Cuellar said, is technically following the letter of the law, “but not the spirit of my intent.” They are not building “within” but “next to and around the sites,” he said, which are “sensitive and controversial” for border communities. “Don’t build it a foot away, you know, even though you’re abiding by the law. I call it poking the bear in the eye.”
With the Real ID Act waivers, lack of notification to landowners, and secret contracts, Cuellar said, it’s difficult for anyone — even himself — to understand what’s happening with the current border wall construction. “I’m the vice chair of Homeland Security Appropriations and I have requested the contracts many times and never seen them,” he said.
Sylvia Ramírez said she and her family members are examining their legal options to stop the construction. Even if the wall doesn’t touch the cemeteries, they will still be on the south side of the barrier and cut off from the rest of the United States, where flooding could be exacerbated by the construction. They have not been told how they will be able to access the church and cemeteries after the wall is completed. “We’re not happy that we’re on the south side of it,” she said. “It’s not acceptable to me, and it never will be.”
Correction: August 28, 2020
This article has been updated to clarify that Trump declared a national emergency to fund the border wall after signing a bipartisan spending bill in 2019; he did not veto the bill, as originally stated.