Exemption negotiations begin today in Congress for border wall carve outs

The Border Wall

South Texas congressman hopes to get Laredo orphanage exempt from wall

LAREDO, Texas (Border Report) — Negotiations in Congress began today among members of the House Appropriations Committee for exemptions to fiscal 2021 border wall funding along the Southwest border, which one South Texas congressman hopes to expand to include a Laredo orphanage.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas — vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security and the only Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee from the Southwest border — told Border Report that as lawmakers return from the July Fourth holiday break today “the work really begins” as they start to discuss funding priorities — as well as where not to appropriate money — for the next fiscal budget.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas (Courtesy Photo)

Cuellar said he wants to maintain current exemptions from any border wall funds, as well as add exemptions to the fiscal 2021 budget. Currently, Congress has prohibited the Trump Administration from using funds to build a border wall at: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, La Lomita Chapel, the National Butterfly Center and the SpaceX Texas Launch Facility, which are all within South Texas. Funds also may not be used for border wall construction on “historic cemeteries” — a provision that Cuellar had added during 2020.

In the 2021 fiscal budget, Cuellar said he hopes to expand the historic cemeteries clause to include other historical places, as well.

“The language I’m trying to add will be ‘designated areas,’ and I don’t know how the language will come out,” Cuellar told Border Report recently. “Anything within those areas they’ve been good, DHS follow that, the key word is ‘within’ the Butterfly Center or the chapel. They follow that to the T. They don’t touch anything within.”

In addition, Cuellar said a key border wall exemption he wants to get in 2021 is for the decades-old Sacred Heart Children’s Home, an orphanage in Webb County, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection plan to extend the Trump Administration’s border wall.

“This year I’m looking to add language to protect the Sacred Heart Children’s Home in Laredo, Texas, from a border wall. Having the Trump Administration go against orphans is not a good picture, in my opinion, so I want to make sure we protect them,” Cuellar told Border Report recently.

The Sacred Heart Children’s Home is located about 20 miles southeast of Laredo, Texas, in Webb County. The orphanage sits on 61 acres overlooking the Rio Grande across from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Photos above are from May 2020 by Sandra Sanchez for Border Report.

The Sacred Heart orphanage sits on 61 acres on the banks of the Rio Grande across from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and has existed in this current location southeast of the city of Laredo in Webb County since 1965. Children are housed in dormitories throughout the sprawling complex with plenty of outdoor exercise equipment and lands to hike upon. The facility is built back from a major highway and several buildings are spaced throughout the campus that is marked by a long driveway lined with palm trees.

In 2019, U.S. Customs and Border Protection presented the Catholic sisters who oversee the orphanage with right-of-entry papers to grant the federal government access to the property for up to 18 months to survey and take soil and water samples for a border wall infrastructure system to be built on the back end of the property.

A 30-foot-tall metal bollard wall would block the home’s view from the Rio Grande. It also would affect the facility’s access to the Rio Grande water, which the orphanage pumps and uses. The sisters told the Laredo Morning Times last year that they would not be able to afford to pay city water utility rates if their water from the Rio Grande was restricted.

Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Studies Center, is seen on Dec. 7, 2019, during a river sit-in in Laredo, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Studies Center, a Laredo-based nonprofit that studies the Rio Grande, said that this summer the sisters signed the right of entry papers after months of requests by federal officials.

“Under extreme pressure they did sign,” Cortez said.

Cortez has helped to assemble a group of Webb County landowners to help fight the border wall. Her organization in December organized a river sit-in on the banks of the Rio Grande in Laredo, which drew hundreds of supporters. In January, she led a protest march through the streets of downtown Laredo on Martin Luther King Junior Day that drew hundreds of people from across the country.

Border Report has reached out to the sisters but were told they did not do publicity.

Cuellar and U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, also from South Texas, also have filed legislation to designate the Los Caminos del Rio region as a National Heritage Area, which Cuellar said he hopes to be able to add to future border wall exemptions.

Cuellar said negotiations among Appropriation Committee subcommittee members will take place over the next two weeks and then among the entire committee. He said if Trump is re-elected president then the FY2021 budget should go to Congress for a vote in December. If Joe Biden is elected, however, he said that tradition dictates that the new president be allowed a few months to take office prior to receiving a budget bill, which could be sent to him in March of April.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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