MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — The controversial Florida-based nonprofit advocacy organization, We Build the Wall, boasted on social media Thursday that it has begun clearing riverfront land on the banks of the Rio Grande in Mission, Texas, to build a 3.5-mile border barrier on private property.
This is believed to be the first private wall construction in South Texas by this organization, which earlier this year built a section of wall near El Paso in Sunland Park, New Mexico.
The owner of the 6,000-acre riverfront property, Lance Neuhaus, confirmed to Border Report on Thursday that he has given the tax-exempt organization We Build the Wall permission to be on his property.
“Everything is great. Everything is fine,” Neuhaus told Border Report via phone.
When asked if a reporter could come out and interview him and see the construction, however, Neuhaus declined.
To view the land clearing, Border Report took a boat river tour of the Rio Grande captained by a local Catholic priest.
Acres of chopped carrizo cane and sugar cane were visible from the international waters. Large swaths of muddy clearing could be seen behind a row of cane, and heavy earth-moving equipment could be seen from the banks of the river south of the town of Mission, Texas.
A massive staging area a couple miles inland also was visible from a public road, where the heavy trucks and equipment were being brought in. However, officials working the construction site declined to comment.
Serious questions remain as to whether it is legal to embark in major construction activity so close to the river’s edge. And whether the organization received proper permitting to do so?
The International Boundary and Water Commission, which oversees application of international water treaty laws between the United States and Mexico, said late Thursday it did not have enough information on the organization to comment.
“The U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission has not received sufficient information from We Build the Wall to make any determinations about their proposed wall construction in the Lower Rio Grande Valley,” Sally Spener, U.S. Secretary wrote in an email to Border Report.
Scott Nicol, with the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Campaign, said it is violation of international treaty laws to construct on the river’s banks, even on private property.
“Anything that might deflect flood water into Mexico — like a border wall on the riverbank — is a treaty violation,” Nicol said regarding the 1944 U.S./Mexico Water Treaty.
Marianna Trevino-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center, which is located just a couple miles upriver from the land clearing, reiterated that any kind of major construction on the Rio Grande violates international treaty laws that forbid building on the river, which is in a flood plain.
“The IBWC is not going to do anything because they all serve at the pleasure of President Trump so if hey fight this then they lose their jobs,” Trevino-Wright said.
Trevino-Wright — a vocal wall opponent whose National Butterfly Center has been exempted by Congress from border wall funding after much public outcry — said building on her neighbor’s property will erode the riverbank. And she claims it is “illegal building.”
She said that the Treaty of Nov. 23, 1970, stipulates rules for maintaining the integrity of the Rio Grande. That includes only collapsible chain-link fences exactly on the water’s edge, as well as structures that can be dismantled within 24 hours in case of storms.
“Clearly they’re going to build on the banks of the river but it will end up in the river when we have another tropical storm,” Trevino-Wright said as she viewed the land-clearing in a boat driven by Father Roy Snipes on Thursday.
As she took a 45-minute river tour, Trevino-Wright was on the phone with various offices of members of Congress, lawyers for the ACLU and the Sierra Club and major media outlets trying to tell anyone who would listen what was happening in South Texas.
In September, Trevino-Wright was awarded the Spirit of Defenders Award for Conservation Advocacy by the nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife.
“As the nation is engulfed watching the impeachment hearings in Washington, D.C., they are secretly and quietly and illegally building this border wall on the banks of the Rio Grande here,” Trevino-Wright said.
‘A sacred place’
Snipes, of Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission, Texas, called the muddy swath of cut cane “an abomination.”
As he steered his little motorboat around bends in the river, Snipes pointed to kingfisher birds, great blue herron and osprey. His three dogs, Wiglet, Charlotte and Bendido, lounged lazily on the boat, which he said was “their favorite thing to do.”
“This sure is a special place. This is a sacred place. This should be respected and honored,” Snipes said. “I’m not an immigration specialist but I know we have got to treat people the same way we want to be treated.”
Snipes said the water table in this area is “very low” he said that when his pet donkey died and they tried to bury it, they couldn’t because they kept hitting water.
As his old motorboat — passed down from another priest who died — rode past Neuhaus’ property, Father Snipes shook his head and said: “If he grew up loving this land then he should know better than to build a wall here.”
The controversial 501c4 organization We Build the Wall is run by Brian Kolfage, a triple amputee and Air Force veteran, who according to the Facebook livestream on Thursday, was in the Rio Grande Valley to witness the land-clearing and wall building himself.
On May 31, Kolfage held a ribbon cutting for a segment of border wall that his organization built on the grounds of a private brick company in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Despite local authorities efforts to try and halt the construction, this section of wall was built.
Most of the money for the construction come from online donations that We Build the Wall solicit. Then after they have completed the construction they turn over the built wall product to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for a nominal fee, say of $1.
According to social media, the new segment of the border wall that the organization boasts is ready to build, is called the “In-river wall.” How high it will be is uncertain.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.