This story was originally published by The Guardian and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration

The Eli Jackson cemetery is the final resting place for Native Americans, war veterans, freed slaves and Christian abolitionists who shaped the cultural, spiritual and racial history of the Rio Grande Valley.

The historic graveyard is next door to the Jackson Ranch chapel, the oldest Protestant church still standing in the valley.

Both sites are only a mile or so from Mexico, on a long and dusty road flanked by sturdy mesquites. This is where, amid local protest and national condemnation, Donald Trump is pushing to start construction of a new border wall, with potentially disastrous consequences.

The wall will be built on top of a levee just north of the 145-year-old Methodist chapel and cemetery, placing them within the 150ft enforcement zone which the government has said it plans to raze. The church and cemetery, which are designated Texas Historical Markers, would be marooned between Trump’s wall and the actual border, just to the south along the Rio Grande.

In an effort to stop the wall, leaders of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe and activists live in a makeshift tent village within the shady cemetery. For almost a year, they have burned a sacred log fire, ringed by tribal flags.

The Eli Jackson cemetery, near Pharr, Texas, which is located a few yards from the levee where Trump’s border wall could be built. Photograph: Veronica G Cardenas/The Guardian

On Monday, the Washington DC district court will consider the government’s motion to dismiss a case brought by the tribe and six other plaintiffs, challenging the constitutionality of Trump’s executive orders which diverted billions of defense dollars to build a wall on the southern border by declaring a national emergency in February.

The plaintiffs say the wall would disturb unmarked native burial and sacred sites across the river delta where tribal clans lived, traded and buried their dead for centuries before colonization. The last stronghold of the Carrizo/Comecrudo nation – an original Texas tribe whose ancestors have inhabited the Rio Grande Valley for at least hundreds of years – was in Hidalgo county, where the cemeteries are situated.

“The border with Mexico divided our people and now, this new wall shows no regard for our ancestors, beliefs or culture which are tied to these lands,” Juan Mancias, 65, tribal chairman, told the Guardian at Yalui (Butterfly) Village campsite, which is monitored by border patrol agents who frequently drive past. “They’re trying to erase who we are, and that’s genocide.

“These Indian wars aren’t over, only the battlegrounds have changed. Now we’re in courtrooms,” he added.

Left: Butterfly gardens at the National Butterfly Center. Right: A Queen butterfly. Photographs by Verónica G. Cárdenas/The Guardian


The lawsuit alleges that a national emergency was fabricated “… to seize emergency powers in an attempt to accomplish a longstanding campaign promise – a ‘big beautiful wall’ – that Congress, since President Trump’s inauguration, has repeatedly and explicitly refused to fund”.

The government claims the constitutional challenge has no merit. The justice department declined to comment.

Juan Mancias, chairman of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas. Photograph: Veronica G Cardenas

Just last week, a federal court in Oakland, California, ruled in a similar lawsuit that the president acted unlawfully by using emergency powers to divert $3.6bn in military construction funds for the wall.

The damning ruling, which the government will appeal, will be considered by the judge in Washington when deciding whether to dismiss the Texas case, or let it proceed, and therefore force the administration to provide the plaintiffs with confidential documents pertaining to the massive project.

Details about the planned wall are sparse as the government suspended 28 laws mandating protections and oversight, relating to clean air and water, endangered species, public lands and the rights of American Indians, in order to expedite construction. The waiver includes the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Amid growing clamour about the plans, local CBP chiefs in Texas have said the cemeteries will be spared. But in the past few months, surveyors and other technicians have been observed working around the Eli Jackson cemetery, which is manned 24/7 by the tribe and their supporters camped out in the village.

The tribe has filed cease and desist orders to government agencies and private contractors, which stated: “We do not want any more division being caused, any more digging of our ancestors. We don’t own the land, the land owns us, that’s why we lay claim to it. It identifies us.”

Yet in what it considers the ultimate injustice, in the eyes of the US government, the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe does not even exist.

The first documented contact with Carrizo/Comecrudo clans by colonial explorers dates back to the early 1500s. In the 1840s, the tribe fought alongside Texans against Mexico, in an ill-fated attempt to establish the border a hundred or so miles south of the Rio Grande. The Comecrudean language remains alive only through traditional songs.

But for the government, which has used varying criteria and conditions to officially recognize 573 Indian nations, this is not enough.

“It can take a million dollars to hire consultants to find the physical documents for federal recognition, which, given the historical violence and displacement, is an almost impossible burden,” said Gussie Lord, tribal affairs lawyer, from the legal not-for-profit EarthJustice.

Without federal recognition, the tribe has no official land base and few legal protections, even before the wall and the waiver.

This matters little to Mancias, who says his people’s history and spiritual identity are rooted across the valley. That’s why he has participated in protests and lawsuits to stop environmentally destructive natural gas pipelines, oil production and fracking.

“The colonizers cut off our hands and feet, killed us, and took our land, and now the burden is on us to prove we are a tribe. It’s the constant connection with our land and ancestors that sustains and strengthens our identity and culture, not what the US federal government decides, and that’s what we’re struggling to save.”

The Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas Yalui Village as seen on 9 December 2019. Photograph: Veronica G Cardenas/The Guardian

No-go area

Eli Jackson, after whom the cemetery was named, was the eldest son of Nathaniel Jackson, a farmer and devout Protestant, and Matilda Hicks, an emancipated slave, who arrived in 1857 from Alabama as part of a caravan of mixed-race families escaping mounting hostilities against African Americans in the deep south as civil war edged closer.

The Jackson family established a ranch on the river bank, which became an important stop on the Underground Railroad – a network of secret routes and safehouses used to help enslaved Americans escape to the free north and Canada.

Nathaniel built a small house of worship on the ranch, which was replaced in 1874 by the existing Jackson Ranch chapel, built by another son, Martin Jackson. The deed is currently held by Martin’s great grandson, Dr Ramiro Ramirez, a plaintiff, who grew up attending the church and learning about the family history from his grandmother.

The enforcement zone around the wall would extend to the third row of pews in the chapel, which is still used for funerals. This could mean the chapel is marooned in the no-go patrol area – or bulldozed.

Privately funded border fencing being erected yards away from the Rio Grande on private land. Photograph: Veronica G Cardenas/The Guardian

“I grew up believing this would be where I am buried with my ancestors, and my children and grandchildren too. Now what will happen to us? It will be devastating,” said Ramirez, 72, unable to stop the tears as he pointed to his future tombstone.

Ramirez added: “I come here every week to be with my abuelos, and pray for a miracle, that the president shows a little compassion and understanding. I’ve lived next to the river my whole life, this is not a dangerous place, the wall is not needed.”

Ecological destruction

Environmentalists warn of potentially devastating consequences along the Rio Grande – a 1,900-mile long international river that divides the US and Mexico, providing drinking water to about 6 million people, and habitat for hundreds of diverse species of birds, mammals, fish and insects.

Another of the plaintiffs, Elsa Hull, 51, lives with her daughters on a three-acre lot a stone’s throw from the river, 140 miles north-west of Mission in Zacapa county. The planned wall would cut off their access to the river which they use for leisure activities like kayaking, stargazing and birdwatching, disrupt wildlife, create light pollution, exacerbate flooding and reduce the value of her property.

“The wall would affect every single aspect of our lives,” said Hull, an environmental protection officer.

“An entire river will be walled off, it will cause ecological destruction, disrupt communities and wildlife … this is a beautiful safe place, people have to stop buying into the hype and do something.”

Left: Jackson Ranch Chapel. Right: Ramiro R. Ramirez’s great grandmother’s gravestone is seen at the Jackson Ranch Chapel and Cemetery which could end up on the south side of Trump’s border. Photographs by Veronica G Cardenas/The Guardian

After months of campaigning by the plaintiffs, next year’s homeland security budget proposed in the House of Representatives includes a clause blocking the use of funds for border wall construction in several areas, including historic cemeteries and the nearby National Butterfly Centre, which is trying to stop a separate, privately funded three-and-a-half-mile barrier on the riverbank.

So far, the Senate version doesn’t include the cemeteries. The deadline to agree a compromise is 20 December. Regardless of the bill, if the wall is built on the levee as planned, it is unclear how the cemeteries could be spared from inclusion in the enforcement zone.

As the sun rose over the Yalui Village, Mancias was sleep-deprived and livid about the noisy industrial groundwater pump left running in a grassy plot over the road.

“They’re destroying everything native and natural,” he said. “We’re here to educate people, and stand our ground … we’re still here and not going anywhere, and have a right to speak out. This is our land.”

The levee where Trump’s border wall could be built. Photograph: Veronica G Cardenas/The Guardian

Keep reading