Border wall to cut off parishioners from church south of levee in Donna

3 years 1 month 2 weeks ago Wednesday, February 05 2020 Feb 5, 2020 February 05, 2020 10:16 PM February 05, 2020 in News - Local

DONNA – A church south of a levee near the border in Donna will be cut off from its parishioners by a wall. This comes after a federal judge awarded the government possession of the land in question. Advocates worry the decision infringes on religious freedom.

In December, CHANNEL 5 NEWS reported on this property located west of Donna's international bridge. The U.S. government wants to take six acres of land owned by as many as 88 people. The decision to build a wall will affect people who don't live there, too.

Yolanda Hernandez's keys jingle as she walks to open up the doors to the church.

"I'm a member of this church and my parents were part of the building to this church," she said.

Templo La Hermosa started holding church services in the 1930s and now meets once a week on Sundays.

"Normally, we have about 20. We have more members but they don't show up," admitted Hernandez.

The number will fluctuate on occasions like weddings, funerals and baptisms that can pack the building.  To get to the church, parishioners will drive down Valley View Road, go over the levee, take a left and then a right.

The government was requesting possession of this land where they intend to build a wall on the levee, in the middle of the path to church. Attorneys representing some landowners affected by the construction project are concerned about the effect on freedom of religious expression.

Ricky Garza, a staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said, "That is going to substantially burden your religion. That is going to impact your ability to practice because you won't be able to go to the church and choose the type of religious practice that suits your conscience."

Garza and Karla Vargas went before a judge Wednesday morning. They are representing the Brewster-Flores family who stands to lose property in the taking. The TCRP asked the judge not to hand over the land until this concern, among others, is resolved. Federal Judge Randy Crane decided to grant possession of the land to the government. "This is something that's going to deter people from going," Garza said.

To some extent, Hernandez agrees the wall will affect attendance. "Yes. Definitely," she answered without hesitation. Hernandez does not have legal representation, but she is talking with attorneys for the government. She said, "I talked to one of the attorneys, and they told me that they were going to make arrangements to leave the gate open on Sunday mornings." She also said they would open the gate for special events, too.

Texas Civil Rights Project attorneys said they would like to see those government accommodations in writing.

"You're going to – even if there's a gate – have to pass through what's essentially a big security checkpoint. You'll have to get a number from Border Patrol to pass through the gate. You'll be unsure if that gate is going to open or not. Whether if the power goes out if something is going to block that church from being accessed," said Garza.

For them, this case is reminiscent of another one related to the La Lomita Chapel. Garza summarized a decision that came in Feb. 2019.

Garza said, "They [lawmakers] put an exception into the appropriations that Congress passed the next year. And now there's something in the federal law that says border wall funds cannot be used specifically to build at La Lomita Chapel."

At Templo La Hermosa, members, including the pastor who drives from Mission, know about the changes they can expect.

"A lot of people might not come, because the excuse is ‘the gate is closed.’ So, it might affect some, and it might not affect others. People that really, really want to come to church will come to church," said Hernandez.

For her, a tradition with deep roots into her family tree, the decision is easy. She says she will continue going.

The Texas Civil Rights Project attorneys said they will continue litigating for their clients who own property affected by Wednesday's decision. They are concerned with just compensation and clarity on who exactly owns all the land.

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