HOUSTON – The U.S. government said Monday that it won't build President Donald Trump's border wall on the site of a historic cemetery that might have required the exhumation of graves.
In a statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it would "avoid" the Eli Jackson Cemetery in South Texas' Rio Grande Valley while "still meeting Border Patrol's operational requirements for border wall."
"It has never been CBP's intent to disturb or relocate cemeteries that may lie within planned barrier alignment," the agency said. "Understanding the historical and cultural resources that may lie within planned barrier alignment has always been part of CBP's public and stakeholder outreach process."
CBP issued the statement in response to an Associated Press story about the cemetery, one of two 19th century burial sites established by the sons of Nathaniel Jackson, who settled along the Rio Grande in 1857, nine years after the river became the U.S.-Mexico border following the Mexican American War.
Congress has already funded construction in much of the Rio Grande Valley, where the government says it needs additional barriers to stop human and drug smuggling. Due to flooding concerns and land rights, much of the wall in the region would be built well north of the river and still leave area for people crossing illegally to reach the United States.
Jackson's descendants have sued the government and led a campaign to stop construction at the sites.
"It's a very good day for us as it relates to the Eli Jackson cemetery," said Sylvia Ramirez, one of Jackson's descendants who has helped lead her family's opposition to the wall.
Ramirez has previously met with Border Patrol agents who she said indicated they would take her family's concerns into account, but never directly promised that the wall wouldn't be built on the cemetery.
But Ramirez added that CBP's statement "doesn't answer all our questions by any means." She said she wanted to know if the family's other burial site, the Jackson Ranch cemetery, would also be protected. She was also concerned CBP might still seek to build a wall nearby, which could still cause flooding or environmental damage.
"There are less destructive ways for the government to meet its security goals," she said.