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The Reality At The Border: Butterflies And The Border Wall

Queen butterflies at the National Butterfly Center on Nov. 18, 2018, in Mission, Texas.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
Queen butterflies at the National Butterfly Center on Nov. 18, 2018, in Mission, Texas.

The future of the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, has been uncertain ever since President Trump took office.

The 100-acre butterfly refuge, which is home to more than 200 species of butterflies, birds and native border vegetation, is in the path of a proposed border wall in the Rio Grande Valley.

Last month, Congress voted to protect the Butterfly Center along with other natural and historical areas also in the path of that proposed wall, but some local leaders worry Trump’s emergency declaration will override those protections.

Marianna Treviño-Wright, the Center’s executive director, said she used to spend her time planning educational activities for visitors from around the country and for students visiting on school field trips. But now, she spends most of her time plotting next steps in the Butterfly Center’s fight against a border wall.

“We filed suit against the federal government in December of 2017 because the government sent contractors here in July of 2017,” she said.

Treviño-Wright said the lawsuit hasn’t gone anywhere.

“Meanwhile, funding was appropriated, laws were waived, construction contracts were awarded. And on Super Bowl Sunday, the heavy equipment began rolling in,” she said. “They are currently destroying the habitat, clearing the federal land west of us.”

She filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction in February.

“Why would we wait for our suit to be heard sometime after the border wall is built?” she wondered.

President Trump’s proposed wall would potentially cut through the Center’s property, leaving about 70% of the refuge on the other side of the barrier.

“All terrestrial life trapped between the river and the wall will be condemned to death in the event of a flood,” said Treviño-Wright. “All of the animals that rely on the diurnal rhythms, night and day, sun up and sun down, to regulate their rhythms, will be disrupted by the all-night bright lighting; that includes plants.”

Treviño-Wright said she felt a brief sense of relief when she heard Congress was considering protections for the Butterfly Center.

Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director at the National Butterfly Center.
Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas
Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director at the National Butterfly Center.

“We had a sense of hope that we’d be spared from the border wall by the language in the 2019 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill,” Treviño-Wright said.

But that hope was short-lived.

“It prohibited 2018 and 2019 funds from being used for this, but not 2020 funds,” she said. “It wasn’t a permanent or perpetual exemption.”

Treviño-Wright is concerned that any money President Trump gets through his declaration of a national emergency could be used to override the 2019 protections.

Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar’s district includes the Butterfly Center. He said it was tough for him to secure those protections.

“This was literally the last thing that got added to the bill. The way the White House and some of my Republican colleagues were saying, ‘Oh, Congressman Henry Cuellar is trying to tie the president’s hands, he’s putting in all these restrictions,’” he said.

Cuellar said promising full immunity to Trump’s border wall is not a reality because Trump is so obsessed with ensuring it’s built.

“If they want a 100% guarantee, nobody is going to give them a 100% guarantee,” he said.  “Absolutely not.”

Cuellar has faced protests from local constituents for even working on a wall compromise in the funding bill, and he promises to continue fighting to protect those areas.

"The appropriation is good for one year, but every year I intend to put this language in and try to make it stronger," he said.

Back at the National Butterfly Center, Treviño-Wright said she’s already seen an increase in local, state and federal law enforcement in the area in recent months.

“We used to joke that we lived in the DMZ of the United States, but it’s no longer a demilitarized zone,” she said. “It is a fully militarized zone.”

Luciano Guerra, outreach coordinator at the Butterfly Center, stood in a field of grass at the Butterfly Center’s wetland areas, where birds and other small animals often stop by.

Luciano Guerra, outreach coordinator at the National Butterfly Center.
Credit Verónica G. Cárdenas
Luciano Guerra, outreach coordinator at the National Butterfly Center.

A helicopter zoomed overhead.

“Every day we have helicopters flying over us. It does disrupt some of the peacefulness of what we’re trying to have here [in order] for people to enjoy nature,” he said.

Guerra has lived in the Valley his entire life and is a Republican. He said he never thought Trump would deliver on his promise of a border wall, nor did he foresee the wall cutting through a place he loves so much.

“I also figured that once he got into office he would find out that the Republicans, that Congress and the Senate would not let him do all these crazy things he wanted to do,” Guerra said.

Guerra voted for Trump, but regrets it. He said he’s now made it his mission to combat the construction in any way he can, for the sake of his kids and grandkids.

“I want to be able, at least, to say I did what I could to fight the border wall, to fight Trump on this,” he said. “Whether we win or not, I know I’m doing what I can.”

Sixteen states, including California, New York and New Mexico, challenged Trump's emergency declaration. The Butterfly Center said they might file a lawsuit of their own.

For now, places like the National Butterfly Center remain in limbo. And Guerra said he feared the day when people here will say, “Remember the Valley before the wall, and look at it now.”

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Reynaldo Leanos Jr. covers immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border for Texas Public Radio.