While the battle over President Trump's $5.7 billion for border security grinds on, construction on a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border is already underway in Mission, Texas, home to the National Butterfly Center.
On Feb. 3, the organization reported on Facebook that heavy equipment and "law enforcement units" entered the property. A Mission police department officer informed the organization's staff that they would not have access to the land south of the intended wall levee effective Feb. 4 — even though the center owns the land. Per the National Butterfly Center's post, the officer said, "It is all government land" as of Monday.
The National Butterfly Center attracts thousands of visitors a year. (Photo: runarut/Flickr)
The wall construction has been on the horizon for some time now. Approval for the wall was granted early October 2018 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could waive 28 federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act, to begin construction on 33 miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley.
Construction was projected to begin this month, and the federal government seems to be losing little time. The budget for this portion of construction was approved by Congress in March 2018 in a large omnibus bill. The money was specifically to be used for fencing and levees, not anything related to the wall that President Trump described in his campaign speeches. Mary Papenfuss writing for HuffPost pointed out that the finished product in Mission — 18-foot steel bollards that sit atop an 18-foot concrete wall — would look very much like a version of the wall Trump has tweeted.
The area will be cut clean of most vegetation, lest it provide a way for anyone to hide from law enforcement. Plans seen by those who work at the center have said the wall will include the aforementioned concrete and steel along with cameras, sensors, lighting and Border Patrol traffic all along a 150-foot-long paved enforcement zone.
To offset the loss of habitat — and to bring awareness to what the wall will mean for wildlife and humans — the group has started a GoFundMe and are close to reaching their goal of $100,000.
The section of the wall will cut through the 100-acre National Butterfly Center, putting 70 percent of those acres on the southern side of the wall. The center, opened in 2003 by the North American Butterfly Association, has a visitor center and plenty of hiking trails that allow visitors to experience the Rio Grande Valley wilderness, including more than 200 different butterfly species that migrate through the area during the year.
Little recourse for seizure of private property
The wall creates multilayered problems for the center. It will section off areas for wildlife, preventing species like the Texas horned lizard and the Texas tortoise from crossing to breed and forage. Flooding could increase on both sides of the wall, with flood lighting potentially disrupting nocturnal species.
But it's the loss of land that frustrates the center the most.
"It's not really about the butterflies. The birds and the butterflies can fly over the wall," Marianna Trevino-Wright, executive director of the center, told NPR in December. "The issue is the seizure of private property. The issue is the violation of due process. Those are the real issues."
The federal government has exercised eminent domain laws to acquire the private land for public use plenty in the past. Previous administrations have used it to seize land to construct fencing along borderlands. In addition to the land owned by the center and other private owners, this barrier section will also cut through public land, including the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. For private property owners, eminent domain claims leave them with little legal recourse and no compensation.
The center has filed lawsuits to stop construction of the wall and even requested a restraining order this month. Trevino-Wright asked the court to prevent the government from bringing more machinery onto their property until the lawsuits are settled, reports NPR. Additional lawsuits filed by the Center for Biological Diversity challenge the waivers granted by the Supreme Court. These cases are still working their way through the federal court system.
And so, there are protests. Led by members of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe, protesters marched three miles on Feb. 4, according to The Monitor, a newspaper covering the news in Starr and Hidalgo counties. Members of the tribe speaking to The Monitor said the short march was intended to "call national attention to human rights violations and the possible desecration of local refuge sites, indigenous burial grounds and private property."
Legislators in the region have denounced steps taken by the Trump administration to build a wall. A Republican lawmaker, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd from Helotes, has warned that land from more than 1,000 property owners could be seized as barriers are constructed. "There's a thing in Texas we care about called private property rights," Hurd told Rolling Stone.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, introduced a border security proposal that would prevent construction on environmentally-sensitive areas, including the butterfly center. The Monitor reported on his presence at a media event on Monday, in which he said, "Unfortunately, funding for these locations were packaged with a number of other critical needs including immigration judge teams, law enforcement canines, unmanned aerial systems, fixed and mobile video surveillance systems, ground sensors and more. Our main task now, and moving forward, is to remove funding for a border wall appropriated in prior years and focus on prohibiting funding in the future."
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in February 2019.