An excavator confirmed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to be for border wall construction sits on La Parida Banco National Wildlife Refuge land.
An excavator confirmed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to be for border wall construction sits on La Parida Banco National Wildlife Refuge land. Credit: Courtesy / National Butterfly Center

MISSION –  At the 100-acre National Butterfly Center just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, local schoolchildren and tourists stopped to watch and snap photos of the exotic birds and colorful butterflies that flock to the native flowers and trees on the property.

But this sanctuary is no longer just a hotspot for wildlife. It’s also become an epicenter in the national debate over President Donald Trump’s border wall. Not long from now, a wall meant to deter drug smugglers and border crossers could cut off the southern 70 acres of mostly pristine forest along the Rio Grande.

The center’s staff and supporters say the wall is not only harmful to wildlife but completely unnecessary.

“In the four years that I’ve worked here, we’ve had an estimated 24,000 schoolchildren go through here on school trips,” said Luciano Guerra, who does education and outreach for the center. “We have never once had those children exposed to any kind of illegal activity here.”

The conflict over the border wall heated up last week, with contractors staging heavy equipment west of the butterfly center and marking out a line approximately halfway up the levee meant to hold back flooding on the Rio Grande.

Besides the butterfly center, other properties targeted for construction include a more than 150-year-old chapel and a family cemetery maintained by descendants of a mixed-race couple fleeing slavery in Alabama in the 1800s. One descendant, Sylvia Ramirez, said she’s worried a road will be built over the bodies of her ancestors, whose graves lie near the levee where the wall would be built.

A truck rolls on the levee road past La Lomita chapel.
A truck rolls by on the levee road past La Lomita chapel. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Some of the early signs of construction were subtle. Halfway up the levee near the butterfly center, a series of pink flags marked where construction could soon begin. But the excavator parked on La Parida Banco National Wildlife Refuge land west of Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park will ultimately be used for wall construction, said a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP.

Construction on part of the wall is scheduled to begin in mid- to late February, said the spokesman, who asked for anonymity because he’s not authorized to comment on the wall.

For Guerra, 62, who has lived in the Rio Grande Valley city of Mission his whole life, time playing outdoors as a child inspired a lifelong love of nature. With 70 of the sanctuary’s 100 acres trapped behind the wall, he wonders where the children who visit the preserve will go. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park just down the road also will have most of its land south of the wall.

“Kids nowadays spend all their time indoors,” Guerra said. “They’re not exposed to nature. One of my favorite sayings is people protect what they love. … But people aren’t going to love something unless they have a connection to it.”

The ‘Appearance’ of Due Process

The soon-to-be-built version of what President Donald Trump calls a “big beautiful wall” isn’t a wall in the way most people would think of it, and it’s not right on the Mexican border. In Texas, the border between the two countries lies along the middle of the Rio Grande, the only large source of fresh water in the region.

Instead, contractors will build the wall along the International Boundary and Water Commission levee built to hold back floods on the Rio Grande. A total of 15.4 miles of the levee in Hidalgo County is slated for wall construction, according to an October notice by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.

Plans for the levee wall include a concrete barrier built to the height of the levee, topped with 18-foot steel posts. Behind the wall would be a 150-foot “enforcement zone” with “detection technology, lighting, video surveillance, and an all-weather patrol road,” according to CBP.

In October and November, CBP awarded two contracts totaling $312 million to build a combined 14 miles of levee wall to Galveston-based SLSCo Ltd. CBP also has issued a notice for another 3 miles of levee wall to be built in the area.

Congress funded these recent contracts as part of $1.57 billion approved in the 2018 fiscal year for border barriers. This earlier funding is separate from the $5.7 billion in additional wall funding sought this year by Trump, which led to the longest shutdown in government history.

At least since 2018, federal attorneys have been seeking yearlong access to land in Hidalgo County to survey for the wall, court records indicate. That includes land surrounding the 154-year-old La Lomita chapel, an important site for Catholic missionaries in the late 1800s.

The Diocese of Brownsville, which owns the chapel grounds, has refused to sign right of entry agreements giving surveyors access to the land, court records indicate. On Wednesday, a federal judge granted surveyors access.

The butterfly center has been fighting the government in court since 2017. Early last week, the center’s director, Marianna Trevino Wright, spoke to land appraisers working for CBP.

“Mostly we just answered their questions” related to the value of the land, Trevino Wright said in a Tuesday phone interview. Asked whether center staff expects to get due process in the government’s plans to seize land for the wall, she said, “That certainly is the appearance they want to promote.”

Of the entire 1,991-mile border with Mexico, a third, or 654 miles, has some form of fencing, according to a fact sheet by the office of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo). The 273 miles in the Rio Grande Valley sector includes 55 miles of primary fencing.

CBP officials say the new levee wall will be a “persistent impediment to transnational criminal organizations” in the Rio Grande Valley sector. In the last full fiscal year, officials claim that Border Patrol apprehended more than 137,000 “illegal aliens” and seized roughly 260,000 pounds of marijuana and 1,192 pounds of cocaine in the Rio Grande Valley sector alone.

A YouTube video produced by the Border Patrol claims to trace a shift in illegal entry and arrests – from San Diego to El Paso, then to Tuscon, Arizona – with the deployment of barriers, manpower, and technology sector-by-sector.

YouTube video

After the wall is finished, CBP officials have said, property owners north of the wall would be able to access property on the south side via gates.

‘We’ll Grow Up to Be Jerks’

On a visit to the area last week, most of the daytime traffic along the levee road consisted of Border Patrol and tourists riding bicycles, walking, or driving, some carrying large lenses for wildlife photography.

“Here the invaders are!” joked Lorri Burnett, an organizer with Defenders of Wildlife on a tour of the butterfly center and nearby roads. She was pointing at a tourist with a camera, who had been asking about the wall at the center’s offices.

“We’re being invaded by old, white birders,” Burnett continued.

Defenders of Wildlife organizer Lorri Burnett points out a gate she says has been recently closed on the levee road near the National Butterfly Center.
Defenders of Wildlife organizer Lorri Burnett points out a gate she says has been recently closed on the levee road near the National Butterfly Center. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

As part of her organizing, Burnett has been collecting letters from children who visit the center to give to legislators in Washington. In one letter, a 10-year-old girl wondered what would happen to a tortoise named Spike who lives on the center’s grounds.

“He teaches children to respect the environment,” she wrote. “Without him, children won’t learn to love the environment, and we’ll grow up to be jerks. Please do the right thing. I love my home – the Rio Grande Valley.”

For the butterfly center’s staff, volunteers organizing against the wall, and many who support the network of wildlife refuges along the Rio Grande, the wall is a looming ecological disaster.

The lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the most biologically diverse regions in North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some species, such as the endangered ocelot, occur nowhere else in the U.S.

But since the 1930s, 95 percent of the wildlife habitat in the area has been lost to farming, ranching, and commercial development, according to the Service. To help preserve what remains, national, state, and private preserves have been set aside to protect land meant to provide a corridor for animals to move along the river.

That includes the butterfly center, a former onion field purchased by the North American Butterfly Association that opened in 2002.

There, the wall would cut off the movement of threatened land animals like the Texas tortoise, Texas horned lizard, and Texas indigo snake, which cannot escape from rising floodwaters, Guerra said. Many low-flying species of birds and butterflies risk being trapped on the north side, away from fresh water or potential mates, he said.

That’s not to mention wildlife affected by the wall construction and the plant removal CBP officials say they will conduct along the wall.

“For some wildlife, they’re going to have a quick death, the ones that are run over by the machinery, whose homes and shelter are destroyed,” Guerra said. “For other wildlife, it’s going to be a slow death, like the ones who don’t have access to the river and won’t have water, especially during the hot summer days we have here.”

A white peacock butterfly lands on a flower at the National Butterfly Center
A white peacock butterfly lands on a flower at the National Butterfly Center. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

In October, Nielsen announced she was waiving 29 different environmental and other laws for the construction of the wall in Hidalgo County, citing a threat to national security. The laws include the Endangered Species Act and other laws meant to protect archeological sites and Native American graves.

“There is presently an acute and immediate need to construct physical barriers and roads in the vicinity of the border of the United States in order to prevent unlawful entries,” the Federal Register post states.

The Desecration of History

About 13 miles southeast of the butterfly center lies a cemetery and chapel just south of the levee. It’s where Sylvia Ramirez and her brother Ramiro both have their headstones already placed near the grave of their father, who died in 1981.

Ramirez, a retired educational psychology professor who lives about 30 minutes away, is among the descendants of Nathaniel Jackson. Jackson, a white landowner, and his wife, Matilda Hicks, an African-American woman born into slavery, moved to the area in the 1850s, seeking a place where their mixed-race family would be safe.

North of the Rio Grande, they founded the Jackson Ranch, a site that would later be used as a waypoint on the Underground Railroad for former slaves seeking freedom in Mexico.

Ramirez said she grew up visiting the site frequently and remembers having Easter Sunday picnics there with family. Her relatives had a “strong family connection, not only to each other but to the cemetery and to this land,” she said in a recent phone interview.

“They instilled that in us,” she continued. “My father had as strong of feelings as anyone that I had ever known … that’s passed on to me. So that love and family connection to each other, and it gets connected then to the cemetery.”

The Jackson cemetery where activists have set up a camp to organize against the border wall.
The Jackson cemetery, where activists have set up a camp to organize against the border wall Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

In August, Ramirez spoke to a CBP official who she said told her there was nothing she or her relatives could to do stop the wall. Ramirez said that’s the last that she, her relatives, or their attorney have heard from CBP.

“The only impact we could provide was about entry, about the gate, what would be convenient for us,” Ramirez said. “It was such a limited input that we could provide, it just felt like it was a dead-end road.”

In the following months, Ramirez said she and her brother were contacted by Juan Mancias, chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, an indigenous group that has not been recognized by the federal government but whose language has been documented by historians and linguists.

In January, tribe members and volunteers, some veterans of the indigenous-led 2016-17 movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in North Dakota, arrived at the cemetery. They’ve been clearing out the brush that choked many of the old graves and last week organized a march to the butterfly center.

“If walls were natural, they would have grown by themselves, but they don’t,” said Christopher Basaldú, a Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe member camping at the cemetery. “There is no border crisis. It’s a manufactured crisis through propaganda.”

Basaldú, a former professor at the University of Oklahoma who grew up in Brownsville and Corpus Christi, called the wall “a colonial idea, an imperialist idea.”

“It doesn’t reflect how the indigenous people lived and walked on this earth prior to colonization,” he said. “The wall is simply a symbol of hatred, and people who are powerful enough to ruin other people’s lives want the wall for their own egos or their own misperceptions of this land.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.