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The Far-Right Insists That Even Butterflies Recognize Borders

Environmental Policy Brief #136 | By: Todd J. Broadman | February 21, 2022

Header photo taken from: The Week

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O'odham, supporters reaffirm religious practices in border ceremony

Photo taken from: AZ Central

Policy Summary

The politics of immigration along the border between Texas and Mexico now involves the National Butterfly Center (NBC). The NBC is a 100-acre nature preserve located in Mission, Texas. Since 1993, the NBC has served as a protected migratory refuge for the monarch, the rare pale sicklewing, and over 80 other butterfly species. They host 35,000 visitors annually, most of them school age children doing field education and were forced to close their doors recently.

Far-right conspiracists and QAnon followers have concocted a false claim that the NBC has been a hub for human-trafficking and illegal migration, and spread those allegations over social media outlets. Their motivation for doing so stems from the NBC’s actions to halt the building of a section of the immigration border wall through their property. The building of that section began unannounced in the summer of 2017 with contractors onsite cutting down trees. Even the US Border Patrol was uninformed of the construction. Armed federal agents are now onsite to protect the contractors.

One of President Joe Biden’s first actions after taking office was to issue an executive order to immediately stop border wall construction. 458 miles of border wall had already been built prior to Biden’s order. The wall consists mostly of 18- to 30-foot steel bollards anchored in concrete. With a federal mandate to stop construction, the state of Texas approved funding and carried on with extending the border wall.

Along with the NBC, the Children’s Museum of Denver and other non-profit public institutions across the country have had to close their doors because of safety concerns directed at staff and visitors that emanate from confrontational conspiracists.

The NBC filed a number of lawsuits, the first in December of 2017 claiming that the government violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. The government also had not exercised eminent domain. The US Border Patrol does have the legal authority to “patrol” without a warrant, but not necessarily to build. In Arizona there has been active opposition from the native O’odham tribe as that section of wall passes through their ancestral sacred lands at Quitobaquito Springs.

The We Build the Wall organization is also tightly aligned: it is led by Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon and founder Brian Kolfage. The organization used social media to spread the word that the NBC is run by “left wing thugs with a sham butterfly agenda” along with the “rampant sex trade” taking place on their property.

NBC Executive Director, Marianna Treviño-Wright, has been vocal in her defense of Butterfly Center’s mission and has been met with death threats. Along with her condemnation and lawsuits directed at the far-right, she points out that Democrats “are asleep at the wheel.” In late January, Virginia Republican congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe showed up at the Butterfly Center demanding to see “illegals crossing on rafts” and ended up allegedly pushing Treviño Wright to the ground. Scott Nicol, a McAllen-based environmental activist, said “Biden won’t build these border walls, but if Texas Governor  Abbott wants to build them, we will give him free bollards.” He was referencing a government surplus purchase program used by Texas to buy 1700 unused wall panels.

Policy Analysis

While the NBC received a temporary reprieve in 2019 when the site was exempted from wall construction in a Department of Homeland Security spending bill, there will be continued political pressure for construction to continue. In all of 2021, Customs and Border Protection agents encountered more than 2 million unauthorized people at the southern border, a record high.

Jared Holt, a resident fellow at Atlantic Council who follows digital extremism points to a trend: “This conspiratorial wing has gained so much sway that we’ll see more politicians catering directly to it, and that means we’re going to get more Marjorie Taylor Greenes.” Biden’s executive order was even challenged by Arizona Attorney General, Mark Brnovich, with an argument that stopping construction required the government to do an environmental impact study. He went onto argue that gaps in the border wall actually “enticed migrants.” The federal judge ruled against Brnovich and in his ruling concluded that one cannot “attribute the immediate increase in migration to cessation of construction activities, given the border wall would not have otherwise been completed overnight.”


Steve Bannon's Nonprofit Sued for Destroying Wild Butterflies' Habitat with Donald Trump's Border Wall

Photo taken from: Newsweek

(click or tap to enlargen)

The need for the butterfly refuge has inspired donors and activists. The North American Butterfly Association has acquired an additional 350 acres near to the current NBC acreage that will soon be developed as a refuge for the rare Manfreda Giant-Skipper. 

Meanwhile, Marianna Treviño-Wright is plaintiff in two separate lawsuits aiming to halt construction of the border wall and a defamation suit against Bannon’s We Build the Wall. (Bannon has raised over $20 million from far-right activists under the pretense of building a private border wall).

Immigration from south of the U.S. border, based on living conditions in the “Northern Triangle” of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, is only expected to increase and this in turn is making activists on both sides of the aisle more vocal. What is taking place at the NBC now, portends further, more intense confrontations at the border between opposing sides. The issue will prove pivotal on the 2024 election stage.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

https://nationalbutterflycenter.org/  is dedicated to the conservation and study of wild butterflies in their native habitats.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/ is committed to sharing trustworthy knowledge, enhancing our understanding of the world, and advancing social justice.

https://www.borderreport.com/ provides real-time delivery of the untold local stories about people living, working and migrating along the U.S. border with Mexico.

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