Marianna Treviño-Wright can still recall her idyllic childhood days in the 1970s spent under the searing sun of the Rio Grande Valley as “a belly crawler” — a girl who actually did like spiders and snakes, digging through muck on her family’s ranch outside McAllen for prized creatures like the Texas indigo snake or the Texas horned lizard.
It explains some of her fury, some four decades later, as she fights President Trump’s scheme for a massive southern border wall that would not only dissect Texas’ National Butterfly Center — where Treviño-Wright is executive director — but would almost surely trap and drown score of those exotic and already endangered reptiles in the inevitable next flood of the mighty Rio Grande.
“Every time they eliminate habitat, or put down concrete, or rubber for their all-weather roads, or shine their bright construction lights all night, it’s going to have a huge impact on wildlife and the plant life,” said Treviño-Wright, who last year began seeing contractors’ excavation equipment show up on the 100-acre butterfly sanctuary, eager to fulfill Trump’s campaign pledge to build a border wall.
On a day when the U.S. House is upping the ante in the border wall fight with a historic vote to reject Trump’s “state of emergency” declaration to bypass Congress and spend $8 billion on the barrier, Treviño-Wright’s take-no-prisoners crusade to stop it is an important reminder that outrage along the Rio Grande runs even deeper than the fundamental questions over dollars or human rights.
Treviño-Wright and most of her neighbors in border towns like Mission, Texas — home to the National Butterfly Center since 2002 — are fighting to convince Americans up north that the wall isn’t just not healthy for the children who continue to be separated from their refugee parents, but for other living things.
In southernmost expanses of Texas, the border wall isn’t merely something to demagogue about on a talk radio show. It’s a threat to the way of life they’d always known — for the day workers who today cross the border with Mexico almost as casually as a Philadelphian might hop over City Line Avenue, for the cattle farmers under the threat of eminent domain, and for as many as 300 species of butterfly who thrive in the year-round warmth and leafy hackberry groves.
Indeed, while the butterfly-center boss speaks eloquently on the risk to endangered species from habitat loss and the floods that would be worsened by a barrier’s 18-foot concrete base, some of Treviño-Wright’s most incendiary language is reserved for the other disruptions the wall would bring to her beloved Lower Rio Grande Valley. In our phone conversation Monday, she doubted that Texas farmers and ranchers — a pro-property, conservative bunch — would stand for what she called Trump’s “bullshit myth about a brown boogieman.”
With the bulldozers literally at her doorstep, Treviño-Wright knows things about the wall that never get mentioned in the national debate — that property owners will get gates with private codes that could easily be learned and abused by smugglers or other “bad hombres,” even as the barrier will make it easier for Border Patrol to arrest and detain refugees, thus enriching private prison firms like Geo Group.
She’s even harsher on her blog, where — in a post headlined “'Molotov' moments with Marianna,” Treviño-Wright defends her passionate and at time incendiary tone and doesn’t mince words on how she believes America got here, that “[t]he white polo-wearing pricks carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville were not some strange one-off, but representative of a large part of the population who are murderous, destructive and hell bent on having their way.”
Welcome to the moment, America.
No one could have imagined this back in the 1990s when Jeffrey Glassberg, the founder of the North American Butterfly Association, started bring tours to the Lower Rio Grande Valley to catch glimpses of glorious creatures such as the monarch butterfly, the Mexican bluewing, and the red-bordered pixie, among the many species. It inspired Glassberg to work with business leaders around the town of Mission to carve out the former onion farm as a protected refuge in 2002.
But by then, the American homeland-security state created by the 9/11 attacks was starting to ratchet up tension on the border. Although Trump hasn’t kept his 2016 campaign promises to build a 2,000-mile border wall and get Mexico to pay for it, he did get Congress to authorize enough money in 2018 for preliminary work on 33 miles of wall in South Texas that would also cut through natural splendors like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. (A rarely discussed feature of the wall is that it would run one or two miles inland from the Rio Grande, the actual border.)
After the 2018 budget vote, Treviño-Wright was stunned to show up for work one July morning and find government surveyors planting stakes on the butterfly center’s property and work crews with chain saws and other heavy equipment poised to clear an 150-foot-wide swath of trees and brush. The butterfly center has been able to block that work while its subsequent lawsuit against the federal government wends its way through the courts, but since Trump renewed his wall push, bulldozers have sat poised on the edge of the land.
The National Butterfly Center won something of a victory when the 2019 budget bill just enacted by Congress included language that makes it clear that no money should be spent for wall at either the 100-acre site or the neighboring wildlife refuges. But it’s unclear whether Trump can switch those bulldozers back on with his unprecedented “emergency” power grab, assuming it survives the current brawl on Capitol Hill and a closely watched challenge in the courts. Or what happens in 2020. So Treviño-Wright fights on.
Indeed, the utter phoniness of Trump’s so-called “crisis” on the southern border is hammered home for Treviño-Wright every day when she watches school field trips or local Girl Scout troops frolicking in the green spaces that his government would rather bulldoze. “No parent in his or her right mind,” she told me, "would sign a permission slip to let elementary school kids chase butterflies on the banks of the Rio Grande if we were being “invaded.”
In the 25 months since Trump took office, I — and millions of others — have argued that the wall is the physical manifestation of a fundamentally immoral policy. The United States government is acting on the xenophobic fantasies of a delusional president and his whipped-up supporters by turning away or arresting hungry refugees fleeing violence in Central America, ripping children and toddlers from their parents, and squandering tax dollars that could be spent on things that Americans actually need.