We were on vacation. We went to the National Butterfly Center on the Mexican border near Mission last week to see butterflies. It was coincidence my wife and I were there with friends the same day President Donald Trump declared his border wall emergency. But what a coincidence.
I don’t want to diminish the laid-back beauty of the center itself, a little corner of paradise for birdwatchers and butterfly heads. But on the day we were there, it was all too clear that this small bit of land on the border with Mexico also is the tip of the spear in a frightening political war, some of which seems to be waging somewhat outside public consciousness.
The National Butterfly Center, an operation of the North American Butterfly Association headquartered in Morristown, New Jersey, occupies 100 acres right on the Rio Grande about 70 miles inland from the Gulf Coast. A levee about a quarter mile from the river separates the lower 70 acres of the Butterfly Center’s land from the portion where the visitor center is located.
The federal government, acting on White House orders, intends to build its Mexican border wall on top of the levee, cutting off the lower 70 acres of the Butterfly Center’s land from the upper portion. Few of us might have known the specific details about the location of the wall on the levee, but everybody has known for some time that President Trump is determined to build a wall somewhere along the full reach of the border.
What I didn’t get from the news coverage, however, was the degree to which the government is already here. It’s here en masse, in fact, champing at the bit, lining up the earth-moving machines, racing through the Butterfly Center’s land on motorcycles, in trucks and helicopters, pushing, pushing, pushing, impatient to explode across this and other private land with a barrier that will effectively seize the land from private owners.
Our hosts, Thom and Jane Marshall, retired newspaper people, bushwhacked us in over the levee in their own big truck so Thom and I could say we fished in the Rio Grande. We found a small floating dock with a sign that said in English and Spanish, “Fish at Your own Risk.” Thom asked, “Whose risk were we fishing at before?”
While we were getting skunked (fisherese for not catching anything), we were buzzed by two border patrol agents standing up on dirt bikes, their faces hidden behind black Darth Vader masks with little cylindrical antennae on top of their helmets. A black helicopter dipped near. Mariana, my wife, thought she saw a drone above us.
On the way out, Thom pulled off a narrow dirt lane to make way for an approaching car. The driver, a woman, stopped and rolled down her window to ask us if we were having a good visit. Mariana asked the woman if she was Marianna, which threw me off for a moment. She was, indeed, Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the center. My wife, Mariana one-n, a retired reporter, immediately started grilling Marianna two-n's, the director, about the North American Butterfly Association’s federal lawsuit to stop the wall. Only when the director spoke did I begin to really grasp the sense of war footing around me.
I wasn’t taking notes, so I can’t quote her. Her voice was compressed and urgent. The trucks and heavy equipment for the wall were already barging across the center’s private land without permission, she said. The government has even put up no-trespass signs barring the center’s staff from its own property. Treviño-Wright and reporters have been detained on the center’s own land by federal law enforcement. Some of this we knew already from news reports.
She also told us things about the law that I certainly did not know and even found hard to believe. When I got back to Dallas, I looked up the lawsuit. I realized she had been telling us things about law, liberty and property that we, perhaps like most Americans, had never dreamed were possible.
Long before Trump’s emergency declaration, well before a congressional appropriations bill people thought would protect the center, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen issued an edict waiving all laws standing in the way of “expeditious construction” of the wall. Acting under a 1996 law called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Nielsen had specifically waived the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act for the entire border area, laws under which the North American Butterfly Association had been suing to protect the center. A federal judge threw out the center’s suit, saying Nielsen’s fiat had cut the legs from under it.
There was a brief respite a few days before we visited the center, when Democratic Congressman Henry Cuellar, whose district extends from San Antonio to the border, succeeded in getting language inserted into the so-called compromise border wall appropriations bill singling out the center and a handful of other sites for protection. But all of that went up in smoke the day Trump issued his emergency declaration — the day we were there.
The White House was quick to tell reporters that Cuellar’s protections only apply to the $1.375 billion appropriated by Congress. Trump has access to roughly another $6.5 billion through the emergency declaration, and that money, the White House said, can be used to build a wall wherever the president wants to build a wall.
One of my oldest friends, Alex Shoumatoff, is an author and naturalist who has written extensively about butterflies over many years. In 2006 he wrote a profile of Camille Parmesan, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom. Parmesan studies the effect of climate change on insect populations. When Shoumatoff saw on Facebook that I was at the butterfly center, he called me up to make sure I understood why butterflies are important. I didn’t, really. Mariana one-n probably did.
Parmesan, Shoumatoff told me, has written extensively about a particular butterfly, Edith’s checkerspot, dying out in Mexico where its historical range has grown too hot and dry but flourishing much farther up into northern North America than it was ever found before. The checkerspot’s range is a sensitive indicator for exactly where and how much the climate is changing.
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So there is that — the scientific importance of the butterfly center’s work as a key observation post. A national government that believed in climate change and understood the topography of the border would have begun long ago studying and proposing special measures to protect the center, not cripple it.
But I felt something even more immediate and threatening in the air when I was there. Seeing those government signs posted, the trucks, the helicopters, the anxious intrusiveness even before an order to begin has been given, all of it made me realize that this enormous abridgment of the rule of law doesn’t just go to one guy sitting 1,500 miles away in the White House. He’s the president. He is only symbolic of the enormous army of loyal troops — literally the Army, now — impatient to be unleashed so they can carry out his word. His power flows to them. All he does is sit at a desk. Those people at the controls of the diesel earth-movers are the ones who get to put a blade to it, and a lot of them can’t wait.
How many of us even understand how deeply the abridgment of law runs? I have to admit, when Treviño-Wright started telling my wife how the secretary of Homeland Security had waived the National Environmental Protection Act, my first thought was, “OK, wait a minute, that simply cannot be.” I had to get home and read the judge’s decision. I didn’t realize, until I saw it at the point of the spear, that this wasn’t just money. The White House was boasting — boasting — that it could ram a wall through anywhere it wanted, that it had the power to defy Congress, to flout it even on very pointed and specific issues like protecting the butterfly center.
Do we even know what’s going on in this country? Do we see it? Do we hear it? Will we understand what’s coming at us before it rolls over us? Once they get good and going, those big diesel tractors move fast. They’re like tanks.