The National Butterfly Center — a nature preserve in Mission, Texas, just north of the Rio Grande — has been threatened for years by the potential construction of a border wall and even far-right QAnon extremists who falsely claim it’s a hub for human trafficking. In that time, the sanctuary’s director, Marianna Wright, has developed a tough stance against those who try to intimidate or harass her staff.
Now Wright has gone viral again, this time for challenging Texas Department of Public Safety troopers who entered the property along with U.S. Border Patrol agents on Thursday, supposedly because migrants were reported crossing in the area. “They are told that as long as they are ‘assisting Border Patrol’ the 4th Amendment doesn’t apply,” the center tweeted, noting that this is not true. (While the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, federal border authorities enjoy an exception to the law and generally don’t require warrants or probable cause within their areas of operation. State law enforcement does not have the same powers.)
Wright tells Rolling Stone that Thursday morning, the center’s grounds manager alerted her that officers were “swarming” the property. She grabbed her phone to start recording them. The officers claimed they were looking for migrants. Agents subjected two middle-aged Latino men working at the center to inspection by canine. A Border Patrol helicopter circled low overhead.
“It’s always bullshit,” Wright says of the USBP’s reasons for showing up at the center. “So they’re like, ‘Oh, a group just crossed.’ And we’re like, ‘Really? It’s 11 a.m. We’ve been open for three hours, we’ve encountered no one. Why are you just here now?’” But, Wright says, while some of her co-workers assumed the entire group was with Border Patrol, she realized that a few of the men had Texas DPS patches — while still “wearing camo and tactical greens, so that the average citizen” would assume they were USBP agents.
As she approached, one of these men had “already gotten off the property because he knows he has no lawful authority to be there,” Wright says. The next officer she spoke to rode away in a truck driven by a Border Patrol agent. According to Wright, both claimed that while they did not themselves have the authority to be there, they were allowed to enter private property without a warrant while “working with Border Patrol.” A third trooper, seen in the photo the National Butterfly Center shared on Twitter, reportedly made similar excuses. “And I’m walking him off the property. And he continues saying the same things,” Wright says, while she had “staff at the center standing at the visitors’ pavilion, photographing and recording all of this to me to make sure they didn’t arrest or shoot me or whatever, because they’re gonna claim they felt threatened by the unarmed butterfly lady with her phone.”
In email correspondence Wright shared with Rolling Stone, Victor Escalon, DPS Regional Director for South Texas, asserted that his troopers’ actions were covered by a federal statute authorizing state and local officers to assist and cooperate with Border Patrol. But in another email, attorneys at Debevoise & Plimpton, the law firm representing the National Butterfly Center in its ongoing lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to prevent the building of a border wall through the preserve, disputed his interpretation of this code. The Texas DPS did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone.
Wright sees these visits — a routine headache for the center — as the habit of agencies looking to expand their authority while increasing their budgets. She cites their “for-profit partners,” including Fox News, who are helpful in “garnering assets that can be used to continue to promulgate the narrative that gets them billions of dollars in funding and new law enforcement powers.” Earlier this year, she says, DPS and USBP brought a Fox cameraman into the butterfly sanctuary.
Wright also claims that safety concerns about this region of the borderland are exaggerated. “Last month, again, for the eighth time in ten years, we had our sold-out Girl Scout sleepover under the stars at the butterfly center, where little girls and their mommies camp out on the border,” she says. “No incidents.”
Currently making its way through the Texas legislature is House Bill 7, which Republicans are touting as part of a sweeping effort at immigration reform. The bill would create a state border police force and make it a state crime for migrants to cross into the U.S. anywhere besides a port of entry, significantly increasing Texas’ ability to police its border — a role long maintained by the federal agents of U.S. Border Patrol. By Wright’s account, state cops are already acting as if they have this leeway. “And it’s going to continue to harm civil rights,” she warns. “Not only here, but everywhere, as Border Patrol and DHS grow and grow and grow into the national Gestapo.”
In a statement shared with Rolling Stone, Texas State Rep. Vikki Goodwin, a Democrat, expresses her own apprehensions about where the state is headed on immigration, specifically mentioning the latest disturbance at the National Butterfly Center. “I am concerned that the laws that the legislature is attempting to pass will lead to more entry onto private property against the owners’ wishes,” Goodwin writes. “I am concerned it will lead to harassment of U.S. citizens who live in border communities lawfully.”
“I’m okay. For now. They may eventually make me disappear,” Wright says. She adds, however: “We can’t live in fear. That’s what they all want. Being courageous is an act of resistance.”