Butterflies or a Wall?

Terry Schwadron
5 min readFeb 7, 2019


Terry H. Schwadron

Feb. 7, 2019

Even as the partisan debate hurtles toward a finish in Washington this week, the federal government is preparing to begin construction of more wall or fencing in South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, interestingly on federally owned land set aside as wildlife refuge property. The government is using some of the more than $600 million approved last March for barriers along 33 miles.

The Associated Press filed a report from the border that heavy construction equipment is expected on Monday, said the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said. A photo posted by the nonprofit National Butterfly Center shows an excavator parked next to its property.

Last March, Congress called it fencing; Customs and Border Protection calls what it plans to build a “border wall system.” According to designs it released in September, Customs wants to build 25 miles of concrete walls to the height of the existing flood-control levee in Hidalgo County next to the Rio Grande, the river that forms the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. On top of the concrete walls, will go 18-foot steel posts with a 150-foot enforcement zone in front.

Maps released by Customs show construction would cut through the butterfly center, a nearby state park, and a century-old Catholic chapel next to the river, and environmentalists said the route is expected to wind through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge — a conglomeration of dozens of parcels of land purchased by the same federal government over 40 years to create a corridor for endangered species. Hmmm.

Bulldozers versus butterflies; want to give odds on this one? Wall construction versus wimpy environmentalists?

Now, other private landowners have said that they will fight any attempt by the government to seize their property for a Wall. In any event, the court fights will take time amid the current “emergency” for which the president wants unlimited presidential powers to overrule.

A decision by Homeland Security to waive any relevant environmental rules for the county is pending in court. Several environmental groups say the Wall construction will endanger ocelots, rare birds and other wildlife that rely on refuge land for habitat. In its decision last March, Congress required that CBP not to build in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge after a public outcry but was silent about exempt the Lower Rio Grande Valley refuge.

The National Butterfly Center released the text of an email from the U.S. Department of Justice that construction will begin in mid-February “on federally owned land east of Bentsen State Park,” near or on the Buttery center.

However it turns out, the tale shows that even in this construction matter, the real need in this Wall debate is for actual fact, not wishful thinking.

In the case of the Wall, the idea was that 17 congressional conference committee members might actually go back to looking at the actual needs on the border, sector by sector to devise a plan that meets not campaign promises but actual issues. In that regard, Trump could ber promoting “bipartisanship” in a way that was based on matching actual solutions to actual problems.

The officials in El Paso, for example, noted that the president was wrong in describing that city as a high-crime zone until a border wall was created there, nor was it crime-free later. Recent visitors to El Paso noted that people on both sides of the border pass across almost freely all the time. Hmmm again.

Actually, some news reports from the conference committee suggest that there actually is progress towards a compromise exactly because they are looking at the problem sector by sector. Hurrah.

The Washington Post noted in an editorial last week that one major problem in the government calculus is that Homeland Security has never really come up with standards of evaluation for what works on the border.

In the eight years until 2015, the federal government spent $2.3 billion building an array of fencing along more than 500 miles of the southwestern border. Yet when the Government Accountability Office issued a comprehensive report last year on border security, it noted that Customs and Border Protection could not assess the efficacy of those barriers, having developed no metrics to do so. When Customs and Border Commissioner Kevin McAleenan submitted 18 pages of testimony to Congress on border security last spring he devoted just a few paragraphs to what he called “physical barriers.” He said they had “enhanced” the agency’s overall capability in securing the border, but offered no evidence.

So, when Trump insists on spending $5.7 billion on more than 200 miles of additional, more-imposing barriers — his “beautiful” wall — to block illegal border crossers, drive down crime and impede drug trafficking, you wonder if this is based on gut or data.

Logic suggests that barriers are just one element in impeding the cross-border flow of undocumented migrants, drugs and crime, price notwithstanding. Building hundreds of miles of walls will take years given the likely legal challenges by private landowners who own most of the border-facing property that doesn’t already have fencing, especially in Texas. By contrast, a surge in hiring additional Border Patrol agents could happen more quickly, as well as adding more immigration judges, coming up with a way to deal with families more humanely.

The existing border fencing is in places that make sense as a deterrent to illegal crossings in high-traffic areas. Often, however, it has proved permeable; Customs and Border Protection recorded about 9,300 breaches between fiscal years 2010 and 2015 — roughly three or four daily — with repair costs averaging nearly $800 per breach. That is one reason the agency has for years put a premium on electronic and other means of surveillance along the border — the “smart wall” that features cameras, sensors, drones and, at legal ports of entry, where most illicit narcotics cross the border, advanced X-ray technology that can detect contraband hidden inside trucks and smaller vehicles.

As Homeland Security analysts noted in a 2017 report, the key to achieving “operation control” along the border, whereby authorities are aware of most illegal activity at the frontier, is a combination of what security experts call “domain awareness” and intelligence — not a barrier the height of a three-story house.

Just saying: Make America Factual Again.





Terry Schwadron

Journalist, musician, community volunteer