Butterflies, Border Walls, and Property Rights

The National Butterfly CenterTrump's border wall will be bad for people and bad for property rights. It will also be bad for butterflies.

On Monday the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) filed a lawsuit in D.C. District Court alleging a pattern of intrusion and harassment by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials preparing for the construction of a border wall.

Federal personnel and contractors, the lawsuit claims, have entered and cleared land on NABA's privately owned 100-acre Butterfly Center in southern Texas without the association's permission, in violation of several statutes as well as the Fifth Amendment to U.S. Constitution.

"They've cleared vegetation that we wanted there that we placed there for butterflies. They stopped our employees from going on our private property," says NABA President Jeff Glassberg.

Future plans to build a wall along a levee that bisects the Butterfly Center—an area that NABA has spent $7 million turning into a wildlife refuge for some 235 species of butterflies—would make over two thirds of the property inaccessible to visitors or staff, the lawsuit claims.

"If you're an American citizen," Glassberg tells Reason, "you ought to be very concerned that the government can come on with no authorization and do whatever they want."

The trouble began on July 20, when Marianna Trevino-Wright—the Butterfly Center's executive director—came across a team of uninvited workers using chainsaws and heavy equipment to clear vegetation along a private road that is wholly on the center's property.

"I was like, 'Hi, what are y'all doing back here.' I mean was really that casual," says Trevino-Wright. "One of the guys with chainsaws said, 'We're clearing this land.' I said, 'You mean my land.'"

A supervisor for the work crew told her that the men were there doing work for Customs and Border Protection. He did not elaborate, but he said that someone from the agency would be in touch with her shortly.

Trevino-Wright immediately contacted a community liaison officer for the agency, who couldn't or wouldn't give her any information about what those workers were doing on her land. Neither could the five CBP agents who visited her the next day. Not until an August 1 meeting with Manuel Padilla Jr., the agency's sector chief for the Rio Grande Valley, did Trevino-Wright get any answers.

According to Trevino-Wright, Padilla confirmed that the contractors were there on the agency's orders, that they were clearing the land to make way for the agency's "tactical infrastructure," and that they would return with "green uniformed presence"—that is, armed federal agents—to continue their work.

Padilla, who is named as a defendant in NABA's lawsuit, reportedly told Trevino-Wright that any that locks or gates that interfered with this work would be cut down.

Padilla also reportedly showed Trevino-Wright diagrams of the planned border wall, which would run through Butterfly Center property and which would require yet more of the center's land to be cleared for "secondary roads and government operations."

In February, then–Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly—also named as a defendant—issued a memorandum instructing CBP to "immediately begin planning, design, construction and maintenance of a wall, including the attendant lighting, technology (including sensors), as well as patrol and access roads."

Reason reached out to Customs and Border Protection to confirm many of these details, but was told it was against the agency's policy to comment on pending litigation.

In his meeting with Trevino-Wright, Padilla also invoked the agency's power under the Immigration and Nationality Act to warrantlessly search any vehicles and people "within a reasonable distance" of the border. In 1953, this "reasonable distance" was set at 100 miles, an area that today contains 200 million people. The agency has claimed the additional authority to enter private property without a warrant within 25 miles of the border.

This broad grant of authority has paved the way for a pattern of aggressive, and often invasive, immigration enforcement, including the establishment of some 170 internal immigration checkpoints, warrantless immigration raids, and routine stops and interrogations by the Border Patrol.

Trevino-Wright says she and her employees have had first-hand experience of these extraconstitutional practices, especially in recent months. "Stopping people, trying to take people into custody. This is toward my employees," says Trevino-Wright, adding that border patrol agents have even prevented visitors from entering the Butterfly Center's property.

One employee has already quit because of CBP's actions, says Trevino-Wright. If she did not have family in the area, Trevino-Wright adds, she would probably leave too.

CBP has also placed sensors on Butterfly Center property, and so far has refused to disclose where these sensors are located.

The complaint filed by NABA argues that the feds' unauthorized clearing of vegetation amounts to an unconstitutional taking of the association's property, and thus violates the group's Fifth Amendment rights. The suit also says that repeated warrantless entry, and the placing of sensors on Butterfly Center land, violates the group's Fourth Amendment rights.

"You have to do what you can to stop all this kind of illegal behavior," Glassberg tells Reason. "This country is becoming more and more like a police state, and it's up to everybody to do what they can to stop it."