National Butterfly Center.

December 4, 2019; Washington Post

Not all superheroes wear capes; some have soft, fragile wings and delicate antennae. This week, US democratic will was enforced by butterflies—or specifically, the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. The center has succeeded in temporarily halting construction on a wall at the US-Mexico border.

On Tuesday, Texas district court judge Keno Vasquez, a Democrat who ran without opposition in 2016, issued a temporary restraining order against We Build the Wall and its construction partner.

The butterfly center’s actions are the latest in long, tumultuous struggle over “the wall,” which readers may remember was a central feature of the president’s 2016 campaign. (Despite claims that were part of this rhetoric, the Mexican government has never agreed to fund any part of the project.) First, Congress declined to allocate sufficient funds for the wall. The president attempted to circumvent Congress by declaring an “emergency” at the border. A lawsuit filed by coalition of nonprofits led by Earth Justice challenged this declaration, and is still pending.

Then it was the private sector’s turn to step in. Iraq veteran and conservative commentator Brian Kolfage launched the most successful GoFundMe campaign ever and raised $25 million for the wall. He originally intended to give it to the government, but former strategist Steve Bannon explained that donations to the government cannot be earmarked, so Bannon and Kolfage decided to build the wall themselves, on non-government land. (“It would also be a way to emphasize private enterprise’s superiority over “wasteful” public programs,” explained The Atlantic.)

This is the wall that Judge Vasquez has halted. It threatens the delicate ecosystem of the Rio Grande, where erosion and discharge threaten the wetlands-like floodplain, not to mention the path of the river. The National Butterfly Center had also sued the government over the first wall project in 2018, when officials cleared vegetation from their property without permission. (The integrity of the natural landscape is, obviously, critical to the survival of the National Butterfly Center’s delicate charges.)

The National Butterfly Center sent a letter to the US Army Corps of Engineers explaining that construction had begun despite We Build the Wall’s failure to get clearance from the International Boundary and Water Commission. IBWC regulates water use along shared boundaries, and it has requested more information about the impact of construction on the site. Based on this, Judge Vasquez ordered construction to halt until a hearing on December 17th.

This actually isn’t Kolfage’s first tussle with permits over a wall. He built a half-mile of wall in Sunland Park, New Mexico a few months ago, also without the proper permits. (The wall is up, but its gate stays open during the day.)

He hasn’t reacted particularly well to challenges in either case; he accused Sunland Park officials of being paid off by a Mexican cartel and called the butterfly center “left wing thugs with a sham butterfly agenda.” Father Roy Snipes, a Catholic priest who joins the center in opposing the wall, said, “We do disagree, but we usually disagree without being very mean and nasty.”

It’s truly an odd world when a butterfly haven faces off against racist, anti-immigration hardliners. The center’s Twitter profile encapsulates the oddity, alternating between voices:

ALERT: We want YOU to join us at the Silent Sit In against the Border Wall, this Saturday, in Laredo. Buses will be provided for FREE transportation to and from this event. (3 Dec 2019)

ALERT: A Rose-throated Becard has been spotted this morning by Mary Gustafson at the National Butterfly Center. Visitors & members must check in at the Chrysalis Pavilion for details. Thank you! (24 Nov 2019)

But as NPQ has noted, nonprofits’ responsibilities do not end with their direct service charges. We all have a responsibility to advocate to protect the world we’re trying to build. Nonprofits and boards can stay out of partisan campaigns, but we can’t be insulated from the issues that affect our constituents.

So let the butterflies lead the charge.—Erin Rubin