Story Highlights

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is attempting to bargain with Customs and Border Protection on the proposed border wall that could render Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park inoperable.

Funds for additional border wall were allocated in March as part of the 2018 Omnibus spending bill. In a letter sent June 22 to CBP deputy sector chief for the Rio Grande Valley, Raul Ortiz, TPWD laid out four alternatives in exchange for no border wall construction, with “Alternative 1” as their “highest prioritized alternative.”

All proposals include increased militarization and patrolling by CBP agents, but Alternative 1 includes a “check station” at the entrance of the park to be staffed by both TPWD and CBP agents.

This bargain by TPWD to CBP, regardless of the alternative, comes at the expense of the Rio Grande Valley community, advocates said, one that already suffers from the militarization of the Texas-Mexico border.

Photo courtesy of Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park – Texas Parks and Wildlife Facebook page

In TPWD’s “highest prioritized alternative,” it not only proposes to cooperatively design a “check station” at the entrance of the park, but also a proposal to “expand the presence of CBP agents in the area,” they stipulated, “and increase physical patrols within [Bentsen State Park], including regular nightly patrols.”

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TPWD further proposed enhanced technology, such as “remote sensing units,” to be deployed.

The area surrounding Bentsen is notoriously known for being flooded with border patrol vehicles and CBP helicopters, leading undocumented families to avoid driving south of Expressway 83 altogether.

I spoke with Mariana Treviño Wright, executive director for the National Butterfly Center, back in July. She described the threat of increased militarization on the border as a “punishment” to the people of the borderlands, as she often hears of the area being avoided by undocumented individuals or “just anybody who does not want to be harassed by border patrol.” This includes people driving in from out of state.

Two years ago, Treviño Wright heard from visitors who came to the annual Butterfly Festival. They emailed the executive director to say that “they would not probably ever come back to the Valley.” They described their experience as “unwelcoming” and “heartbreaking” since everywhere they went along the conservation corridor— which would be primarily up and down Military Highway to places like Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the National Butterfly Center, and Boca Chica Beach— law enforcement infested the highway.

According to Treviño Wright, they were “astounded” by the number of law enforcement agency vehicles they saw up and down the corridor: DPS, border patrol, Sheriff’s Department, and municipal police vehicles, including constables, and even the state and federal game officials. “It was shocking, they said.”

Jackelin Treviño, executive member for the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club and organizer for the No Border Wall Coalition, has been to Bentsen State Park several times over the years, especially while in college when she was with the Environmental Awareness Club at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley (then known as University of Texas-Pan American).

“We would do a lot of astrological outings to Bentsen, and I celebrated a birthday party at Bentsen as I moved back to Texas from being out of state,” Treviño told Neta. “It was one of my favorite memories.”

One of her friends planned it as her present. They went biking and hung out by the waterway located inside the park. “We had a wonderful time. It’s a really special memory.”

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The environmental and immigrant rights activist has also encountered border patrol and had negative experiences. She said border patrol are known to stop people while recreating, whether hiking or running and ask for ID. Treviño had this happen to her and her partner while jogging at Santa Ana.

“We didn’t have our IDs with us, but they were able to verify what vehicle we were driving and that was enough for them at the time,” Treviño said.

“There was a lot of fear within me because here I was, out in the middle of nowhere, being talked to by people with guns and without identification because I didn’t bring my purse and my wallet on a hike with me,” Treviño shared as one example of the adverse effects of militarized state and federal parks.

Photo courtesy of Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park – Texas Parks and Wildlife Facebook page

Simply walking in nature has been found to yield measurable mental benefits and may reduce the risk of depression, as well as anxiety.

Unfortunately, Treviño Wright says Valley residents are under-represented at the butterfly center.

Treviño explained that exposure to nature has been shown to contribute to positive learning outcomes in children by allowing them to explore their limits in a safe environment.

“And most importantly for us here in the Valley, our local ecology, if we learn about it, is one of the most beautiful, most valued ecologies in the entire world,” Treviño expressed.

As described by Treviño, people visit the Rio Grande Valley to look at the region’s ecosystem from all over the world, like Japan, and to see birds migrating through.

“As Valley residents, when we see our ecology has value, it helps us feel better about ourselves too because it implies that the land that has created us, has created all these beautiful things. So, logically, I’m a beautiful thing as well,” Treviño impassioned. “Versus if we don’t know about our native ecology, and all we see are oak trees and palm trees, we think that’s all we are. And we think that’s all that our land gave us. And that’s just not true.”

TPWD has not received a response from CBP on the alternatives they proposed.