Abbott’s ‘false narrative’ about border hurts eco-tourism and South Texas’ reputation, advocates say

Border Report

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar says Texas governor is using region as 'a political punching bag,' others stand by his plan

MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — Recent statements by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that undocumented immigrants in South Texas border communities are “wreaking havoc” and elevating crime, are eliciting fear and causing some people to cancel travel plans to the Rio Grande Valley, Border Report has learned.

Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center, says her nonprofit organization received two cancellations from people registered for its 25th Annual Texas Butterfly Festival in October, and one cancellation from a birding enthusiast who had planned an eight-day birding trip with a professional guide to the region. The cancellations came two days after Abbott on Wednesday declared the state would spend $250 million to build its own border wall and criticized the Biden administration for “failing” to guard the Texas/Mexico border.

His allegations were immediately met with skepticism in South Texas where many people have family or business connections south of the Rio Grande Valley, and some are opposed to a border wall. Aside from the emotional toll that his comments might be having, there now is fear that could be equated to real economic losses from visitors who are too afraid to visit the region.

Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, says visitors have begun cancelling registrations for their fall 25th Annual Texas Butterfly Festival due to comments made by Gov. Greg Abbott about the border. She is seen on Monday, June 21, 2021, on the 100-acre center that borders the Rio Grande. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“People will not be coming to spend their money in the Rio Grande Valley because of the false narrative that the governor has taken up,” Treviño-Wright said Monday morning from her organization’s 100-acre facility on the banks of the Rio Grande, where hundreds of queen butterflies fluttered about and feasted alongside bugs on purple Texas thistle plants.

A couple of families were already strolling the trails, gawking at lizards and rabbits and other creatures, like caterpillars that look like bird dung to mask their appearance from hungry birds. The overcast humid morning was in the high 80s but temperatures were expected to hit the mid-90s Monday afternoon.

Luciano Guerra, a photographer for the National Butterfly Center, takes advantage of the many queen butterflies and rabbits at the nonprofit organization in Mission, Texas, on the Texas-Mexico border on Monday, June 21, 2021. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)

The extreme temperatures here have always been a factor in attracting visitors, then COVID-19 struck. And now Treviño-Wright says they, so many other businesses throughout the region, need every dollar they can get from eco-tourism after the year-long coronavirus pandemic.

“In a post-COVID world where tax bases have taken a hit because people weren’t out shopping and eating, these are the things that are going to take a hit as long as the lies are being told in the Rio Grande Valley,” she said.

The three-day Butterfly Festival attracts upwards of 5,000 visitors and was not held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors come from many countries, including Mexico and Europe. And during the last festival, held in October 2019, visitors saw 120 species of butterflies — that’s double the entire number of species that exist in Great Britain, she said.

Luciana Guerra photographs wildlife June 20, 2021, at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Nature tourism in the South Texas counties of Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy contributed $463 million in “direct economic contributions” to the region, according to a 2011 study by Texas A&M University. Some estimates say eco tourism boosts the economy in the RGV by as much as $2 billion, and adds $6 billion to state coffers every year.

On Monday, Treviño-Wright said she “commends” the three area county judges from Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr for holding firm and refusing to sign local disaster declarations, as Abbott asked them to on June 10 during a Border Security Summit in Del Rio, Texas. Abbott said by signing the declarations their communities would be eligible for federal and state funds and reimbursements. The declarations also would trigger lengthy prison sentences for migrants who cross the border illegally.

Hudspeth County Judge Thomas Neely and Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara have joined 15 other county judges in signing such disaster declarations.

After the governor’s summit in Del Rio, Guevara said of Abbot: “I think he’s spot on with how serious the problems are here on the border and I think that he’s doing everything possible that he possibly can and it’s going to be good for the state of Texas and so today was really excellent. … I believe he has a really excellent plan and I’m truly grateful for the attention that he’s giving this crisis.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on June 10, 2021, held a Border Security Summit in Del Rio, Texas, and he asked county judges from 34 counties to declare local disaster emergencies due to the migrant influx, to be eligible for state and federal resources. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez is seen in Del Rio, Texas, on June 10, 2021. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez on Monday told Border Report that he still has received no concrete data that affirms Abbott’s claim that there is a “crisis situation” on the border. Cortez attended the June 10 summit in Del Rio and said he challenged Abbott as to whether such security measures are necessary on the border, and whether it would lead to the separation of families.

“There wasn’t any evidence of immigrants committing severe crimes. There was evidence there were more immigrants crossing, evidence that some petty crimes were being committed but none of the magnitude reported by Gov. Abbott,” Cortez said.

“I’m for safety. I’m for protecting our borders. I’m for legal immigration. I’m for all the things representing the American ideals and positions. But to me when someone says, ‘I have people that are being threatened with guns in their heads.’ I have to ask: Is it one occurrence, two occurrences?” Cortez said. “Because we have crime in Hidalgo County every day. We have crime in Texas every day. And is the fact that we have crime in Texas every day a crisis?”

Is the fact that we have crime in Texas every day a crisis?”

Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez

“They are using the border for a political punching bag and that affects our economy,” U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents the RGV, told Border Report on Monday.

Cuellar points to the most recent FBI crime data from 2019 that shows violent crimes have actually decreased in the border cities of McAllen and Mission, Texas.

“The border is a lot safer than some of the other cities, like Dallas and Houston, and I don’t see them sending DPS to those areas,” Cuellar said of the 1,000 Texas Department of Public Safety troopers Abbott sent to the Rio Grande Valley under Operation Lone Star.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on March 9, 2021, announced Operation Lone Star in Mission, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“It does affect the border when they say that the border appears to not be safe and that affects us in so many ways,” Cuellar said. “The border is safer than so many other cities.”

The border is safer than so many other cities.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-TX

State Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Judith Zaffirini, and César Blanco, who are all Democrats who represent border regions of McAllen, Laredo and El Paso, respectively, sent an op-ed to media criticizing Abbott for holding a news conference in Austin last Wednesday “surrounded by lawmakers from various parts of the state, but not a single lawmaker who joined him represents a border community,” they wrote.

“Texas shouldn’t circumvent federal immigration and asylum laws by creating new ways to criminalize and to jail undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers. This expensive proposition would overfill local prisons, which already are stretched thin — with non-dangerous persons and separate families looking for refuge and the American dream,” they wrote.

They said the federal government should be the one in the business of upholding federal immigration laws — not state lawmakers. And they said the “issues will not be solved overnight or by one party.”

Two U.S. Border Patrol vehicles sit outside the National Butterfly Center on June 21, 2021, in Mission, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

But as long as Abbott spews “hurtful rhetoric” about the region, folks like Treviño-Wright say it’s economics remain imperiled. And this is especially amplified as border restrictions remain preventing Mexican nationals from coming to shop.

“It is critical to our economy that people come. The economy of the lower Rio Grande Valley is like a three-legged stool: Mexican national shoppers; Winter Texans and environmental tourism,” Treviño-Wright said. “Those are dollars that come from outside of our area that give a huge boost to our cities and our communities and their ability to provide services and without that there’s no replacement. There’s no one filling that void if those dollars are not pouring in from outside the area and outside Texas.”

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