MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — The peaceful 100-acre National Butterfly Center on the banks of the Rio Grande in South Texas is quieter than before.
For the past six weeks, the nonprofit has closed its facility to the thousands of wildlife enthusiasts after the center’s executive director and staff received “credible threats” ahead of a conservative far-right border security rally that was held nearby in late January.
On Wednesday, the gates remained locked and National Butterfly Center Executive Director Marianna Treviño-Wright said they were beefing up security and hiring experts to evaluate the facility to try to figure out if, and when, it will be safe to reopen to the public.
Meantime, the Mission Police Department has set up a mobile surveillance tower inside the property as a deterrent.
The Butterfly Center is just but one victim of what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) says in a new report is a nationwide “rise in the radical right.”
The SPLC report, “The Year in Hate & Extremism 2021,” says there were 733 hate groups across the United States in 2021, including 72 chapters of the white nationalist all-male group The Proud Boys, which supported President Donald Trump.
Hate groups “vilify others,” the SPLC’s Cassie Miller said during an online briefing Wednesday morning to roll out the report. The briefing was broadcast on the organization’s Facebook page.
The number of hate groups in 2021 actually decreased from 1,020 groups in 2018, Miller noted. But the nonprofit, which tracks civil rights injustices, said a drop in groups does not mean there are fewer members. Rather SPLC says it shows that extremist ideals are more readily accepted by society right now.
“The dropping numbers of organized hate and antigovernment groups suggest that the extremist ideas that mobilize them now operate more openly in the political mainstream,” the report said.
“The key finding is they’re operating more in the mainstream,” said Susan Corke, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “They’re running for school boards, judges. They’re on social media manufacturing misinformation.”
In addition, the report says there were 488 anti-government groups operating in the United States in 2021, and much of the report focuses on events leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.
But the report also notes that hate groups — like militia organizations — targeted the Southwest border and areas such as where the National Butterfly Center is located.
“In 2021, hard-right extremists continued to harass humanitarian aid groups, some using their relationships with border patrol agents to circumvent and legitimize their vigilante activities. The activities of militia groups have gone unchecked, and groups continue to illegally detain migrants,” the report states.
“We are seeing signs that dangerous white supremacists are getting a toe hold in society,” Miller said. “They believe that society is systematically trying to replace whites through immigration.”
She said the “hard right” is in an all-out “effort to silence conversations and their anti-Black, anti-immigration policies can really take root.”
In addition, LGBTQ groups also are particularly vulnerable, she said.
Migrants crossing the border from Mexico are especially being “vilified” and portrayed as taking jobs away from U.S. citizens by conspiracists.
“It’s called the great replacement,” the SPLC’s Rachel Carroll Rivas said Wednesday. “It’s a conspiracy theory that says the political elites are trying to systematically and deliberately replace white people with non-whites through policies like immigration.”
“It’s nativist anti-immigrant rhetoric,” Corke said. “These groups target migrants and are really leaning in to the Q’Anon conspiracies and manipulating people to the idea that they are actually saving children.”
Treviño-Wright has been accused on social media of trafficking migrant children at the facility. She has a civil defamation lawsuit that is pending in state court against We Build The Wall founders Steve Bannon and Brian Kolfage.
She says she has been targeted after her facility’s parent organization, the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), in 2019 filed a lawsuit to try to stop construction of a private border wall adjacent to their sanctuary.
The 3.5-mile private border wall was eventually built.
And Treviño-Wright has told Border Report that has drawn many “ultra-conservative types” to the Rio Grande and to her facility.
In late January, she accused a congressional candidate who was running for office in Virginia of knocking her down and assaulting her at the facility.
The altercation occurred just days before a border security rally called “We Stand America” drew hundreds to the Rio Grande Valley the weekend of January 28-30.
The NABA board decided to close the facility’s doors on Jan. 28 but threats leveled on social media during and immediately afterward prevented the center from reopening, she said.
On Wednesday, NABA President and Founder Jeffrey Glassberg told Border Report in a written statement that they are trying to find safe ways to reopen to the public. And he said the prolonged closure has been tough on staff and the eco-community that enjoys the sanctuary.
“We’ve experienced significant disruption to our operations and terrible distractions from our core mission, which remains environmental education and conservation for the benefit of butterflies,” Glassberg said. “We look forward to returning to business as usual, so we may continue to share the wonder of butterflies and the beauty of this place with our members, visitors and community.”
SPLC officials, however, said Wednesday they believe the rhetoric will continue as long as it is gaining acceptance in American society.
And they called upon Congress to enact the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (S.964/H.R 350) to establish offices within the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the FBI to monitor, investigate and prosecute cases of domestic terrorism – and require regular reports from these offices.
“The great replacement is the central narrative that is driving the white nationalist movement,” Carroll Rivas said. “When you combine this with this hard-right effort to silence conversations about racism in our schools and other political places what you create is an atmosphere where anti-Black, anti-immigrant and nationalist policies tend to really further take root.”