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Border Wall Battles

Nature, Immigration

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Image by Jonathon Shacat.
Millions Of Migrants Make The Trip Across The U.S./Mexico Border Every Year So The Issue Of Border Walls And Immigration Enforcement Is Always At The Forefront Of Debate In Arizona


By Jonathon Shacat
Modern Times Magazine

April 30, 2013 — Much of the Southwestern border of the United States is lined with metal fencing or other barriers in an effort to prevent people from illegally entering the country from Mexico.

But the walls do more than restrain human activity. They also restrict the everyday lives of animals, rivers, and other forces of the environment.

This dichotomy was the subject of a recent event called Wildlands on the Edge: The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Border Enforcement Policy during the Huachuca Audubon Society meeting in Sierra Vista on April 16. It focused on how fences, walls, roads and enforcement activities impact wildlife and fragile natural environments.

But, others think the Border Patrol's presence along the border, as well as the infrastructure, are a necessity, regardless of the effects.

During the Wildlands on the Edge program, Dan Millis, of the Borderlands Team with Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental organization, showed the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's short film about how bird habitats can be destroyed by border wall construction. He also showed the Sierra Club's short film Too Many Tracks about Border Patrol's vehicular impacts to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona.

"Most of the discussion was framed around the Gang of Eight proposal," said Millis, referring to the  bipartisan Senate group that is sponsoring legislation and includes Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and John McCain. "We are concerned about the $1.5 billion in additional border walls and the expanded waiver authority granted to the Department of Homeland Security, which has already waived 37 federal laws protecting the environment, public health, farmland, historic sites, and more along the border."

In fact, the immigration bill proposed by the Senate on April 17 gives the Department of Homeland Security Secretary the authority to waive all legal requirements that are "necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers, roads, or other physical tactical infrastructure needed."

It also requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to develop the Southern Border Fencing Strategy, "to identify where fencing, including double-layer fencing, infrastructure, and technology should be deployed along the Southern border."

The Sierra Club is concerned that these portions of the bill would be detrimental to the environment.

Brent Cagen, a public information officer with the Tucson sector of U.S. Border Patrol, said the preservation of valuable natural and cultural resources is of great importance to Customs and Border Protection and the agency is fully engaged in efforts that consider environmental impact as it works to secure the nation’s borders.

"The Border Patrol complies with all established laws and reporting procedures in place at National Parks and protected wilderness areas. We are committed to responsible environmental stewardship and look forward to working with interested parties and border residents to accomplish our mission while preserving the environment," he said.

In late March, when members of the Senate "Gang of Eight" toured a small section of the Arizona-Sonora border and called for more enforcement, the Sierra Club issued a press release saying: "Enough is enough — no more wasteful border spending."

The organization pointed out the United States spent an average of $7.2 billion each year for 25 years on immigration enforcement, and in 2012 the U.S. spent $18 billion on immigration and border enforcement, more than all other federal law enforcement combined.

"Meanwhile, our official border crossing facilities are out of date and understaffed. While apprehension rates between the official border crossings are as high as 90 percent, success rates as low as 28 percent have been reported at official crossing facilities," stated the Sierra Club.

"Experts estimate that the majority of contraband that enters the U.S. comes through these official ports of entry. Wait times are longer than ever, impacting cross-border trade and harming both the U.S. and Mexican economies. Improve border security without further damage to our borderlands. Support increased funding to modernize and properly staff our official ports of entry," it added.

Al Garza, the former national executive director of the controversial border militia, Minutemen, said ranchers and landowners are challenged with unabated and virtually wide open borders. He thinks the solution is to address Mexico and hold it accountable for willfully exporting millions of its poor country folk through the scorching desert.

"Mexico’s voracious appetite to supply cheap labor to the north is the main reason for America’s need for border fences and uncompromised border security. Then and only then will Americans quell their pleas for border fencing, barriers, and enforcement of our immigration laws," he added.

Garza pointed out illegal border crossers leave tons of trash in the desert, which is not very good for the environment, either. Without substantial enforcement activity and infrastructure between the ports of entry, there could be more people illegally crossing the border and leaving behind more trash.

Millis noted the trash is an "eyesore" but it is easy to clean up. The Sierra Club recently conducted a desert cleanup with 69 people, most of them high school sophomores, in a remote canyon, where they bagged a lot of items — some of it recyclable.

"From the Sierra Club perspective, the stuff left behind is a low-level environmental impact, whereas the vehicular and operational impacts from Border Patrol and the border wall are extremely damaging to the environmental character of the whole region," he said.

"The Gang of Eight bill provides for 3,500 more Customs and Border Protection officers. They should go to the ports. There would be no less enforcement between the ports, and the draft bill proposes increasing enforcement between the ports dramatically," said Millis.

"Further, traffic is not necessarily correlated to enforcement. The biggest factors that determine how many folks cross the border are complex economic and social ones. We should draft our immigration policies in a way that directs people to the ports of entry, not between them," he continued.

Jonathan Shacat is a freelance writer for Modern Times Magazine. He can be reached at
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