Collateral Damage on the U.S.-Mexico Border

The comprehensive immigration reform bill will soon be introduced in Congress could be great— normalizing the status of millions who are now forced to live in the shadows. However, if history is any guide, it could instead mean a ramping up of enforcement that creates a life and death circumstance for crossing migrants, as well as destroying the fragile eco-system of the borderlands.

Scott.Nicol 1/24/2013


A comprehensive immigration reform bill will soon be introduced in Congress. This could be a positive development by normalizing the status of millions who are now forced to live in the shadows, reducing the number of immigrants who cross—and sometimes die—in the desert, and allowing some of the $18 billion that is spent annually on immigration enforcement to be used for other purposes. All of that, of course, assumes greater political courage and willingness to institute meaningful change than Congress has recently demonstrated. If history is any guide, it could instead mean a ramping up of enforcement and billions more spent on border walls, roads, and boots on the ground.

Politicians trying to explain away all of America’s ills have repeatedly turned their attention towards the southern border. The ebb and flow of migrants across the border, which has been occurring since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the Gadsden Purchase established it at its present location, has been recast as an invasion. The invaders (who are conveniently ineligible to vote) are blamed for rising crime and failing schools, unemployment, and overstretched social services. Ahead of each election candidates cry out that the invasion must be stopped before our nation is overwhelmed.

In the run up to the last election many candidates, including Mitt Romney, called for making the lives of undocumented immigrants so hellish that they would “self-deport.” Over the summer Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives beat the border security drum and pushed through legislation that would waive environmental laws on all federal lands within 100 miles of both borders for all Border Patrol activities. The Senate, thankfully, ignored the House bill.

1507LRGV National Wildlife Refuge

This is nothing new. In 2006, the last time that Congress made a serious attempt at comprehensive immigration reform, hundreds of miles of a border wall were included in competing House and Senate bills. Wrangling between the two bodies degenerated into an outcry by some against “amnesty,” and the bills were never reconciled and therefore never made it to the President’s desk. 

Instead, both houses passed the provisions calling for walls along the southern border as a stand-alone bill called the Secure Fence Act. This authorized the construction of 650 miles of border barriers, tearing apart communities from San Diego to Brownsville and ecosystems from the Otay Mountain Wilderness in southern California Area to the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary in Brownsville, Texas.

The idea that walls would halt potential crossers in their tracks proved to be more fantasy than reality. The Congressional Research Service stated in a 2009 report that walls near San Diego had “little impact on overall apprehensions.” Even the Border Patrol said in 2008, “The border fence is a speed bump in the desert.”

While walls have not impacted the number of immigrants who enter the United States, they have doubled the number of border crossers who perish in southern deserts each year. That is because border walls do not stop people from entering the United States, they only reroute them. Confronted with an 18 foot-high wall near San Diego or El Paso, desperate immigrants do not turn around and go home, they go around it. Rather than crossing in safer urban areas, thousands come through rugged mountains and deserts. As a result more than 5,000 migrants have died from dehydration and exposure since the early 1990s. This figure represents only those migrants whose bodies or remains have been recovered: It is thought that thousands more have died.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that funneling immigrants into hazardous terrain was not accidental, but an intentional strategy:  “The strategy assumed that as the urban areas were controlled, the migrant traffic would shift to more remote areas where the Border Patrol would be able to more easily detect and apprehend migrants entering illegally. The strategy also assumed that natural barriers including rivers, such as the Rio Grande in Texas, the mountains east of San Diego, and the desert in Arizona would act as deterrents to illegal entry.” 1506Photo by Nathan Trotter

Walls and other enforcement measures have also taken a heavy toll on the environment. A provision inserted into the Real ID Act of 2005 gave the Secretary of Homeland Security unprecedented power to waive all federal, state, and local laws, environmental and otherwise, to build border barriers, roads, and other infrastructure. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff used the Real ID Act to brush aside 36 federal laws when the wall was built. In waiving those laws he was essentially admitting that border wall construction would violate them.

Following the passage of the Real ID Act, the canyon known as Smuggler’s Gulch, south of San Diego, was filled in with over 2 million cubic yards of earth that had been ripped from adjacent mountaintops. The still bare slopes of the earthen dam threaten to wash tremendous amounts of dirt into the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is only 600 feet away. A border wall is now perched on top.

Unchecked by environmental protections, the barriers that began in California’s borderlands now extend in fits and starts across 650 miles of the nearly 2,000 mile-long southern border, inflicting tremendous damage upon sensitive ecosystems. In Arizona the border walls that cross washes and streams in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument have caused severe erosion and flooding. Border walls built in New Mexico’s Playas Valley block the movement of one of the last wild herds of bison, whose range straddles the U.S.–Mexico border. In Texas the walls slicing through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge have fragmented habitat that is critical for the survival of endangered ocelots.

The Sierra Club has attempted to protect fragile border ecosystems from DHS’s lawless actions. They have challenged the constitutionality for the Real ID Act’s waiver provision in court, and have worked to educate Congress and the public about the wall’s environmental impacts. The Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team has also produced a short documentary, Wild vs. Wall, that gives an overview of the border wall’s environmental impacts from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico.

Following the election, in which many—but not all—of the loudest immigrant-bashers suffered defeat and more than 70% of Hispanic voters rejected Mitt Romney, politicians have decided that it is in their best interest to pass some version of immigration reform. The Borderlands Team’s concern is that despite efforts to educate politicians about the damage done by the Secure Fence Act and Real ID Act, it appears as though history will repeat itself.

Press reports describe the coming bill as following the template of past legislation, pairing work visas and a pathway to citizenship with ramped up border enforcement. 

Those of us who live on the border—my house is 10 miles due north of a stretch of Texas border wall—have already seen too much of the border enforcement side of that equation. We have hundreds of miles of wall, the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled in the past 10 years, and the federal government spends more on immigration enforcement than the combined budgets of the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshal Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.


This time around Congress needs to come up with a clean bill, dealing with immigration without further militarizing the borderlands, building new border walls, or providing pork for military contractors. Instead, the United States must address its dysfunctional immigration system in a way that is both practical and humane.  

Too much damage has already been done. The southern border is not a sacrifice zone that can be destroyed to stop an imaginary invasion, and the lives of immigrants can no longer be written off as collateral damage.



Scott Nicol chairs the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team. For more information visit here.


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