By Scott Nicol
In 2007 a U.S. district court ordered a halt to construction of the border wall through the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff responded to the ruling, “I have to say to myself, ‘Yes, I don’t want to disturb the habitat of a lizard, but am I prepared to pay human lives to do that?’” He then waived 19 federal laws, using the unprecedented power granted him by the Real ID Act to override the judge’s order, and immediately resumed construction of the border wall through the last free-flowing river in southern Arizona. This past April he issued another Real Id Act waiver, which swept aside 36 federal laws to enable the construction of walls called for by the Secure Fence Act along the southern border.
Secretary Chertoff’s statement was intended to mislead the American people into believing that the environmental damage caused by border walls is the necessary cost of protecting U.S. citizens. When confronted with a “lizards vs. humans” choice, anyone with warm blood will defend the latter. Establishing this false dichotomy is therefore a great way to marshal support for the border wall by demonizing border wall opponents as wanting to sacrifice human safety and national security to protect animals. But it is a lie, and Chertoff knows it.
While the walls built along the U.S./Mexico border since the 1990s have done tremendous environmental damage, they have not saved any human lives. Chertoff cannot point to a single terrorist who has attempted to cross the U.S./Mexico border, much less one turned back by a section of border wall. It has not even reduced the number of undocumented immigrants who enter the country each year seeking work. Four months before Chertoff claimed that if we do not build walls we must be “prepared to pay human lives,” the Congressional Research Service issued a report which found that the border wall “did not have a discernible impact on the influx of unauthorized aliens coming across the border.”
The border wall has instead caused thousands of deaths. In 2006 the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) looked at the border wall’s human toll since the erection of the first California sections in the mid 1990s. They found that, though the number of border-crossing deaths had been declining in the 1980s and early 1990s,
“Since 1995, the number of border-crossing deaths increased and by 2005 had more than doubled. […] This increase in deaths occurred despite the fact that, according to published estimates, there was not a corresponding increase in the number of illegal entries. Further, GAO’s analysis also shows that more than three-fourths of the doubling in deaths along the southwest border since 1995 can be attributed to increases in deaths occurring in the Arizona desert.”
This increase in deaths occurred because the border walls did not stop people from entering the United States, they only rerouted them. Confronted with an 18 foot high wall near San Diego, desperate immigrants did not turn around and go home. They went around it. Rather than crossing in safer urban areas, thousands instead came in through the desert. As a result, more than 5,000 have died from dehydration and exposure, and it is estimated that thousands of bodies lie undiscovered.
The GAO report revealed that funneling immigrants into the desert was not accidental, but intentional. “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.”
The GAO concluded, “The increase in deaths due to heat exposure over the last 15 years is consistent with our previous report that found evidence that migrant traffic shifted from urban areas like San Diego and El Paso into the desert following the implementation of the Southwest Border Strategy in 1994.”
These findings were presented to Secretary Chertoff long before he lied to the American people to justify his Real ID Act waiver. Fully aware that existing border walls have caused thousands of deaths, he has decided to erect more walls.
And the decision is entirely his to make. Last year’s supplemental appropriations bill contained a provision which gives Secretary Chertoff absolute discretion as to whether or not to build walls along the border. It changes the Secure Fence Act’s text to read, “nothing in this paragraph shall require the Secretary of Homeland Security to install fencing, physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors in a particular location along an international border of the United States, if the Secretary determines that the use or placement of such resources is not the most appropriate means to achieve and maintain operational control over the international border at such location.'' With ample evidence that the border wall is causing thousands of deaths without slowing the influx of undocumented immigrants or enhancing national security, it should be easy to make that determination.
The border wall does not present the United States with a choice of either saving the environment or saving human lives. The wall takes a terrible toll on both. The real choice is whether or not to build more walls, knowing that if more walls are constructed they will do irreparable environmental damage and cause thousands more to die.
Until Congress acts to amend or repeal the Secure Fence Act and the Real ID Act, only Secretary Chertoff has the power to make this decision. The language in the Omnibus bill gives Secretary Chertoff the power to decide whether or not more border walls are built. The Real ID Act gives him the power to suspend our nation’s laws to build walls that would otherwise be illegal. Numerous reports have spelled out how many people have died, and how many more are likely to die, as a direct result of the border wall. In the face of all of this, Secretary Chertoff continues to build walls. In legal terms, this is a premeditated act, because he knows what the result will be. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has decided that to build the border wall he is in fact “prepared to pay human lives.”