By Scott Nicol
In 1994 President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898 to address the issue of Environmental Justice. It instructs federal agencies to identify and address actions that might have “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects… on minority populations and low-income populations.” EO 12898 remains in effect today, but in building border walls the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has chosen to ignore it.
Since the passage of the Secure Fence Act around 650 miles of border wall have been built, slicing though towns, farms, and natural areas. Southern border states have rates of poverty that are significantly higher than the national average. In 2009 Arizona had the second highest poverty rate in the nation, New Mexico had the third highest, and Texas came in seventh. Within these states communities along the border tend to be the poorest. The 2007 list of 10 counties with the lowest median incomes in the nation included the Texas border counties of El Paso, Hidalgo, and Cameron, all three of which now have border walls.
Rather than act to minimize the border wall’s impacts on these communities, DHS used the Real ID Act to waive 36 federal laws. The Safe Drinking Water Act, Farmland Protection Policy Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and other laws that protect the rest of the nation no longer protect border communities. Equal protection under the law does not apply to those who live along the border.
This has led to a host of negative impacts on border communities. The economic impacts of land condemnation and damage to family farms have hit economically disadvantaged communities. Walls have cause severe flooding in Lukeville, Arizona, and across the border in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, where two people drowned. In Texas wetlands have been destroyed, and construction has caused serious erosion, further degrading the Rio Grande, which is the source of drinking and irrigation water for border residents.
In documents released before wall construction began, DHS stated that each of the Texas communities living in the path of the wall, “meets these two criteria [high percentages of minority and low-income residents] as a potential environmental justice population.” DHS went on to claim, however, that “the Secretary’s waiver means that CBP no longer has any specific obligation under Executive Order (EO) 12898.” While the first statement is backed by census data, the claim that DHS is not bound by the executive order is false, because the executive order was not listed among the 36 laws that DHS waived. But the assertion has meant that little effort has gone into lessening the impacts of border walls on border communities, or including them in decision-making.
South Texas Communities
To build border walls the federal government filed condemnation lawsuits against more than 400 Texas landowners, in communities that are 85 – 90% Hispanic and have rates of poverty that are more than twice the state average.
In Hidalgo and Cameron counties, where border walls were built along existing levees, homes, businesses, farms, and privately-owned nature preserves have been cut in two, or even walled off entirely, trapped between the border wall and the Rio Grande.
DHS has only to paid for the exact footprint of the border wall (typically, a 60-foot wide strip) as it passes through a parcel of land. The agency has completely discounted the hardships that the border wall will bring to landowners, such as the devaluation of contiguous property, access to farm land and homes, and impacts on livelihood.
In south Texas there are 21 separate border walls, totaling 70 linear miles, with wide gaps between sections. Border residents noticed that walls tended to be built through the lands of low-income families, but stopped abruptly at the property line of landowners such as the Hunt family, who, coincidentally, donated millions for the construction of the Bush Presidential Library.
Researchers from the University of Texas who examined this determined, “Our comparison of the areas planned to be fenced along the border with those areas where ‘gaps’ in the fence are planned suggests disproportionate impact on individuals with lower income and education, Hispanic ethnicity and non-U.S. citizenship status.”
Tohono O’odham Nation
The Tohono O’odham nation in Southern Arizona is split by 75 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, with 1,500 out of 20,000 tribal members living south of the line. As in many Native American nations poverty is widespread. According to the 2000 census the average income on the reservation was $8,137, compared to a national average of $26,940. Life expectancy was eight years less than the national average.
Speaking before a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the border wall, O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said, “We are older than the international boundary with Mexico and had no role in creating the border. But our land is now cut in half, with O’odham communities, sacred sites, salt pilgrimage routes, and families divided.”
Chairman Norris went on to state that, with the waiving of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, “… fragments of human remains were observed in the tire tracks of heavy construction equipment. Barriers and the border road now cross the site.”
“Imagine a bulldozer parking in your family graveyard, turning up bones. This is our reality.”
Chairman Norris concluded, “We know from our own experience living on the border that security can be improved while respecting the rights of tribes and border communities, while fulfilling our duty to the environment and to our ancestors, and without granting any person the power to ignore the law.”