Monday, January 28, 2013

Don't Throw the Border Under the Bus

by Scott Nicol

Congress will soon take up Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  That could be a good thing, if it normalizes the status of millions who are now forced to live in the shadows; reduces the number of immigrants who cross, and sometimes die, in the desert; and allows some of the $18 billion that is spent annually on immigration enforcement to be used for other things. 

But if history is any guide it could also mean a ramping up of border enforcement, with billions more wasted on border walls.

In 2006, the last time Congress made a serious attempt at Comprehensive Immigration Reform, hundreds of miles of border wall were included in competing House and Senate bills.  The two bills were never reconciled and therefore never made it to the President’s desk. 

Instead the provisions calling for walls along the southern border were passed by both houses as a stand-alone bill - the Secure Fence Act.  650 miles of border wall were eventually built, tearing through communities from San Diego to Brownsville and ecosystems from the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area to the Sabal Palms Audubon Sanctuary.

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

While walls have not reduced the number of immigrants who enter the U.S., they have caused the number of border crossers who perish in southern deserts each year to more than double.  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 or Brownsville 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 have died from dehydration and exposure, and it is estimated that thousands of bodies lie undiscovered.

Walls and other enforcement measures have also taken a heavy toll on the environment. 

California’s Otay Mountain Wilderness Area saw 530,000 cubic yards of rock blasted from the mountainsides tumble into the Tijuana River.  In Arizona the border walls that cross washes and streams in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument have caused severe erosion and flooding.  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.  And in Texas the walls that slice through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge have fragmented habitat that is critical for the survival of endangered ocelots.

Following the recent election, in which some (but unfortunately not all) of the loudest immigrant-bashers suffered defeat and more than 70% of Hispanic voters rejected Mitt Romney, many politicians have decided that it is in their best interest to pass some version of immigration reform. 

The big concern is that we could see history repeat itself.

Press reports describe the coming bill as mirroring past legislation, pairing work visas and a pathway to citizenship with more border enforcement. 

Once again the border may be sacrificed in a doomed attempt to get conservatives to accept comprehensive legislation.

The idea that members of Congress who have called for making the lives of immigrants so hellish that they “self-deport”, or who voted just last summer to waive federal laws within 100 miles of both borders for all Border Patrol activities, will now support humane immigration legislation is unrealistic.  Sticking walls in the bill will not change that.

Instead, if walls and further border enforcement are allowed in this year’s legislation we run the risk of a repeat of 2006, when hundreds of miles of border walls were the only part of the immigration bill to make it to the president’s desk.

Those of us who live on the border have already seen too much of the enforcement side of that equation.  Last year the federal government spent more on immigration enforcement than the budgets of the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshal Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives combined.


Members of Congress who were sent to DC to represent the border need to fight for their constituents, but so far they have been silent.  With much of Arizona and California already walled off, Representatives Vela, Hinojosa, Cuellar, Gallego, and O’Rourke could all see new walls tear through their districts if they don’t make sure that border walls are kept out of the bill, but none have told us what (if anything) they plan to do about it. 

This is a critically important piece of legislation for border communities, and border legislators should take the lead in writing it.  That is their job, after all.  Sitting silently in the back of the room and hoping for the best is not going to cut it this time.

Congress needs to come up with a clean bill, dealing with immigration without further militarizing the borderlands.  No new border walls, no more pork for military contractors; instead we as a nation must address our dysfunctional immigration system in a way that is both effective and humane. 

We need immigration reform that doesn’t throw the border under the bus.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Broken Promises and Border Walls Push Jaguarundi to the Brink

by Scott Nicol
The long, low body moves in a permanent crouch as the lithe cat glides through the shaded underbrush.  Not much larger than a house cat, but with a lean, dark body more closely resembling a weasel’s than a tabby’s, the jaguarundi stalks small prey, birds and rodents mostly, in the thornscrub where the Gulf Coast meets the Rio Grande.

Even before farms, towns, and homes devoured 95% of the Lower Rio Grande Valley’s native habitat the jaguarundi’s secretive habits meant it was rarely seen.  Now there is scant evidence as to how many cats remain, though they are occasionally spotted.   In 2009 there were two sightings by Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens, though they were officially classified as unconfirmed in the absence of a photograph or carcass.

Loss of habitat and the fragmentation of what forested areas remain is the biggest obstacle to jaguarundi maintaining a healthy population, according to a draft recovery plan recently prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  If a patch of forest is too small, it may not contain enough food, and if patches are too far apart or split by roads or other barriers jaguarundi may not have sufficient territory to survive.  Isolated animals may also be cut off from potential mates, which can lead to inbreeding within a small population.

Ocelots, a slightly larger wild cat whose markings resemble a jaguar’s, inhabit the same South Texas territory and face the same problems as the jaguarundi.  Ocelots are better studied, with radio collared individuals in Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.  They regularly pause in front of motion-activated cameras there and in the nearby Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  Their total population in the United States is certainly less than 100, and possibly much lower.  Even fewer jaguarundi remain, which has led to both being listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The best way to save both species, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, is to provide them with enough habitat to forage and find mates.  The draft recovery plan calls for the purchase of land to replace and reconnect the native forest that they need, creating the wildlife corridor that the river-hugging refuge was originally meant to be.  But with the never-ending “fiscal cliff” crisis and calls to butcher the budgets of federal agencies like U.S. Fish and Wildlife they will be hard pressed to find the necessary funds.

When border walls were erected in South Texas, they repeatedly sliced through the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife refuge, fragmenting habitat that had been purchased specifically for ocelots and jaguarundi.  Humans have had no problem climbing border walls, with or without a homemade ladder, but for a small cat that has not evolved thumbs an 18 foot high steel wall is insurmountable. 


In 2008, after the Department of Homeland Security waived the Endangered Species Act and more than thirty other laws so that Customs and Border Protection could build border walls they prepared a so-called “Environmental Stewardship Plan” meant, they said, to demonstrate their continued commitment to the environment.  To address the fragmentation of the Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge and the loss of endangered species habitat the plan stated that Customs and Border Protection would provide U.S. Fish and Wildlife with the means to purchase 4,600 acres of land to reconnect sections of the refuge that were separated by walls.  These properties would be purchased from willing sellers, because the South Texas refuge complex refuses to condemn land and earn the enmity of its neighbors, in contrast to Customs and Border Protection, who ultimately carried out more than 400 condemnations to build border walls.

In the nearly five years since Customs and Border Protection made that promise how much have they delivered? 


Not one acre, not one foot, not one inch.

It is not as though Customs and Border Protection is strapped for cash.  A report issued this month found that the federal government throws more money at immigration enforcement than it provides to the FBI, Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshal Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives combined.  Somewhere in the $18 billion pot of cash that immigration enforcement agencies, Customs and Border Protection prominent among them, were swimming in in 2012 surely they could find a few dollars to buy a few acres and fulfill their overdue commitment.

Now Customs and Border Protection wants to build more miles of border wall in South Texas, tearing through Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos as well as further stretches of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  In addition to the further fragmentation of ocelot and jaguarundi habitat that this would bring, these walls would stand in the Rio Grande floodplain, putting communities on both sides of the river at risk from dammed or deflected water during a major flood.

Last summer they assured landowners and mayors that the new border walls would not pose a flood hazard, and that despite the obvious fact that a wall in a river is by definition a dam these walls would be just fine.

But as their unmet commitment to be good environmental stewards has shown, a Customs and Border Protection promise is not worth the paper it is written on.