Monday, October 24, 2011

A Wall in a River is a Dam

by Scott Nicol

In this week’s Republican debate Bachmann, Cain, and Romney each fought to prove that if elected President they would build longer, taller, and more deadly walls than their opponents. In the run up to the event, Representative Bahmann vowed that the length of her wall “will be every mile, it will be every yard, it will be every foot, it will be every inch of that border.” Not to be outdone, Herman Cain said, “It’s going to be 20 feet high. It’s going to have barbed wire on the top. It’s going to be electrified. And there’s going to be a sign on the other side saying, ‘It will kill you — Warning.’

In an effort to please politicians by erecting mile after mile of border wall, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to push for new walls in the floodplain between the Rio Grande and the Texas towns of Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos. To convince the International Boundary Water Commission (IBWC) to go along, CBP has tried to paper over the risk of increased flooding with more than a million dollars worth of reports and flood models. Walls in the floodplain are likely to either deflect water into Mexican cities or bottle it up in U.S. ones, and so far IBWC has rejected CBP’s claims to the contrary.

Last June CBP paid Baker Engineering for yet another flood model, which was used over the summer to pressure IBWC to reverse its position. The Sierra Club recently received a copy as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request.

The new flood model makes it clear that no changes in the border walls themselves are being considered. The walls’ locations are the same as those mapped out in a Baker report from 2009. They are still designed to split flood waters, diverting a portion of the flow into these three communities. The only difference is that the newer model uses a different computer program, allowing for more detail.

In 2009 CBP did not know what type of border wall they would like to build, so Baker’s model imagined a solid slab. Now CBP says that they plan to use a bollard design, similar to the walls built to the north of the levees in Cameron county. But in Cameron county the levees would keep flood waters away from the border wall, whereas the new walls would be in the floodplain, where there are no levees, and would be inundated if the Rio Grande were swollen by a major flood.

For this report, Baker assumed that debris in the bollards would block no more than 10% - 25% of the water. That led to the conclusion that walls would have minimal impacts. But the assumption that between 75% and 90% of the water in a major flood would pass harmlessly through the wall seems to be based on wishful thinking at best, or a desire to rig the model’s results at worst.

Flooding rivers pick up large amounts of debris, from trash to trees, and carry it along until they encounter an obstruction. Bollards spaced a few inches apart may allow crystal clear water to pass through, but in a flood debris will pile up. As the debris accumulates it blocks more and more water, and the border wall acts more and more like a dam.

This should not be news to CBP. The border walls that they have already built in Arizona, and which they promised would have no impact on flooding, have caused tremendous flood damage.

On July 12, 2008, seasonal monsoon rains swept through northern Mexico and southern Arizona. In the sister cities of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona the border wall acted as a dam. In addition to the wall built above ground it was later revealed that DHS had constructed a wall in a storm drain that passes beneath both cities without informing local officials or the International Boundary Water Commission. Water in the storm drain backed up and burst through the roof, adding to the flooding in the streets. Two people drowned, and millions of dollars of damage was sustained by Mexican businesses and residents.

The same storm caused flooding in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. CBP had stated categorically that border walls crossing washes in the monument, using a design similar to that proposed for the new South Texas sections, would be water permeable and therefore would not impact flooding. Grate openings 6 inches high and 24 inches wide that were built into the base of the wall were supposed to allow water to pass through, but they quickly became clogged with debris. The wall then acted as a dam, with water piling up behind it 2 to 7 feet deep. Backed up flood waters then traveled along the wall in search of an outlet, which was found at the Lukeville, Arizona port of entry, causing millions of dollars in damage to private and federal property.

Following this event, Baker Engineering was paid to run the length of the border wall from El Paso to San Diego and produce a report on the problems posed by the many walls that cross stream beds and washes. They documented “debris build-up which sometimes reached a height of 6 feet.” Their report concluded that, “fencing obstructs drainage flow every time a wash is crossed. With additional debris build-up, the International Boundary Water Commission’s (IBWC’s) criteria for rise in water surface elevations (set at 6” in rural areas and 3” in urban areas) can quickly be exceeded.”

Flood gates were installed, at a cost of over $24 million, in an attempt to prevent a repeat of the 2008 flooding. These gates are massive, and to work require Border Patrol agents to predict a flood, drive into a wash ahead of the water, throw a cable over a bar at the top of the wall, hook it to the top of the gate, and use their Jeep’s winch to pull the gate up. Then the agents need to get out of the wash and get to high ground. If they are not quick enough, they could be swept away or slammed into the wall by raging flood waters. If they manage to get out of the way they may be forced to wait on high ground between flooded washes until the waters recede.

Last August one of the sections of Arizona border wall that CBP had retrofitted with flood gates was knocked over and washed away by the force of flood waters after just over two inches of rain fell. Debris build-up had again turned the wall into a dam, just as it had in 2008. In this case, instead of following the wall to the nearest port of entry, the debris piled higher and higher the water poured over the top like a waterfall. The falling water tore away the wall’s foundation at the same time as the weight and pressure of the water pushed against the wall with increasing force. A forty-foot wide section of border wall fell.

Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling blamed the wall’s failure on human error, apparently because agents had not gone into washes ahead of the flash flood to open flood gates.

But the problem does not lie with patrol agents who cannot predict the weather, or don’t want to drive into a riverbed during a flood. The problem is higher up CBP’s command structure, with administrators who are so fixated on building walls, and thereby pleasing their superiors, that they overlook a basic fact:

A wall in a river is a dam.

It is time for Customs and Border Protection to face up to the fact that when they build walls in flood-prone areas, they may be able to ignore the impacts on paper, but not in the real world. The walls that they are pushing in Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos will have a disastrous impact on the very homeland that they are supposed to protect. Customs and Border Protection needs to ignore political pressure and give up on these last sections of border wall, before they do any more damage.

The June 2011 flood model for walls in Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos can be downloaded here:

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Assault on Public Lands and Environmental Laws up for a House Vote

By Scott Nicol

How does waiving the Endangered Species Act in Hawaii help secure the U.S. – Mexico border?

Simple. It doesn’t.

But that obvious fact is irrelevant to Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, author of the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act (HR 1505). Bishop claims that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot enforce immigration laws without violating the rest of our nation’s laws, so his bill waives 36 federal laws within 100 miles of the U.S. – Mexico border, the U.S. – Canada border, and all U.S. coastlines, for anything that DHS may want to do.

Most of the laws that HR 1505 tosses aside, including the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act, protect the environment, but it also waives laws like the Farmland Policy Protection Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

This bill is an expansion of the Real ID Act, which gave the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to waive local, state, and federal laws to build walls along the southern border.

The existing Real ID Act waivers, which HR 1505 expands, have caused tremendous environmental damage. To build border walls 530,000 cubic yards of rock was blasted from mountainsides in the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area; walls have caused serious flooding in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument; and walls fragment the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which was established for the preservation of endangered ocelots. Without the waiver, these walls would be illegal.

Bishop’s bill would also give DHS the run of all federally owned lands, in all 50 states, with absolutely no restrictions. Has a lack of access to the Everglades, or Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, or the lawn around the Statue of Liberty, prevented DHS from securing the southern border?

Not according to the Border Patrol.

The irony is that the Border Patrol, which operates under DHS’ umbrella, has not asked for the power to overrule land managers or ignore environmental laws. Last spring the Government Accountability Office found that, “Most agents reported that land management laws have had no effect on Border Patrol’s overall measure of border security.”

When Rep. Bishop introduced a similar bill last year Brandon Judd of the National Border Patrol Council said, “I would definitely look and see if there are some restrictions that are too restrictive. But to get rid of all restrictions, you would destroy the land.”

Representative Bishop has a long history of attacking protected lands and environmental regulations. He is currently pushing for a repeal of the Antiquities Act and a ban on new National Monuments. HR 1505 is just more of the same.

This Wednesday the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act will be up for a vote in the House Natural Resources Committee, which Rep. Bishop, in a bit of Orwellian irony, chairs. Packed with Tea Party darlings like Bishop, the bill is almost certain to pass and be sent on to the full House of Representatives.

This is the week to contact your representatives and tell them that HR 1505 is not about protecting our nation. It is an assault on federal lands and environmental laws using border security as a convenient cover, nothing more.

For more information, visit

Friday, September 16, 2011

CBP Willing to Risk Flooding to Erect New Walls in Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos

By Scott Nicol

It was just over a year ago that the rising waters of the Rio Grande prompted the mandatory evacuation of Los Ebanos, Texas. Residents rushed to grab what they could before floodwaters cut off the town.

Before the flood, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was pressuring the U.S. half of the International Boundary Water Commission (USIBWC) to approve the construction of border walls through Los Ebanos, as well as Rio Grande City and Roma, that could have worsened the flooding. CBP had even gone so far as to request that the US half of the International Boundary Water Commission act “unilaterally” and approve walls in the floodplain despite the objections of the Mexican half.

The plans for border walls drafted after the passage of the Secure Fence Act showed South Texas on the receiving end of 69 miles of border wall in 21 disconnected sections. The westernmost three sections, designated O-1, O-2, and O-3, were to be through the communities of Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos.

In 2008 the US International Boundary Water Commission made it clear that any walls built along the Rio Grande must comply with US-Mexico treaties. The Real ID Act allowed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection’s parent agency, to waive all federal, state, and local laws, but not treaties. Walls built in the flood plain adjacent to the Rio Grande might deflect flood waters towards Mexico, causing flood damage to Mexican communities. Deflection might also cause the river to settle into a new channel farther to the south, which would effectively change the location of the US-Mexico boundary. Either of these would be a treaty violation.

In Cameron County and most of Hidalgo our treaty obligations meant that border walls could not be built between the existing flood control levees and the river, so walls were constructed on, in, or north of the levees. Those walls are, for the most part, finished. But unlike the downriver sections, Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos do not have USIBWC flood control levees. The border walls in these three communities would therefore be in the flood plain.

Because of the wall’s likely flood impacts USIBWC rejected these three sections of border wall.

A few days after the 2008 elections CBP informed Representative Cuellar, whose district encompasses these communities, that these border wall sections were “on hold.” At the time Cuellar said, “This is a big victory.” He went on to tell the Associated Press, “We're hoping that this will allow us to work with the next president to find ... alternative methods for security."

Representative Cuellar’s constituents also hoped that that would be the last they would hear of plans to wall off their towns from the river, but in a May, 2010 report on the Secure Border Initiative (which includes both solid and “virtual” border walls) the Government Accountability Office stated, “CBP plans to construct an additional 14 miles of pedestrian fencing in the Rio Grande Valley sector.” These 14 miles are the combined Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos sections.

Documents uncovered by the Sierra Club through a Freedom of Information Act request over the last year demonstrate that, in fact, the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection continued to push for the construction of these walls, and were willing to disregard our treaty obligations and likely problems with flooding to do so.

A Customs and Border Protection “Fence Status Brief” dated April 27, 2009 reveals that to build the previously rejected walls CBP had decided upon a new plan. They would not change the design or location of the walls, or, better yet, give up on them entirely. Instead it says, “the new strategy involves developing a new floodplain model” and that, unlike the old model approved by USIBWC that “predicted noteworthy floodplain impacts from the fence,” “this model will demonstrate the impacts of the proposed fence will be minimal.”

The verb tense - "this model will demonstrate" - is important. It appears that CBP determined the outcome in advance, rather than commissioning an honest, unbiased model that would accurately describe the effects of structures built in the floodplain.

The “new flood plain model”, prepared by Baker Engineering, was completed in December 2009. Presented to CBP eight months after their fence status brief forecast its findings, its conclusion fit the earlier prediction precisely. The “noteworthy floodplain impacts” of building border walls in a floodplain that were predicted just a year earlier disappeared; instead, Baker now claimed that walls would have a “minimal effect on the Rio Grande floodplain.”

Baker decided this without even knowing what type of border wall design would be used. In 2008, CBP proposed a number of designs that were touted as either allowing floodwaters to pass through without being dammed up, or able to be removed before rising water reached them. USIBWC rejected all of these unrealistic schemes. In their 2009 report Baker modeled the border wall as an 18’ high, impermeable wall, with the specific design, whether concrete or steel, posts or mesh or slabs, to be determined later. Since CBP apparently told Baker what the outcome of their modeling would be before they began, it seems that such details were unimportant.

One striking conclusion of Baker’s “new flood plain model” was that in the communities of Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos, border walls would “split” the flooding river. It states that for each wall segment, “Downstream of the flow split location, the flow continues in a north branch and a south branch on either side of the fence. The flow combines downstream of the point where the fence ends.”

This splitting is intentional. In the case of Rio Grande City, the wall was modeled with a 500 foot-wide opening in the middle specifically intended to split flood waters and send a portion of them north. Diverting water to the north of the border wall, into property on the US side of the river, means that less is deflected into Mexico. In this way CBP hopes to avoid flooding Mexican communities, and possibly pushing the Rio Grande into a new channel. Walls built in a floodplain will either deflect or divert floodwater, and the only real question is who is going to be on the receiving end.

Each of these wall sections begins upstream of a town and ends downstream of it. They begin close to the river, then the river and wall get farther apart before coming back together. So flood water that might not have reached properties where the proposed wall is farthest from the river will, with a wall in place, have “split” floodwaters channeled directly to them.

This is particularly striking for the Los Ebanos section. The community of Los Ebanos is nestled at the top of a deep bend in the river. The proposed wall would begin next to the Rio Grande at the top of this bend. While the river turns and heads due south, away from homes and the local school, the wall heads due east, directly towards them. That means that water that might have otherwise followed the river and flowed away from Los Ebanos will be split off by the wall, and be diverted into it. On the other side of town, instead of allowing the split flood waters to pour back into the Rio Grande, the wall makes a ninety degree turn, from east to north. Water that had been split off from the flooded river would therefore be bottled up in Los Ebanos.

A Customs and Border Protection Fence Status Brief dated January 20, 2010, written following the presentation of the “new flood plain model” to the Army Corps of Engineers and USIBWC, says that, “[acting USIBWC Commissioner] Ruth agreed no additional modeling is required and to ‘informally’ discuss the fence segments with the new Mexican IBWC Commissioner to determine if he will support.” The brief goes on to state that, “If it appears Mexico will continue to oppose fencing, CBP/DHS and IBWC/DOS [Department of State] to discuss potential unilateral decision to proceed with construction.”

A “unilateral decision” regarding the Rio Grande floodplain, taken by the US half of the International Boundary Water Commission in the face of opposition by the Mexican half, would be a serious treaty violation. The United States would essentially be challenging Mexico to try to stop us from building illegal walls.

On January 21, 2010, acting USIBWC Commissioner Ruth stepped aside, and Edward Drusina became the new commissioner. On his first day in office Commissioner Drusina wrote a letter to David Aguilar, the acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. He stated that, after examining the model that CBP had commissioned, “the USIBWC is not in a position to approve construction of the O-1, O-2 and O-3 fence projects.”

Rather than accept the fact that walls built in the Rio Grande floodplain will have unacceptable impacts, CBP repeatedly pressed the USIBWC to reverse its decision. On February 2, 2010, Aguilar responded to Drusina, “we respectfully request that the USIBWC and Department of State reconsider your position and approve a unilateral decision to allow us to proceed with the design and construction of the O-1, O-2 and O-3 fence segments.”

On July 20, just one week after the flooding Rio Grande forced the mandatory evacuation of Los Ebanos, CBP presented a briefing to the State Department on these three border wall sections. During the briefing CBP claimed that they had already spent “+$1M in “design analysis” costs”, and said that, “we need IBWC and Department of State’s support for an unilateral decision to proceed with the fence construction.”

USIBWC stood firm, and on September 17, 2010, Comissioner Drusina again denied CBP permission to build new walls in the Rio Grande flood plain. CBP continued to push back, and a month later the new CBP Commissioner, Alan Bersin, wrote to USIBWC, asking that they reconsider and complaining about “Mexico’s recent opposition to border fencing regardless of hydraulic modeling results.”

Bersin’s October 2010 letter to USIBWC is the most recent document uncovered by the Sierra Club’s Freedom of Information Act request. The Club was told that to obtain newer documents another request would have to be filed. One has, but it may take months for us to begin receiving more documents.

We have learned through a recent conversation with representatives of the USIBWC and State Department that following the October 2010 letter Commissioners Bersin and Drusina held at least two meetings to discuss the Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos walls. As a result of those meetings Baker Engineering was commissioned to develop yet another flood model. That model was completed last spring, and was reviewed by the Army Corps. of Engineers and USIBWC over the summer. It has not been released to the public.

While we hope that USIBWC continues to act in the best interests of the residents of these three communities and live up to its treaty obligations in the face of pressure from Customs and Border Protection, we have no guarantees. The discussions between these two agencies are being held behind closed doors, with landowners and community leaders kept out of the room. It may be months before we are able to see a copy of the latest flood model, and the only announcement that new border walls have been approved may be the arrival of construction crews.

US Representative Henry Cuellar, who represents Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos in Washington, should ensure that his constituents are kept informed and given a seat at the table when walls that could channel flood waters into their homes and property are discussed. As the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, he has the power to demand that CBP hold open public hearings in each of these communities. Customs and Border Protection owes residents the decency of a face to face explanation, before they build new border walls that could put people’s lives and properties at risk.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Congressional Push Continues to Gut Environmental Protections Along U.S. Borders

The Center for Biological Diversity has issued the following press release. No Border Wall is in complete agreement, and urges rational members of Congress to reject McCain's amendment to the DHS appropriations bill, along with similar measures in the House, most notably HR 1505.

TUCSON, Ariz.— Under the guise of border security, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) offered an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill today that would grant border-enforcement agencies free rein on federal lands within 300 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. After criticism from colleagues in his own party that the 300-mile limit went far beyond the scope of border-enforcement activities, McCain scaled it back to 100 miles, and the amendment was added to the bill.

“Politicians are playing games with important border-security legislation at the expense of laws that protect clean air, water and endangered species,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This amendment is unnecessary, unwanted and threatens significant harm to the wildlife, natural landscapes and people of the border region.”

The McCain amendment introduced today, similar to a bill proposed earlier this year by McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), does not specifically name any laws, but its guarantee of unfettered access for border-enforcement agencies on federal lands effectively neutralizes protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Existing law permits essential border-security activities even in designated wilderness areas, and an existing memorandum of understanding between Homeland Security and the Department of the Interior provides for cooperation between land managers and border agencies.

“Despite repeated statements and congressional testimony from border-security agencies that they neither want nor need the authority granted in this amendment, radical anti-environment forces in Congress continue to push this hoax on the American people,” said Serraglio. “The losers in this game will be jaguars, ocelots, Sonoran pronghorn and residents of border communities that will no longer benefit from fundamental protections that allow them to live and thrive in a healthy environment.”

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office concluded in a recent report that access to federal lands has not been limited in 22 of 26 sectors along the border, and that the only problems that have occurred in other sectors have been “minor delays.” Meanwhile, between 8,000 and 20,000 miles of wildcat roads have been blazed through a wilderness area in southern Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a majority of which, in recent years, has been caused by enforcement activities, according to a July report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This amendment pretends to address a problem that does not exist,” said Serraglio. “Clearly, access to federal lands for border-security personnel is not a significant issue in achieving operational control of the border. At best, the McCain amendment is a case of political grandstanding.”

“The false premise inherent in this proposal is that border security and a healthy environment are somehow mutually exclusive,” said Serraglio. “The truth is just the opposite. It has been shown time and again that collaboration between land managers and security agencies enhances both border security and protection of the diverse and vibrant landscapes of the borderlands.”

Monday, August 29, 2011

New Study: Border Hysteria Imperils Wildlife

by Dan Millis

In a Congress plagued by immigration hysteria, none is more gravely afflicted than South Carolina’s Republican Senator Jim DeMint. Twice in two weeks he added border pork to Senate bills, both times calling for 300-plus miles of walls to be imposed between the U.S. and Mexico. These are the fourth and fifth times in less than two years that he has made such attempts.

Delirious and angry lawmakers like DeMint seem oblivious to the 650 miles of barriers and walls that already occupy the Southwest’s borderlands, exacting high costs on taxpayers and public lands. Another side effect these lawmakers suffer is an acute indifference to the impacts caused by their border madness.

A new study in the Diversity and Distributions journal identifies 49 species put most at risk by border walls and areas of intensive human land use along the U.S.-Mexico border. The study only considers amphibian, reptile, and non-volant (don't fly) mammal species, and identifies California, the Sky Islands, the Gulf Coast as the three regions most heavily impacted.

One unique aspect of this study is that it doesn’t just look at current impacts wrought by existing border walls and areas with a heavy human footprint. Potential future impacts from border wall expansions such as those proposed by DeMint are also taken into consideration, and the results are sobering:

This graph from the study shows a horizontal base line representing our 2,000 mile border with Mexico. The three faint vertical lines in the left half of the graph represent the state borders between California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. The fatter horizontal line sitting atop the baseline shows where the taller “pedestrian” (10-25 feet tall) border walls are located along the border.

Then there is the vertical ‘species’ scale, which includes only species from the sample set that have already been listed as threatened, either binationally or by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The dashed line represents how many of these already-threatened species are put in grave danger by existing “pedestrian” border walls in each geographic location along the border. You’ll notice that there are few such species, which may be expected when working with such a small sample set of species to begin with.

However, the solid line is much less benign, with the number of vulnerable species spiking most dramatically here in Arizona (to the right [East] of first faint vertical line [CA-AZ border]). This line represents the number of already threatened species that would be pushed to the brink if proposals like DeMint’s were passed and border walls came to occupy even more precious habitat.

A key finding of the study states, "The REAL ID Act should be amended to reinstate environmental regulation of border security efforts." The REAL ID waiver of more than 30 vital federal protection laws along the border allowed walls to be built in violation of the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, and more.

Dan Millis is a Sierra Club Borderlands campaign organizer. To learn more about the Sierra Club's Borderlands Campaign visit

Monday, August 15, 2011

Our Worst Fears about the Border Wall Come True

By Stefanie Herweck

More human beings would die alone in remote deserts. Endangered species would be pushed to the brink. These were the fears that led humanitarians, environmentalists, and border residents to object to the walls along the U.S.-Mexico border called for by the Secure Fence Act of 2006. With 650 miles built, this summer has brought news that these fears are tragically coming true.

The journey taken by migrant men, women and children who set out across the U.S.-Mexico border has always been risky. But border walls have rerouted migrants away from the safety of urban areas and forced them to walk for greater distances over treacherous mountains and through searing deserts. All too easily they can become fatigued, dehydrated, and unable to go on. In too many cases, they die alone in remote areas.

This month an Arizona Daily Star analysis found that migrants today are almost three times more likely to die on their journey than people who crossed in 2006, the year before the walls began to go up. In fact, the rate of death—the number of deaths per 100,000 Border Patrol apprehensions—continues to increase even as fewer people are making the trek across the border.

Before the walls, in 2006, there were just 46 known deaths per 100,000 Border Patrol apprehensions. By 2010 the number had jumped to 118 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions, and so far 2011 already has a death rate of 129 per 100,000.
These human beings are also dying deeper in the desert and much further from roads than ever before. Because of the remoteness of the areas in which they die, many of the bodies discovered are just skeletal remains. Such are the real and tragic consequences of border walls.

The same walls that are pushing crossers deeper into deadly terrain slice though nature preserves that were established to protect endangered species. The Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge have seen critical wildlife habitat divided by walls. Environmentalists have argued that vulnerable species like the ocelot, whose U.S. population is less than 100 individuals in South Texas, would be walled off and trapped in small fragments of habitat. Without sufficient food, water, and potential mates, the population would dwindle.

Now scientists are beginning to uncover just how extensive the wall’s impacts are likely to be on endangered species. A recent article published in the journal Diversity and Distributions found that border walls impact 23 endangered species border-wide. Some species in California are blocked from as much as 75 percent of their ranges, a circumstance that makes the isolated populations extremely vulnerable to disease or natural disasters. The study also found that in South Texas border walls impact between 60 percent and 70 percent of the habitat set aside for endangered ocelots in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2008 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recognized that the border wall had damaged wildlife refuges along the border, and Congress appropriated $50 million to mitigate the effects of the wall border-wide. Money was promised to the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge to purchase land to replace the ocelot habitat that the border walls fragmented. But after DHS withheld the money for years, Congress took back the funds. DHS has no further plans to fix any of the environmental damage that its border walls have caused.

As predicted, the border wall has exacerbated the ongoing humanitarian crisis of migrant deaths and has devastated the environment. Nevertheless, some in Congress are calling for more walls and looking to strip border communities of their environmental protections under the pretense of border security.

Dan Millis has witnessed first-hand the human tragedy and environmental devastation unfolding daily along the U.S.-Mexico border. Shortly after finding the lifeless body of a young girl along a migrant trail in Arizona, Dan was convicted of littering for leaving bottles of clean water along trails in the same area. He now works for the Sierra Club in Tucson fighting on behalf of the people and places victimized by border walls and enforcement-only politics.

Dan will visit Texas' Rio Grande Valley to share his experiences, and discuss the impacts of flawed U.S. border policy and how you can make a difference on Monday evening, August 22nd at 7:00 pm at Galeria 409 in Brownsville and on Tuesday August 23rd at 7:00 pm at St. John the Baptist Parish Hall in San Juan. For more information and directions, visit

As border residents we need to educate ourselves about the terrible consequences of border walls and enforcement-only policies all along the border, and then inform our elected leaders.

Stefanie Herweck is chair of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club.

Friday, July 29, 2011

New Amendments Threaten Protected Lands

US representative Gosar has introduced two amendments (no. 20 and 55) to the Department of the Interior's annual appropriations bill that would do tremendous damage to our nation's protected federal lands. Representative Gosar’s (R-AZ) amendment No. 20 is an extreme attack on public lands even more overreaching than recent controversial legislation (H.R. 1505). Under this amendment the U.S. Border Patrol would be exempted from any regulation that would “impede or obstruct” patrol activities on every acre of federal land throughout the United States, putting national treasures at risk and throwing away a century of laws designed to protect our natural resources.

What federal lands would be put at risk?
All of them. This amendment decimates environmental and other protections on every single acre of federally owned lands, from areas in the southwest already at risk from Border Patrol Activities, like the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona, to places far from the border, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
• This amendment is NOT restricted to areas near the southwest border or even to areas near all borders, as past legislation has proposed.

What laws would be overturned?
All of them. This amendment is even more overreaching in its impact on federal lands than the controversial H.R. 1505 because it is not restricted to a long list of environmental regulations, but prevents the enforcement of any regulation, even those put in place for safety and other reasons.
• Other regulations that could be completely ignored are those that support economic development, allowing Border Patrol to interfere with grazing, mining, and drilling for oil and gas on public lands.

What Border Patrol activities would be exempted from any oversight?
• All of them. The amendment does not clearly define what “impede or obstruct” means or who would decide whether a law or regulation meets this standard and could therefore be ignored.
• The amendment is even more overreaching than past bills on the Border Patrol because it does not limit exempted activities to “operational control” – or activities specifically intended to prevent illegal entry into the country. Instead it exempts all “patrol activities” which, without definition, could mean any activity undertaken by the Border Patrol.
• This will create conflict between agencies that have begun to work very effectively together to resolve issues surrounding Border Patrol activities.

Is the amendment even needed by the Border Patrol?

No. The amendment would override multiagency coordination that has been occurring on Federal lands since a 2006 Memorandum of Agreement between the Departments of Homeland Security, Interior, and Agriculture that has led to increased cooperation and leveraged resources.
• 22 out of 26 Border Patrol stations on the southern border with Mexico report that the border security of their area of operation has not been affected by land management laws beyond some minor delays. Instead, factors like rugged terrain—and not access delays or restrictions—have the highest impact on operational control.
• Exemptions already exist that allow Border Patrol Officers in pursuit to continue onto any federal land regardless of regulations or laws. Other exemptions have also been established administratively to ensure the Border Patrol has the access necessary to secure the border.

In addition, Rep. Gosar has also introduced amendment No. 55, another extreme attack on federal lands. Similar to amendment No. 20, this amendment would exempt the Border Patrol from any environmental review, from protecting clean air and water, from honoring and respecting the history and culture of native people, from preserving biodiversity, and more.

Who isn’t hurt by this amendment?
Representative Gosar’s friends in industries like oil and gas drilling, grazing, mining, and logging are taken off the hook in this updated version of amendment No. 20. Amendment No. 20 exempts the Border Patrol from “any regulation” meaning that rules allowing for development and resources extraction could also be trampled by any Border Patrol activities. Amendment No. 55, however, spares these special interests and instead focuses its attack on the environment, biodiversity, and native people.

What environmental and cultural laws would be overturned?
A similar list of laws to that found in H.R. 1505 is included in the amendment. These laws represent a century of bipartisan efforts to protect the environment, intelligently manage public lands, and demonstrate respect for historical and cultural sites.

The exempted laws include:

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq.)
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.)
The Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. 1251 et seq.)
The National Historic Preservation Act (16 U.S.C. 470 et seq.).
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (16 U.S.C. 703 et seq.)
The Clean Air Act (42 U.S.C. 7401 et seq.).
The Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (16 U.S.C. 18 470aa et seq.).
The Safe Drinking Water Act (42 U.S.C. 300f et seq.).
The Noise Control Act of 1972 (42 U.S.C. 4901 et seq.).
The Solid Waste Disposal Act (42 U.S.C. 6901 et seq.).
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (42 U.S.C. 9601 et seq.)
The Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act' and the Archaeological Recovery Act (16 U.S.C. 469 et seq.).
The Antiquities Act (16 U.S.C. 431 et seq.).
The Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act (16 U.S.C. 461 et seq.)
The Farmland Protection Policy Act (7 U.S.C. 4201 et seq.).
The Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 (16 U.S.C. 1451 et seq.).
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (43 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.).
The Wilderness Act (16 U.S.C. 1131 et seq.).
The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 (16 U.S.C. 668 et seq.).
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (25 U.S.C. 3001 et seq.).
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (42 U.S.C. 1996 et seq.).
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.).
The Federal Grant and Cooperative Agreement Act of 1977 (31 U.S.C. 6303 et seq.)

What Species would be impacted?
The bill waives compliance with all provisions of the ESA on federal lands. Species throughout the nation that would be impacted include

In the Southwest
• Mexican spotted owl
• Desert tortoise
• Jaguar
• Ocelot
• Sonoran pronghorn
• Chiricahua leopard frog

Elsewhere in the country
• Florida Panther
• Canada lynx
• Polar bear
• Hawaii akepa (honeycreeper)
• Leatherback sea turtle
• West Indian manatee

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How much do border walls cost? Just the facts:

There is a wide cost range for the construction of pedestrian border walls, resulting from factors which include labor (some sections were built by members of the National Guard, while others were built by private contractors); topography; remote vs. urban locations; land purchases and condemnations; materials (wall sections built in the 1990’s used scrap metal, obtained from the military for free, while more recent sections have required the purchase of concrete, steel, etc.); and the design that is being utilized.

In October 2008 the Houston Chronicle reported that “The Army Corps of Engineers estimated that the amount spent for pedestrian fencing has jumped 88 percent since February to $7.5 million per mile. The costs for vehicle barriers have increased 40 percent to $2.8 million per mile, according to the GAO.”
“As border fence lags, costs, controversy rise” by Stewart Powell, Houston Chronicle, October 10, 2008

In January, 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that costs for sections built up to that point ranged from $400,000 to $15.1 million. They also noted that these cost estimates were not independently verified and, “An Independent Auditor's Report on DHS's Fiscal Year 2008 Financial Statements found that CBP did not have adequate policies and procedures in place to properly account for steel purchases and construction of the U.S. border fence in an accurate and timely manner. As a result, for several months throughout the year, CBP’s financial statements did not accurately reflect the construction activity.”
Secure Border Initiative Fence Construction Costs, United States Government Accountability Office, January 29, 2009

The GAO’s January 2009 report only included border wall sections that had been completed, not those which were under construction or in various stages of planning.

Sections that were later constructed included the 3.6 miles of pedestrian border wall built through the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, at a cost of $57.7 million, averaging just over $16 million per mile.
“$57.7-million fence added to an already grueling illegal immigration route” by Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2010

Also unfinished at the time were the border wall and earthen berm blocking Smuggler’s Gulch, near San Diego, which cost $59 million for 3.5 miles, averaging $16.8 million per mile.
“A Barren Promise at the Border” by Rob Davis, Voice of San Diego, October 22, 2009

According to the GAO it will cost an estimated $75 million per year to maintain border walls. As of mid-May 2009, the fence had been breached more than 3,300 times, with costs to repair each breach averaging $1,300.
Secure Border Initiative: Technology Deployment Delays Persist and the Impact of Border Fencing Has Not Been Assessed, Government Accountability Office, September 2009

In 2011 the GAO stated that “CBP estimated that the border fencing had a life cycle of 20 years and over these years, a total estimated cost of about $6.5 billion to deploy, operate, and maintain the fencing and other infrastructure. According to CBP, during fiscal year 2010, there were 4,037 documented and repaired breaches of the fencing and CBP spent at least $7.2 million to repair the breaches, or an average of about $1,800 per breach.”
BORDER SECURITY: DHS Progress and Challenges in Securing the U.S. Southwest and Northern Borders, United States Government Accountability Office, March 30, 2011

In the spring and summer of 2011, CBP replaced 2.77 miles of existing “landing mat” fence in Nogales, which had suffered numerous breaches, with “bollard” fencing, at a cost of $11.6 million.
“Barrier Rebuilt” by Margaret Regan, Tucson Weekly, June 23, 2011

In 2010 the GAO reported that “Since fiscal year 2006, DHS has received about $4.4 billion in appropriations for SBI, including about $2.5 billion for physical fencing and related infrastructure, about $1.5 billion for virtual fencing (e.g., surveillance systems) and related infrastructure (e.g., towers), and about $300 million for program management.”
SECURE BORDER INITIATIVE: DHS Needs to Strengthen Management and Oversight of Its Prime Contractor, United States Government Accountability Office, October, 2010

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Border Skirmish: Republicans Are Using Immigrants to Bash Our Wilderness

by Char Miller

It would be nice if Congress held executive-branch agencies accountable for their actions. Or insisted that they follow federal law. Or fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities to one another.

But the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is making a mockery of these basic rules of order and good government.

You won't be surprised that the latest bit of GOP chicanery involves its twin obsessions: the U.S-Mexico Border and national environmental regulations. Their hyperventilating defense of the former, as I've noted before, comes with blustery assaults on the latter.

Since November, Utah representative Rob Bishop, chair of the House subcommittee on public lands, along with his gal pal, Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and a host of fellow travelers, have mounted an incessant campaign to allow the U. S. Border Patrol to ignore key provisions of the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other vital environmental laws.

Arguing that such legislation impedes the Border Patrol's capacity to defend the nation against undocumented migrants, they have filed amendments and riders to pending legislation, called public hearings to lambaste officials of the Department of Interior, and penned fulminating op-eds to rouse the party's extremist base.

Their most recent gambit came late last week in the form of an amendment to the Department of Homeland Security's appropriation. Rep. Lummis proposed, and a lock-step Republican vote secured, a rule prohibiting DHS from transferring funds to the Department of the Interior.

These moneys would have been used to mitigate the oft-intense environmental damage resulting from the construction of the infamous border wall across federal wildlife refuges, wildlands, and preserves, in such places as the Rio Grande Valley; Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument; and the Otay Wilderness near San Diego. And from the spinning wheels of its high-speed patrols that can tear up wildlife habitat or damage sensitive ecosystems.

Such mitigation, required by law, is also sanctioned through longstanding practice among localities, states, and the federal government. It is also a matter of committed environmental stewardship.

Neither the precedent nor the principle matters to contemporary Republicans. In a "Dear Colleague" letter that Bishop, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), chair of the Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chair of the Committee on Homeland Security sent out in support of Lummis' amendment, they thrilled at its anti-environmentalism: "the amendment would strike language in the bill that allows these funds to be used by the Interior Department to purchase even more land. Additional federal land acquisition only exacerbates the problem by limiting access to even more land and further bloating the federal estate--at a time when the government cannot even afford to provide the basic care and maintenance needed for existing national parks and other lands."

(Query: why can't the government afford to take care of its treasured public lands? Answer: drastic Republican budget cuts!)

Lummis heaps just as much scorn on the legal obligations and moral responsibilities the government has for protecting our public lands: "Every day our nation's border patrol fights to protect our country against increasingly sophisticated criminal networks that produce and smuggle illegal drugs, and people, into America," she fumed. "Unfortunately, DOI policies have tied the hands of Border Patrol agents, who need access to federal lands to carry out their constitutional responsibility to secure the border."

Her allegation is bogus. The very same Government Accountability Office report that Lummis and Bishop routinely cite as evidence that environmental regulations have handcuffed the Border Patrol, in fact reached the opposite conclusion. In mid-April, for instance, the GAO found that "22 of the 26 patrol agents-in-charge reported that the overall security status of their jurisdiction had not been affected by land management laws. Instead, factors such as the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain have had the greatest effect on their ability to achieve operational control in these areas."

The report also revealed that the four patrol agents-in-charge who had "reported that delays and restrictions had affected their ability to achieve or maintain operational control," admitted they "either had not requested resources for increased or timelier access or their requests had been denied by senior Border Patrol officials because of higher priority needs of the agency."

Moreover, the GAO investigation demonstrated that relevant agencies out in the field and inside the Beltway have developed close working relations. To argue otherwise, as Lummis and Bishop reflexively do, is to perpetuate a fraud.

Ah, but why let the facts get in your way when you can wrap yourself in the flag as protective cover? Trumpets Lummis: "our nation's security should be our top priority." Wilderness be damned.

Such a blinkered public policy, in point of fact, will lead us into damnation. That's the potent message embedded in Aldo Leopold's private correspondence and his brilliant conservation classic, Sand County Almanac (1948).

Arguing that wilderness is an irreplaceable part of our "cultural inheritance," and that even then was in precious, dwindling supply--it is a "resource that can shrink but cannot grow"--Leopold urged his fellow citizens to defend these beleaguered lands against those with a narrowly conceived notion of homeland security "If we lose our wilderness, we have nothing left...worth fighting for."

Note, please, that Leopold was a Republican.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and editor of the just-published "Cities and Nature in the American West."

Reprinted with the author's permission, this essay was originally posted at KCET:

Friday, May 20, 2011

Congressional Nightmares Fuel a New Assault on our Borderlands

By Scott Nicol

In his recent speech in El Paso President Obama pointed to the buildup of border security personnel and infrastructure, and declining crime rates in border communities, to justify a renewed effort to enact immigration reform. This will be a tough sell in the current Congress.

Just three weeks earlier the difficulty of his task was on display in Washington DC when Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) displayed photos of headless corpses while shouting at Ron Vitiello, Deputy Chief of the US Border Patrol, during a committee hearing. Vitiello had enraged Representative Chaffetz by calmly asserting that, “While there is still work to be done, every key measure shows we are making significant progress along the Southwest border.”

The horrific pictures were not taken within U.S. borders, and so were outside of the Border Patrol’s jurisdiction, despite Chaffetz’ cries that “This is the kind of thing that we’re sending our agents to deal with on a daily basis!”

Chaffetz’ anger boiled over because Deputy Chief Vitiello was not following the Congressman’s script. The facts, that border communities are safe and apprehensions are down, were not welcome.

The Congressional hearing was intended to paint a picture of the U.S. southern border as a war zone, awash in blood and the mutilated bodies of innocents. In this telling, the Border Patrol fights valiantly to achieve “operational control” and quell the violence, but it is hamstrung by environmental laws and federal land managers who care more about endangered species than human life.

It was meant to promote HR 1505, the misnamed “National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act.” Starting with the premise that the Border Patrol has been prevented from entering federal wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and national monuments along the southern border, it gives the Border Patrol carte blanche on federal lands.

Like the photos of headless bodies, this provision is based on a false impression of our southern border. The Border Patrol and federal land management agencies signed a cooperative agreement in 2006 allowing access to protected lands that Vitiello said works well. Rugged terrain and remote locations are the real problems reported by agents in the field, not restrictions imposed by land managers.

The bill goes on to exempt the Border Patrol from obeying dozens of environmental laws.

Its precursor, the Real ID Act, was used in 2008 to waive 36 laws along the southern border to erect border walls. The Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act were among those brushed aside to allow for construction that otherwise would have violated them. This resulted in severe environmental damage.

HR 1505 extends the 2008 waivers to cover all of the U.S. – Mexico border, the Canadian border, all maritime borders, and every square inch of terrain within 100 miles of them.

The waiver covers some of our nation’s most important protected areas, from Glacier National Park and the Boundary Waters to Redwood National Park and the Cape Cod National Seashore. Two-thirds of the population of the United States would also fall under the waiver.

Instead of thanking the Congressmen for freeing the Border Patrol from these legal burdens, Deputy Chief Vitiello undermined HR 1505’s premise. He confirmed the Government Accountability Office finding that “Most agents reported that land management laws have had no effect on Border Patrol’s overall measure of border security.”

The photos of headless bodies were displayed in an effort to discredit the Border Patrol’s testimony, and to burn a brutal image into viewers’ minds that would overwhelm the facts that Vitiello presented.

The angry tirades aimed at the Border Patrol made it clear that the “National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act” really has nothing to do with national security. It does not help the Border Patrol, and they did not ask for it. It is nothing more than an assault on our nation’s public lands and environmental laws.

Speaking within sight of the border, President Obama said that “despite a lot of breathless reports that have tagged places like El Paso as dangerous… El Paso and other cities and towns along this border are consistently among the safest in the nation.”

America cannot develop rational policies that protect border residents and ecosystems by picking and choosing facts any more than we can support the rule of law by cherry picking which laws to obey and waiving the rest. With members of congress choosing fear over facts, ungrounded nightmares instead of FBI statistics, the reform that the president spoke of remains a distant dream.

Here is part one of the April 15 hearing on HR 1505

Here is part two. Rep. Chaffetz brandishes the photos of corpses around a half-hour into this clip.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Congressional Proposals Aim to Eviscerate Environmental Laws Along U.S. Borders, Coasts

Press Release from:

Randy Serraglio, Center for Biological Diversity
Scott Nicol, Sierra Club Borderlands Team
Jenny Neeley, Sky Island Alliance
Matt Clark, Defenders of Wildlife
Mike Quigley, The Wilderness Society
Nathan Newcomer, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance
Matt Skroch, Arizona Wilderness Coalition

Under Guise of Border Security, Bills Would Eliminate Measures
Protecting Air, Water, Endangered Species

TUCSON, Ariz.— Two bills pending in Congress would eliminate environmental laws along U.S. borderlands — including those that protect endangered species and safeguard clean air and water — under the guise of improving border security. The “National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act” (H.R. 1505), introduced by Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, would permanently exempt border-enforcement activities from 31 environmental and cultural resource laws within 100 miles of all U.S. borders and coasts.

The “Border Security Enforcement Act of 2011” (S. 803), introduced by Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, would effectively give the Department of Homeland Security veto power over environmental protections on public lands within 150 miles of the southwestern border. Land managers in the border region would be prevented from acting to protect the resources they manage if their actions were perceived to conflict with Department of Homeland Security activities.

“These bedrock environmental laws were put in place for a reason: to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the natural resources and wildlife we value,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It makes no sense to turn our back on these laws to satisfy the narrow agenda of a few politicians looking to score points with their most extreme constituents.”

The authority included in these bills has not been requested. In fact, it has been deemed unnecessary by border-enforcement agencies. During an April 15 congressional hearing on border security, U.S. Border Patrol Deputy Chief Ronald Vitiello testified that his agency “enjoys a close working relationship” with public lands agencies that “allows it to fulfill its border enforcement responsibilities.” Vitiello said his agency “is fully committed to continuing our cooperative relationships with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture.”

“These bills have been introduced solely to satisfy the radical whims of a small minority of anti-environment extremists in Congress,” said Jenny Neeley, conservation policy director for Sky Island Alliance. “These proposals threaten the entire Sky Islands region we work to protect by establishing a dangerous legal precedent of permanently erasing environmental and cultural resource protections across huge swaths of the United States.”

Barrier and road construction, off-road driving, stadium lighting and other border-enforcement activities already threaten parks, refuges and other protected areas as well as many species in the border region, including endangered jaguars and ocelots in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

“Too much damage has been done to our borderlands already,” said Scott Nicol, Sierra Club Borderlands Team co-chair. “From massive blasting and erosion in California wilderness areas to devastating floods in Arizona and fragmented habitat for endangered species in Texas, the implementation of border enforcement with callous disregard for our nation’s environmental laws has caused one disaster after another.”

“Protections for endangered wildlife, water and clean air are not standing in the way of border security,” said Matt Clark with Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson. “All Congress has to do is look at the facts: Apprehensions of immigrants illegally crossing the border have fallen by two-thirds over the past decade. Border Patrol and land-management agencies have been effectively working together, and it’s clear that it takes teamwork to secure the border and protect the environment.”

“These efforts to discard the rule of law rest on the false premise that we can have border security or we can have functioning borderlands ecosystems, but not both. That's wrong. We can — and we should — have both,” said Mike Quigley, Arizona representative of The Wilderness Society.

“Protected areas such as wilderness and national parks along our borders provide us with essential environmental services, premier recreation opportunities and important habitat for our wildlife heritage,” said Matt Skroch, executive director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. “These shortsighted efforts to waive laws are penny wise and pound foolish. Border enforcement and natural resource management are not and should not be mutually exclusive.”

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Border Walls versus Environmental Justice

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.”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Climbing the Border Wall

A recent video clip showing two young women scaling the border wall in under 20 seconds has gone viral. The video was shot by a crew working on the film The Other side of Immigration, in what appears to be the Arizona desert. FOX and other media outlets have done stories on it, and as of today it has been watched 456,602 times on Youtube.

Here is the clip:

Most of the responses have been a mix of surprise and amusement that a federal project that has soaked up over $3 billion, and has involved more than 400 condemnation suits against landowners and the waiving of 36 federal laws would be so easy to overcome.

It should not surprise anyone.

Climbing the San Diego "triple fence." Photo by Laura Garcia.

Bush administration Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said in 2007, "I think the fence has come to assume a certain kind of symbolic significance which should not obscure the fact that it is a much more complicated problem than putting up a fence which someone can climb over with a ladder or tunnel under with a shovel."

Clip from the documentary The Wall.

Climbing the border wall in the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area while Border Patrol agents look on. Photo by Italia Milan.

Border Patrol spokesperson Mike Scioli said, "The border fence is a speed bump in the desert."

But that is likely giving it too much credit. In this clip former President Bush is giving an interview in front of the border wall, discussing the efficacy of his border security measures. Just over his shoulder a group of immigrants jump the wall:

Before the border walls that President Bush touted were built, Del Rio, Texas, Border Patrol Chief Randy Hill predicted, "We're going to see steel barriers erected on the borders where U.S. and Mexican cities adjoin. These will slow down illegal crossers by minutes." He made no claim that they would stop anyone.

Photo from a Time Magazine article titled "The Great Wall of America."

The border wall has been a farce since its inception. Forget the "danged fence." It is time to admit that the emperor has no clothes, and address immigration reform and substance abuse in a rational manner.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The New Congress Will Try to Build More Border Walls

By Scott Nicol

I generally refrain from making New Year’s predictions, but following the mid-term elections one thing has been crystal clear: barring divine intervention or a grass-roots outcry loud enough to drown out the Tea Party, the new Congress will pass legislation requiring hundreds of miles of new border walls.

In the final days of the Congressional “lame duck” session Democrats struggled to line up votes in the Senate to pass the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for those who had been brought into the United States as minors, and who completed two years of college or military service. Hoping to bring Republicans on board, slots were left open for two Republican amendments, should the bill make it to the Senate floor.

Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC).

Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina took one of those slots for an amendment that would change the Secure Fence Act to require 700 miles of “pedestrian” border walls; vehicle barriers built along the border could no longer be applied to the mile count. Currently, 302 miles of vehicle barriers are included in the Department of Homeland Security’s official total of 646 miles of border wall. DeMint’s amendment would require Customs and Border Protection to build 356 miles of new “pedestrian” wall. With “pedestrian” walls averaging $7.5 million per mile, this could cost taxpayers $2,670,000,000. And with California, Arizona, and New Mexico largely walled off, most of those miles would come to Texas.

Passage of the DREAM Act should have been fairly easy, as many Republican Senators had supported it in the past. Ten years ago Republican Senator Orin Hatch actually co-wrote the DREAM Act. Before he voted against his own creation this year, his spokesperson simply said, “Times have changed.”

The need for immigration reform has not changed. What has changed is the political landscape, particularly in the Republican Party. Where once Karl Rove cautioned against alienating Hispanic voters, the hard tack to the right brought on by the Tea Party has convinced Republicans that support of immigration reform could cost them their next election. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who had planned to coauthor Comprehensive Immigration Reform with Democratic Senator Charles Schumer in early 2010, said at the end of the same year, "There's no way I can go to the people in South Carolina and say, 'Let's pass the Dream Act,' when we've done nothing on the border and there's a raging war in Mexico."

When Senator Graham says “we’ve done nothing on the border” he knows full well that the opposite is true. The Government Accountability Office presented a report to Congress in November of 2010 that stated,

Border Patrol agents staffed along the U.S. borders have increased from 11,264 in 2005 to 20,161 as of June 2010, with 2,139 agents staffed on the northern border and 17,089 agents staffed on the southwest border. In regard to infrastructure, CBP’s SBI office reported that as of April 2010, it had completed 646 of the 652 miles of border fencing—including pedestrian fencing and permanent vehicle barriers—that it committed to deploy along the southwest border.”

Bollard border wall in California. Photo by Jay Johnson Castro.

The myth that borders can be made airtight through the construction of hundreds of miles of border wall or the doubling of Border Patrol agents should have been laid to rest by the fact that after these things were done the cries from politicians that the borders are broken are louder than ever.

Republicans voted in lock-step to prevent the DREAM Act from reaching the floor of the Senate. Even Senator DeMint, who planned to attach his amendment to it, voted against even debating the bill.

DeMint’s proposed amendment to the DREAM Act is identical to the one that he successfully attached to the Department of Homeland Security’s appropriation bill in 2009. Texas Senators Cornyn and Hutchison voted in favor of the 2009 amendment, as they have for every border wall bill that has come before them. But because there was not a matching amendment in the House version of the bill Representative Ciro Rodriguez (D-TX) was able to remove it in the House -Senate conference committee.

Once the new Congress is sworn in the House of Representatives will no longer act as a brake on Senator DeMint’s desire to build more border walls. Ciro Rodriguez lost his reelection bid, and, thanks in part to the success of Tea Party candidates, Republicans will control the House. In addition to new members like Ben Quayle (R-AZ) who put militarizing the border front and center in their campaigns, the next Congress will see some of the border wall’s biggest backers chairing key House committees.

Signing ceremony for the Secure Fence Act of 2006

Peter King (R-NY) will be the new chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. He wrote the Secure Fence Act, which mandated the hundreds of miles of wall that now slice through border communities, farms, and wildlife refuges. In the White House photo of the Secure Fence Act signing ceremony he can be seen looking over President Bush’s shoulder, smiling from ear to ear. Last week he told the New York Post that, “The Obama Administration continues to display an obvious lack of urgency when it comes to operational control of the border.” He went on to list border walls as an important tool for gaining control.

The House Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration laws and legislation, will be chaired by Texas Republican Lamar Smith. Lamar Smith was a vocal backer of the Secure Fence Act. He also co-sponsored a 2008 “English-only” bill, and supported an amendment forbidding the US government from telling the Mexican government about the activities of Minuteman border vigilantes. This past October he wrote an op-ed for FOX News, saying that, “If we want to prevent another terrorist attack, we must prevent terrorists from getting to the U.S. in the first place. That means finishing the border fence and giving Border Patrol all the necessary resources to keep our borders safe.” Apparently Rep. Smith missed the 9/11 Commission’s finding that none of the September 11 terrorists entered the U.S. by crossing a land border.

Iowa Republican Steve King is expected to lead the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration Subcommittee. In 2006 Rep. King assembled a model of the border wall during Congressional debate on the Secure Fence Act and suggested running electric current through it, saying, “we do this with livestock all the time.” Last month King said that as Immigration Subcommittee Chair he planned to conduct a formal review of the Obama Administration’s spending on border enforcement and push for construction of new border walls. He told the New York Times, “Build it until they stop going around the end – that would be my standard.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) builds his wall on the House floor

Rep. Smith and the two Kings, along with Senator DeMint, are so enamored with the idea of a border wall that they have not bothered to look at whether the wall actually prevents immigrants, smugglers, or terrorists from entering the United States. Even Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which Congress tasked with building walls, cannot say whether or not they do anything. The November Government Accountability Office report found that, “As of May 2010, CBP had not assessed the effect of fencing on border security.”

But that will not stop Senator DeMint from reintroducing his amendment next year. The Senate passed it in 2009, and although Democrats will still control the chamber it will be more conservative now than it was then. Senator DeMint was an early and ardent backer of Tea Party candidates, and they will be anxious to return the favor by supporting his bill. And with Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives, Ciro Rodriguez gone, and the key committees in the hands of Representatives who have long histories of supporting border walls, the DeMint amendment is all but assured of passage there as well.

Once it passes the House and Senate, it will be up to President Obama to decide whether or not more walls are built. Will he veto an entire bill (perhaps the Department of Homeland Security’s appropriation) to stop border walls? That would mean a head-on fight with Republicans over an issue that he has so far chosen to avoid. As Governor of Arizona, Janet Napolitano famously said, “You show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder." But as President Obama’s Secretary of Homeland Security, she failed to bring border wall construction to a halt.

The decision will come down to politics. If Democrats in the House and Senate oppose the DeMint amendment and vote against it, President Obama might oppose it as well. If it passes with Democratic support and votes, he will sign it.

So in looking ahead do we succumb to fatalism, and accept that eventually walls will stretch unbroken from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, cutting off South Texas from the river that slakes its thirst, waters its crops, and anchors its wildlife refuges? Or do we work to change the political dynamic that pushes for more and more and more border walls?

When Senator DeMint reintroduces his border wall amendment in 2011 most of the politicians who will vote for or against it represent districts that are hundreds of miles away from the border. Their votes will be based on opinion polls and political expediency, not an understanding of border security or concern for border communities. Senators Hatch and Graham voted against the DREAM Act not because they believed that it was a bad bill, but because they believed that supporting it would be bad politics. When the political winds changed, their votes changed.

The Tea Party was successful in changing the political landscape not just because they had the backing of FOX News and Koch Industries. They were also very loud. They made so much noise that their ideas, no matter how far off the deep end, became impossible to ignore. They shaped the political debate, and then they turned out to vote.

If we want to prevent the construction of more border walls we need to be just as loud, and make it clear that politicians who support more walls will be less likely to return to Washington after the next election. In the end, a politician’s vote on border walls is about job security, not border security.