What price immigration reform?

The immigration bill passed recently by the Senate garnered enough Republican votes to pass by a 68-32 margin, but only after it was larded up with costly and unnecessary “security” measures that will lead to an unprecedented militarization of the border and spell disaster for wildlife, wilderness and the border environment for generations.

The $46 billion package of security measures includes:

  •  $7.5 billion to double the miles of pedestrian fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, from 350 to 700—a distance equal to the length of the entire Mexican border with California, Arizona and New Mexico combined. Although determined and desperate humans will always find a way to go over, through or under these walls—former Arizona governor and current Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano once famously quipped: “show me a 50 foot fence, and I’ll show you a 51 foot ladder”--they are impenetrable to any creature lacking opposable thumbs larger than a lizard (and not a big lizard, either). Researchers have found that they are even a barrier to low-flying birds, such as endangered ferruginous pygmy owls.
  • $30 billion over the next 10 years to put more than 38,000 border patrol agents on the U.S. Mexico border, more than double the agency’s entire current force, which itself has doubled over the past eight years. That’s one agent every 90 yards, if evenly spaced along the 1954-mile long border. At the same time, arrests of illegal border crossers are at a 40-year low. It’s easy to understand why some human rights advocates worry that bringing in so many more armed, inexperienced personnel will inevitably lead to an increase in the type of confrontations that resulted in at least 16 civilians being shot by Border Patrol agents since 2010. 
  • $4.5 billion to purchase new technology, including:  four new drones, to add to the 10 already in use by the Border Patrol; six Northrop Grumman airborne radar systems at $9.3 million each; 15 Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters that cost more than $17 million apiece; eight light enforcement helicopters at $3 million a pop; 4,595 ground sensors; 104 radiation isotope identification devices; 53 fiber-optic tank inspection scopes, and 30 marine vessels. 

Curiously, the bill contains some unusual language that could provide a windfall worth millions of dollars to defense contractors looking for post-sequester opportunities as U.S. overseas military operations wind down.  Some of the high ticket equipment items in the bill are specified by brand, thus requiring the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to purchase from specific companies without going through the normal competitive bidding process. Even ultra-conservative Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) complained about this aspect of the bill, saying: “Taxpayers funds should enhance border security, not provide border stimulus for contractors.”

According to the Washington Post, the companies that make the products listed in the bill and their employees have given $11.5 million to federal candidates and campaigns since 2009, about half of that coming from Northrop Grumman.

In addition, the bill elevates law enforcement above all other considerations, such as the environment, health and safety, and, well, the law. It continues and expands the authority given to DHS under the REAL ID Act of 2005 to waive federal, state and local laws for the expeditious construction of roads, fences and other border infrastructure. DHS has invoked this authority—characterized as the largest waiver of law in U.S. history by the Congressional Research Service—five times in the past to circumvent such laws as the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Safe Drinking Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

Besides suspending the rule of law and turning the border into a militarized zone, wildlife and the environment will pay a heavy price. The U.S. Mexico border is home to a surprising diversity of wildlife and many important protected areas, including national parks, wildlife refuges, and national forests. The Sky Island region of southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico, for example, is home to nearly twice as many mammals as Yellowstone National Park. Survival in this parched land depends on access to water and resources on both sides of the border. Climate change is putting an even greater premium on wildlife being able to adjust their movements in search of shifting habitats. 

Some of the best wildlife habitat along the border is formally protected as wilderness but that would change under the Senate bill. The legislation essentially repeals the Wilderness Act in Arizona near the southern border by requiring that U.S. Customs and Border Protection be granted immediate access for “routine motorized patrols” to all federal public lands within 100 miles of Mexico. Although limited to Arizona in the Senate bill, this provision will surely encourage House Republicans to seek a similar requirement covering the entire border, including 4.3 million acres of designated wilderness. New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness and Big Bend National Park are just two of many important wildlife areas to which Border Patrol vehicles would be granted unfettered access.

Border Patrol vehicles have already cut thousands of miles of unauthorized roads on public lands along the border, including nearly 8,000 miles in Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Besides the direct disturbance and injury to wildlife, such rampant off-road driving destroys the vegetation that holds water and soil in place. True, the flow of illegal border crossers disturbs wildlife too, but the impacts of discarded trash and (mostly) foot traffic are minimal compared to the damage done by multitudes of agents in off-road vehicles—an impact that will get much worse if the Senate bill becomes law.

Ask any biologist about the best way to drive a species to extinction, and the response will be: slice up its habitat until the populations of animals that comprise the species become small and isolated, rendering them more vulnerable to blinking out due to inbreeding and random events, such as fire or disease. When enough of its constituent populations disappear—poof!--the species goes extinct.

That is exactly what building more pedestrian fencing will do: block wildlife movements, fragment habitat and isolate populations. It may not push any particular species over the edge, but it will certainly make the likelihood of extinction greater for a lot of species. The impacts will last for as long as the wall is standing—for decades, maybe centuries.

The fence, along with the associated lights, roads, activities and noise, has and will continue to harm a wide array of species, including Mule deer, black bears, bighorn sheep, coatimundis, javelina, mountain lions, and bison (one of the last free roaming herds in North America exists just south of the bootheel region of New Mexico), to name a few. A number of species already endangered will be affected, including jaguars, ocelots, jaguarundis, Sonoran pronghorn, and Mexican wolves—one of the most imperiled mammals in North America.

The combination of opening up roadless areas to motorized patrols, building hundreds more miles of impenetrable fencing, and cramming tens of thousands more agents and vehicles into a region where law enforcement already has a heavy presence will be a unmitigated disaster for wildlife and the environment for years to come—literally unmitigated, since Senate Republicans rejected an amendment to include modest mitigation requirements to compensate for the worst environmental impacts.

It’s not like all of these security measures, most of which were contained in a last minute amendment sponsored by Republican Senators Bob Corker (TN) and John Hoeven (ND), were requested by those on the frontlines of protecting our borders. DHS Secretary Napolitano repeatedly told the Senate Judiciary Committee that her agency did not need additional fencing. Corker admitted that the idea to double the number of border patrol agents was not “scientific” but rather the mid-point between competing Republican proposals, according to the Washington Post.

Senate Democrats went along with the measures in an effort to muster at least 70 votes, which, it was assumed, would register so high on the bipartisanship meter that conservative Republicans in the House would have no choice but to follow suit and pass a similar bill.

Whether this will happen remains to be seen. House Republicans in safe districts, which most districts are thanks to gerrymandering, have little incentive to support legislation that gives a path to citizenship to the estimated 11 million immigrants currently in the U.S. without documentation, something that is anathema to conservatives. On the other hand, they have every reason to be hawkish on border security to fend off challengers from the right.

Conservationists support a balanced approach to immigration reform, including measures to address genuine security issues in ways that don’t harm the border’s wildlife and environment, waste billions of taxpayers dollar or circumvent our nation’s laws. On this count, the Senate bill is absolutely the wrong way forward. 

What you can do:

Immigration reform should not come at the price of our wildlife, wilderness and environment.

  • Please contact your representative in the House and urge him/her to vote against any immigration bill that contains the same costly and unnecessary security measures as the bill passed by the Senate (S. 744), i.e. more pedestrian fencing, massive buildup of border patrol agents, continuation and expansion of DHS’s waiver authority, requirement to provide Border Patrol agents routine vehicle access into protected public lands, etc.
  • Please contact your Senator and urge them to reject any compromise legislation worked out with the House that includes these measures, even if it means reversing their earlier vote on S. 744.

Here are some talking points:

  • Please oppose the security measures contained in the immigration reform bill passed by the Senate. These would jeopardize the security of border wildlife and ecosystems and would waste billions of dollars in taxpayer money. Security is more than fences.
  • The United States already spends more on immigration enforcement than all other federal law enforcement combined. The new plan would send taxpayer costs soaring even higher.
  • The new proposal would waste 30 billion dollars to double the size of an already bloated Border Patrol and comes at a time when unauthorized border crossings are at a 40-year low.
  • Border walls are already causing floods and damage to wildlife habitat and migration corridors. The 651 miles of border walls and nearly 19,000 agents already deployed are excessive, and to increase both dramatically would be completely absurd.
  • Please oppose this plan and save our borderlands from becoming a police state.

New Mexico members of Congress:

Arizona Members of Congress:

West Texas Members of Congress:

Everyone else:

Click this link to get contact info for your Senators and Representatives.