Caught between the world’s rich and poor, Arizona’s porous border with Mexico has become America’s dangerous doormat.
Migrants seeking work and drug smugglers hungry for profit are wreaking havoc on the national parks, forests and wildlife refuges that make up most of Arizona’s border with Mexico. They’ve sparked wildfires, disrupted habitat for endangered species, and fouled pristine areas with water bottles and human waste.
The cross-border traffic is also taking a human toll: Stepped-up enforcement in border cities like San Diego, Nogales and El Paso has shifted migration routes to rugged wilderness areas (HCN, 9/27/99: Do you want more wilderness? Good luck). Last year, 163 immigrants perished in southern Arizona, most succumbing to the unforgiving Sonoran Desert, many abandoned by the "coyote" smugglers who also took their life savings. Then, last August, a Mexican national shot and killed a ranger at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Now, to stem the flow of people and narcotics into the U.S., the Border Patrol is proposing to add more fences, roads, video cameras, remote sensors and stadium-style lighting in southern Arizona. The agency argues a tighter border will not only bolster America’s wars on terrorism and drugs, but also lead to less ecological damage. Illegal immigrants, they say, will either be caught before they get far into the U.S., or deterred from entering in the first place. As it stands now, only a flimsy barbed wire fence — or nothing at all — separates the First and Third Worlds along much of the border in Arizona. But many environmental groups and human rights activists are opposed to the Border Patrol’s plan, arguing that it’s bound to cost millions while simply shifting the problem elsewhere. "People are going to be pushed into even more remote, desolate areas," says Chris Ford, co-director of the Tucson-based Border Action Network.
Wildlife advocates are especially worried about a proposal to erect 249 miles of 10- to 15-foot-high fences — some near recent sightings of the elusive and endangered jaguar (HCN, 8/4/97: Jaguar limps onto the list). Biologists think the cats, which have been photographed three times in southern Arizona since 1996, wandered north from breeding colonies in the Sierra Madre, seeking a better life just like their human counterparts.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton also has misgivings about the fences’ effect on the federal land she oversees. "I’m troubled by the whole concept of having to put a fence at the border," she said, during a recent visit to southern Arizona. "Especially when you’re talking about something that could impact wildlife being able to migrate in their usual patterns."
The Border Patrol says its long-term plan for "tactical infrastructure" in its Yuma and Tucson sectors — outlined in a new 354-page environmental impact statement — is still a long way from becoming reality.
Despite existing fences, sensors and patrols, an estimated 1,000 border crossers enter the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge every month, sometimes bathing, urinating and defecating in the rare streamside habitat.
Bill Radke, manager of the refuge, says the new fences, roads and lights will fragment habitat, and have a negative effect on everything from water and air quality to wildlife corridors and animal behavior. "On the other hand," he says, "I realize if they do these things everywhere except national wildlife refuges, where do you think the new (immigration) corridors will be?"
"Sitting back in the foxhole"
But debates about a stronger fence along the border obscure the bigger picture, says Roger Di Rosa, manager of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. "The solution is not on the border. It’s in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City with immigration policy," he says. "Basically, I’m sitting back in the foxhole watching the war."
For years, the generals in the conflict have talked about adopting a guest worker program to legalize much of the immigration from Mexico into the U.S. "If you want to see the number of water jugs abandoned in the desert go down," says Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., "let them come in through the gate at Nogales with a visa and contract to work in hand, then let them get on the bus to Omaha, Cleveland or North Carolina."
But any major accord on immigration appears to have been pushed back by Sept. 11 and heightened fears in the U.S. about national security. Mexico’s new foreign secretary, Luis Ernesto Derbez, recently said it could take 25 or 30 years to work things out.
In the meantime, people like Cruz Diaz, a 30-year-old man from Michoacán, Mexico, say they’ll keep coming north, even if it means breaking the law and risking their lives.
"We knew there would be lots of immigration officers and it would be very hot," he said this fall, after the Border Patrol caught him near Organ Pipe for the second time in a week. "But if there’s work here, it’s worth it."
After the Border Patrol recorded digital images of his face and fingerprints, Cruz was put on a van and sent back to the Lukeville port of entry, where he walked back into Mexico through a revolving metal door.
The author is the environment writer at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
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