Official lawlessness on the border

by Paul Larmer

(This is the editor's note accompanying an HCN magazine cover story, Border out of Control: Fear and anxiety over national security run roughshod on the Arizona wild.)

In 1987, my brother, Brook, landed his first international reporting job in Mexico City. He took a crash course in Spanish and, following his editors' advice, drove from Tijuana to his new home, to learn about the country and write a few stories along the way. He needed a photographer, which is where I, his unemployed sibling, came in, trusty Olympus OM-1 in hand.

Our first stop was the California desert just north of Tijuana, where the U.S. Border Patrol was pursuing an ever-rising tide of illegal immigrants. In the back seat of a four-wheel-drive agency vehicle, we trailed a suspiciously low-riding sedan, which suddenly veered off the pavement onto a rugged dirt path and raced back toward the border. We ate its dust for a couple of miles, until it skidded to a stop. A half-dozen young men and women leaped out, sprinting toward the sagging barbed-wire fence that marked the then-quite-permeable international border.

And they made it, cheered on by local kids on the other side, who jeered at us and threw rocks. When the Border Patrol opened the car's trunk, they discovered four additional passengers, stacked inside like cordwood. We were amazed they could even stand up after that wild ride.

In the decades since, the border has changed profoundly. The barbed wire has been replaced by steel-and-mesh walls and towers with high-tech sensors. The Border Patrol estimates that the number of illegal crossers has declined dramatically, based on the number of busts, which have fallen from over a million a year in the 1990s, to around 400,000 last year, while the number of agents in the desert has quintupled since 9/11. But, as HCN senior editor Ray Ring reports in our cover story, it's unclear whether the drop stems from recent border militarization or just changing economic conditions.

What is clear is that the Arizona border's fragile desert wilderness is facing a serious new threat: Now, in addition to the immigrants, it's the Border Patrol itself. Shielded by waivers and interagency agreements, the Border Patrol is basically exempt from the United States' bedrock environmental laws. Its agents can drive pretty much wherever they want, whenever they want, creating thousands of miles of "renegade" roads in the wilderness. The agency's infrastructure blocks not only vehicles and pedestrians, but also sensitive wildlife species, including rare jaguars and ocelots, that move between islands of habitat on both sides of the border.

It's an unparalleled experiment in public-land lawlessness, causing damage that will take centuries to heal. And yet, the environmental community has largely backed away from the issue, partly because of the polarizing politics surrounding immigration reform. That's shortsighted. Though convincing Congress to restore environmental law along the border is unlikely in the short term, the Border Patrol could do much to lighten its footprint within the existing framework. No agency can be expected to care for the environment if the citizens who empower it don't pay attention.

© High Country News