Borderline environmental justice

 

Recently, the New York Times reported on immigration and drug traffic across the U.S.-Mexico border where it crosscuts the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona, a story HCN covered in-depth in 2007. The situation is horrific: strangers knock on doors to entice and scare tribal members into smuggling, while pervasive Border Patrol inconvenience and intimidate the O’odham people on a daily basis. The Times reports:

(S)ome residents are angry at the intrusion of hundreds of federal agents, including some who stay for a week at a time on bases in remote parts of the reservation. The surge in agents who cruise the roads has meant more checkpoints and tighter controls on a border that tribal members, 1,500 of whom live in Mexico, once freely crossed.

The once-placid reservation feels like a “militarized zone,” said Ned Norris Jr., the tribal chairman, who also says the tribe must cooperate to stem the cartels. “Drug smuggling is a problem we didn’t create, but now we’re having to deal with the consequences.”

What neither article asks clearly, however, is whether the militarized reality on the reservation is an environmental justice issue. Should the O’odham, the EPA, and environmental non-profits demand the Department of Homeland Security alter its treatment of the O’odham and their environment? 

A just society is one in which “the environmental benefits and burdens are distributed fairly,” and the typical environmental justice narrative involves the disproportional (thus racist) siting of industries and their wastes in minority communities (such as the plight of Mountain View, New Mexico, detailed in the latest HCN). That’s occurring on the reservation to a degree. But if we’ve learned anything from the environmental justice movement, it’s that “the environment” is always also social, and psychological. Take care of people in general, and a healthy environment necessarily follows, and vice versa. 

Consider how, in the '90s, the Tohono O'odham were without a key local — and I would argue, environmental — benefit: adequate border security. Something like the “virtual wall” of camera towers now in the planning stages for the reservation should have been installed at the same time as the U.S. tamped down on stretches of the border in California and Texas. Instead, the U.S. essentially funneled immigrants and traffickers across the rugged, 75-mile border of the reservation. This egregious oversight resulted in the dumping of physical and psychological waste on tribal land and its members. In 2009, 400-450 undocumented immigrants entered the reservation a day (10 percent of them with criminal histories), leaving incredible amounts of trash — and anxiety — strewn across the O’odham’s landscape.

Now that the mess is made, however, the Border Patrol should do its job while also minimizing its visibility and impact on the reservation. Yet it’s clear that the Border Patrol is an undue burden on the community, further scarring the reservation "as ever more wildcat roads are cut through the southern part" to track down people sneaking North on foot. Border Patrol's impact on the O’odham psyche, meanwhile, is unquantifiable. A more responsible security operation might concentrate on the borderline itself, instead of crisscrossing the bulk of the reservation. And more importantly, the feds should hurry up and tackle the sources and sinks of trafficking and immigration.

To be fair, one reason the O’odham’s land is such a drug conduit is that the tribe — some of which lives across the border — doesn’t want an impenetrable wall built through their land and heritage. Currently, only a semi-porous wall of poles and “Normandy-style barriers” exists, which stops cars and trucks from making a break for it, while, in theory, allowing the O’odham to visit family, gather plants and animals, and so forth.

But that a solid barrier hasn’t been built along this 75-mile stretch is perhaps the only heartening side to this story, because it means the Tohono O’odham do hold some sway in the border conversation. That’s the first tenet of environmental justice: “the opportunity for ‘all people regardless of race, ethnicity, income, national origin or educational level’ to have ‘meaningful involvement’ in environmental decision-making.

Do they have enough say? The Times's frightening report suggests they don’t. More people should be listening to the O’odham. The White House and others should make the Border Patrol take environmental justice seriously.

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