Immigration reform bills still give feds rein to trample border ecology


The environmental onslaught caused by the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border fence may have started with a mouse. When the federal government first built a section of border fence south of San Diego in 1990, it left nearby grasses – habitat to an imperiled mouse – to grow long to comply with the Endangered Species Act. But a Congressional staffer visiting the site worried that illegal border crossers could hide in the grass: Environmental protection, it seemed, was in direct conflict with border security. Ultimately, security won out over wildlife and landscape as the feds exempted the now greatly expanded fence from ESA and National Environmental Policy Act requirements.

With Congress now considering the most comprehensive immigration reform since Reagan, there’s an opportunity to reevaluate whether disregarding ecological impacts to build a 700-mile long wall is worth it. But judging from the two immigration bills proposed this year, the environment is still a low priority.

The U.S. side of Department of Homeland Security border wall at Border Field State Park, California. Tijuana, Mexico is on the other side of the wall.

It first became clear that border security and the environment don’t mix well back in the 1990s, when the Clinton administration beefed up border security in more urban areas, thus funneling both immigrants and border patrol, as well as their impacts, into the desert and other sensitive ecosystems. When the area near an estuary critical to the Tijuana River ecosystem was seen as a haven for drug smugglers, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) buried it with two million cubic yards of dirt, taken from nearby mountaintops. Meanwhile, the new sections of wall have disrupted the migration routes and habitat of everything from jaguars and bighorn sheep to California red-legged frogs and pygmy owls.  Environmentalists have long fought back, but their ability to do so was greatly hindered when the Real ID Act passed under President Bush in 2005 and gave DHS full reign to bypass environmental reviews.

This past summer, a $46-billion provision in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill proposed adding 20,000 new border patrol agents, or a “virtual human fence.” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., has called it a smart use of technology to increase apprehension, though an excessive use of individuals. A Sierra Club organizer called it a “dumb proposal” because of the added traffic it would bring to sensitive desert areas.

The House Democrats’ more recent immigration reform proposal, released in early October, replaces those “surge” plans with a more moderate, though vague, approach to border security. It co-opts a bill already unanimously passed by the House Homeland Security Committee this past spring, House Resolution 1417, introduced by Senator Michael McCaul, R-Tex.. This plan would require DHS to achieve “90 percent effectiveness rate” in stopping undocumented migrants at the border. DHS would focus on high traffic areas and gain total “control” of the Southwest border in five years, but the provision is more of a request for strategy than it is a specific strategy itself, and it says nothing about doubling border patrol.

Neither proposal, though, deals with environmental impacts. The Senate reform bill created by the “gang of eight” that included Arizona Senators McCain and Jeff Flake, as well as Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., would continue to give DHS the authority to waive environmental considerations. So would the new proposal from the House.

In an ironic twist, both bills would increase penalties for drug smuggling or human trafficking that “degrades or harms the environment or natural resources” or “pollutes an aquifer, spring, stream, river, or body of water."

Construction of a vehicle maintenance facility, one of five buildings for a border patrol station in Wellton, Arizona. Photo taken in 2010 by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lee Roberts.

At this point, however, it’s unclear whether either of these bills will move forward at all, with the recent government shutdown showing how difficult it is for Congress to agree on anything.  “Immigration Reform is Probably Dead,” reads a headline from Mother Jones magazine. Yet many lawmakers and pundits say that momentum for reform gained over the past six months isn’t over yet.

"I still think that immigration reform is an important subject that needs to be addressed and I am hopeful,” Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a press event this week. President Obama has said that immigration reform is now a priority since the federal shutdown ended. "Now is the moment" to pass reform, he said in a White House statement on Thursday.

“Nobody’s really changed their position from where they were before the shutdown,” Audrey Singer, immigration policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said on Monday.  “Even though there’s a lot of pressure for something to move very quickly, it may take a while.”

Tay Wiles is the online editor at High Country News. She Tweets @taywiles.

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