Official lawlessness on the border

 

(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 The barbed wire has been replaced by steel-and-mesh walls and towers with high-tech sensors.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 Classifieds
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    New Mexico Land Conservancy is seeking a qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating,...
  • GRAPHIC AND DIGITAL DESIGNER
    Application deadline: December 17, 2022 Expected start date: January 16, 2023 Location: Amazon Watch headquarters in Oakland, CA Amazon Watch is a dynamic nonprofit organization...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eugene, Ore. nonprofit Long Tom Watershed Council is seeking a highly collaborative individual to lead a talented, dedicated team of professionals. Full-time: $77,000 - $90,000...
  • GIS SPECIALIST
    What We Can Achieve Together: The GIS Specialist provides technical and scientific support for Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, data management, and visualization internally and...
  • LOWER SAN PEDRO PROGRAM MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Lower San Pedro Program Manager directs some or all aspects of protection, science, stewardship and community relations for the...
  • FOREST RESTORATION SPATIAL DATA MANAGER
    What We Can Achieve Together: The Forest Restoration Spatial Data Manager fills an integral role in leading the design and development of, as well as...
  • WATER PROJECTS MANAGER, SOUTHERN AZ
    What We Can Achieve Together: Working hybrid in Tucson, AZ or remote from Sierra Vista, AZ or other southern Arizona locations, the Water Projects Manager,...
  • SENIOR STAFF THERAPIST/PSYCHOLOGIST: NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENT SPECIALIST
    Counseling Services is a department strategically integrated with Health Services within the Division of Student Services and Enrollment Management. Our Mission at the Counseling Center...
  • THE NATURE CONSERVANCY IS HIRING A LOCAL INITIATIVES COORDINATOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks a Local Initiatives Coordinator to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator to develop, manage and advance...
  • LAND AND WATER PROTECTION MANAGER - NORTHERN ARIZONA
    We're Looking for You: Are you looking for a career to help people and nature? Guided by science, TNC creates innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our...
  • SENIOR CLIMATE CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) seeks a Senior Climate Conservation Associate (SCCA) to play a key role in major campaigns to protect the lands, waters,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Southern Nevada Conservancy Board of Directors announces an outstanding opportunity for a creative leader to continue building this organization. SNC proudly supports Nevada's public...
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • STRAWBALE HOME BESIDE MONTEZUMA WELL NAT'L MONUMENT
    Straw Bale Home beside Montezuma Well National Monument. Our property looks out at Arizona fabled Mogollon Rim and is a short walk to perennial Beaver...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...