A fight that has raged on for over a decade between those who seek to combat the entry of undocumented immigrants into this country through a buildup of personnel, infrastructure and technology at the border, and those who argue that this buildup is dramatically detrimental to the border region’s natural environment, reached a fever pitch in 2011.
In October, a bill sponsored by Ariz. Sen. John McCain passed through a Senate subcommittee, which would waive U.S. environmental laws within one hundred miles of the border, granting Customs and Border Patrol officials unfettered vehicular access to all land in the border region. Currently, environmental restrictions exist, barring CBP vehicles from certain delicate areas. CBP officials allege that these environmental laws create vulnerable channels through which drug and human smugglers travel into the U.S. unabated.
Environmentalists argue that waiving current environmental laws could put dozens of threatened and endangered animal species at risk, including the ocelot, jaguar, Mexican wolf and mountain lion. In addition, this shift could put our region’s water in jeopardy. This arid region’s scarce water supply is already heavily polluted in some areas, and continued laxity and protecting it could cause irreparable harm.
Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer has come out staunchly in favor in 2011 of enforcing our nation’s borders even to the detriment of the natural environment. When the Department of Homeland Security announced plans this year to fund a University of Arizona study tracking the activities of the jaguar along the border, a study that DHS is obligated by current environmental laws to contribute to, as its activities at the border could be threatening to this endangered species, Brewer publicly stated that the study was a waste of taxpayer money, which should be spent solely on border enforcement.
Meanwhile some border enforcement advocates are arguing, despite contradicting arguments by environmental experts, that closing off our nation’s borders may in fact be beneficial to the environment. A report issued in November by the Government Accountability office, stated that undocumented immigrants have been responsible for forty percent of Southern Arizona wildfires over the past five years. However, critics argue that this study was hopelessly flawed, as the GAO only analyzed 77 of over 2,500 fires which occurred during this time frame. In addition, many also criticize the way in which it was determined that a fire was started by immigrants, which included finding Spanish language trash in the area, or simply determining that the fire began in an area thought to be frequented by undocumented border crossers.
This is the sixth part in a series of pieces revisiting the major immigration and border-related stories of 2011. Read additional parts here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.