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Keep Calm but Keep Resisting: A Border Wall Report from Washington, D.C.

In early November, the Sierra Club organized and sponsored a “fly-in” to Washington, D.C., bringing together wildlife advocacy groups, wildlife biologists and cultural and social justice advocates to educate members of Congress about the catastrophic consequences of building a border wall.

Jaguar walking cautiously on a rocky dirt road
Wild jaguar captured by a remote camera. Jaguars face peril if they’re habitat is bisected by the border wall. Photo: Northern Jaguar Project/Naturalia

Scientists, by default, usually choose to remain neutral in regard to politics. In the belfries of the Ivory Tower it is common to hear professors and their students proudly say they avoid politics. They will often state that as unbiased arbiters of phenomena, they should remain neutral as impartial observers. These points all bear validity, yet in the 21st century there is a particular urgency to conservation that demands scientists take action to oppose destructive and reckless policymaking, lest we lose what we study—and what we love—for good.

As Winston S. Churchill famously said, “I decline utterly to be impartial between the fire brigade and the fire.” A central tenet of the mission and moral of conservation biology implies that, in practice, effective implementation of conservation of species or landscapes necessitates an interdisciplinary approach.

In the modern area, this approach has grown to include politics. Therefore, this may require the conservation biologist to leave their hiking boots on the porch, get a haircut, send the suit to the dry cleaner, and then practice the Windsor knot on their Jerry Garcia neck tie. Such was the case for many of the would-be lobbyists who crawled out of the tamarisk, mesquite and saguaro-dotted landscapes of the Borderlands to join the fire brigade and attend the D.C. fly-in the first week of November.

A group photo of seven people, arm in arm, standing shoulder to shoulder.
Capitol Hill Fly-in November 7, 2017. L to R: Laiken Jordahl, Paulo Lopes, John-Michael Torres, Representative Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D) NM, Anthony Sedgwick, Allison McGraw, Myles Traphagen.

Attendees came from one end of the nearly 2,000 mile long U.S./Mexico border to the other, representing the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern end of the border, to private ranchers in Arizona; school children from Nogales, Sonora and Arizona; and individuals representing Friendship Park in Tijuana, Mexico on the western end of the border.

Tribal members from the Tohono O’odham Nation, which spans both sides of the border, attended as well. The Tohono O’odham nation is unique in the fact that thousands of tribal members live south of the border, separated by an increasingly militarized 75-mile segment of boundary line it shares with Mexico. They are the largest single contiguous landowner on the entire U.S./Mexico border.

Lone pronghorn walking through a meadow of yellow flowers
Pronghorn, Arizona. Pronghorns are also in danger of habitat decimation if the wall is constructed along the border. Photo: USFWS

The goal of the fly-in was simple: let members of Congress and their staff know that the construction of a border wall and increased militarization of the border are opposed by nearly all border residents. I brought copies of our recently released Border Report, “Four Species on the Brink”, and along with our Policy Director, Susan Holmes, distributed it to folks on The Hill. We walked members and staff though the report’s species distribution maps that depict the crucial corridors that black bear, Sonoran pronghorn, jaguar, and Mexican wolf use to cross unimpeded from Mexico to the U.S. and back.

Navigating the Partisan Push for a Border Wall

The lobbying effort was not a partisan endeavor. We visited both Democratic and Republican offices and were heartened to find similar sentiments on both sides of the aisle: nobody thinks a border wall is a good idea, nor an effective solution to an illegal immigration issue based more on political rhetoric than facts.

The reality is that illegal immigration rates along the U.S./Mexico border are at their lowest levels in over 40 years (Figure 1). Since 2000, the rate has declined precipitously, a fact that most members of Congress are keenly aware of, whether they are Democrat or Republican. In fact, in 2017, Customs and Border Patrol recorded the lowest level of illegal cross-border migration on record.

A graph showing a red line descending toward the lower right corner.
Figure 1. Border Patrol Apprehensions in Tucson Sector 2000 to 2017. Photo: Myles Traphagen

However, while the resistance to the wall may be nonpartisan, the current push for a border wall and increased militarization along the border remains an issue largely drawn along party lines. A quick scan of the co-sponsors of the current legislative agenda finds a notable lack of Democratic support—nearly zero.

Embedded within this GOP-driven push are provisions that attempt to undermine decades of environmental and cultural protections once championed by both Republicans and Democrats. It is both bewildering and sad that protection of our cherished natural and cultural resources has become such a partisan issue. Ironically, when it comes to the creation of national parks and wilderness areas, and the protection of wildlife and vital natural resources like water and air, America was first.

Trump’s wall: A Legislative Reality Check

On January 25, President Trump issued Executive Order 13767, which directs a wall to be built along the United States border with Mexico. Prototypes of the wall have been built in San Diego, California, but for now, no new sections of fencing have been constructed, and Congress has not appropriated any funds for a border wall. Fortunately, there is a heavy lift between an Executive Order and the actual passing of legislation that provides funding for a colossal infrastructure project like a 2,000-mile long border wall.

Capitol building with cherry blossoms in the foreground.
U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. Two bills have been introduced in Congress that include increased border security measures. Photo: Architect of the Capitol

However, two bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress that seek to advance increased border security measures, while waiving every environmental and cultural law that exists in a 100-mile zone of the border.  Senator John Cornyn (R) TX has introduced the “Building America’s Trust Act” Senate bill 1757, and Representative Michael McCaul (R) TX has introduced the nearly identical H.R. 3548 “Border Security for America Act of 2017.” 

The border wall may be “a side show,” in the opinion of one Capitol Hill staffer I talked to, “but pay attention to the language in the two recently introduced border security bills,” he cautioned me. It is essentially the “kitchen sink” when it comes to removing nearly every aspect of environmental and cultural protection.

Neither bill contains much text specific to the construction of a border wall, but a section in both bills contains provisions that allow the Department of Homeland Security to operate with impunity from environmental review, legal oversight, or tribal consultation. This should terrify any American citizen, living or dead.

“The authority of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to conduct activities on covered Federal land applies without regard to whether a state of emergency exists. The activities of U.S. Customs and Border Protection described in may be carried out without regard to the provisions of law.”  -S. 1757 Section 113.

This provision of the Senate bill allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive all federal, state, and other laws, including:

The National Environmental Policy Act, The Endangered Species Act, The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, The Safe Drinking Water Act, The Farmland Protection Policy Act, The Antiquities Act, The National Historic Preservation Act, The California Desert Protection Act, The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, The Wilderness Act, and The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

To believe that Border Patrol and Customs Agents have had their missions impeded by The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act to the degree that an Act of Congress was needed to remove protections for the national bird so they could complete their job, borders on the absurd.

This list is not exhaustive, but it’s basically the same language contained in the Real ID Act of 2005, which authorized about 450 miles of “border wall 1.0” built between 2006 to 2008. The waiver authority was used routinely during this period. A recent lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity challenges the constitutionality of the legal waiver provided within the Real ID Act of 2005, asserting that its waiver authority does not continue in perpetuity and therefore does not apply to current border security efforts.

In the name of national security, the “Building America’s Trust” and “Border Security for America” acts take aim at the very foundation of the legal framework that has promoted and fostered the healthy ecosystems that we all depend upon and cherish as our national heritage.

The two bills introduced in this 115th Congress will gut every environmental, public health, and cultural preservation law and regulation on the books. The intent of these bills is to permanently write into statute the ability of the Department of Homeland Security to waive all laws within a distance of 100 miles from the northern, southern and maritime borders. This has the potential to affect nearly 200 million people and tens of millions of acres of federal and state lands.

The borderlands of Tucson, Arizona, one of the communities of people and wildlife that would be devastated by the border wall. Photo: Brian Powell.

Our mission at Wildlands Network is not just to do the science, make the maps and create and maintain the corridors and landscapes for wild nature to thrive, but also to speak for the wild animals who know no boundaries, and who have no voice in government.

Although it sounds cliché, I urge you all to voice your opinions loud and clear to your elected officials. Leave your boots off one sunny day to forgo that hike and write some letters, make some calls and make noise. It does make a difference. Keep calm, but keep resisting.

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