Skip to content Skip to footer

The US-Mexico Border Is a Site of Environmental and Humanitarian Disaster

The parts of the border that take the form of an actual, physical barrier are an intrusion on the landscape, an eyesore to many u2014 and to millions, a deadly obstacle to overcome.

The concept of “national security” seems abstract in most of our political discussions, but there’s one place where the idea of the secure nation takes a concrete form: the US-Mexico border wall, a ragged concrete and steel barrier that cleaves the frontier and imposingly wards off outsiders. Lawmakers have long advocated further fortifying the border against unauthorized border crossings through more extended construction and militarized patrols.

Earlier this year, the debate over immigration reform led conservatives to propose a security plan that would fortify a 700-mile expanse of borderland with radar systems, surveillance cameras, “mobile automated targeting systems,” marine vessels to police the waterways, and unmanned aerial drones overhead. The entire apparatus — mostly concentrated in hotspots for border crossing, far from the Pacific edge of the wall — would be patrolled by some 40,000 border agents, aiming to apprehend, block, and deport as many unauthorized migrants as possible.

The parts of the border that take the form of an actual, physical barrier are an intrusion on the landscape, an eyesore to many — and to millions, a deadly obstacle to overcome. Elements of the local environment, from deserts to the Rio Grande, have been trampled, polluted, criss-crossed by truck convoys, occupied by federal agents and factories, and traversed by migrants following well-worn and perilous trails. And each phase of commercial development and economic exchange has also left an ecological mark, from the bustle of tourists to the churn of the maquilas to the paths trod by migrants following smugglers.

Just as immigrant rights activists see the border as a violent social barrier, environmentalists see the border fence as an assault on the integrity of regional ecologies. The border environs is both a symbol of global environmental changes — transnational movement of people and natural resources, climate change, the wave of urbanization that is sweeping wild lands worldwide — and a symptom of acute environmental impacts — the footprints of stampeding livestock, baking asphalt slicing through desert, and a dense network of dams and pipelines tapping the veins of increasingly parched riparian habitats. In the border zone, life is disrupted by the armature of the state.

Stripping the Land

Environmental critiques of the border’s physical structure align with humanitarian ones. Border hawks in Washington have pushed for immigration enforcement measures that would subordinate environmental protections to border “security” — and angered advocates for the land as well as the people crossing it.

Border security bills recently proposed in Congress would further broaden an existing waiver that blocks federal oversight of the Department of Homeland Security in the fence area and exempts Customs and Border Patrol from key federal environmental regulations, such as the Endangered Species Act.

Various studies have documented that further “beefing up” of border security could have a devastating impact on sensitive populations of transboundary species, including Mexican spotted owl, desert tortoise, jaguars and others. According to a report by the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Project, the effects range from the introduction of exotic species to “fragmenting habitat and restricting access to water sources,” along with air and water contamination and intensified flooding resulting from faulty border construction.

The “border security” apparatus may pose even more serious risks to human life.

As legions of farmers displaced by the opening of Mexican agriculture under NAFTA fled northward to seek jobs, the border was tightened further by clamping down on passings along certain well-traveled routes, forcing people to take more remote, dangerous routes through the desert. The border consequently became both more enticing and more perilous for a growing number of crossers. In 2009, the American Public Health Association (APHA) reported that estimates of the death toll “range from over 3,800 to 5,600” in 15 years, essentially doubling since the NAFTA border clampdown began.

In fiscal year 2012, deaths reported at the Southwest border spiked to 477 from about 380 in 2011, according to federal data.

Some are murders — linked to the rise in illicit trafficking of both drugs and people. But from 1993 to 2008, border mortality became increasingly entwined with the perils of the desert itself. As APHA explained, “migrant deaths caused by exposure, especially heat-related exposure, increased substantially, whereas deaths from traffic fatalities and homicide declined.”

Cracked Earth

While itinerant migrants struggle to survive the cruelties of crossing, the border zone’s permanent settlers are witnessing a slower pattern of destruction at a volatile axis of economic and environmental transitions. The Sierra Club reported earlier this year that in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, border wall construction work “has proceeded so hastily that in one case, engineers had no idea that a home with a family living in it existed on the south side of the wall and denied them access to it when they were going home. Another homeowner awoke to find her backyard hurricane fencing gone and the wall going up with no prior notice. Farmers fear they will be prevented or hampered from irrigating their fields.”

Some of the poorest, most vulnerable settlements are barely settled at all. The shanties that have emerged in both Mexican and US border towns stand as social byproducts of the area’s violent demographic and economic churns, reflecting the disruptions that drive migration within Mexico as well as the lack of infrastructure in areas where migrants land or get stranded. Here, residents often lack basic water and sanitary infrastructure and face the health hazards of water and air pollution from local industrial plants.

Kimberly Collins, a professor of public administration specializing in the border region at California State University-San Bernardino, says that since they’re constructed with little consideration for the long-term sustainability of surrounding communities or the environment, the boundaries serve as “political lines, and they’re not a natural construct.” Under current border policy, she adds, “Right now we have this policy of control. It doesn’t work with the reality of life and what people need.”

Environmentalists argue that an ecological approach to the border would focus on engaging communities across national boundaries on transnational conservation initiatives, or collaborative research led by Mexico- and US-based scientists. Away from the garrisoned wall, Dan Millis, an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Program, poses a metaphor for a more humane border in the Rio Grande, a fluid boundary that joins as well as clefts the frontier. “That’s the nature of our borderlands,” he says. “It is a frontera… a transition zone between two countries, two cultures, and two languages…. It’s two but it’s one.”

Climactic Shifts

Environmental tensions converge on the border’s waters. The binational treaty that has governed the sharing of water resources between the US and Mexico for about six decades was outdated before the ink was even dry. The arrangement is rooted in a concept that treats water supplies as proprietary to adjacent nation-states, rather that part of a unitary system. The system gives rise to a water politics that constantly aggravates, rather than relieves, the region’s exploitation and attendant social distress.

The two governments recently brokered an upgrade to the Colorado River ‘s water-sharing deal aimed at sorting out water transfers and, ostensibly, improving Mexico’s water infrastructure. But disputes over water rights have further complicated the region’s response to intensifying agriculture and residential water crises. Due to gaps in coordinated monitoring and management of border-region water needs, observes legal scholar Gabriel Eckstein in a recent study, the fragile border aquifers that are continually strained by farms and households are “being degraded by leaking septic tanks, underground storage containers holding fuel products and other chemicals, agricultural run-off, industrial activities… and other pollution sources.”

This past summer, Texans accused Mexico of hoarding water and not releasing an adequate share into US aquifers, contending that Texas farms suffered disproportionately from recent droughts. Yet the scarcity issues are also affecting water-insecure communities in Mexico, which generally, as a poorer nation, is extremely vulnerable to intensifying resource crises.

The parched topography seems to imply overconsumption, but according to the researchers, the devastation is not inevitable. An overhaul of water politics might help resolve transborder water struggles — not by further complicating and expanding the bilateral treaty, but by decentralizing control over the resources. The idea is to cede power to local communities who have the most at stake if the well runs dry.

Decentralization could improve sustainability across all arenas of environmental policy at the border, according to Collins. “The first thing that should happen is empowerment of local communities,” she says, including cross-border research collaborations and more direct communication between residents and local officials. Unfortunately, she’s seen the opposite since 9/11, as the presence of federal bureaucracies and patrol forces in the border zone has inflated wildly under the banner of protecting national security.

While the border zone’s political institutions continue to calcify, new environmental crises continue to spread. Researchers project that the stress of rising temperatures and an increasingly volatile climate will intensify poverty and public health hazards in border communities and undermine agriculture and transborder trade networks across the region. Economic hardship compounded by environmental vulnerability also drives migration to the north. Princeton University researchers estimate that loss of crop yields in Mexican agriculture would drive a significant increase in migration, leading to an additional 1.4 million to 6.7 million adult Mexicans to seek better prospects in the US by 2080. (Undocumented Mexican migrants in the US now number around 11.7 million, in addition to millions more who are documented.)

Indeed, competition for land and water resources is driving social stress across many borders around the world. Some researchers have identified potential hotspots for climate-related migration and conflict in South America, North Africa and the Middle East, portending threats of “resource wars” and mass exoduses of “climate refugees.”

But activists caution that the actual social impacts of climate change are hard to predict, since migration is contingent on many other economic and political factors. And public panic over impending environmental catastrophe can all too easily become conflated with fears of mass demographic change.

In fact, the intersection between social justice and environmental crisis has sometimes been co-opted to bolster conservationist racism. In recent years, a self-proclaimed “nativist” fringe of the environmental movement, fueled by anti-immigrant groups like Californians for Population Stabilization, has integrated environmental arguments into their xenophobic rhetoric, painting migrants as alien hordes flooding over the border driving overpopulation and the depletion of natural resources.

So fears about resource scarcity have been twisted to justify xenophobic impulses, just as the border wall itself stands as a totem of “security” obscuring underlying environmental disruption, and the political rhetoric surrounding border “protection” has become a proxy for the racial anxieties driving the call for “closed borders.” The border wall becomes a conveniently self-justifying mechanism for the enforcement of the deep, desperate wealth divide between Global North and South.

Redrawing Boundaries

Indigenous groups have historically articulated a different notion of the border, one that contemplates environment and humanity as a unified system.

Earlier this year, for example, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD) criticized the US government by issuing a statement on the impact of the wall and US border policy on a local Indigenous community, the federally unrecognized Ndé (Lipan Apache) nation. The statement cited Indigenous peoples’ longstanding complaints that “the construction of the wall through its land has allegedly damaged ancestral burial sites, reduced the tribe’s access to elders and other knowledge keepers, led to severe decline in biodiversity, and may lead to the disappearance of the tribal identity altogether as the community may be forced to leave the land.” Meanwhile, the wall “has skipped border areas with lucrative properties owned by business.”

The binational rift over water governance has clashed with the politics of indigenous sovereignty, as well. On the Mexico side, Yaqui pueblos have protested for years against a river diversion project to channel water to the nearby city of Hermosillo. In Mexico’s court system and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Yaqui have petitioned against both local agricultural businesses and government authorities, citing a landmark 1937 decree by the Mexican government that guaranteed water sovereignty to Yaqui pueblos.

A recent petition presented by Yaqui Traditional Authorities to UN CERD condemned the Mexican government’s failure to honor its water sovereignty and pointed out that the riverbank has now essentially run dry, while local aquifers are threatened by agrichemical contamination. For the impoverished pueblos, the petition argues, “a paradox of tragic proportions exists wherein Yaqui workers tend to the fields their parents’ generation once lived upon in a sustainable and culturally relevant manner.”

Aggravating the overall crisis, the northern portion of the Yaqui watershed, nestled in the lower lip of Arizona, also faces massive water depletion. The environmental reporting project Melóncoyote observed in 2012, “Along much of the length of the binational river, no water can be seen in its sandy bed.” Today, in the absence of a comprehensive restoration plan for the entire watershed, US-based activists have constructed a homegrown counter-border of sorts: a network of small dam-like rock structures to help salvage what’s left of fast-eroding swamp lands, amid degraded riverbanks and parched trees.

Indigenous cultural scholar and activist Margo Tamez (Goschich Kónitsąąíí-Lightning Big Water Clan, Ndé Nation) calls the wall an “architecture of an authoritarian state.” Since nation-states militate against indigenous self-determination, she says, “the current policy-making, focused on imposing a settler nation’s ‘jurisdiction’ upon Indigenous sovereigns, will always maintain adversarial relationships of conflict, violence, and societal and environmental disintegration. It is inherently a model of domination.”

When activists in Canada launched the Idle No More campaign last fall, they rejuvenated a vision of environmental justice based on indigenous sovereignty and aboriginal title, along with transborder resistance to corporate fossil fuel development on First Nations’ lands. Against the backdrop of modern-day resource exploitation and climate-change activism, the political resonance of the movement galvanized solidarity campaigns among indigenous communities across the Americas.

To activists who have seen what societal division can do to the land, the question is not one of physical division or containment, but rather, redefining society’s sense of ownership over, and dependence on, its environment. On the social landscape delineated by the border, the very idea of environmental management, even projects that aim for sustainability like water-conservation measures, inevitably revolve around a binary, extractive relationship between “civilization” and “nature.” The border wall — as social metaphor, architectural scarecrow, and environmental blight — is intrinsically a statement against nature.

But look closer and you’ll see that some communities have carved out another space between a concept of earth sovereignty and geopolitical interests, to pursue a different path to security on the frontier. If Idle No More and other grassroots movements reveal one thing about social possibility beyond borders, it’s that human development might not have to come at the expense of the surrounding ecology, but in tandem with it.

Truthout is proud to feature content from Jacobin, a print quarterly that offers socialists perspectives on politics and economics. Support Jacobin and buy a four-issue subscription for $19.

We have hours left to raise $12,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.