As of Sunday, the US government has been partially shut down for 16 days due to the Trump administration’s demand that a new funding package include money for a border wall with Mexico. The new House Democratic majority intends to vote on a bill to re-open the government that doesn’t include such funding soon after it’s sworn in. The administration and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have called the bill a non-starter.
But ask anyone living along the US-Mexico line, and they’ll tell you: We already have fences and walls, drones and helicopters, surveillance towers, checkpoints, and border patrol agents speeding their ATVs across the fragile biotic crust of the desert.
In fact, communities are suffering due to decades of militarization and border infrastructure. Today’s walls and fences already cover 700 miles of the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, dividing towns and families, and causing damage to the environment and border communities, many of which are low-income, tribal, or on the Mexican side of the line.
In short, we don’t need or want another wall.
In 1994, landing strips from the Vietnam War-era were welded together into a wall that separated Nogales, Arizona from its sister city of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Raised like a crude, rusty flag, the wall was part of Operation Gatekeeper, implemented by the Clinton administration alongside a new border strategy called “prevention through deterrence.” The policy set out to deter border crossers by militarizing urban areas along the border.
But the sudden increase in walls, cameras, and border patrol agents did nothing to curb border crossers, and instead pushed them further into the inhospitable desert. Two decades later, the desert has become a graveyard, with more than 7,000 bodies found and thousands of additional border crossers missing.
In October 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law the Secure Fence Act, which approved the building of additional border fencing. A year earlier, the REAL ID Act of 2005 included a provision that gives the secretary of homeland security power to waive any law deemed at odds with the “expeditious construction of physical barriers and roads” along the US border.
“The result [of the REAL ID Act] been that along a quarter of the 2000-mile border, we have a total of four dozen laws that are off the books,” says Dan Millis, the borderlands program manager of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter. A total of 48 federal laws have been waived, including the Clear Air Act, Clean Water Act, Migratory Bird Treaty, Endangered Species Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“That means that if you live in a border community where these laws have been waived, and the border patrol wants to set up a giant gravel pit to build Donald Trump’s wall, they have the ability to do that, and not comply with any of the laws that other gravel pits have to,” says Millis. “They could dump toxic sludge into your drinking water and there’s nothing you could do about it, because these laws don’t apply. The body of laws that have been built up over decades to try to protect human rights and the environment have been thrown in the trash can.”
Walls in general cause structural and geological issues, including flood, erosion, and sedimentation, and the poorly-designed, ill-conceived border infrastructure has indeed malfunctioned in serious ways. For instance, in July 2008, a 5.2-mile section of border fence along southern Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument helped cause a devastating flood.
During a storm that dumped 1-2 inches of rain in 90 minutes, the 15-foot-tall wire mesh fence became a towering net for piled-up debris. The built-in drains in the fence were blocked, preventing water from escaping. And the fence’s foundation, buried six feet below the ground, prevented subsurface draining.
The result was surging water up to 7 feet high that funneled directly through the town of Lukeville, Arizona and the neighboring Mexican town of Sonoyta. The floodwaters caused severe damage to buildings, infrastructure, and natural resources.
Two hundred miles east during the same storm, a 5-foot-high concrete wall built across a storm drain by the US Border Patrol caused severe flooding in sister city Nogales, Sonora. This resulted in $8 million in damage, including damage to 578 homes, and the drownings of two people. Mexican officials declared the flood area a disaster zone.
In response to the flooding, Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Arizona Daily Star, “What we are seeing graphically at Organ Pipe was predictable. … When you build an impediment across a stream, it becomes a dam. And providing some holes in a fence is a joke.”
Not only are such walls structurally and logistically unsound, but some designs would violate a 48-year-old treaty between the US and Mexico regarding the construction of border structures that may affect the flow of the Rio Grande or its floodwaters. The 1970 treaty mandates pre-building approval of both the US and Mexican members of the International Boundary and Water Commission. In 2017, as Trump increased his rhetoric around building a wall, the IBWC’s chief Mexican engineer, Antonio Rascón, told NPR that he would block any proposal that violated the binational treaty. “A concrete wall that blocks trans-border water movement is a total obstruction. If they plan that type of project, we will oppose it,” he said.
But blocking the flow of water is not the only damage the wall causes. The most biologically diverse desert in the United States, the Sonoran Desert spans 120,000 square miles of Arizona, California, and northern Mexico. It is home to thousands of plant and animal species uniquely adapted to the arid climate. Border militarization threatens the habitats, food and water supplies, breeding and migration patterns of these species.
A 2017 report by the Center for Biological Diversity found that “93 threatened, endangered and candidate species would potentially be affected by construction of a wall and related infrastructure spanning the entirety of the border, including jaguars, Mexican gray wolves and Quino checkerspot butterflies.”
“A wall will block movement of many wildlife species, precluding genetic exchange, population rescue and movement of species in response to climate change,” reads the report. “This may very well lead to the extinction of the jaguar, ocelot, cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and other species in the United States.”
The wall also cleaves in half the Tohono O’odham Nation, which has members on both sides of the US-Mexico border. The tribe maintains that any barrier is at odds with the Tohono O’odham way of life. “We’ve inhabited this land for so long, since the beginning of time,” says April Ignacio, a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe and an organizer with Indivisible Tohono. “And so not allowing that migration to flow disrupts people’s systems. We know the impacts [the border wall] has already had on our environment.”
As recently as the 1990s, the Tohono O’odham were able to move freely across the border, but Ignacio says all of that changed with Operation Gatekeeper. Tribal members were restricted to certain crossing points and had to carry a tribal ID. As the border wall was erected, the tribe saw increased migrant traffic on tribal lands and observed that certain animals were now unable to migrate. As militarization increased in the form of helicopters, checkpoints, and roving border patrol agents, traditional O’odham practices were greatly affected.
For instance, Ignacio says tribal members are stopped by border patrol while out gathering saguaro fruit or collecting basket-making materials. “One of my cousins was out hunting and had a gun pulled on him,” says Ignacio. “There are areas where men will not hunt because of how border patrol are stationed, or where they’ve patrolled and chased out the game. That directly impacts ceremony.”
Encounters with the border patrol are so disruptive, says Ignacio, that tribal members sometimes discontinue their traditions to avoid them. “They stop collecting. They stop going out.” Or, she says, they become “overly prepared,” carrying tribal ID cards and documents wherever they go and training their children to stay safe during border patrol interactions. She describes “psychological trauma that no one’s talking about, a level of trauma our children are experiencing when they go through checkpoints to state their citizenship… They will probably not remember what it was like on O’odham land without the border patrol.”
Just before Christmas last month, Trump said of the wall on Twitter, “The fact is there is nothing else’s [sic] that will work, and that has been true for thousands of years. It’s like the wheel, there is nothing better. I know tech better than anyone, & technology … on a Border is only effective in conjunction with a Wall.”
Trump does not know the borderlands. He does not know the smell of fry bread, or the way a cholla forest glows in the golden hours just before sunset, or the ferocity of a wash after a summer monsoon. He does not know the pain of a community sliced in half, the bodies in the desert, or the desperation of border crossers fleeing violence and economic destitution. This beautiful, rugged place has already been hijacked and turned into a weapon.
President Trump, we don’t want your wall.
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