House of Representatives to environment: Screw you, secure the borders.

The House of Representatives just passed HR 2578, an omnibus piece of legislation including HR 1505, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act. The final vote was 232-188, with most Democrats opposed and most Republicans in favor. The roll call vote tally is here.

This sneakily named bill gives the Secretary of Homeland Security authority to manage federal lands within 100 miles of both the U.S.-Canada border and the U.S.-Mexico border. This power is an expansion of Section 102 of the Real ID Act, passed in 2005, which gives the DHS Secretary authority to waive any federal laws during the construction of border enforcement structures, including the border wall. Because of that act, all major pieces of environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (which mandates review of all environmental projects) and the Endangered Species Act have been waived during border wall construction and other border enforcement activities. Perhaps most insidiously, the law explicitly states that DHS waivers cannot be subjected to judicial review.

HR 2578 would extend essentially the same powers to all federal lands within 100 miles of either U.S. land border. It prohibits the Secretary of the Interior (responsible for National Parks and Bureau of Land Management Land) and the Secretary of Agriculture (National Forests) from interfering with Customs and Border Protection activities within this 100-mile area.

Let me say that again, really clearly. This law gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the authority to waive all environmental legislation within 100 miles of U.S. land borders.

Apparently, it’s not good enough that our border enforcement is killing hundreds of people every year. We also have to make sure that things like preserving wilderness areas don’t interfere with catching and deporting people trying to make it to the U.S. And lest you think this is about border security–the Department of Homeland Security and the Border Patrol have stated that this law is unnecessary for border security. The current system of interagency land management is working just fine for them.

The Senate still has to vote on this (it’s S.803, introduced by Arizona Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain). You can read up on the bill here, get the Sky Island Alliance’s talking points here (PDF), and go hereto take action and contact your Representatives and Senators.


Immigration reform and invisible costs

Friday’s immigration announcement by President Obama was a great moment in a lot of ways. Seeing the reactions to his announcement that the Department of Homeland Security is stopping the deportation of DREAM Act eligible students was a good reminder of the spectrum of opinions that the U.S. population holds on immigration issues. Many people were celebrating, knowing that they might have an opportunity to work or continue their studies. Others were decrying the fact that this was done via executive action rather than Congressional legislation, claiming that this was nothing more than a political decision to appeal to Latin@ voters.

All of this has put me in a reflective mood about border and immigration policy, especially in the context of the massive wall that I cross at least twice a day now. One of the rallying points behind No More Deaths is that these issues shouldn’t be political—they’re human rights issues. I firmly believe that thousands of bodies piling up in southern Arizona’s deserts are a human rights issue. And in March, when I was here doing work in the desert, it was easy to see immigration in only those terms. The people I interacted with on a daily basis weren’t policymakers or strategists. They were people like me, except that they needed work and had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of the line.

Perhaps the clearest part of being out in the desert was how visibly wrong and ineffective our border enforcement was. It seemed clear that people weren’t being deterred by the militarization or the wall itself. Crossing numbers are certainly down in recent years, but there’s no real way to tell if this is because of the U.S.’s poor economy, increased border enforcement, or both. What is clear is that plenty are still choosing to cross—it’s just that more of them were dying in the process. A week out there convinced me that our currently policies couldn’t continue for much longer, because they were inherently unsustainable. I figured that they would collapse under the weight of their own inhumanity, that reform could happen if enough people knew what was going on and called for change.

Now, I’m in an urban area, talking to tons of different people on a daily basis and hearing dozens of stories from migrants. A lot of them have left desperately poor town in central and southern Mexico, where a good wage is $30 a week. Some of them are my age, except instead of attending a liberal arts college and blogging about politics, they have a three-year old child at home who they need to support. Most of them aren’t coming to the U.S. to pursue higher education. Many of them don’t want to live there permanently or assimilate into U.S. culture. The majority are simply looking for work, having run out of options at home.

I was speaking to a group of women in the Migrant Resource Center where I’ve spent the past week working. They were discussing the poor wages in their home states that had led them to try to cross the border, while I chimed in occasionally with questions.

One of them turned to me and asked, “If you were in my position, if you couldn’t find any work at home and had four children to support, would you try to cross into the U.S.?”

I looked at her and froze for a moment, unable to answer because the circumstances of my life had never forced me to consider something like this. Eventually, I said, “I don’t know. But maybe. Probably.”

She nodded, looking satisfied. “Until you’ve been in this position, you don’t know what you would do,” she said.

In the desert, I heard stories like this and wished people safe passage. On the Mexican side of the line, though, these stories carry an entirely different meaning. The people who tell me these things have just been deported, and, with very few exceptions, most of them are headed back to the towns they came from in Mexico’s interior. Having seen the reality of the desert or the brutality of the Border Patrol (nobody I’ve spoken to who was in custody overnight was fed more than one meal, and most of them were housed in detention facilities where sitting down was impossible because of crowding), most of them are giving up and heading home.

From a political perspective, this is a win. Comprehensive immigration reform has been discussed for a long time in U.S. politics. All of the strategies I’ve heard rely on essentially three actions—providing a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants already here, changing our visa system to grant temporary work visas and possibly increase quotas for nations like Mexico with high demand, and increasing enforcement on the border to prevent unauthorized crossings. No matter how people feel about Mexicans or what to do with the undocumented folks once they get here, everybody seems to agree that preventing migrants from crossing illegally is a good thing. Policy, as much as it could aim to provide better jobs for Mexico or legalize those who’ve already made it here, is going to favor border militarization.

Out in the desert, it seemed like this couldn’t go on forever. The degree of suffering was so great, the injustices so stark, that I knew a better world couldn’t be too far off. From the city, though, abuse becomes mundane. The people I talk to everyday who come in dehydrated, forced into the back of vehicles which look like they’re designed to carry animals, crying because they can’t find work at home and don’t know what to do—all of them fade together, human casualties in a policy system which doesn’t care about their suffering. Which isn’t going to care about their suffering.

In the midst of all this, it’s good to know that the undocumented migrants who have already made it to el norte, who have lived there for years and built lives there, might be able to stay. But immigration reform which only tweaks our visa system isn’t going to solve the issue. Reagan’s 1986 comprehensive immigration reform—the last large-scale legalization we’ve had in the U.S.—was supposed to provide enough border enforcement to make sure people stopped crossing. And we all know how that worked out.

As long as there are people who are desperate to find work, I have to believe our border wall won’t make a difference. If we build a twelve foot wall, they’ll find a thirteen foot ladder, or so the saying goes. But being here makes me afraid that our awful policies are working in some twisted way, that the suffering I’ve seen this week is simply supposed to be another form of collateral damage.

The physical border is a space often forgotten in political discussions. We talk about who ICE chooses to deport in the U.S. and what it’s like to live life undocumented, always afraid that one misstep could get you sent back to a country you don’t remember leaving. We don’t talk about the border militarization in real terms, what it means for the people who live on either side of the line, who conduct their day-to-day lives perpetually in the shadow of that fence. We say we’re adding enforcement and agents, and people see it as a good or accept it as a necessary compromise to push for reforms in the system. We’re sold a specter of drug cartels and devious migrants sneaking across our borders, and we don’t often pause to consider what that added enforcement will mean or how many more bodies will pile up in the Arizona desert because of it.

I want comprehensive immigration reform, and I’m so happy to learn that many of the people I know won’t have to live with the specter of deportation hanging over their heads, at least for the next two years. I hope, though, that we can bring these spaces into our national dialogue too, that in our push for legalization of those already here, we don’t forget about those who would still come. I want us to see the human rights side even as we acknowledge its political dimensions. I don’t want the suffering in the desert, the costs on the Mexican side of the line, to forever remain invisible.

The U.S.-Mexico border: a brief history

I’m going to be writing a lot about the border in the next month as I work with No More Deaths and delve into my thesis research. I want to make this blog as accessible as possible for people, so this post is an attempt to explain the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border as I understand it and the issues I have with our immigration and drug policies. If you have no idea what I’m ranting about, start here. This post assumes you’re not already horrendously racist and/or categorically opposed to migration. If you are, you should probably stop failing at life.


(A vastly oversimplified) history
The Southwestern United States was part of Mexico until it was ceded in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War (which was basically a war where the U.S. invaded Mexico to steal land as part of Manifest Destiny). An addition chunk of land, mostly in Southern Arizona, was purchased by the U.S. in 1853 (the Gadsen Purchase) to allow for the completion of the intercontinental railroad. The effect of these two land grabs was that many Mexican nationals became part of U.S. territory overnight. There’s also an entire history of indigenous people in this area that I still don’t know a ton about and won’t get into here. But if you want a bit more detailed history, my good friend Madelyn did a wonderful summary on her blog while she was working with No More Deaths.


Migration patterns
Migration between the United States and Mexico has been happening for a very long time, with a lot of overlap between people, racial groups, etc. along the border. (For a solid history, check out this book.) Mexican nationals migrated to the U.S. in large numbers pre-1930s, often to work in agriculture. The Great Depression and the lack of work led to racism and a call for Mexicans to go back to Mexico (sounds familiar), which led to a huge exodus of workers.

Once World War II started, the U.S. began the Bracero Program to combat the labor shortage caused by so many men being off at war. Many Mexicans came to the U.S. on a contract basis to work in agricultural labor, and many were able to become naturalized during this period. The Bracero Program was popular and continued to be renewed until 1964. Many people were crossing without documents during this time as well. The border itself was relatively permeable, and many people, especially men, would come work in the U.S.  for a few years, save money to bring home, and then return to Mexico.

In part because of the horrendous labor conditions revealed on many farms using Bracero workers, and in part because of general racism and xenophobia, U.S. restrictions on immigration have tightened since then. It’s virtually impossible currently for a Mexican national to get a visa without family already in the U.S., unless they have a job skill set we’re looking for (we’re talking M.D., Ph.D. and the like). The current wait to get a visa for a Mexican national with a close relative living in the U.S. is about twenty years.


NAFTA and economic policies
The restrictions on legal immigration haven’t slowed migration to the U.S. by very much. A lot of people have blamed the tide of people crossing on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Signed in 1994, NAFTA lowered all kinds of tariffs and trade barriers between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. One result of this was the flooding of Mexican markets with cheap, subsidized corn from the U.S., which put many rural Mexican farmers out of work, forcing them to migrate to find work.

NAFTA also pushed forward existing Mexican efforts to industrialize the border. Mexico began a border industrialization program in 1964, when the Bracero Program ended, as a way of dealing with all the unemployed young men who were coming back to Mexico. The program aimed to build factories called maquiladoras on the border. Many U.S. companies saw the maquilas as a good investment opportunity, and mostly foreign corporations built a bunch of factories in Northern Mexico right along the border.

NAFTA’s lack of labor and environmental protections continued to make investment in Mexican factories a good economic calculation for U.S. corporations. The growth of maquilashas led to an internal migration within Mexico, as people from central and southern states head north in search of work. The dismal working conditions and low pay, plus the fact that many factories prefer to hire women (they’re thought to be more pliable/compliant, and can be paid less), ends up pushing people into the U.S. as well.

There have been a lot of arguments between people who know much more about this than me about the real effects of NAFTA. Based on the research I’ve done, it seems reasonable to say that blaming NAFTA for our current wave of migration is a bit ahistorical, since migration has been such a key part of U.S.-Mexico relations for hundreds of years. However, it did push a lot of people into poverty, and accelerated existing migration patterns.


Border enforcement
Starting in 1994, the U.S. government began building sections of a border fence in Texas, with the goal of stopping unauthorized migration in urban areas. Various sections of the fence were expanded in the mid-90s, through Operation Gatekeeper, Operation Hold the Line and Operation Safeguard.

While the stated intention of these policies was to reduce migration, the actual effect was to push migration away from urban areas and into the deserts. Initially, government officials and the Border Patrol said no one would be stupid enough to try to cross through the Arizona desert. Then, they said that they accepted human deaths in the desert as a consequence of border enforcement. Policy became to funnel migrants into a few dangerous areas of desert, including the Altar Valley of Southern Arizona, where No More Deaths works. No More Deaths estimated that there are 300-800 yearly migrant deaths in the Arizona desert alone, largely from dehydration.

Since September 11, the border has been increasingly militarized in the name of national security. Border Patrol has more boots on the ground than at any time in U.S. history, and more and more fence is being built. There are now Border Patrol checkpoints throughout the Southwest—places where officers look into passing cars, make sure nobody’s brown, and ask for papers if you “look” undocumented. The language of the Border Patrol is very military and focused on gaining “operational control” of the border. Most of the people I’ve spoken to who live in and around Tucson and the border towns near it feel as if they’re in a war zone, and that was the impression I got during my last trip down here. Migrants are systematically abused while in Border Patrol custody, and many have died in immigration detention facilities.

Cynics have referred to the militarization of the border as a “Marshall Plan for Mexico.” The Marshall Plan was an economic aid package to post-war Europe that helped get the manufacturing sector back on its feet and is credited with helping to avert the worst of economic catastrophe. Ironically, the U.S. has spent approximately the same amount as the original Marshall Plan on border enforcement with Mexico.

Border enforcement has also has a number of negative environmental impacts. The desert Southwest is a key ecosystem, and serves as an ecological bridge between temperate and tropical zones. It’s also very fragile—wagon wheel tracks from the 1800s are still visible in sections of the Sonoran. Virtually all U.S. environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, which mandates environmental reviews for projects, as well as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, have been exempted within a certain number of miles of the border. Currently, there is legislation pending in Congress to extend these exemptions.

The road-building and off-road patrolling of the Border Patrol have disrupted hydrology and shrunk habitat for many endangered species in the area. The border wall itself also fragments habitat, disrupting the migration of many keystone wildlife species. As climate change worsens, animal migration will become ever more necessary, and the impacts of the wall ever-more-severe.


Undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
The stepped up border enforcement has been matched by an environment which is increasingly racist and overtly hostile to migrants once they arrive in the U.S. There have been expanded efforts to establish partnerships between local law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency which handles deportations for people in the U.S. Most notably, the Secure Communities program aims to make sure that every person arrested for any crime in the U.S. also has their immigration status checked. The stated goal is to prioritize the deportation of violent felons, but many, many more people are deported for things like petty theft and minor traffic violations.

Laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, which essentially criminalized being brown in public, have left many immigrants who have documents afraid to go out in public or drive cars. These policies end up deporting many people who have been in the U.S. for years and have children who are U.S. citizens. They also create hardships for mixed-status families.


Drugs, guns and cartels
A lot has been made of the violence along the border and the drug wars going on in Mexico. This is an area of policy I’m less familiar with. My understanding basically boils down to the following points:

  • The increased number of people, especially young men, involved in drug cartels is a direct consequence of the lack of other economic opportunities available in many parts of Mexico
  • Drug-related violence is often fueled by guns and other arms which enter Mexico from the U.S.-something our policymakers really don’t want to talk about
  • Drug cartels now have a virtual monopoly on human smuggling as well. It’s almost impossible to cross the border without paying a guide (a polleroor coyote) from a cartel thousands of dollars. Migrants are often forced to carry drugs as well.
  • Drug-related violence on the border, while a very real problem for many people, has been sensationalized and in some case overstated in the U.S. media to make a case for increased border enforcement.



By every reasonable metric—logic, fiscal efficiency, compassion, respect for human life, sustainability—our border policy is a miserable failure. People continue to die in the desert. Drugs continue to cross the line. Habitat continues to be fragmented. And outside of the military industrial complex, which profits from building and monitoring the fence, and the prison industrial complex, which profits from throwing more and more brown bodies behind bars, no one benefits from this system.

In summary, the U.S. strategy for dealing the border is profoundly flawed. It utterly fails to consider the roots of migration and drug trafficking, and refuses to examine the U.S. government’s complicity in fueling these trends. It doesn’t consider the intersections between economic policy, border industrialization, history, migration trends, and drugs. It is ahistorical and fails to consider the humanity of the people it impacts. It is fuelled by and perpetuates a racist society.

I’m going to be writing about these issues a lot more, but I hope this is helpful as a jumping off point. If you want to learn more, check out some of the links and books I’ve referenced in here.