By Christian Lewis
The border between the U.S. and Mexico spans nearly 2,000 miles, running along the southern confines of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, there are about 354 miles of pedestrian barriers and 300 miles of vehicle barriers, for a total of 654 miles of border walls. During his campaign for president, Donald Trump had promised to complete the border wall. So far, his administration has built 110 miles of new barriers, mainly replacing existing structures. Administration officials said earlier this year that the federal government was on track to build more than 450 miles of additional wall along the southern border by the end of 2020.
Environmental advocates have long voiced concerns about the ways border walls adversely affect the environment of this richly biologically diverse area. According to Kevin Bixby, executive director of the Southwest Environmental Center, the border region is home to more than 1,000 wildlife and 430 plant species. He said the border wall has prevented the interbreeding of Mexican gray wolves and divided its population, as well as cut off access to water for species such as the Sonoran Pronghorn, an ungulate related to goats and antelopes.
Advocates like Bixby, who has led the Las Cruses, N.M-based organization for eight years, are trying to raise awareness of the region’s fragile ecosystem and to halt construction of additional barriers along the border. He talked about the center’s work and mission during interviews in April. The interviews have been edited for length and clarity
How is President Trump’s plan to expand the border wall going to further impact the environment?
The current Trump design is 30 feet of metal steel square rods that are stuck into concrete. Under (President George W.) Bush, he built 650 miles and half of it was these pedestrian fences and the other were what we would call lethal barriers which are generally not too big of an issue for wildlife to crawl through. That was the extent of the problem when Bush left office and that was not too bad for wildlife. And then along came Trump with his signature campaign promise. So, he starts replacing the existing barriers, taking out these vehicle barriers and replacing them with these 30-foot pedestrian fencing which we call the wall. In the beginning of his administration, we had heard that this was nothing to worry about and this was just replacing what was already there but we knew, those of us that were actually down there at the wall, what he was replacing the vehicle barriers with was much worse for wildlife. He is also building where walls were not there.
What do you think about the federal government using loopholes in funding to pay for the wall’s construction?
It makes me angry, but it also makes me feel helpless. We have a couple of lawsuits we are a part of, but we have nothing truly significant. But you touched on the fundamental problem, which is that in 2005, Congress gave the secretary of Homeland Security the authority to waive laws to build border barriers. And this was used by Bush and it has been used by Trump in every single border wall project. The list of laws waived vary from project to project. The Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act are always waived. Those are fundamentally important laws but the administration knows that those laws are the ones that need to be waived in order to dodge legal action. Another one that is always disregarded is the Native American Grave Protection Act, which is really important in the southwest. You can find Native American graves and sites all over the place and if you are building a wall like the border wall you are bound to run into them.
I have read about your press release in January 2020 about a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop construction of the border wall. Can you tell me more about that?
We actually placed that back in 2018, and we had challenged the use of the waiver authority, and there is a similar lawsuit challenging that same authority. There was one from a bunch of states like California and New Mexico. We filed it with the Center of Biological Diversity and the Defenders of Wildlife along with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Those guys filed a lawsuit to stop construction in Arizona and California but I was a plaintiff on the ground in New Mexico.
Under the 2005 Real ID act, Congress gave the waiver authority to the director of Homeland Security and the only avenue to challenging the use of the authority was through federal district court which is the lowest level of federal court. Whatever this decision was can only be appealed to the (U.S.) Supreme Court. This law cut out the middle step which is normally the (U.S.) Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court takes on very, very few cases that are submitted to it so we lost the case in District Court which happened to be in D.C, so then what we did was then appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is probably not going to take it.
However, we do have another case that is a lot more promising…with the Sierra Club and the SBCC, which is a coalition of groups that stands for the Southern Border Coalition of Communities. My organization is a part of that coalition. We are challenging the national emergency declaration and the transfer of money from the Department of Defense to build a wall. We actually won in the first step in the 9th District Court of Northern California. It is now being heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and we asked for a stay on construction. The district court issued the stay but the Supreme Court overturned it (the stay). (The merits of the case are still being decided by the Court of Appeals)
What impact does the border wall have on the flow of clean water on the communities?
It is mostly not too much on the quality of the water but more the quantity of the flooding. For example, because the wall is being constructed without any input on environmental issues, they are ignoring things like drainage. What they have done in the past is build these pedestrian fences right across arroyos or streams. We have a lot of arroyos which are dry, clean beds that normally don’t have water but when it rains they can have a lot of water. Now when the border wall cuts through, this can cause flooding and redirects the water in a way that is destructive. That happened in Nogales, Sorona in 2008. That actually was when they plugged up an arroyo which caused a lot of flooding on the other side of the border and led to some death all to stop people from crossing.
More recently in Arizona, they are drilling these shallow groundwater wells in order to get the water they need to mix cement for these concrete footings. These footings are 3 or 4 feet wide and 6 or 8 feet deep. And you know, 500 miles of that, that is a lot of concrete. They are building these wells and pumping out groundwater and using a lot of water, which is going to cause springs to dry up and wetlands to dry up.
What are your thoughts about the future and whether your efforts to protect the environment from construction of the border wall will be successful?
I’m not optimistic that we will be able to stop the border wall under Trump, but long term I think, or I’m hopeful, that we can take down the border wall, which was a ridiculous waste of resources…It is going to be a fight because even people who don’t like the wall may say it is already there, why bother to take it down.
There is more awareness of the impacts on wildlife…The pandemic may offer an opportunity to step back and realize our relationship with nature is partly responsible for the coronavirus. The breathtaking quickness that we have been able to shut down the economy and lower carbon emissions. With this horrible cost of the loss of lives and jobs, it does demonstrate how fast we can shift and change. Hopefully people will be willing to do that.