Borderline Tragedy

Illegal immigration and the fight to stem it trample the Southwest's environment

| May 18, 2006

From a distance, the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge on the Arizona border between the United States and Mexico looks like a tranquil sanctuary for flora and fauna. The 118,000 acres are a fragile ecosystem that is home to animals like deer, pronghorn, and pygmy owls. But according to Tim Vanderpool of Tucson Weekly, the refuge can also 'host up to 3,000 illegal migrants and smugglers on any given night,' along with an army of Border Patrol agents and park police tasked with stopping them. The daily cat-and-mouse game has left a crisscross of trails and roads, and a heavy ecological footprint. As politicians and activists gear up for battle over President Bush's new proposal to further militarize the border, the environment of the American Southwest is becoming a forgotten casualty.

The reason so many migrants choose to brave the wilderness may be a direct result of Border Patrol policies. Vanderpool reports that since 1994 the US government has 'deliberately aimed to push smuggling and immigration routes further into remote areas.' Some experts believe the decision to reroute immigrants into the wilderness was an attempt to direct them away from politically powerful urban areas. Others say the tactic was meant to ebb illegal immigration by making the trek more costly and arduous.

Whatever the impetus, the results of rural migration have been disastrous for Southwestern preserves like the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Each year, the park produces approximately 500 tons of trash, and that costs money to clean out. The refuge has a $1.5 million budget, but one-third of it goes to policing the area. As a result, many of the ecological upkeep duties, like rooting out invasive species, simply go unheeded.

As bad as the ecological situation is right now, plans are underway to make it worse. The Real ID Act, signed by President Bush in 2005, is designed to curb the flow of illegal immigration. Vanderpool points out that the legislation allows Border Patrol 'to waive all environmental reviews when building roads, barriers, and other security aids along the Mexican boundary.' Some proposals have gone even further, suggesting the construction of a 700-mile fence along the border. The proposed wall would further the destruction already being caused by the thousands of illegal immigrants and the army of trucks, Humvees, and helicopters deployed to stop them. Even so, the situation as it stands now is grave enough. According to environmental management expert Stephen Mumme of Colorado State University, 'this ranks right up there with the most serious and long-term adverse consequences for the environment created by humankind.'
-- Bennett Gordon

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