Sierra Club Condemns Border Security Bill That Seeks To Gut Protected Lands

An empty gallon of water and desiccated orange are some of discarded items left by migrant border crossers. CREDIT: ESTHER Y. LEE
An empty gallon of water and desiccated orange are some of discarded items left by migrant border crossers. CREDIT: ESTHER Y. LEE

A regional chapter of the Sierra Club, one of the largest environmental organizations in the country, is denouncing a Republican-sponsored border security bill that could have deleterious effects on the environment if enacted into law. Arizona’s Grand Canyon Sierra Club Chapter sent out a petition strongly opposing legislation that would exempt border security activities from 16 environmental laws within 100 miles of the southern and northern U.S. borders.

The latest petition criticized the “Secure the Border First Act,” which would carry out a wide range of border security activities, including the construction or repair of 120 miles of fencing, 1,800 miles of roads, and 12 security bases along the southern U.S. border. The petition stated that the bill would “militarize natural areas and communities already glutted with border walls, roads and towers,” “undermine fundamental environmental and conservation laws,” and “allow further damage to the fragile border environment and the people and communities dependent upon it.”

The petition added, “Walls also fragment wildlife habitat and block wildlife migration corridors, threatening the survival of a wide range of imperiled species. A total of 652 miles of border barriers have already been constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border at great cost to taxpayers and with little to no effectiveness in stopping human migration.”

The border wall has already resulted in erosion and flood damage in some areas in Arizona. Thirty-seven environmental protection laws were waived when the government expanded construction of Arizona’s border wall in 2006. Dan Millis, the Tucson-based coordinator of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands project, told Arizona Range News last month, “They find a nice, flat spot to build a border wall, well, that’s a sandy wash, a flash flood zone, and the flood waters come. Often times the waters will seep through, but the debris comes with the water and patches up the holes until the [wall] becomes a dam. The water digs deeper and deeper until it fails.”

What’s more, border walls could exacerbate flood events: monsoon rains create a bottleneck of water on one side of the wall while debris accumulates, thereby placing pressure on the structure. In 2008, five to six feet of water flooded parts of Nogales, Mexico. Debris piles, road damage, downstream scouring, increased sedimentation, and washbed elevation all occurred at the Lukeville port of entry after a major monsoon storm in July 2008. And the National Park Service found that “measurements in 2009 and 2010 showed a continuing trend of decreased capacity for channel flow in proximity to the pedestrian fence, with the long-term potential for channel realignment and effects to riparian vegetation.” And rainwater runoff toppled border fencing in 2014, flooding homes in Arizona.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a hearing Tuesday to discuss the bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). In a 18–12 vote along party lines, the House Homeland Security Committee approved a similar stand-alone companion bill in January. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the House bill’s sponsor, stressed that the bill was a stricter version of legislation that he worked out with Democrats when they mulled over a comprehensive solution to fix the immigration system, Bloomberg News reported in January.

Border, immigration, faith, labor, environmental, privacy, civil rights, and human rights advocates condemned the border bill because of legislation that makes the border “a stage for militarism and threatens constitutional protections of all residents and communities living within 100 miles of a land or sea border” and “empowers and emboldens an out-of-control border agency that is in need of reform, accountability and oversight.”

On the flip side, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an immigration-restrictionist group, also opposed the House bill because they believe it doesn’t go far enough to add pedestrian fencing and that “would-be illegal aliens understand that being caught at the border will likely result in them being released.” The immigration-restrictionist Border Patrol Agents’ Union rejected the bill, stating that it “lacks a procedure to quickly process those ineligible for asylum and return them to their home countries,” the New American reported.

In 2013, the Sierra Club supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, shifting away from its previous stance based on the belief that immigration would lead to unsustainable population growth.