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Science put at risk along U.S.-Mexico border

"They thought anyone out at dawn in the desert wilderness must be a drug runner."

Aerial picture taken with a drone of the urban fencing on the border between the US and Mexico at Playas de Tijuana, northwestern Mexico on January 26, 2017. (Credit: MARIO VAZQUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Aerial picture taken with a drone of the urban fencing on the border between the US and Mexico at Playas de Tijuana, northwestern Mexico on January 26, 2017. (Credit: MARIO VAZQUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Off the southern coast of California, just across the border from Tijuana, Mexico, dolphins swim around the fence that juts out into the Pacific Ocean. “They don’t really care,” said Jeff Crooks, a University of San Diego scientist who has been doing research along the U.S.-Mexico border for the past 16 years.

The border fence here was built long before President Trump’s campaign promises to “build a wall.” Barriers run for 46 miles separating San Diego County from Mexico; near the end, it runs along the southern part of a giant salt marsh system where Crooks works, studying the Tijuana estuary. And while the habitat he and his team are studying isn’t bisected, the towering line of metal and steel stretching across the coastal hills pays no attention to the winding Tijuana river system.

“There’s an old quote about southern California rivers,” Crooks told ThinkProgress. “I fell into the river and came out dusty.” He suspects that the river wasn’t flowing when the border was set over a century ago. Crossing back and forth from Mexico, into the U.S., back into Mexico, and finally out to the California coast, makes it “a little complicated” to understand and manage the river, he said.

“One of the things that is really evident for people on both sides of the border is that nature has no borders,” said Sergio Avila, a conservation scientist who has worked around the borderlands for 20 years. “Nature does not care about policies on one side of the border or the other.”

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For years, scientists have been working in the U.S.-Mexico border regions. They have been tracking jaguars and bison, monitoring rare plant species and monarch butterfly migrations. And while the dolphins might not be too bothered, the proposed expansion of the wall could significantly impact biodiversity.

But it’s not just the plants and animals whose movements will be increasingly restricted; scientists too are finding that their work is becoming more difficult — with their personal safety sometimes at risk — as political tensions rise and security is bolstered along the border.

“I think many of us have felt increased aggression from border patrol under the current administration,” Sula Vanderplank told ThinkProgress. A field botanist from England, Vanderplank currently works at San Diego State University. “And I think everyone would agree that over time things are just getting worse and worse in terms of being able to move across the border yourself.”

Border crossings

In interviews with ThinkProgress, scientists repeatedly mentioned the increased wait times at the border, which makes it harder to make trips as frequently as they used to — whether that’s to conduct field research, meet with colleagues on the other side, or teach classes.

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In the past, Vanderplank routinely brought scientific specimens collected south of the border back into the U.S., but this has become increasingly difficult. “I’ve had some really negative experiences,” she said of the confusion encountered over the specific permitting or laws governing the transport of scientific specimens. “I’ve been sent back to Mexico, or rejected at the border, have had my specimens held, or had them taken away and destroyed.”

While she lives in California, much of Vanderplank’s work is on the Mexico side of the border. She also teaches at the Center for Scientific Research and Higher Education in Ensenada, which means multiple trips across the border each week. But now that too has changed. “It’s definitely affected the frequency with which I travel,” said Vanderplank. “It actually caused me to postpone teaching my graduate class this year.”

Due to confusion over her crossing specimens, Vanderplank’s sentri pass, which allows expedited crossing, was revoked by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. “Now the wait times are so long it makes it impossible for me to cross multiple times a week,” she said. “So I’ve cancelled classes.”

A lone boar looks at the border wall. Credit: ©Matt Clark/Defenders of Wildlife
A lone boar looks at the border wall. Credit: ©Matt Clark/Defenders of Wildlife

“It’s sort of like the theater of the absurd in terms of wildlife and endangered plant management along the border,” Gary Nabhan, an agricultural ecologist based in Arizona, told ThinkProgress. “There’s a certain mobility that we used to have where we could literally go across the border and interact with our colleagues to figure out things.”

Now, university travel protocols are tougher, he said, and liability forms are required. Paperwork can take a long time to go through or travel can simply be discouraged, whether by relatives or organizations. And going from fewer than 5,000 border patrol agents in 1992 to just under 20,000 in 2016 — with calls by Trump last year to expand it by a further 5,000 agents — makes it “really disruptive,” Nabhan said.

‘Where I feel afraid’

Nabhan is one of a number of scientists who recounted finding themselves face to face with an armed border guard while working in the field. He described one time he was “put under gunshot by American border patrol who literally didn’t know that they were patrolling a national park where birdwatchers and researchers were out at dawn. They thought anyone out at dawn in the desert wilderness must be a drug runner.”

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Another time, he said, “I was under the scope and gunpoint of a rookie border patrol for over an hour, who said, if you move, I’m just going to shoot.”

“I wasn’t subject to racial profiling,” said Nabhan, who is a first-generation Lebanese American, “but I still had my life put at risk doing sanctioned research that the U.S. government and the United Nations was paying for.”

It’s a different story though for Avila. A wildlife biologist from Mexico City, Avila now lives in Arizona and recently joined the Sierra Club’s outdoors team. Over the years, he has studied jaguars, mountain lions, ocelots, pygmy owls, and monarch butterflies. Often this means going to remote areas.

“As a researcher who is a person of color,” Avila told ThinkProgress, “I feel that I have been racially profiled, and harassed by border patrol, when I’m doing research in remote areas.”

“A lot of people ask if I am not afraid of going to the mountains in Mexico,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, I’m more scared of going to remote areas in the United States where the border patrol has no accountability.”

It’s in the U.S. that Avila has felt more afraid due to having “run-ins” with the border patrol. He says they have threatened him with guns, questioning whether he’s truly conducting scientific research.

Avila said he has had to prove his nationality, carrying his green card and passport with him while working. He has to show proof of his academic degrees and the research he’s doing, as well. “Anybody else doing this research would not have to be subjected to this,” Avila said, “but as a researcher of color I have helicopters hovering over me, ATVs waking me up in the middle of the night at my campsite, and all sorts of just, harassing, because I am a person of color.”

The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment from ThinkProgress about protocols regarding those researching along the border and any contentious encounters. 

The scientists who spoke to ThinkProgress said interactions with border patrol aren’t uniformly negative. The experience can often vary depending on the individual with whom they’re interacting. For Crooks, working in the same areas and repeatedly interacting with the guards means he and his team have developed a good relationship with the border patrol. “They’re out in the field a lot, we get stuck in the mud and they help pull us out,” he said, acknowledging, however, that “our missions obviously aren’t identical.”

Of course, it’s not just in the U.S. that scientists’ safety has been increasingly at risk. Nabhan said he’s encountered machine-gun wielding narco squads in Mexico a quarter of a mile south of the border, “even though the research I was doing was approved by both governments.”

And for Rurik List, who works at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana near Mexico City, the cartels operating in the border regions he studies means that he’s had to avoid working at night in some areas — and avoid other areas entirely.

A specialist in the ecology and conservation of carnivores, List has worked with black-footed ferrets and wolves. He has also tracked bison crossing the border. For years, List has collaborated with U.S. scientists as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But it was in 2008 that he started to notice a change — when Mexico’s war on drugs began ramping up and more barriers along the border started appearing. 

Slowly, Americans became more reluctant to travel, obtaining permits to enter the U.S. became more challenging, according to List, and even Fish and Wildlife Service personnel started having difficulties when trying to go to Mexico on official business.

Soon, research in the border region became too risky. List recounted one moment when he and his students were setting up camera traps to track pronghorn crossing the border barrier — his team was told to “pick them [the cameras] up and not to return.”

“When you receive this kind of warning, you just obey, there is no other possibility,” List told ThinkProgress. His guess is the direction to leave was given by a cartel, but he has no intention to find out for sure. For the time being, List is no longer working near the border.

‘Undercurrent of unease’

Whether it’s simply longer lines at the border, tougher security questions, or the threat of gunshot, scientists repeatedly pointed to the impact this has on binational collaboration.

“There’s a level of tension,” Crooks said. “There’s this undercurrent of unease about the situation because a lot of us who live and work and think about these areas know that, ultimately, we need good relationships and good partnerships, and the most effective work we can do is going to be with our colleagues and friends in Mexico.”

Nabhan echoed this, saying collaboration between U.S. and Mexican scientists has been “dramatically slowed down and impeded.”

This isn’t necessarily for lack of want, but rather is often due to logistical challenges. For example, fewer scientists are now attending conferences on the opposite side of their respective borders. Fewer day trips are made for quick meetings. Less funding is available for international travel. And more broadly, political trust is eroding between both sides. All of this impacts scientists’ ability to work together.

Binational cooperation is vital, according to Crooks, because “this is an arbitrary line drawn through the middle of this region. The issues that we face environmentally or otherwise, the border doesn’t know or care about that.”

Vanderplank said she hasn’t seen collaborations weaken, or the desire wane. Rather, the practicality of working together — like loaning materials and specimens across the border — is much more difficult and this can put a lot of people off. “It’s just more burdensome and just more aggressive along the border now,” she said.

Two bison crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Credit: ©Rurik List
Two bison crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Credit: ©Rurik List

For others, the tensions are felt more deeply. “As a general feeling, it has been extremely offensive the treatment that Mexican nationals have received,” Avila said. “And for that matter, the ignorance on the side of the [Trump] administration to acknowledge that there is work on the ground, that there is many years of collaboration, that there have been many things people have been working on together, the rhetoric right now is not helping those relationships.”

“Binational research is almost non-existent,” List said of those working in the Arizona-Mexico region. “Which is very sad.”

Lost opportunities

Ultimately, with less ease in movement, less access on the ground, and less collaboration, there will be less scientific data on the border region — the very same region scientists hope to help protect from the impacts of a border wall. But to do so, they need the data.

One example in particular is the monarch butterfly. For years, scientists have been trying to understand their migration and breeding patterns — the iconic orange and black pollinators travel thousands of miles each year from Canada and the northern U.S. to overwinter in the south. But as Nabhan noted, “we’re limited by the fact that there’s virtually no researchers from the U.S…. that are allowed to tag monarchs just south of the border.”

While not listed on the endangered species list, monarchs are a species of concern — meaning restoring habitats and monitoring movements is vital to conservation efforts. Yet, “there is a major flyway down the Mississippi and into Mexico that we just literally have a blank stretch on the map, from the U.S. border down 150 to 300 miles, where we virtually have no data,” explained Nabhan, who believes scientists are being dissuaded from, or don’t want to risk, conducting research in areas prone to drug violence.

It’s not just that though. More challenging border crossings also mean scientists who do continue their research may miss key moments. According to Nabhan, previously, naturalists would simply use a crossing on the Rio Grande — the La Linda International Bridge — to quickly access areas south of the border. Now, with this path closed, “you have to go around several hundred miles and you can miss the monarch migration by a matter of a half day, or a day and a half, because of all the extra difficulties.”

But for Avila, some areas are impossible to return to. “This kind of heightened law enforcement and racial profiling affects the science that we can collect, affects the knowledge that we have about the border,” he said. “There have been places where I just cannot return ever again because border patrol threatened me.”

“So it is not only a missed opportunity for me as a researcher,” he said, “it’s a missed opportunity for the scientific community for the conservation community and for the American public at large to learn what is going on along the border.”

It goes beyond safety, Avila stresses. It’s about the science and the opportunities available to others. He fears that indigenous or Hispanic college students will not be able to pursue their dreams of border research simply because of the color of their skin.

But in a way, the administration’s heightened focus on border security has at least helped to bring attention to the biodiversity along the wall. “I think it spurred us to try really hard to keep the research and relationships alive,” Vanderplank said. “It’s reinvigorated interest in the border because we know that region’s now under higher threat.”

“I keep telling myself we have to keep these collaborations alive, we have to keep doing it no matter if it’s getting harder,” she said. “We can’t give up.”