By Megan Magee
Migration from Mexico to the United States has undergone several phases and dramatic transitions, each with an accompanying political policy and geographic, environmental, and human consequences for citizens of both nations. In Talons of the Eagle, Professor Peter H. Smith of the University of California, San Diego tracks these cycles of immigration, both legal and illegal. Immigration policy has varied greatly from the 1900s until today: from the U.S. assumption of an “open border policy” towards Mexico, providing the U.S. with an inexpensive “immense pool of unskilled workers”; to the implementation of strict quota systems like the one in place under the Walter-McCarran Immigration Act of 1952 and the later Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986; to the legally complex, fiscally expensive, and often ineffective system of deterring illegal immigration that governs U.S.-Mexican relations today (Smith 259)(1). Even before September 11th, the U.S. was taking increasingly extreme steps to minimize illegal immigration, which many Americans felt had become a serious threat to native-born laborers and U.S. security (Smith 261). Several enforcement plans were enacted to keep illegal aliens out of the country (for example, Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego and Operation Rio Grande in Texas), seriously complicating U.S. economic and foreign policy. Professor Smith explains the inconsistency of the inclusive NAFTA treaty coupled with the erection of an exclusive, physical border wall: “…the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border seemed utterly inconsistent with the spirit of a new-found economic partnership… Freer trade encouraged transnational investment, which generally stimulated cultural interaction and, ultimately, labor migration” (Smith 262). In discovering the complexities of illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S., I have become most interested in the consequences of this confusing, contradictory policy and especially the physical erection of a border fence or wall.
Oftentimes, domestic media sources, politicians, and many U.S. constituents tend to focus on the fears and dangers associated with the border, the negative aspects of illegal immigration, the immediate necessity of procuring safety for Americans (especially during, and in light of, the so-called American War on Terror), and even racist or prejudiced sentiments perpetrated toward Mexicans. The issue of illegal immigration is very much on Americans’ political radars. For example, in a 2007 nationwide poll of 1,125 adults, 61% considered the “problem of illegal immigration very serious” and 30% regarded it as “somewhat serious.” In another telling survey in March 2006, 52% of American adults surveyed believed immigrants to be burdensome to United States infrastructure because “they take jobs, housing, and health care” – implying that these services and benefits should belong to native-born American citizens only (Dominguez and Fernandez de Castro 35).
However, there are many back burner issues concerning immigration that should be at the very least acknowledged by the American people, such as the poor example the United States is setting by conducting cruel and inhumane dealings with the citizens of Mexico. A powerful symbolic reminder of these improper dealings is the border wall. One of the largest U.S. security projects pursued by conservatives after our government abandoned immigration reform under President George Bush in 2001 was the construction of a 1,200 kilometer (approximately 746 miles) barrier. Proposed by members of Congress in 2006, the barrier wall’s projected price tag was initially estimated at $1.2 billion (Smith 324). Without even attempting to pursue or engage in diplomatic negotiations with Mexico, the U.S. once again took expensive unilateral action. Understandably, Mexican politicians and leaders were enraged that the U.S. did not even consider crafting a bilateral solution to alleviate border ills. Thus, because my research demonstrates that the American Congressional discussions, newscasts, and debates that dominate much of our election cycles focus on wrong aspects of immigration (such as blaming any economic stalls/market failures on immigrants, over pronouncing the impacts of drug cartel trafficking, and exploiting fears caused by the 9/11 terrorist attacks), I deemed it important to ask: what were the unintended, unforeseen, and undoubtedly negative consequences of quickly changing our relationship with Mexico instead of pursuing reform? More specifically, what have been the results, publicized and covered up, related to the construction of a physical wall along much of the border? Throughout my paper I argue that while the wall separating the U.S.-Mexico border was constructed after the passing of the Secure Fence Act in 2006 with the objective of bolstering national security, it has had unintended negative consequences on human rights and the environment, issues which undoubtedly affect the complex and ever-changing relationship between the politicians of the United States and Mexico, the people of both nations, and the physical land on which they make their homes.
Environmental Degradation: An Unintended Consequence of the Wall
In the film documentary El Muro, first time producer Gregory Rainoff exposes a myriad of often ignored environmental effects of the wall’s construction. This pressing issue was seemingly unplanned for by the government; which ignored concerned activists and environmentalists when the wall was built, blinded by the aim of erecting a physical barrier to protect citizens of the United States. This mentality is present in a statement by former Attorney General (under President Bill Clinton) Janet Reno, who boldly asserted, “We are securing our nation’s borders, we are aggressively enforcing our nation’s borders, and we are doing it now” (Smith 261). Unfortunately, environmental conditions do not necessarily control or factor into much of the decision-making behind U.S.-Mexican policy, though I argue that these concerns definitely should play a significant role. But U.S. territory still suffers the consequences of its government’s policymaking, as environmental pollution and destruction do not adhere to any sort of physical barrier, country borders included. As articulated by the non-profit environmental group, Wildcoast official Serge Dedina(2), the fact that the wall was constructed by the Department of Homeland Security means that no environmental rules apply to the wall’s construction and maintenance. In other words, the Department has been absolved of all accountability and regulations set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies. According to UC San Diego Urban Studies professor and field researcher Oscar Romo, Homeland Security has stipulated that they will, in time, restore damaged areas, such as the Tijuana River estuary. However, Romo argues quite intuitively that Homeland Security is ill-equipped to restore or protect the environment, as it is not only their last priority but also not their area of expertise, or even an expense that was factored into the budget for constructing the wall (El Muro).
As mentioned, a poignant example of the environmental destruction caused by the wall is the massive toll construction has taken on the rare and precious ecosystem of the Tijuana River estuary. A shocking 90% of this habitat, home to at least seven endangered species, has been rapidly destroyed by pollutants and filled in with sediments from the wall’s construction. Not only is the estuary the largest one remaining in California, it also provides a barrier between pollutants and the Pacific Ocean. In other words, the estuary provides a complex natural purification system for rain and flood waters before they can enter the ocean. This is no small filtration task: without the estuary, the accessible beaches of Imperial Beach would be shut down every day of the year. Worse still, the rate at which the estuary fills up used to be about two millimeters per century. Now the marshes are disappearing at a staggering rate of one inch per year, which means that hundreds of acres will be destroyed over the next 10-20 years (El Muro).
The Tijuana River estuary is one of many examples of the irresponsibility of Homeland Security in its bulldozing of the fragile ecosystems along the border. In 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that over 30 environmental and cultural laws have been skirted in order to complete an additional 670 miles of border fence. Especially worried are environmental advocates in Arizona and Texas, who insist that the new sections of fence would harm wildlife along the Rio Grande and “…disrupt the migration corridors of butterflies and two endangered species of wildcats: the ocelot, which resembles a miniature leopard, and the [Gulf Coast] jaguarundi, an otter-faced relative of the puma.” The environmental effects of the border wall on wildlife habitats are visible and measurable, and so are the environmental impacts of U.S. economic policy for communities living along the border.
Another Wildcoast worker, Ben McCue, describes the environmental problems that plague Tijuana and ultimately permeate the border. McCue says that NAFTA has inspired the construction of cheap American factories in Tijuana, but with devastating results. These factories cost so little to operate because companies don’t have to adhere to the environmental regulations they would face during production in the U.S. The tantalizing combination of inexpensive production, low wages, and easy access to U.S. markets draws 2000 laborers and foreign producers into the area every day, but Tijuana’s infrastructure cannot support this burgeoning population. Squatter communities with no access to water, sewer, or sanitation systems are now cropping up along the border, and when it rains the trash and contamination produced by these communities flows under the border wall into the United States (El Muro).
Not surprisingly, BBC has reported that attempts Mexico has made to discuss potential environmental destruction along the border have been unanswered or shrugged off by U.S. officials, aggravating diplomatic relations to the point where Mexico threatened to file a claim with the International Court of Justice. A 2007 Mexican-American environmental report cited concerns that the fence would force species into smaller groups, curtailing genetic diversity. A more immediate concern articulated by Mexico is that the use of unnatural spotlights along the fence poses risks for nocturnal species. Regardless, the United States has once again chosen to prioritize national security over the environment and acted unilaterally, forgoing negotiations with its neighbor. Unless the U.S. starts treating the border territory as an important economic and environmental resource or engaging in immigration talks with Mexico, the dire situation of plant, animal, and human habitat destruction is sure to yield tangible and unfavorable results in the next decade (BBC News).
Human Rights Oppression: The Untold Story
El Muro portrays a number of instances of unwarranted systematic rights abuses against Mexican citizens, as well as unjust but less severe treatment of immigrants and other groups affected by the wall. Among the perpetrators are individual American citizens, organized activist groups such as the Minutemen Project, immigration coalitions and officials and nationally employed border agents. Sadly, it is not only Mexicans who struggle with consequences of the wall. New America Media reports that, “Three Native American nations and 23 tribes live in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. The construction of the border separation fence approved by Congress will divide in two the ancient history of these peoples.” (New American Media [editor’s note: article only extant via mirror sites]) The least America can do after displacing Native Americans from their land and abusing them for hundreds of years is to uphold tribal customs, unity, and family now. But Homeland Security cannot be expected to preserve these customs; similar to how the Department refuses to recognize the threat the wall poses to endangered species.
In El Muro, a border-loving Minuteman member “Dave” explains how his organization must patrol the border to prevent aid from flowing to illegal immigrants and make it increasingly difficult for them to migrate to the States. The justification for these actions is that Dave and his cohorts believe they are living next to a tumultuous Mexico, the “neighbor from hell.” Dave remarks that Mexicans espouse “Third World attitudes,” which he defines as the propensity to freeload and steal from U.S. citizens because Mexicans are poor and uneducated. A few minutes later, a group of Minutemen are depicted in action, shutting down a migrant day labor site in the United States. Groups of American men and women surround immigrant laborers, yelling accusations with megaphones. They ask laborers if they feel guilty for stealing McDonalds jobs from American teenagers and suggest that the migrants “Read the Bible!” and “Obey Jesus!” Perhaps the most judgmental statement is posed as an inquiry; an overweight Minuteman holding a “Day Labor Site CLOSED” sign implores ironically, “How moral are you, ladies?” This example of citizens exercising vigilante justice forced me to confront the question of when free speech borders on targeting and harassing racial minorities, as the male and female laborers alike appeared particularly uncomfortable by the imposing physical presence and in-your-face screaming of the Minutemen. While they are unlikely to be reprimanded by the government (though a coalition of Mexican vigilantes harassing Caucasian laborers would probably face arrest), the Minutemen are some of the largest and most vocal advocates for the border fence and explain that they feel proudly patriotic when thinking about their role in “resolving the border situation” (El Muro).
While this portrait of prejudicial harassment sheds a grim light on U.S. citizens, an even more disturbing image is exposed by the testimonial of a Tijuana man, who perhaps understates the violence he has experienced at the hand of U.S. trained and financed Border Agents, describing them only as “really tough.” The migrant worker proceeds to tell of his experience crossing the border, during which he attained a cruel physical beat down by immigration police who pointed a pistol at his head and dragged him on his face through a cactus patch. (El Muro) In another similarly heart-wrenching interview, a recently deported illegal immigrant explains how policemen from ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) broke into her Los Angeles apartment, seized her four month old baby, and pressured her to sign away her rights to a judge or lawyer in an unintelligible English legal document. Deemed a criminal, she and many other deported women may never see their children again as a result of their desperate attempts to achieve higher standards of living by migrating to the U.S. (El Muro) It is very probable that the excessively tough stance taken toward illegal immigrants, the random and reckless enforcement of U.S. “law” by border patrol, the seizure of Mexican children, legal rights, and ultimately human dignity has had a dramatic effect on the way America is perceived and thus treated by the rest of the world. Every year, hundreds of Mexicans perish while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, yet America remains as diplomatically isolationist as ever, ignoring Mexico’s pleas to reform immigration policy and consider alternative solutions to the border wall, such as forming a natural barrier of cacti instead of building an environmentally irresponsible fence (BBC News). While the majority of U.S. citizens continue to avidly support spending recent estimates of $2.4 billion to construct and upwards of $6 billion(3) to maintain the wall, America’s government unknowingly loses global support, bargaining and negotiating ability, and most crucially, the faith of other nations. In a rapidly globalizing and shifting world, these consequences may not be so negligible. Though the U.S. currently enjoys its powerful and influential status as a world hegemon, its strict, non-negotiable immigration policies could prove extremely unwise in a multipolar, Rival Bloc, or even a fully globalized planet Earth.
Finally, even if the U.S. remains as powerful and more or less stable as it is in the status quo, this is all the more reason it should assume the high road by taking accountability for its actions and policies which concern our Mexican neighbors. Because America enjoys more economic prosperity and political influence, its government should protect and uphold human rights, not quash them. This means that Border Patrol agents must not physically harm illegal immigrants or use excessive military force. ICE must stop forcing illegal aliens to sign away their rights and children by bullying Spanish-speaking migrants. If deportation is to be continued, the process itself must undergo immediate reform so that indocumentados are not seized in the middle of the night and dropped off in Mexican gang territories to be robbed and beaten. A small, simple step is to open serious and considerate negotiations with Mexican diplomats regarding immigration reform. A larger, more influential path would be to abandon the unsuccessful, environmentally detrimental, and morally inhumane border wall project in favor of a brighter future for all parties involved.
(1) Smith, Peter H. Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World. Oxford University Press. New York, New York. 2000. Print.
(2) Testimonials from Serge Dedina, Oscar Romo, and Ben McCue are gathered from the documentary El Muro.
(3) According to El Muro.
Photo Provided by: Jonathan McIntosh