Trump Demands Border Wall in the Face of Evidence Documenting Harms to Migrants, Border Communities, and the Environment
THE TORCH: CONTENTSBy Holly Straut-Eppsteiner
MAY 7, 2019
In February, President Trump declared a national emergency so that he could allocate $6.7 billion in taxpayer dollars, without congressional appropriation, to construct more wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In February, a 16-state coalition led by California challenged Trump’s emergency declaration by seeking a preliminary injunction against it in a U.S. district court in California. Last week, NILC submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in this case, outlining the harms border walls inflict on migrants, border communities, and the environment.
Evidence of these harms is apparent when examining impacts of restrictive border policies implemented during 1990s. So-called “prevention through deterrence” policies of this era led to increased migrant deaths and harms for border communities. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the federal agency that used to perform the functions that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) now perform, presumed that blocking access to common entry points along the border would deter potential migrants from embarking on migration journeys. In practice, however, these policies neither prevented nor deterred migration — they only made migration journeys more difficult and dangerous.
Research shows that attempts to prevent migrants from crossing in heavily-trafficked urban areas like San Diego, Calif., and El Paso, Tex., only pushed people to cross in more remote, hazardous terrain. When the border was fortified along the California-Mexico border under “Operation Gatekeeper,” for example, crossings in San Diego went down, but crossings at points farther east in Arizona increased tremendously. As migrants undertook journeys in the remote mountains, deserts, and across waterways of the Southwest, deaths increased by 474 percent between 1996 and 2000.
The migrants who died endured terrible suffering. Causes of death included hypothermia, dehydration, sunstroke, and drowning. Between 1995 and 2004, more than 2,600 deaths were recorded along the border, and migrants became more likely to die crossing the border than to be apprehended by Border Patrol. Those who survived reported having endured physical hardships, such as running out of food or water along the way. Because migration journeys became so difficult, migrants came to rely on coyotes, or paid guides, to help them cross. The cost of hiring these guides quadrupled. Despite high payments promised to these coyotes, many migrants were abandoned by their guides while crossing the desert.
Border walls have also been detrimental for border communities — communities such as Ambos Nogales, which includes Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora (in Mexico). A steel fence there and, later, a bollard-style wall divided interconnected communities, economies, and even the cooperation of the towns’ fire departments. In 2008, a border wall blocked an underground storm drain during a flash flood, causing flooding on both sides of the wall. Homes, cars, and businesses were damaged, and two people drowned.
Such barriers also encroach on the sovereignty of indigenous lands. The Tohono O’odham Nation’s sacred lands span both sides of the border. Yet Tohono O’odham people are no longer able to freely cross, and their cultural traditions have been interrupted. Remote parts of their land have seen increased traffic from migrants and, as a result, their land has become a place where migrants die. Vehicle barriers constructed by the Border Patrol to discourage migrant crossings have caused environmental damage.
The environmental harms associated with an expanded border wall are extensive. Wildlife in the border region — whose natural migratory patterns don’t account for human-imposed borders — continues to suffer harm as a result of existing walls, because the walls disrupt the habits animals have evolved in adapting to their unforgiving habitat.
Given these well-documented cases of human suffering, deaths, and disruption to human communities and wildlife, why would the Trump administration pursue a border wall? The answer is rooted in Trump’s resentment of immigrants and people of color. When Trump announced his candidacy for president, he justified building a border wall by claiming that Mexican migrants are “bringing drugs … [and] crime” and that “[t]hey’re rapists.” He has also described migrants at the southern border as “animals” and as “bad” people who “infest” the United States.
Trump’s demands reflect broader, systemic efforts by his administration to exclude immigrant communities of color. He slashed refugee admissions, banned entrance to the U.S. of people from certain Muslim-majority countries, and is trying to implement a rule that punishes low-income immigrants who rely on nutrition, health, and housing programs by preventing them from obtaining lawful permanent residence. He has also attempted to get rid of temporary protections for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Liberia, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan, by making temporary protected status (TPS) or deferred enforced departure (DED) unavailable to them, and for immigrant youth, by terminating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
By building more wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump is manufacturing another crisis that will cause extensive damage to border communities and the environment and that will lead to greater human suffering — all in the name of perpetuating his racist agenda.
Holly Straut-Eppsteiner is NILC’s Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and research program manager.