Today, there is no doubt that the issue of ‘immigration’ is defining contemporary American politics. After all, it is 2021 – Joe Biden is president and Congress is gridlocked. Unfortunately, immigration has become a political football for Republicans and Democrats. Everywhere we look we see buzzwords that make news headlines like “amnesty”, “Northern Triangle”, “asylum-seekers”, and “border patrol”, but one key word that nobody is talking about is the “environment.” Many people – including activists and politicians – often don’t even use the words ‘immigration’ and ‘environment’ in the same sentence, yet both are deeply intertwined and should have everyone concerned. So what does immigration have to do with the environment?
Recently, the House Committee on Natural Resources presented alarming information at their Border Crisis Forum to suggest that there is a growing environmental crisis on our southern border. We often assume that illegal immigration is limited to human smuggling and drug trafficking, but we have never considered the environmental ramifications it has on our own backyard from the risks it poses to wildlife and natural habitats, federal or Native American owned land, and delicate sites that include national monuments. Alarmingly, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants trying to cross into our southern border in April – a 21-year monthly record.
In addition to the 6,494 pounds of fentanyl and 105,032 pounds of methamphetamine seized by CBP this year, thousands – if not millions – of pounds of trash are being left along the 370 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border. A memo drafted by Republicans on the House Committee on Natural Resources states that the “sheer number of illegal migrants crossing the border results in destroyed vegetation and desert areas become dumping grounds.”
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality estimates that each illegal migrant contributes 6-8 pounds of trash during their journey across the desert. In other words, if almost 180,000 illegal immigrants leave at least 6 pounds of trash each (usually comprising of backpacks, medical products, plastic, vehicles, and clothing), that is more than a million pounds of trash left in our environment for the month of April alone. This waste often doesn’t disintegrate and poses serious risks to wildlife in the border region, some of which are endangered species.
The report goes on to mention “not only does this pollution threaten wildlife, but it also jeopardizes their habitats.” While we are inundated with Netflix and indie documentaries on the harmful effects of toxins in our environment and how they impact the natural world, such as coral reefs dying due to ocean acidification or fish swallowing discarded plastics, we have not seen a single documentary or environmental advocacy group pointing out the new ‘landfill’ that has become our southern border and the effects it has on the plant and animal life that live there.
Where are the environmentalists? The memo points out that 693 miles of the southern border is federal or Native American-owned land, some of which the United States has designated as protected areas that illegal border crossers do not respect. These delicate sites include the Sonoran Desert National Monument and Ironwood Forest National Monument, both of which needed habitat restoration after being used as smuggling corridors for illegal migrants. In addition, destruction of federal lands by illegal migrants have affected Organ Pipe National Monument and Buenos Aires National Wildlife refuge due to illegal trails being carved through the sanctuary. The report points out that even migrant campfires have caused more than 370 acres of the Cleveland National Forest to burn causing an adverse impact to more than 200 sensitive species found in the Coronado National Forest. The real question is, what environmental impacts are we not seeing or haven’t been studied yet?
In the end, illegal immigration not only does harm to Americans and migrants themselves, but hurts the very things we love, whether it’s our environment, natural habitats, unique wildlife, or federally protected sites. Unfortunately, the current administration has not addressed this environmental disaster along our southern border… or the border crisis at all. Republicans and Democrats should come together and use this opportunity to discourage the human smuggling we are seeing every day at the border for the one thing that could unite us all – protecting America’s sacred environment.