An Ecological Crime At The Border

PHOTO BY Richard Misrach

The border wall involves destroying critical habitat for endangered species and sacred cultural lands. Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re talking about this ecological disaster.

Photo by Richard Misrach From Atmos Volume 02: Latitude

You might have heard that the Supreme Court decided last week to take up a case surrounding the border wall—AKA the Trump administration’s favorite xenophobic pet project.


The justices will assess whether the president holds the constitutional power to redirect military funds without the support of Congress. The Trump administration, of course, argues yes. Plaintiffs, including the Sierra Club, argue hell to the no. The case is ultimately about separation of powers, but an environmental group is at the helm of it. Why? President Donald Trump’s divisive border wall is not only an immigration and human rights problem—it’s an environmental one, too.


Welcome to The Frontline, where this week we’re talking all about the U.S.-Mexico border wall. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor at Atmos. For today’s edition, I’m laying the groundwork for the rest of this week’s stories. An ecological crime is playing out in the Southwest.



One of the first steps regular people take to avoid committing a crime is, well, to follow the law. Not the president of the United States. Nope, he just waves his magic wand to make them disappear. In order to push through the wall, the administration waived 32 laws. This includes critical environmental protections, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.


Do you see why environmental groups are freaking out about this stupid wall? Sierra Club’s not the only one suing the administration, after all. So is the Center of Biological Diversity, border communities represented by environmental law firm Earthjustice, tribal nations, and even House Democrats. Plenty of people are pissed about the president’s actions. For environmental groups and border towns, however, this is a direct assault.


“I was born here, and I’m going to die here,” said Ramiro Ramirez, a Texas-based plaintiff on the Earthjustice case fighting to protect his family’s historic chapel and cemetery, in a video. “Nothing’s going to change that.”


The wall would cut right through these burial grounds, but Ramirez is determined to be buried here alongside his ancestors. Do you know where else the wall would cut through? The cross-border community of Laredo. There’s Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo in México. The Rio Grande serves as the international divider for the sister cities; it’s also their source of drinking water.


“The wall will completely change the nature of Laredo’s relationship to the river,” Sarah Burt, the lead attorney on the Earthjustice case, told me.


In 2018, advocacy group American Rivers deemed the river officially endangered due to the border wall. This was the first time the river made it onto the organization’s annual list. This threat to the Rio Grande directly threatens the people who rely on it, too. Unfortunately, endangerment is a common theme when it comes to the border wall.

“This is dangerous not only for property and species but for people.”


Its construction could mean the extinction of more than 90 endangered or threatened species. These include beloved felines like the jaguarundi and ocelot—both of which I’m pretty sure I created elementary school posters for in science class—but these creatures also include those that go largely unnoticed. There’s the two-inch-long Devils River minnow, a silver sliver in streams. Or the orange-and-white Quino checkerspot butterfly, which usually doesn’t fly higher than eight feet. The border wall is supposed to sit 30-feet tall.


For these threatened fauna and flora—because, yes, plants are at risk too—this piece of unnecessary infrastructure will destroy and fragment critical habitat and migratory routes. The administration may be trying to keep people out, but it may wind up only isolating wildlife.


The laundry list of the ecological disasters here can go on forever. For Burt, however, damage to endangered species sits at the top of that list. The risk of flooding comes next. While the wall is set to deplete and destroy some sources of water—like the Rio Grande or the Quitobaquito Springs in Arizona, where workers have pulled water to mix concrete for the wall—it may serve as a dam elsewhere. The Southwest desert’s dry ecosystem floods in the summer months during its monsoon season.


“This is dangerous not only for property and species but for people,” Burt said.


The pre-Trump wall segments that already exist have historically stayed open during this season to prevent flooding. I’m not sure how effective an open wall will be at keeping out migrants as is its purpose. However, these walls can be deadly for borderland communities when the rains come. Climate change, of course, may very well exacerbate the monsoon season. The wall is an all-around bad idea. People should be outraged.

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