The green movement of the Rio Grande
Yesterday, Grist published my investigation of why the environmental movement has been relatively slow and cautious in fighting the U.S.-Mexico border wall, one of the greatest manmade disasters to ever strike the Western landscape and Western wildlife.
Of course, these articles have to be readable, so I wasn’t able to delve into all the details of the politics of the border wall. But I wanted to share with Gristmill readers the part of the investigation that didn’t make it into the article — about how stopping the border wall could represent a major opportunity for environmental groups to build alliances and members in a region of the country that, despite strong pro-environment sentiment, hasn’t traditionally been thought of as the environmental movement’s heartland. Enjoy (and I’d love your thoughts in the comments section).
The wall idea has generated outrage not just among the environmentalists of the border region, but among the community at large, as well. Partly, it’s because wildlife is a very important part of the economy of much of the border region. The Rio Grande Valley, for instance, is one of the top destinations for birders in the United States. The forests and brush on the banks of the river draws chachalacas, crested caracaras, and other birds from as far away as Central America — giving the area the feel and sound of an exotic jungle paradise, albeit with a distinctly Texan flavor.
All those birders pack the hotels and restaurants of the area during the birding season. According to the local Chamber of Commerce, birding and other wildlife viewing pumps $125 million into the economy annually and supports 2,500 jobs — big numbers in an area that has traditionally lagged the rest of the country in development.
But it’s not just economics. The international boundary often means little to the many families that straddle the border; a wall seems like a poke in the eye to the neighbors — and a potentially dangerous one for border communities genuinely committed to cracking down on the drugs and crime drowning the border region, and sincerely worried about the possibility of an Al Qaeda terrorist gaining entry across the southern border (though most point out that terrorists have only been known to get into this country by air or by crossing the Canadian border).
“We’re fortunate that right now Mexicans have positive feelings about America and have provided invaluable assistance to the United States in several criminal investigations,” said McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez. “But if you really want a security problem, have Mexicans hate the United States, and I’ll show you a security problem.”
What’s more, any project coming from the Border Patrol, especially the Bush administration’s Border Patrol, is regarded with intense superstition.
Driving around south Texas, I quickly saw why. One day, I was visiting the World Birding Center near Hidalgo, Texas. It’s at the top of the list as a destination for birders, but it’s also close to the sprawl of McAllen, Texas, making it a top target for a wall (illegal border crossers tend to stick close to urban areas where it’s easier to blend into the crowd after crossing).
My guide, Kay Wolfe, an old-time Texan who flashed her state’s big hair and a personality to match, was participating in the favorite Texan pastime of talking about the intense heat when suddenly she yelled, “He’s got no right to be there and he knows it!”
I looked over and saw a Border Patrol jeep speeding over one of the narrow footpaths that cross the World Birding Center, apparently oblivious to the rare plants around him, or the possibility of making roadkill of some endangered animal that took the “refuge” part of “wildlife refuge” too literally. The Border Patrol officer then turned and started racing down the dirt road we were traveling on, leaving us choking on his dust. It looked like he might be in pursuit, but when we arrived at the river, we found him sitting there, either on regular lookout duty or taking a little siesta in a quiet spot away from the heat.
He flashed his headlights at us and then rode up to us. He rolled down his window and seemed about to tell us that we weren’t allowed there when Kay started in on him with all the sweet-but-stern Texan attitude she could muster. “I’ve seen you there before, and we’ve told you over and over again you’re not allowed on the footpaths with the trucks — they just can’t take it,” she said. “I don’t want to have to call your supervisor to complain.” The border patrol agent launched into an obsequious apology and ultimately Kay agreed not to call his boss so long as he agreed not to drive in off-limits areas again.
But Kay’s frustration at the Border Patrol is widespread among border residents who find the idea that officers can effectively patrol the border ridiculous. “There’s a Border Patrol guy that shows up every morning at nine outside my office to watch the river,” said Chris Salinas, a city employee in Roma, Texas, which fronts the Rio Grande. “He watches it for about an hour and a half and then goes to the coffee shop for two hours. Then he comes back and sits there for another half an hour before going to lunch. He comes back for about half an hour and then I don’t see anybody until six. Everyone on both sides of the border knows his schedule. The Border Patrol isn’t watching the border, they’re having coffee!”
To some extent, the Border Patrol’s lack of diligence is understandable. No matter how vigilant they are, time spent watching the border isn’t likely to have much effect, wall or no wall. Even with less than 30 miles of wall already constructed, the Border Patrol admits that there are at least 49 tunnels under the border. And border patrol agents will tell you that for every one immigrant they catch, two or three slip through undetected. Some immigrants even just hop into a small plane and make a short flight over the border to land in makeshift airstrips where they scatter — often with the drugs or other illegal cargo they’ve brought with them. What’s more, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, as many as 45 percent of undocumented foreigners in the United States didn’t creep through the desert or float across the Rio Grande in an inner tube: they just overstayed their visas (the same thing done by at least six of the 9/11 hijackers).
The Bush administration has aggravated the pre-existing suspicion in recent weeks by deceiving border communities about its plans for a wall — and then having their deceptions repeatedly exposed by a series of media leaks. Officials first denied that plans for a wall were going ahead anytime soon – until somebody leaked the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed map of where a wall would go to the media. Then they said it was just a draft that would be the basis for public consultation — until the media revealed that the Department was already asking contractors like Kellogg, Brown and Root (the former Halliburton subsidiary) to submit bids to build major portions of the wall.
The revelation that the Bush administration was deceiving border communities has infuriated people along the border and made even individuals and organizations that don’t usually see eye-to-eye with the environmental movement suddenly start to work closely with environmentalists.
I saw this phenomenon in practice when I attended a meeting of the Texas Border Coalition at the end of May where the guest speaker was David Aguilar, the chief of the national Border Patrol. Before he spoke, Aguilar was introduced with typical politician gushing by a series of south Texas mayors. But after he’d concluded his talk, the mayors, Chamber of Commerce officials, environmentalists, and farmers attending the meeting started ripping him apart the way only the thrice-betrayed can.
“The Border Patrol has burned us so many times,” said Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas. “But it’s done something: we have mayors, and judges, and farmers, and businessmen, and environmentalists together like never before.”
After pouring their rage onto Aguilar’s head, the assembly broke up into smaller groups to plot strategy, with environmentalists, public officials and landowners working side-by-side — perhaps a small beginning to a new environmental heartland.