Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced yesterday that he’s going to just waive the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Waste Disposal Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (among many others) in order to plough ahead with building a wall along the Arizona-Mexico border in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.

He repeated his rationale that the wall could be good for the environment because migrants leave behind trash:

But there are also environmental reasons to stop illegal crossings in the SPRNCA. Illegal entrants leave trash and high concentrations of human waste, which impact wildlife, vegetation and water quality in the habitat. Wildfires caused by campfires have significantly damaged the soil, vegetation, and cultural sites, not to mention threatened human safety.

As anyone who’s spent any time along the border (or, really, anywhere on the planet) can attest, this statement is a complete lie. A little pile of trash in the wilderness might be unsightly, but it has nowhere near the effect of a giant, honking, double layered concrete wall. (Which, um, is a little more unsightly, if that’s the standard we’re going by.)

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Since when is a wall a solution to trash anyway? I think usually, Mr. Chertoff, the way people clean up trash is by picking it up. What jaguars and bobcats and Sonoran pronghorn antelope and ocelots need is not a trash-free wilderness, but a wilderness that doesn’t cut them off from the breeding populations on the other side of the border. Increased Bush administration border activity and the climate crisis have already reduced populations of the endangered Sonoran Pronghorn Antelope from 500 to below 25.

Oh, and by the way, no one actually thinks the wall will keep any illegal immigrants out. The Border Patrol itself admits that it only slows people down by 3 to 4 minutes. That’s probably 60 seconds if the person has a ladder. And they think there are 40 or more tunnels under the wall. And more than 40 percent of illegal immigrants don’t get here by sneaking across the border: they just overstay (PDF) their visas.

There’s a tiny, little, eensy-weensy silver lining to this announcement: the Sierra Club responded aggressively to it with a national news release, and deserves a lot of credit for doing so. As I chronicled in my recent investigation in Grist, the Sierra Club and many other environmental groups have been shy about fighting the border wall for fear of getting tangled up in the polarized immigration issue. They’ve apparently decided that the time for shyness is past and the time for fighting is here — and that this issue could make the border region America’s new environmental heartland. Also, NRDC has jumped in, albeit with a blog post.

More than 150 miles of the wall have already been built; because Congress gave Chertoff the authority to waive any law that gets in the way, the only chance to stop all 700 miles of border wall is through an act of Congress. Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva has introduced a bill that would give some moderately increased protections to the border region. Unfortunately, because of the lack of work on the bill, it has only 21 cosponsors and only 4 who don’t live in the border region.

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It’s unclear exactly how much Grijalva’s bill would do even if passed — Senate Democrats are using $3 billion in funding for border security (including 700 miles of fencing) as bait for Republican votes on the Homeland Security bill (the funding was approved 95-1, with even the Senate’s usual environmental champions lining up unanimously behind it, showing that they weren’t even considering the huge environmental consequences). It will take House Speaker Nancy Pelosi standing up to defend the wildlife and people to keep that funding out of the final House-Senate conference.

During a recent trip to the Rio Grande Valley, Pelosi did tell Texans that the wall was “a terrible idea,” but the Democratic leadership has a terrible record of caving whenever the right wing gets riled up about something as they are about immigration — even though many if not most immigration opponents (including Minutemen) either don’t care or oppose the wall.

We need Congress to act quickly, before more of the wall is built. You can email your members of Congress here and ask them to cut off funding for the wall.

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