Congress Explores Environmental Destruction Caused by Illegal Border Crossings

“Illegal migrants, human traffickers, and drug smugglers, whether crossing by foot or using vehicles cause substantial damage to the natural and cultural resources found on federal lands. Tremendous amounts of human waste and garbage are left on borderlands every year. Medical supplies, diapers, clothing, and even broken-down cars are all left behind.”

On February 9, the House Committee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing on existing regulatory impediments to securing the southern border. One of the topics addressed is the checkerboard of ‘sensitive’ wild land designations in states along the border with Mexico. The Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies are unable to gain ‘operational control’ of large regions of the border due to such designations and their accompanying prohibitions on access. The hearing memo, titled “The Costs of Denying Border Patrol Access: Our Environment and Security” explains:

This oversight hearing will focus on the access challenges faced by Border Patrol agents on federal borderlands and the environmental impact of illegal border crossings and drug smuggling.

Policy Overview

Diablo Mtn 2• The remote location of large portions of federally owned borderland make them a popular location for cross border violators (CBVs), such as drug and human smugglers, foreign nationals, and terrorists and terrorist organizations. Many stretches of federally owned borderland have minimal security infrastructure and poor roads, making it difficult for Border Patrol agents to effectively patrol dangerous terrain.

• Environmental laws and varied jurisdictional responsibility among land management agencies further complicate border security efforts. Although a 2006 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) executed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) intended to facilitate cooperation and communication between agencies, its practical effects can restrict Border Patrol’s security efforts. For example, approval processes per the MOU can take months, robbing Border Patrol the necessary operational flexibility and access to effectively respond to evolving CBV routes and drug cartel operations.

• While Border Patrol agents must balance environmental concerns and law enforcement access to protect our borders, CBVs and their accomplices completely disregard our natural resources and environmental protection laws. Cross border violations on federally owned borderland cause extensive ecological and environmental damage.

Environmental Damage caused by an Unsecured Border: Human Waste and Garbage

Diablo Mtn 4Illegal migrants, human traffickers, and drug smugglers, whether crossing by foot or using vehicles cause substantial damage to the natural and cultural resources found on federal lands. Tremendous amounts of human waste and garbage are left on borderlands every year. Medical supplies, diapers, clothing, and even broken-down cars are all left behind on federal borderlands. Throughout the borderlands, trash strewn lay-up points, staging areas where illegal immigrants and smugglers discard waste in preparation for being picked up by vehicles, are a common sight in dry river beds and washes.

In Arizona’s southern region alone, the Bureau of Land Management reportedly collected and removed 794,320 pounds of trash between FY2011-2016. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality estimates that each year 2,000 tons of diapers, plastic bottles, and other garbage is left behind by CBVs. Garbage and human waste from CBVs has been identified as one of the major contributors to pollution in the San Pedro River, where volunteers cleaned up more than thirty temporary camps set up by CBVs in 2008 alone.

Wildland Fires

Litter in sornoran desert
Litter in Sonoran desert

CBVs are also responsible for man-made wildland fires started on the border. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), between 2006 and 2010, illegal immigrants and drug traffickers were likely responsible for 30 out of 77 investigated wildland fires on federal lands.

High levels of CBVs complicate fire suppression efforts and forces firefighters to change tactics. For example, nighttime firefighting activities may be reduced due to firefighter safety concerns of encountering armed drug and human traffickers. Moreover, coordinating aerial firefighting operations along the border is more difficult because CBVs often use the same radio frequencies as firefighters.

Threat to Habitats

Santacruz Trash
Santacruz Trash

In addition to the massive volume of trash and dangerous man-made wildfires, illegal border crossings inflict serious damage to vegetation and species habitats. Like the loss of life and threat to public safety, the environmental cost of illegal immigration and smuggling is a constant concern. The Public Lands Foundation’s states that “the smuggling of controlled substances and people into the United States from Mexico is increasingly causing substantial and oftentimes irreparable damage to natural and cultural resources on federal, tribal, and private lands along America’s southwest border.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) identified mass illegal immigration as a likely contributing factor in the 79 percent decline in the U.S. Sonoran pronghorn population between 2000 and 2002 at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. FWS’s report on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which shares 56 miles of border with Mexico, used high resolution aerial photography to map 7,968 miles of vehicular trails associated with illegal border crossings in the refuge.

FWS also found that “the amount of damage from off-road activities [in Cabeza Prieta] may be significantly impacting the natural quality of wilderness character . . .” through erosion, changing plant distribution, destruction of wildlife habitat, and soil compaction. Given the environmental threats of CBVs, FWS recommended increasing personnel and horse patrols as well as deploying more technological assets in Cabeza Prieta.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality documents environmental destruction on the border on its page, Arizona Border Trash. It explains:

Diablo Mountain
Diablo Mountain

The collection and disposal of waste in remote areas along Arizona’s 370-mile border with Mexico poses difficult challenges. An estimated more than 2,000 tons of trash is discarded annually in Arizona’s borderlands. A variety of federal and state government entities, Native American tribes and private landowners are affected by the problem, and addressing it requires extensive coordination.

The environmental impact caused by illegal immigration, and the trash left behind, is increasingly being found in areas that are more fragile and remote.

In 2011 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its report on wild land fire funding. The part played by illegal immigration in wild land fires is significant. It says:

Wild land fires can result from both natural and human causes. Human-caused wild land fires are of particular concern in Arizona–especially within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border because this is a primary area of entry for illegal border crossers and GAO has previously reported that illegal border crossers have been suspected of igniting wild land fires.

Over half of the land in the Arizona border region is managed by the federal government–primarily by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and four agencies within the Department of the Interior. These agencies collaborate with state, tribal, and local entities to respond to wild land fires.

From 2006 through 2010, at least 2,467 wild land fires occurred in the Arizona border region. Of this number, 2,126, or about 86 percent, were caused by human activity.