Splitting the Land in Two: Ecological Effects of Border Militarization




Hanging Fruit. Photo by Michael Hyatt, michael-hyatt.com

One can stand on either side of the border in the Chihuahuan or Sonoran deserts and still be in the very same ecosystem.  The only things that the border wall and militarization bring to these environments are scars and disruption.  The deserts and waterways and other areas that the border crosses are already among the areas most negatively affected by global warming, climate injustice and neoliberalism.  We already see the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers losing their abilities to reach the sea, and rivers such as the New River that crosses from Baja California into California, carrying a load of contamination from a combination of maquiladora industry and agribusiness that renders it the continent’s most polluted river.  We see prehistoric and ancient animal migration routes bisected and the fragile vegetation of the deserts withering.   Inasmuch at the one-two punch of neoliberalism and border militarization are an assault on workers, families, rural people–all humanity, they are also assaults against ancient ecosystems–ecosystems of which we can be part, or we can attempt to break and crush and bend them to our will and arrogance only to crush ourselves.

For this lesson, we want to feature an article and a video that come to us from the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Team.  The Coordinator for the team is Dan Millis.  He and Scott Nicol wrote the article, and the film was produced by Steev Hise and written by Greta Anderson, Sean Sullivan, Dan Millis and Scott Nicol.  The article, by the way, makes a very nice hand out.  If you click here, you can download a pdf version, along with a very useful list of resources and more information.

Bartola Canyonlands Shrine. Photo by Michael Hyatt, michael-hyatt.com

We want to call attention to the photos included in this lesson, including the photos included as part of the Sierra Club piece  and those from Michael Hyatt, which are included below.  Michael is a professional photographer, long time resident of the Sonoran Desert and a volunteer with No More Deaths.  He has a special relationship, and thus a special eye for, both the environment and the effects of border policy on the land and people.









Mysterious Form. Photo by Michael Hyatt, michael-hyatt.com


Video:  Wild Versus Wall


Borderlands at Risk

by Dan Millis and Scott Nicol with the Sierra Club Borderlands Team


In January, 2009, this border wall construction road was plowed through the roadless Otay Mountain Wilderness in California. Photo courtesy ILCP and Lighthawk.

U.S. policies along our southern border are proving ineffective, costly, and harmful to people and the environment. Construction of border walls has not curbed undocumented immigration, but has cost taxpayers an average of $4.5 million per mile! Over 600 miles of border walls and barriers have been constructed in all four southern border states, with dozens of miles still being constructed or planned. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff used the power granted to him by the 2005 Real ID Act to waive a variety of important federal laws along the border (see list of laws below). As a result walls, roads, and other harmful infrastructure have been built without regard to environmental protection or public health and safety.

This reckless project has meant dire consequences for vast expanses of pristine wild lands, including wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and national forest lands, among others. Several species of wildlife have been observed and photographed stranded by the border wall, suggesting that many endangered species are suffering the same fate. If wildlife migration corridors are blocked, species can die out due to lack of access to food, water, territory, and genetic variability. From pygmy owls to desert bighorn sheep, studies have indicated that the border wall is a significant impediment to a variety of wildlife, including many imperiled species.

The border wall in Nogales caused severe flooding that buried downtown homes and businesses underneath six feet of water, drowning two people and costing millions of dollars in damages. Flooding in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 2008 was determined to have been caused by border walls built without regard to environmental law, and another flood there in 2011 knocked down a 40-foot section of border wall. The construction of massive berms and waterways to accommodate border walls near the Tijuana Estuary near San Diego has also contributed to flooding, as well as severe erosion and sedimentation problems.

In Texas, condemnation proceedings against border municipalities and landowners preceded construction of the wall that now blocks people and animals from access to the Rio Grande River. Homeland Security built border walls to the north of several U.S. homes, thereby leaving them stranded in a ‘no-man’s-land’ between the wall and the border itself at the river. Most tragically, hundreds of people continue to die each year from dehydration and exposure as border walls contribute to the funneling of migrants deeper into the desert.

Over 40 percent of the land along our southern border is protected public land. The federal government should work to preserve these national treasures, support positive legislation, promote fair trade, end tragic border deaths, and ensure compliance with environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Federal Laws Waived for Construction of Border Wall

Former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff used the unprecedented power bestowed on him by the Real ID Act to “waive in their entirety” thirty-six federal laws. Although Chertoff was an unelected Bush administration appointee, with the stroke of a pen he dismissed decades of protective laws passed by Congress and signed by presidents, all to circumvent court challenges to border wall construction. The waiver provision of the Real ID Act is a grave threat to the checks and balances of the United States Constitution, and constitutional challenges to it are pending. Note the variety of laws waived, including protections of archaeological sites, farmland, rivers, public health and freedom of religion:

National Environmental Policy Act
Endangered Species Act
Clean Water Act
National Historic Preservation Act
Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Clean Air Act
Archaeological Resources Protection Act
Safe Drinking Water Act
Noise Control Act
Solid Waste Disposal Act
Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act
Antiquities Act
Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act
Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
Farmland Protection Policy Act
Coastal Zone Management Act
Wilderness Act
Federal Land Policy and Management Act
National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act
Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956
Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act
Administrative Procedure Act
Otay Mountain Wilderness Act of 1999
California Desert Protection Act
National Park Service Organic Act
National Park Service General Authorities Act
National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978
Arizona Desert Wilderness Act
Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899
Eagle Protection Act
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
American Indian Religious Freedom Act

Religious Freedom Restoration Act

National Forest Management Act of 1976
Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act of 1960

Walls Don’t Work

Many assume that walls will stop people from crossing the border. In fact, the Border Patrol’s own statistics show that border walls do not decrease cross-border traffic. Border Patrol apprehensions, which are used to gauge overall number of attempted crossings, dropped dramatically between 2005, the year before the Secure Fence Act was passed, and 2007, the year after. The greatest reductions in apprehensions, however, were seen in sectors that did not have walls. Texas’ Rio Grande Valley sector saw a 45.3% decrease in apprehensions, bringing them to a 15 year low. The Del Rio sector saw a 66.5% decrease. Neither sector had an inch of border wall before 2008. The areas that saw an increase in crossings were California’s San Diego and El Centro sectors, both of which already had border walls for over a decade. While unwalled borders witnessed dramatic decreases in crossings, heavily fortified San Diego saw a 20.1% increase.

In looking at the number of crossers apprehended by the Border Patrol between 1992 and 2004, when walls were being erected in the San Diego sector, the Congressional Research Service found that there was no change. They concluded that, “While the increased enforcement in the San Diego sector has resulted in a shift in migration patterns for unauthorized aliens, it does not appear to have decreased the overall number of apprehensions made each year by USBP agents.” Would-be immigrants were not stopped by the border wall; they simply went around it.

Two months before the passage of the Secure Fence Act, Wayne Cornelius, Director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego told the House Judiciary Committee that,

tightened border enforcement since 1993 has not stopped nor even discouraged unauthorized migrants from entering the United States. Even if apprehended, the vast majority (92-97%) keep trying until they succeed. Neither the higher probability of being apprehended by the Border Patrol, nor the sharply increased danger of clandestine entry through deserts and mountainous terrain, has discouraged potential migrants from leaving home.”

The main impact of the border wall was a redirection of crossers from cities into the mountains and deserts. The Border Patrol assumed that the danger inherent in a long trek through the desert would cause migrants to decide not to undertake the journey. It did not, and the bodies of more than 5,000 migrants have been found in the desert. This has led to the increased use of guides, known as coyotes, to assist border crossers. This, in turn, resulted in an increase in the fees that they are able to charge. As human smuggling has became more profitable it has attracted the attention of criminal organizations, who now dominate the business.

The assertion that walls will allow the U.S. to “secure” its southern border is patently false. Spokespersons for the Border Patrol tend to describe it much more modestly. Del Rio, Texas, Border Patrol Chief Randy Hill said, “We’re going to see steel barriers erected on the borders where U.S. and Mexican cities adjoin. These will slow down illegal crossers by minutes.” Not stop crossers, but slow them down by “minutes.” As Border Patrol spokesperson Mike Scioli said, “The border fence is a speed bump in the desert.”

If a border wall had stretched from sea to shining sea before September 11, 2001, it would have made no difference to the terrorists. None of the hijackers came into the United States across a land border. Instead, according to the 9/11 Commission, the 19 hijackers applied for and received visas which allowed them to enter and reenter the U.S. 33 times. Each time they came in through an airport, not by land. Only one terrorist is known to have tried to come into our nation by crossing a land border. The Millenium Bomber was caught trying to smuggle explosives in his vehicle through an official border crossing station at the Canadian border. To reach the nearest border wall, just south of San Diego on the U.S.-Mexico border, he would have needed to drive another 1,257 miles.

Billion-Dollar Boondoggle

The “symbolic significance” of the border wall comes with a real price tag. In 2007 the Congressional Research Service estimated that the border wall could cost as much as $49 billion to build and maintain. Since then the costs of construction have risen dramatically. Between February and October of 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that the cost of building border walls had increased by 88%, from an average of $3.5 million per mile to $7.5 million per mile. The cost of building vehicle barriers on the border increased by 48%, to $2.8 million per mile.

Some sections of border wall are particularly expensive: the walls that are being inserted into the levees in south Texas are averaging $12 million per mile; in California, a 3.5 mile section that involves filling a canyon with 2.5 million yards of earth so that the wall does not have to dip down into it costs taxpayers $57 million. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security asked Congress to allocate an additional $400 million for border wall construction, because the $2.7 billion already spent was not enough to finish out the year.

A 2009 estimate from the non-partisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense pegged the average mile of border wall construction cost at $4.5 million per mile and estimated at least another $8 billion would be needed to maintain the wall over the next 25 years.


Missing Person. Photo by Michael Hyatt, michael-hyatt.com



Follow this Sierra Club link to send a message to your Congress people telling them that border legislation must NOT include more militarization and wall construction!

Send an Email to the White House–No Border Militarization!



  • Anti-immigrant activists often make the point that border crossers leave significant amounts of trash behind which is damaging to the ecosystem.  What steps would you need to take and what tools would you need to clean up the trash left behind by border crossers?  What steps would you need to take and what tools would you need to clean  up the damage of the border wall?  How do they compare?  Which is easiest to clean up?  What about cleaning up the contamination from maquiladora zones created by free trade policy?  What kind of resources would you need to clean up all the damage from border militarization?
  • What are some of the most significant problems caused by border wall construction?  What are some of the ways that border militarization hurt the environment?  Have you been to the border or seen the border wall?  What kind of ecological impacts have you seen from US border policies?
  • What stories and testimonies do the photographs in this section tell?  What do the photos included in the

    Stretcher. Photo by Michael Hyatt, michael-hyatt.com

    main article tell about environmental effects of the wall and militarization?  Michael Hyatt’s photos say a lot implicitly about the relationship between the desert environment and the border crossing experience.  What is he telling us in these images?  We have discussed the impact of border policy on the environment.  What is the impact of the environment on the border crosser?





No Border Wall

ILCP, Border Photo Exhibit

Border Wall in the News

Defenders of Wildlife border page

The border and birds: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Faith on the border: Mennonite Central Committee border page

Southern Border Communities Coalition

Materials Downloads and Links:

TCS Border Wall Costs Fact Sheet:

Sierra Club Migration Factsheet:

Border Enforcement Factsheet:

Border Security on Public Lands Talking Points:

Borderlands Full-color Photo Piece:

FACES of the borderlands:

DHS “cat holes” flier:

Sierra Club’s Google Earth borderlands tour:

Borderlands Power Point presentation:

“Wild Versus Wall” border film:

* Video: A Wall Is A Wall



Interagency Cooperation on US-Mexico Border Wilderness Issues, Kirk Emerson & Associates, September, 2010:

Government Accountability Office report:

Potential Effects of the United States-Mexico Border Fence on Wildlife, Flesch et al, 2009 Conservation Biology:

Over The Line (Real ID Waiver Unconstitutional), Winner of 2010 Fisher Environmental Law Prize:

Evaluating U.S. Immigration Control Policy, What Mexican Migrants Can Tell Us, Wayne Cornelius, UC San Diego, April, 2009:

Border wall floods Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, July 2008:

Border wall causes flooding in Nogales, 2008


Economic Inequality Predicts Biodiversity Loss, Mikkelson et al, 2007 PLoS ONE 2(5): e444:

Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border, Maria Jimenez, American Civil Liberties Union, Oct, 2009:

9th World Wilderness Congress – Resolution 6: North American Wildlife and the US-Mexico Border / La vida silvestre de Norteamérica y el Muro Fronterizo EE.UU.-México, Nov, 2009:

EPA: Good Neighbor Environmental Board’s border infrastructure recommendations to President Obama, Dec, 2009:

En espanol:

Full Report:

Nicole Miller, How Property Rights are Affected by the Texas-Mexico Border Fence: A Failure Due to Insufficient Procedure, 45 Tex Int’l L.J. 631 (2010)

Global decline in aggregated migrations of large terrestrial mammals, Harris, et al, Endangered Species Research, May, 2009:

As fences cut off migration, hoofed species decline, June 12, 2009:

US-Mexico Environmental Treaty Impediments to Tactical Security Infrastructure along the International Boundary, Stephen P. Mumme and Oscar Ibanez, Natural Resources Journal, Summer-Fall, 2009.

The Environmental Impacts of the Border Wall Between Texas and Mexico, Lindsay Eriksson and Melinda Taylor, 2008