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ICYMI: The Environmental Cost of the Border Crisis


WASHINGTON, D.C.,
March 23, 2021

We are facing a crisis at our southern border. In fact, we’ve been facing a crisis there for years. We should be using every available resource to improve our immigration process, but in the meantime, we absolutely must equip our agencies with enforcement tools. If we don’t, our environment will suffer as a result.

The environmental impact isn’t usually the first issue that comes to mind when considering illegal border crossings, but it is important nonetheless. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported more than 100,000 people attempted to cross the southwest border in February 2021, a 28% increase over January 2021. This is due, in part, to President Biden’s swift actions unraveling many of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, including halting border wall construction.

If we set aside the politically charged immigration debate for a moment, we can clearly see the negative environmental impacts these surges of illegal migrants create. The sheer quantity of illegal migrants results in destroyed vegetation, and desert areas become dumping grounds. Between 2007 and 2018, border agents and other organizations collected 460,000 pounds of trash discarded by illegal migrants along the 370 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border.

Based on past cleanups, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality estimates that each border crosser leaves “approximately six to eight pounds of trash in the desert during their journey.” It doesn’t take a mathematician to look at the surge in numbers we’re seeing right now and quickly calculate how much waste is being left behind in delicate habitats.

This trash includes human waste, backpacks, medical products, plastic, vehicles, and clothing, all of which pose risks to wildlife, including several endangered species, that live in border regions. Rep. Bruce Westerman personally saw this issue in 2018 when he traveled to the border and spoke with the men and women working to prevent illegal crossings and keep both wildlife and the families living in border zones safe.

Not only does this pollution threaten wildlife, but it also jeopardizes their habitats; 693 miles of the southern border is federal or Native American-owned land, some of which the United States has designated as protected areas. Illegal migrants do not respect these protections. For example, delicate sites, such as the Sonoran Desert National Monument and Ironwood Forest National Monument, required habitat restoration and mitigation after migrants used them as major illegal smuggling corridors.

As members of the House Natural Resources Committee, we’ve heard firsthand testimony on illegal migrant destruction of federal land, affecting Organ Pipe National Monument, and the creation of illegal trails throughout Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. We’ve also heard from witnesses about campfires causing more than 370 acres of the Cleveland National Forest to burn and the adverse impact to more than 200 threatened, endangered, or sensitive species in the Coronado National Forest, all as a direct result of illegal border crossings.

In their rush to politicize a crisis, we have yet to hear our Democratic colleagues on the Natural Resources Committee raise concerns regarding the long-term environmental harm illegal border crossings present. This is why we sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, asking him to provide our oversight subcommittee with documentation on the environmental damage caused by the February 2021 border surge, as well as the environmental analyses conducted for key border sectors.

As this administration faces a continued strain on America’s immigration system, we cannot allow critical habitats along the southwestern border to be casualties of its inaction. This needs to be a bipartisan effort, one that addresses our pressing immigration needs while still protecting fragile ecosystems and wildlife. Leaving our border agencies strapped for resources will not accomplish that goal.

Bruce Westerman represents Arkansas’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Paul Gosar represents Arizona’s 4th Congressional District. They both serve on the House Committee on Natural Resources.

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