Border fence, © Matt Clark

Crossing the Line: Senate Immigration Bill Unnecessarily Harms Wildlife

Mary Beth Beetham, Director of Legislative Affairs

A while back, Matt Clark, Defenders’ Southwest Representative, wrote about the damage that has been done to the fragile borderland environment and its creatures from border security activity in recent years.  Matt also described the destructive environmental provisions that were initially included in S. 744, the Senate immigration reform bill. Despite the best efforts of several senators, on Thursday June 27th, by a vote of 68-32, the Senate passed S. 744, a piece of legislation that now, thanks to new changes, would be even more damaging to wildlife, habitat and the federal budget.

Defenders worked to get cosponsors, urge Senators to vote for and otherwise supported an important amendment by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that would have removed the three anti-environmental provisions included in the initial bill: the requirement to develop a separate border fencing strategy, the expansion of existing waiver authority that allows the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to operate above the law, and the provision giving DHS free rein on federal public lands in Arizona within 100 miles of the border. The Wyden amendment was cosponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Patty Murray (D-WA) and Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall, both democrats from New Mexico.

The 670-mile-long border wall blocks wildlife migration. (photo Matt Clark)

The 670-mile-long border wall blocks wildlife migration. (photo Matt Clark)

In discussing his amendment on the Senate floor Senator Wyden stated: “In particular, I am troubled by the fact that the bill as written waives our country’s environmental laws in order to secure the border. I am of the view that strengthening our immigration system should not come at the cost of throwing our environmental laws aside. These are bedrock principles with respect to protecting our environment, our public lands and our natural resources.”

Senator Wyden’s amendment was not included and instead, key supporters of the bill worked with several other senators to develop a different amendment. Under the guise of increasing border security, this amendment doubles down on extreme and unnecessary requirements in an effort to ensure the bill’s passage by a large majority in the Senate.

Rather than simply requiring DHS to develop a border fencing strategy, in addition to the other damaging provisions, the amended bill now would mandate the construction of hundreds of miles of additional walls along the Southwest border – an ineffective, expensive and destructive undertaking. Officials from DHS and Customs and Border Patrol already have said on several occasions that additional fencing is not needed, and that their preference is for technology that would provide for more efficient and effective security. Previous assessments of fencing effectiveness have failed to find any evidence that the existing border wall has made a significant contribution to border security.[1] At this time of extreme federal budget deficits, when funding for all programs, including conservation and the environment, is being cut to the bone, the bill sets aside a staggering $7.5 billion for the deployment, repair and replacement of walls, throwing good money after the bad that has already been spent on this useless enterprise. And, more walls will only further damage sensitive borderland habitat and send migrating jaguars, ocelots (two species that that wall could permanently extirpate from the United States due to isolation), bighorn sheep, black bear, desert tortoise and other imperiled animals into dead ends.

When it became apparent that his amendment would not be adopted, Senator Wyden, supported by Senator Boxer, went back to the drawing board and developed several scaled-back amendments that would take the original’s place, while still making modest but important improvements. Among other things, Wyden’s provisions would have required some mitigation of the extensive damage that will be inflicted on the fragile borderland environment and its inhabitants from these extreme and unnecessary security measures, and allowed some of the tens of billions of dollars in this bill to be utilized for such mitigation efforts. For example, when the border wall damages habitat and cuts off migration corridors in one area, in some instances, land could be purchased in another area to make up for this lost habitat and give wildlife an alternative route.

Senator Wyden worked behind the scenes in an attempt to get these scaled back amendments added to the bill, but unfortunately, his amendments were not included. The inclusion of these very modest improvements would certainly not have derailed or undermined any of the so-called security requirements of the bill, and, in fact, they would have done a great deal of good.

Now the bill is on to the House which is likely to pass provisions even more damaging to wildlife and habitat. The House has said it will take a more piecemeal approach to passing immigration reform bills rather than one overall comprehensive bill. With several bills moving in the House there will be even more opportunities to add damaging environmental provisions. Just this month, for example, the House Judiciary Committee passed out one bill, H.R. 2278, that includes a provision that would give Customs and Border Patrol unilateral authority to construct roads, fences, patrol by vehicle and aircraft, and more on federal public and tribal lands within 100 miles of both the north and south international land borders of the U.S., encompassing 113 million acres in 18 states. The provision also explicitly exempts Customs and Border Patrol from complying with more than a dozen environmental protection and natural resource conservation laws, including the Endangered Species Act, on federal public and tribal lands in this same area. Species that would be affected include the Mexican spotted owl, desert tortoise, jaguar, ocelot, Sonoran pronghorn, grizzly bear, Canada lynx and many more.

As the process moves forward on the immigration legislation Defenders will continue our work to oppose these anti-environmental provisions. We will work with supportive Senators and Representative to try to remove or stop these provisions, urge the administration to oppose them and, most importantly, we will continue to provide updates and opportunities for you to get involved. Members of Congress care deeply about what you, their constituents, think on important issues such as this.

Reach out to your Senator or Representatives and let them know that you care about our borderland wildlife! 

[1] See, for example, Congressional Research Report:  Border Security:  Barriers Along the U.S. International Border,