As Immigration Dwindles, GOP Attacks Border Environment Laws

The border wall cutting through the Algodones Dunes | Photo: Meditations on the Collapse/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Unauthorized migration across the U.S.-Mexican border has slowed to a relative crawl, with as many Mexican nationals leaving the U.S. as entering. According to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center, economic hardship in the U.S. and increasing obstacles to informal border crossing have made the northward trek far less enticing to would-be job seekers. So why does Representative Rob Bishop of Utah want to ramp up extreme border protections even further?

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Bishop's proposed National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, which would exempt the Border Patrol and Customs from federal laws on any lands within 100 miles of the U.S. border that are managed by the departments of Agriculture or the Interior, is a modified version of a bill he introduced last year. As we reported then, Bishop's plan would essentially give the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) absolute authority to undertake any construction, development, or law enforcement project within National Parks, National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, and BLM lands in the larger border zone, with no reporting authority nor public oversight.

Language in last year's version that would have included coastlines in the exempt area has been dropped. Still, Bishop's legislation would include portions of 54 National Parks, including Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park. None of Bishop's home state of Utah would be affected by the bill.

Park defenders have decried Bishop's proposal, calling it a "direct attack on our national parks." Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has testified before Congress that the law isn't necessary, and that DHS and other federal agencies have already been working together to protect the border. In fact, the 2005 Real ID Act has already freed DHS from the onerous burdens of basic environmental protection law within a few miles of the border.

Bishop's bill, House Resolution 1505, is unlikely to make it to the big desk in the Oval Office. It has yet to pass the House or the Senate; though it does stand a chance in the GOP-controlled House, which lately has no trouble passing laws against anything that is good and just and sensible, the Democratic Senate is a different matter. Still, the bill has significant support among the House's right-wing, its sponsors including California representatives McKeon, Calvert, Nunes, Miller, Gallegly, Herger, Royce, and McClintock.

Ironically, House Republicans are renewing their efforts to get the bill through the House in a month where the Pew Hispanic Center reports that net migration from Mexico, both legal and not, has fallen to around zero, and may even have reversed. The report, which draws data from a number of government agencies on both sides of the border, says the reason for the decline seems to be manifold:

The standstill appears to be the result of many factors, including the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, the long-term decline in Mexico's birth rates and changing economic conditions in Mexico.

Though advocates of a militarized border might point to the role of border enforcement in the trend as justification for their preferred policies, those policies cannot account for the increasing number of Mexican citizens who seem to be packing up and heading home. According to the Pew report, 1.4 million people of Mexican ancestry moved from the U.S. to Mexico in the years 2005-2010, including children born in the U.S. to Mexican parents. That 1.4 million matches estimates of the number of people crossing the line into El Norte, whether licit or illicit.

The trend since 2005 has only picked up steam. In 2009, the New York Times reported on a counterintuitive phenomenon: in the wake of the crash of '08-09, more and more Mexican families started wiring money north to their relatives who were out of work. That was in a year in which the Mexican economy had pretty much cratered. These days, Mexico's economy seems to be on the rebound, and it's easier for many laborers to find work at home than it is here. Pew says that in 2010, about a fifth of deported Mexican citizens said they had no intention of trying to come back to the U.S.; a figure more than double that in 2005.

As icing on the cake this month, the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy released another report on Tax Day, stating that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. -- about 58 percent of them of Mexican origin -- pay around $11.2 billion in state, local and federal taxes nationwide. California's share of this largesse amounts to $2.7 billion, with Texas the second largest recipient at $1.6 billion. (Arizona, home to some of the most repressive anti-immigrant laws in the country, comes away with $433 million each year in taxes paid by he people it wants to drive away. That's more than twice the amount the state's ultra-conservative legislature has earmarked for paying down the state's debt in the 2013 budget.)

So the illegal immigration issue would seem to be an imaginary problem that is nonetheless solving itself. So why is Bishop grandstanding on a proposal to radically expand DHS's latitude to do whatever it wants, despite DHS itself saying it doesn't need the help?

Bishop has a lengthy track record of extreme, ideologically based opposition to environmental laws. Chair of the Congressional Western Caucus from 2008-10, he has consistently advocated rolling back environmental protection laws, defunding protection and enforcement departments of federal agencies, and doing everything in his power to increase fossil fuel extraction on public lands.

Loosening environmental regulations along the border has already had a major destructive effect on wildlife and habitat. As shown compellingly in this recent video by southern Arizona Sierra Club activists, the border wall has become a swath of devastation running the length of our southern frontier:

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Bishop's bill is less about keeping our borders secure than it is about increasing the gaping hole in U.S. environmental protection laws, some of which have been serving their purpose since the late 19th century. During the 2008 campaign to protect marriage equality, Californians watched ideologues from Utah intervening in our local affairs, with divisive and destructive effects on our whole state. It remains to be seen whether we will allow the same thing to happen again, this time with our southern deserts on the ideological chopping block.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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