By Sergio Avila
Some Americans think of the U.S.-Mexico border as a wasteland. In fact, the mountains and deserts of our borderlands are teeming with wildlife.
Here you’ll find large cats like the jaguar, the subject of my research.
Jaguar sightings have been reported in New Mexico and Arizona for over a century, even as far north as the Grand Canyon. Their presence is a stamp of approval — they mean healthy habitats, prey populations, and the connection of critical wildlife corridors across the border.
Humans, after all, aren’t the only animals that cross the border. And they aren’t the only ones whose lives will be disrupted if a border wall slices through cross-border wildlife corridors like Big Bend National Park in Texas and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona.
Unfortunately, a federal court recently approved waivers for dozens of environmental and health safeguards in these border regions — all so that wall can go up.
That means the border communities who oppose this wall and fear its destruction of the surrounding lands will have to swallow a wall with no public process. It means there will be no comment period, no baseline research on impact, and a lack of monitoring throughout the building process.
A wildlife preserve in Socorro County, New Mexico (Photo: Michael Littlejohn / Flickr)
And the worst part is, there will be no way to hold the government accountable.
It started when Congress passed the Real ID Act. Though it was billed as an immigration security measure, it gave the government the power to waive the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Wilderness Act, and even the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, among others.
Since then, miles of border infrastructure have been built along the California, Arizona, and Texas border despite a majority of people in those states opposing the wall. So far, the Trump administration alone has waived 37 laws in San Diego, 28 in Calexico, California, and 23 in Santa Teresa, New Mexico.
Protected areas on both sides of the border are the stepping stones for jaguars to move through and reach new territories. Without legal protection, the wall will destroy their habitat — forever risking their future in the region.
Human communities are at risk, too.
This waiver power resulted in extreme flooding that led to at least two deaths in Nogales, Arizona. According to Harvard researchers, the blockage of underground drainage and natural water routes through Arizona’s border created an effect like a burst dam after strong summer storms.
Other waivers threaten to pollute air and watersheds for hundreds of miles into the borderlands.
This is more than a red flag. It’s a human rights issue.
The Government Accountability Office has failed to provide any conclusions about the benefits of this mission to “protect” the border at all costs. But those of us who actually live in the borderlands have to live with its consequences.
It means the dangers of contaminated water sources, the destruction of our lands, the deaths of our brothers and sisters, and the evisceration of treasured local species like the jaguar.
We — and our public lands in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas — are the ones paying the highest price for this unchecked and unnecessary power.
Sergio Avila is an outdoors coordinator for the Sierra Club in the Southwest region. He’s studied the impacts of border infrastructure for over 14 years.