On July 21, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources unanimously approved a bill to designate part of the Organ Mountains in southern New Mexico as wilderness. It was a routine measure — the committee passes several federal land designation bills each year — that generated little debate at the time and seemed destined to pass the full Senate without fanfare when it eventually reached the chamber floor.
But in the intervening months, the innocuous-appearing bill has sparked a surprising amount of controversy, as immigration enforcement advocates have expressed concern that it could hamper border security and send a flood of illegal immigrants into New Mexico.
In other wilderness areas, particularly Pima County in southern Arizona, wilderness designation areas set by the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1990 have at times corresponded with areas with higher levels of illegal immigration. Most experts dismiss the connection and attribute the rise in immigration to increased border enforcement elsewhere: As fences and security made it more difficult to cross the border into California, immigrant guides, or “coyotes,” began to move through lands where they could better avoid detection.
But pro-immigration enforcement groups claim that federal wildlife designations are to blame for illegal immigration in Arizona, and that the wilderness designation proposed by New Mexico Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall would make New Mexico the new hotbed for illegal border crossing.
The argument goes like this: In lands designated as wilderness, Border Patrol cannot build roads or surveillance posts because of environmental concerns. As a result, more illegal immigrants and drug cartels enter the country through un-policed land.
“It’s like a big welcome mat to the cartels,” said Janice Kephart, director of national security policy at Center for Immigration Studies, a pro-enforcement group. “They know the designation is there, they know they can start using it.”
This increase in illegal activity, enforcement advocates argue, can actually undermine the environmental goals of a wilderness designation, since the new flood of border-crossers damages the lands the government is trying to protect.
These claims are all the subject of heated debate, at the center of which is the question of how best to balance environmental concerns and border enforcement — or whether the two truly are mutually exclusive.
There is no easy answer; the Department of Homeland Security has struggled with the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture over how Border Patrol can work under strict guidelines in the federal lands along the border. In theory, tensions between the agencies were ironed out in a 2006 memorandum of understanding (pdf) that allows for some exceptions to land designations, such as emergency access to lands without permission. But according to an Oct. 19 report (pdf) from the Government Accountability Office, 15 percent of Border Patrol officials said regulations from the Interior Department and the Agriculture Department have prevented them from catching illegal border crossers.
The laws that govern federal lands along the border can hold up a patrolling process that requires speedy adaptability. While Border Patrol shifts its resources and patrolling to react to changing pathways used by immigrants and smugglers, federal law requires agents to receive permission from the other agencies before it can build roads or establish surveillance posts. The GAO report said the process can often take months.
But despite these delays, most of the agents in charge along the border — 22 of the 26 lead agents in the southwest region — told the GAO that overall security in their jurisdiction was not affected by the land management laws. Instead, the Border Patrol leaders said their challenge was the terrain itself, which in many areas is mountainous or otherwise difficult to navigate.
Still, Republicans and anti-illegal immigration groups have latched onto tension over federal land designations as a cause for the number of unauthorized immigrants who move across the border each year. They argue that the laws funnel illegal activity through certain areas where Border Patrol agents are less likely to catch them — and where they can destroy the wildlife that the designations are designed to protect.
In a report released this month, Kephart wrote that the Bingaman-Udall bill would likely lead to a groundswell of illegal immigration to New Mexico, where immigrants would then leave trash and waste behind and devastate the local land.
Wilderness designation laws are too outdated and strict to allow Border Patrol agents to act effectively, she told TWI. Overall, the wilderness designations hurt border security by limiting patrol actions within certain areas and requiring Border Patrol to pay mitigating fees to the Department of the Interior for lands it harms.
Kephart said the best decision for both border security and the environment would be to allow Border Patrol unfettered access to enforce immigration within wilderness areas.
“If by allowing the border patrol in, you can help save the environment and secure the country, that’s a double win,” Kephart said. “The cartels don’t care about people, let along the environment.”
The argument is standard among critics of federal land designations along the border. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), one of the leaders of the movement in Congress, gave an impassioned 37-minute speech on the House floor in June arguing that illegal border crossers and drug cartels do massive damage to the border landscape.
“The sole purpose of trying to stop the border patrol is because of the fear they may cause damage to the environment,” Bishop said on the floor. “The bad guys, the drug cartels, the human smugglers, the potential terrorists: they’re not inhibited by any of that. They go into that area and they don’t care what kind of environmental damage they do.”
Melanie Emerson, executive director of the border region environmental group Sky Island Alliance, said these claims are “wholly unsubstantiated by science.” Most of the harm done to the environment along the border is due to border infrastructure, such as fencing, that prevents animals from migrating and changes the ecosystem.
“One of the issues that they talk about a lot is garbage, but while there are patches of trash, trash is mitigatable,” Emerson said. “You send volunteers out, you pick it up and it’s gone. Border infrastructure is permanent and it unequivocally alters natural processes. That whole system of security far exceeds — by magnitudes of 10 — trash.”
Wilderness designations are important because they allow species to live in a protected space as much of their natural habitat is taken over by cities and sprawl, Emerson said. She said environmental arguments against wilderness designations are disingenuous and a means to limit illegal immigration, not to protect the environment.
The Center for Immigration Studies has attempted for years to tie illegal immigration to concerns about climate change and overpopulation. There are numerous reports on the group’s website arguing for population stabilization and tying illegal immigration to higher greenhouse gas emissions.
When it comes to the Bingaman-Udall bill, however, concerns about the environment seem somewhat misplaced. The bill would change the land from a wilderness testing area, which has many of the same limitations for Border Patrol, to a wilderness area. This would be the final step in a process that was started in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration first set the land aside for protected status, and continued when the George H.W. Bush administration recommended the area for full wilderness status. The bill includes provisions that expand the land that Border Patrol can easily access for patrolling and surveillance.
Border Patrol worked with the senators’ offices on the bill, which includes a section on how border enforcement can work within the changes. Border Commissioner Alan Bersin wrote a letter to Bingaman on June 1 acknowledging the Border Patrol-friendly aspects of the bill, such as an expanded “buffer” area for patrols and clarification that the bill would not restrict agents from pursuing suspects in restricted areas or conducting low-level overflights.
Jude McCartin, a spokeswoman for Bingaman, said the senator was focused from the beginning on maintaining Border Patrol access as the land transitioned to wilderness designation.
“They were very mindful of the security needs along the border and what makes this unique in all of that,” she said. “Neither congressman would want to do anything to harm national security.”