The battered border

Immigration policy sacrifices Arizona’s wilderness


desert scene with a broken barbed wire fenceChris Clarke

“Whenever the soil is disturbed, there’s a faint color change.” Mike Crelia peers at the tracks of workboots that head through a thick stand of tamarisk and up an embankment. “Fresh sign will actually be a different color than when it’s a day or two old. And even if there’s no wind, there’s always insect activity. Ants will walk across the footprints, or other insects will, and they leave sign of their own. You can gauge how old sign is by the amount of insect tracks across it. This guy came through here not long ago. Maybe a couple hours.”

We crawl, stooped over, through tunnels in the tamarisk. Crelia, Public Lands Liaison Agent with the Border Patrol’s Wellton, AZ office, sweats only a little in the 114-degree afternoon sun. An Oklahoma native who’s lived in Yuma for eight years, he’s used to the heat. “This stretch of land between here and the river is pretty much a no-man’s land,” he tells me. “It used to grow crops, but nothing can grow here now. The aliens hole up here after they come across the river and then they try to make a break for it. If they make it into that settlement over there, Gadsden, then it’s much harder for us to apprehend them.

Gadsden is a small Arizona town, a housing development really, a dozen miles southwest of Yuma, half a mile east of the Colorado River — and Mexico. Between the river and Gadsden lies a gauntlet. Above the tamarisk bosque is a levee road, its shoulders twenty feet of dust on which a set of workboot tracks would stand out boldly. (The Border Patrol drags the shoulder regularly, towing bars weighted down with tires. Any sign on this road is fresh.)

Across the road is a wastewater canal with steeply sloping concrete banks. A desalination plant in Yuma removes salt from local agricultural runoff before it’s discharged into the Colorado River. The wastewater canal carries the removed salt to the Sea of Cortez. Migrants must cross the canal, either by way of heavily monitored bridges, or by swimming it. A week from today four migrants will attempt to swim the canal. Three will make it. Its steep banks and deceptively swift water claim lives on a regular basis.

Beyond the canal is another road, also dragged regularly by the Border Patrol, and an empty field with furrows parallel to the canal. Footprints show readily against the plowed soil. Border Patrol vehicles cruise up and down both sides of the levee, and remote-controlled cameras atop high platforms sweep the area. Border Patrol agents and National Guardsmen monitor the cameras from an air-conditioned room in Yuma. At night, the cameras automatically switch to infrared, sensing the body heat of any living thing walking across the field.

It seems unlikely that anyone could make it across the barrier here, but people do: hundreds of them a year. And they leave their mark on the landscape. “It looks like they’ve been building here,” says Crelia, pointing to a rude thatch hut made of tamarisk branches. The entire thicket, several miles long, seems shot through with crawling tunnels and branching paths. Except, that is, where it has been burned. “They’ll set fires sometimes as a diversion,” says Crelia. We’d just driven past one patch that had burned the whole quarter-mile to the river. Where the bosque is unburned, a staggering amount of trash lies on the ground. There are plastic water jugs, discarded soda cans and sports drink bottles. There are trash bags. “The aliens put their clothing in the bags to cross the river,” says Crelia. “When they get across, they put the clothes back on and leave the bags.” A large proportion of the clothes get left behind as well, from the looks of the place, as well as what Crelia calls “foam shoes”: blocks of foam or carpet the migrants wrap around their feet to obscure their tracks. There are Kleenex boxes here as well, presumably used for the same purpose.

The trash extends, literally, as far as the eye can see. It’s safe to assume that among the plastic and fabric and cardboard lies abundant human waste, given the continuous presence of people waiting for hours, perhaps days for a chance to run into the United States. This stretch of the US border is an environmental and public health disaster. But it is not the worst such disaster. It is not people on foot who pose the greatest threat to the environment of the Arizona borderlands. A crew of laborers could clean this trash up in a few weeks. Farther east, in the remote outback of the Sonoran Desert, environmental destruction of a different sort is taking place, and that damage may take hundreds of years to heal — if it ever does.

We climb into the Border Patrol truck and Crelia drives us south along the levee road at a fair clip. Sand has drifted across the road, and at one point the truck fishtails perilously close to the bank. “Do you guys ever lose one of these trucks in the canal?” I ask, trying to appear nonchalant as I grip the door handle. Crelia laughs. “You know, there’s nothing prettier than the night-time out here as the bar lights on a sinking truck flash and reflect off the water.” I chuckle. At the water line in the canal, a tiny burrowing owl watches us go by, its head turning impassively. “It happens now and then,” Crelia continues. “It’s not easy to live that kind of thing down.”

Past the Port Of Entry at San Luis, AZ — the US counterpart to the city of San Luis Rio Colorado across the line in Sonora — the bigger threat to the borderland makes itself clear. We drive down the border road, a fifty-foot-wide strip of scorched earth paralleling the frontier. A middle-aged man sits in the shade of a Mexican building, its north wall astride the border. There is no fence between him and el Norte. He sees our Border Patrol truck, holds both hands up to us palms forward and shakes them, smiling, as if to say “No, no. I’m not crossing.” Crelia chuckles. “He’ll try later.”

Through much of San Luis Rio Colorado the border is sealed by a 20-foot corrugated steel wall, but outside town that gives way to a few strands of barbed wire, and in places that wire lies on the ground. For the next hundred or so miles one set of tire tracks after another blasts across the border from Mexico Route 2, making up hundreds of miles of illegal roads heading for Interstate 8. Carved by the vehicles of smugglers, whose cargo may be migrants or contraband, the roads scar what was some of the wildest, least-trammeled, utterly formidable desert to be found in North America. There is not a single desert valley between San Luis and Nogales that is not criss-crossed by dozens of these illegal roads. This is a desert in which the Salt Trail, a footpath rarely used in the last century, is still as plain and distinct as when it saw regular use. These illegal roads may be here for centuries to come, and there are more miles being carved every year.

From the cornfields to the desert

On January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. NAFTA removed most of the legal barriers to trade among Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Mexico’s agricultural infrastructure began to collapse almost immediately. Before the agreement was signed, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari had amended the Mexican constitution to gut the ejido system of communally owned farms, allowing farmers to divide ejidos among them and sell their shares outright. It also made it possible for bankrupt farmers to lose their ejidos. Until 1993, the Mexican government was legally obligated to guarantee a minimum price for corn by buying it under the CONASUPO program. Salinas ended CONASUPO price supports just before NAFTA passed.

sign in desert reading in spanish: cuidado! no exponga su vida a los elementos - no vale la pena!Chris ClarkeSigns on the border warn would-be migrants of the desert’s deadly peril

With the trade barriers relaxed, US firms began to dump government-subsidized corn in Mexico. The price Mexican farmers earned for a bushel of corn fell by nearly half between 1993 and 1999. In the meantime, the retail price of corn actually increased in Mexico. The same companies who were dumping US corn were also buying up the corn companies and raising prices. By 2001, agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland owned a controlling interest in the Mexican company Gruma S.A. de C.V., the world’s largest producer of cornmeal and tortillas, and part of two other corn milling companies. In 1998, in response to US pressure, Mexico dropped its law capping prices on tortillas, increasing US companies’ profitability and causing the price of tortillas in Mexico City to jump by half. The price jump was even greater in rural areas.

Farmers lost their land, whether on ejidos or in long-held family plots sold to cover mounting debts. The disruption was mind-bendingly massive. Some observers estimate that one Mexican in six lost his or her home as a direct result of the US corporate invasion of Mexico’s corn economy. Many poor people in Mexico get half their daily calories in the form of tortillas: Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de la Nutrición estimates that one Mexican child in five suffers malnutrition as a direct result of the corn crisis.

Between 1993 and 2002, Archer Daniels Midland’s annual profits tripled.

People have migrated from Mexico into the United States since the two countries first shared a border, drawn by the greater income available in the US for even menial labor. In the 1980s, US investment in the so-called maquiladora zone, prompted by the drastic devaluation of the peso in 1983, brought hundreds of thousands of workers to the northern tier of Mexican states. When those same US companies relocated their factories to Asia and other, cheaper countries, those workers were left without jobs, homes, or social services. Immigration into the US, legal and otherwise, increased as a result. But it was the destruction of the corn economy that truly swelled the ranks of the migrants. The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated in 2000 that the number of Mexican nationals in the US illegally more than doubled over the 1990s, from a bit more than two million in 1990 to 4.8 million in 2000.

The Arizona desert is by no means the sensible place to cross the border: migrants have succumbed to its deadly arid heat for more than a century. But in 1993 the Border Patrol began a deliberate campaign of funneling migrants toward the border’s most dangerous sections as a way of dissuading border-crossers. A steel wall was erected to mark the border in San Diego, California, probably the spot on the border where unprotected migrants are least likely to die of exposure. In 1994 the Border Patrol launched Operation Gatekeeper, a campaign of massive law enforcement presence along the San Diego border with the stated purpose of driving migrants east into the desert where the Border Patrol enjoyed what the Justice Department called a “strategic advantage over would-be crossers.” Operation Gatekeeper was modeled on a similar initiative in El Paso, Texas called Operation Hold The Line. A third such campaign was launched in the Tucson-Nogales area.

The campaigns’ effectiveness in stemming migration through the target areas has been questioned. A Border Patrol employees union charged in 1996 that the INS kept falsified records on the number of migrants detained or deterred by Operation Gatekeeper. Still, no one denies that as the feds clamped down on easier entry points, migration through the outback areas of Arizona skyrocketed. Apprehensions of illegal immigrants in Arizona more than doubled between 1993 and 1995, from less than 10,000 per month to more than 25,000. In the first six months of 2006, apprehensions in the same area averaged just under 70,000 per month.

Thus the federal government funneled thousands of migrants into one of the most dangerous landscapes in the US as deliberate law enforcement policy.

The end of the fence

The SUV lurches, starting and stopping, along the rutted dirt road. We pull a few yards forward and stop again. Behind the wheel, Anthony Povilitis examines the roadside to our left. Ben Zenk speaks from the passenger seat. “Single or multiple?” “Multiple,” says Povilitis. “Recent or entrenched?” “Entrenched.” “Faint or distinct?” “Distinct.” Zenk holds a large yellow GPS unit out the passenger side window, gets a fix on our location, then punches a few keys on the unit to record information about the set of tire tracks Povilitis is describing. We pull forward another twenty yards or so and repeat the process.

Povilitis is a biologist working with Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument’s Border Impacts Monitoring Program. Zenk is a National Park Service cartographer. Their task today: document all apparent vehicular impact within ten meters of the Puerto Blanco Road, which stretches eighteen miles or so from the pavement at Arizona state route 85 to the southwest corner of the National Monument. It is slow going. Away from the highway, in just about every place where the topography could conceivably allow a wheeled vehicle to plow through the desert, there is at least one set of tire tracks heading north into the wilderness.

Arizona’s Sonoran Desert has long tortured migrants, whether they’re Mexican laborers or Anglo easterners seeking a route to the California goldfields along the old Camino Del Diablo. Still, due mainly to their remoteness and forbidding nature, the Arizona borderlands were for many years as undisturbed a natural landscape as existed in the lower 48 states. The desert here was not untrammeled: the Tohono O’odham and Hia Ced O’odham Indians gleaned a living from the land for centuries farming dryland crops, hunting and gathering wild food. Their lands lay on both sides of what became the US-Mexican border. But in the years since the natives were evicted from this part of their historic range, the land between Organ Pipe and Yuma became a despoblado, an unpopulated wilderness, visited only by desert rats, biologists, military personnel, and those desperate people willing to walk across as much as 60 miles of waterless trail, often in triple-digit temperatures, for a chance to pick lettuce and tomatoes for less than minimum wage.

3,000 people have died crossing this section of the border since 1998 – more than died in the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

The land was unpopulated on the US side, that is. Route 2 hugs the Mexican side of the line from Sonoita, near Organ Pipe, to Mexicali. You can take a bus from Sonoita or San Luis and get to just about any spot on the border between them with no more than a few minutes of walking.

And in the 1990s, increasing numbers of people did just that. Dissuaded from crossing at relatively comfortable spots such as San Diego, El Paso or Nogales, they crossed from remote Mexican settlements such as Los Vidrios and walked into the backcountry of Organ Pipe, the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, or the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range. A staggering number of them died. The Tucson-based humanitarian group No More Deaths estimates that 3,000 people have died crossing this section of the border since 1998 — more than died in the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. The summer temperature in the desert regularly exceeds 110 degrees, and a person at rest requires about two gallons of water a day in that kind of heat. Most migrants carry less than two gallons for a several-day trek, exposing them to dehydration, fever, and death by organ failure.

Migrants on foot pose some threat of damage to the environment. There’s the trash issue: who could expect a person in such straits to make sure to pack out all his garbage? Bighorn sheep, pumas, and the endangered Sonoran Pronghorn often rely on isolated water sources for survival. Some of these sources hold very little water, and can be drained by desperate people on foot. Even if there’s enough water for everyone, the regular presence of people can spook shy sheep and pronghorn, causing them to abandon crucial watering holes. Foot traffic damages fragile desert soils: the Salt Trail, a footpath used on occasion by the Tohono and Hiaced O’odham to reach the Sea of Cortez, is plainly visible after a century of disuse. On occasion, desperate migrants will light signal fires to attract rescue: these fires often spread, as happened recently near milepost 66 of Route 85.

But the environmental impact of hiking migrants pales compared to that of people driving across the border. Few migrants can afford their own cars, and fewer still can afford to risk losing their cars in a dry wash 40 miles from the nearest tow truck. It is the smugglers who drive through the wilderness, hauling migrants or contraband or both, working with organized groups on both sides of the border. The vehicles are stolen off the streets of Tucson, Phoenix, or Los Angeles. If a smuggler has to abandon a vehicle, it’s no great loss to his employers. Since the year 2000, an estimated 450 miles of illegal roads have been gouged out of the soil in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument alone, and Organ Pipe accounts for just 36 miles of border: there’s more than 100 miles to go from the west edge of Organ Pipe to San Luis. Aside from crushing the desert soil and damaging plant life — probably the greatest impact — the abandoned vehicles leak toxic fluids into the ground, and discarded lead-acid batteries pose a special threat to wildlife.
Faced with the enormous and accelerating damage to the desert posed by illegal cross-country driving, land managers started asking some years back for a barrier that would block vehicles from crossing the border, while allowing wildlife continued passage. The request languished for lack of funding until August 2002. In that month, Organ Pipe Cactus NM Ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed when he apprehended a group of smugglers who had driven into the Monument’s backcountry. Organ Pipe’s vehicle barrier was put on the front burner.

Our path along Puerto Blanco Road rarely takes us out of view of the barrier. It is five feet high, more or less, with posts of alternating height spaced five feet apart, and a cross-bar welded between them. It’s high enough for coyotes and coatis to walk under, and low enough for pronghorns to leap — and for low-flying birds like the endangered cactus ferruginous owl to avoid as well. A maintenance and patrol road runs along the base of the barrier, paralleling the old road. It isn’t just outlaws who drove off-road out here: Zenk and Povilitis note that most of the recent tire tracks seem to be mere shortcuts between the roads, probably made by Border Patrol agents on patrol. Povilitis frets. “Much more of this, and the space between the roads is going to be just a fifty-yard-wide sand pit.” The Border Patrol also routinely uses wheeled vehicles in local wilderness areas when chasing people down, though Organ Pipe’s Supervisor Kathy Billings told me that her staff is routinely and promptly notified, after the fact, so that the impact of Border Patrol activities can be inventoried. For his part, Crelia characterizes these off-road pursuits as a “necessary evil,” and claims his agents go off-road only when absolutely necessary. Before heading out into the field, Crelia told me, agents are trained in local ecological issues, and are given a list of local wild animals and plants to avoid disturbing.

Still, individual Border Patrol agents’ attitude toward the landscape can seem somewhat cavalier. An agent drives toward our SUV about eleven miles in, and as the road is too narrow for us to pass in that spot, he swings out past us, his right tires digging a new gouge in the soil. A couple weeks ago, Zenk tells us, NPS staff found some trash up in a tree in the far northwest corner of the Monument. Retrieving it, they found that it was a bag from the Circle K in Ajo, with an empty soda bottle and container of nachos, and a receipt from before dawn that morning. “They were joking that we ought to add a section on nutrition to our environmental training for Border Patrol agents,” he chuckles.

Fresh tracks between the two roads are common, but most of the tracks heading north into the desert are significantly older. It’s the consensus among the Park employees I’ve spoken to that the barrier has drastically reduced vehicular incursions into the National Monument. But that success comes at a price.

At the Monument’s southwest corner Povilitis, Zenk, and I don backpacks and hike into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The 860,010-acre Cabeza Prieta has long been the symbol of wild American desert, the back of beyond, accessible only by rugged and treacherous roads and unforgiving of greenhorns. It is home to 400 species of plants and about 300 of animals, including 212 bird species. This is my first visit, despite a lifetime of desert travel. I look toward the mountains. Brilliant saguaro fruit and a few stray ocotillo blooms provide flashes of red against the sere landscape. A few flowers struggle to open on organ pipe cacti. A range of mountains far off, perhaps the Growler Range, shimmers in the 105-degree heat. I turn to Ben Zenk. “I can’t imagine being confronted with the task of walking from here to Interstate 8 in summer, with a couple gallons of water.” Zenk shakes his head. He is intimidatingly lean, not a spare ounce on him. He’s barely sweating in the heat: he runs marathon-length races in the desert summer for fun. “No way,” he says, finally. “No way I’d want to do that.”

The vehicle barrier ends at the Monument Boundary. To the west is a flimsy few strands of barbed wire. The barbed wire lays on the ground in places. Two hundred yards in past a sandy dry wash, a broad stretch of fence has been beaten into the soil by countless passing tires. You could turn off Route 2 and drive across the border here without slowing: the road is just that broad. It heads straight north and disappears behind a wall of thornscrub and saguaros. Later, I will trace its course in satellite photos: it runs north for about five miles, weaves back into the National Monument, and from there joins up with a metastasizing network of roads covering the National Monument and the Wildlife Refuge

If sealing the border cities has driven migrants into the desert, then the Organ Pipe vehicle barrier has repeated the process on a smaller scale, funneling traffic into the Refuge. Cabeza Prieta’s Refuge Manager Roger Di Rosa predicted this. In August 2003 he told the Tucson Citizen “It’s ludicrous if Organ Pipe does it [builds the barrier] to just end right there at that boundary. We’ll just get ripped apart.”

And that is, in fact, what has happened. The damage to Cabeza Prieta can be seen from space. In many places, such as the Growler Valley, this epitome of desert wilderness resembles nothing so much as an Off-Road Vehicle park. The Border Patrol has set up a backcountry camp in the refuge, Camp Grip, to augment Cabeza Prieta’s meager ranger staff, and some claim that damage in the area has slackened somewhat. But in the Mojave desert in California, scars from tank treads made during World War II training exercises are still distinct. It may be hundreds of years before Cabeza Prieta recovers, and that’s if the vehicle traffic is stopped. Until it’s stopped, the roads will keep getting wider. The soils here are often sandy — “moon dust,” the locals call it — and a well-used road can develop sand traps that can eat a Humvee. (The Cabeza Prieta’s roads are harder on Humvees, in fact, than the shattered roadways of Iraq.) When a road develops a sand trap, both smugglers and agents drive around it, widening the road, or creating a handful of parallel roads heading the same direction. Where two such roads meet, the intersection often becomes a broad circle with no living thing in it, up to a hundred yards wide.

The good news is that federal government is building a vehicle barrier along the remainder of the Arizona border west of Organ Pipe. The bad news is that they started in San Luis. When the barrier is completed, Cabeza Prieta will get some protection. Until then, the unfinished barrier will serve as a tighter and tighter funnel pointed at the heart of Cabeza Prieta.

Washington takes notice

The vehicle barrier works fairly well to keep cars and trucks from crossing — only one illegal vehicle incursion has been reported in Organ Pipe since it was installed — but it does nothing to defeat foot traffic. That is by design. Any barrier that blocked people on foot would blockade large animals as well, and the desert is home to many large animals, some of them, such as the Sonoran pronghorn, of grave concern as endangered species. Understandably, recent proposals for a much more impenetrable border fence raise concern among biologists and land managers. “It’s not that the vehicle barrier doesn’t have its environmental effects,” ORPI Superintendent Kathy Billings told me. “For instance, wind piles loose brush against the barrier, which then can divert water flow in washes. But we had one Representative down here who said he wanted to build a brick wall, like the one between Israel and Palestine. Well, I don’t know what things are like in Israel, but we have flash floods here every year, and the washes they flow into cross the border one way or the other: A brick wall would irrevocably alter the watershed. It’d be a huge change.”

Other ideas coming out of washington are a bit more feasible. The proposed Border Security First Act of 2006, sponsored by senator Richard Santorum (R-PA), would — among other things — mandate the construction of 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the border, with the Arizona desert specifically mentioned as a location for some of that fencing. The three-layered fence would be augmented by surveillance cameras similar to those along the Colorado. The bill would require the fencing be installed within two years of its passage. Santorum’s bill is at least flexible, allowing for some discretion in determining locations where the fence is to be built. The “Border Security Improvement Act,” passed by the House in 2005, is far less nuanced, calling for a fence to be built along the entire US-Mexican border. These tow bills, as well as a handful of other proposals, also call fro increased military and law enforcement presence along the border, a notion helped along when President Bush announced he would send thousands of National Guard personnel to the border to assist the Border Patrol.

The unfinished barrier will serve as a tighter and tighter funnel pointed at the heart of the Cabeza Prieta.

Understandably, wildlife activists are appalled at the fencing proposals. “In 1987, President Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall and stated, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’ but less than 20 years later, the Senate votes to build a new Berlin Wall on the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Michael Finkelstein, Executive Director with the Center for Biological Diversity, after the Senate passed Santorum’s bill. “Jaguars, Mexican Gray Wolves, Peninsular Bighorn, low flying Pygmy Owls and other endangered species need to cross their borderland habitat often, and this wall will crush their ability to survive.” The Center urges the completion of vehicle barriers to protect Cabeza Prieta and other sensitive locations on the border.

This thin section of the Arizona desert, the border, seems a likely subject for a sprawling novel in the style of 20th-century Latin American writers. Epic suffering and great wealth have changed this place: the actions of people thousands of miles away, the anguish of family farmers and desire for inexpensive food, North Americans’ recreational drug use: all land on this imaginary line in the desert and carve themselves into the land. The border is an object lesson in the failure of simple solutions to global problems. And the worst of it all: Until the causes of this massive migration are addressed, protecting the Arizona desert likely means consigning some other wild place to damage on an epic scale, as those now crossing the Cabeza Prieta are funneled elsewhere on the battered border.

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