Guest Commentary

Forget about trash; the real mess on the border is being created by bad policies, including the new wall

Though Leo W. Banks makes several incongruous references to kindergarten in his April 2 cover story, "Trashing Arizona," we at the Sierra Club and Derechos Humanos suspect he missed a few lessons.

Conservation groups, wildlife biologists and human-rights advocates address problems at their root cause, which is why we are not, as Mr. Banks puts it, "hollering" about trash. We save our breath to denounce the environmentally devastating border wall and bad border-enforcement policies that have purposefully funneled migrants through remote deserts since the 1990s.

The "funnel effect" of the border wall is partially responsible for the trash problem in Arizona's border deserts, and the wall is an environmental disaster in and of itself. In an interview on the Sierra Club's border film, Wild Versus Wall, wildlife biologist Sergio Avila states, "The long-term effects of this infrastructure are way, way more important than short-term ... problems (such) as trash."

We continue to fight a very real, very long-term environmental disaster—the legacy of Bush's border wall. Washington has built more than 600 miles of border barricades so ineffective that Border Patrol spokespeople refer to it all as a "speed bump." Though humans can go around, over, under or through the border wall, migratory wildlife often end up stranded. The wall and construction roads slice across ecosystems, cause flooding and erosion, and gobble up habitat, while high-voltage lighting keeps nocturnal animals hungry and confused. Unbelievably, under the Obama administration, the wall continues to be built in violation of 36 federal laws. This is because the Real ID Act, signed in 2005, gave the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security the power to waive any law deemed necessary to "ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads." For any fan of the Constitution, that's as un-American as it gets.

A bigger problem with Mr. Banks' story is that he pulls focus from the true root of the issue: U.S. strategies employed to control the border are flawed, and have cost at least 5,000 men, women and children their lives. Mr. Banks calls this a "self-imposed" hardship, but as documented by the Binational Migration Institute, the U.S. border strategy has been to purposefully "funnel" crossers into Arizona's desolate terrain, with the intent of deterring crossings. The continued deaths and apprehensions illustrate these failures.

After 15 years and billions of dollars spent on criminalizing migrants, studies have shown that the numbers of individuals crossing the border has not significantly changed. This would suggest to the rational mind that another approach is in order. Some define insanity as the act of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result—how much crazier is spending billions of taxpayer dollars to boot?

Mr. Banks spends much time dehumanizing migrants. Such hypocrisy would be better left behind, as it is time Americans acknowledge the fact that so-called free-trade policies, such as NAFTA, displace millions of people in search of work. We also must take responsibility for the insatiable demand for drugs here in America.

A report by the Udall Center shows that Arizona makes a clean $3 billion every year off of immigration. Meanwhile, U.S. migration policy remains divorced from policies on agricultural subsidies, trade, security, international development lending and family planning. We need to address these root causes of migration while respecting individual human rights, dignity and economic aspirations.

How different the dialogue on immigration would be if the "holy-smokes" moment Mr. Banks seeks came from individuals who were outraged at the loss of life on our borders. Since 2000, the human remains of 1,440 men, women and children have been recovered on the Arizona border. Less than halfway through this fiscal year, that number has increased by at least 64.

We at the Sierra Club and Derechos Humanos are glad that Mr. Banks is thinking about kindergarten, and we encourage him to seriously consider the basic lessons of decency, compassion, fairness, responsibility and cooperation that all 5-year-olds receive and that we should all expect of each other.

Kat Rodriguez is the coordinator of Coalición de Derechos Humanos. Sean Sullivan is the chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Team.