Written by Marcy Saldivar
When Americans think of the Mexico-US border, it is likely that conflict initially comes to mind. The political climate surrounding the border is intense as half of Americans support the building of a border wall and the other half advocates for human rights of the immigrants and refugees. It is certainly true: the border wall’s effects on immigrants and citizens of borderland towns are dangerous and plentiful. However, it is not widely known that the border wall also has detrimental effects on the environment. As stressed in intersectional environmentalism theory, marginalized communities and the environment are commonly intertwined and, thus, are hurt simultaneously by capitalism.
The border wall has many direct effects on the environment. Signed in 1983, the La Paz Agreement between the US and Mexico mandates the disposal of hazardous waste. For US corporations located in border towns and in Mexico, waste must be transported and legally disposed in the United States. However, due to the physical limitations of the border wall, the EPA reports that less than 1/6th of borderland corporations obey the mandate. Furthermore, maquiladoras are manufacturing companies and factories in the borderlands that commonly burn and illegally dump toxic waste and chemicals which leads to harsh water and air pollution. Maquiladoras are also prone to accidents and host high risk jobs for their employees who are exposed to carcinogens daily.
Water levels and water cleanliness are also at risk at the US-Mexico border. As populations grow, industrial activity spikes during the production of the border wall, and climate change continues to increase droughts, aquifers are drying out. El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are on pace to deplete the water supply of their local aquifer in the next 15 years. They will then need to utilize the Rio Grande which, in turn, hurts the communities already dependent on the Rio Grande for their water necessities. Additionally, for the border wall to be completely effective in preventing traffic between Mexico and the US, the Rio Grande and Santa Cruz river would need to be physically severed at the border; Fragmentation of the rivers would cut the flow of water between the two countries and have devastating effects on the wildlife.
The border wall’s fragmentation of ecosystems across the borderlands has damaging effects to ecosystems regardless of the habitat—deserts, mountains, bodies of water, etc. Many ecosystems on the Mexico-US border are already sensitive, and the slightest change could cause a chain of reactions hurting both fauna and flora and wiping out endangered species. The border wall’s fragmentation of ecosystems is more than enough to catalyze the chain of reactions and destroy habitats. Furthermore, natural environments greatly affect human life as the provide food, water, protection from flood and drought, pest mitigation, and purification of air. If ecosystems are degraded due to fragmentation by the border wall, the people of the borderlands will be hurt, too.
The Mexico-US border is home to many indigenous peoples, communities of lower socioeconomic status, and diverse communities with many people of Mexican ethnicity. It is these communities that feel the negative effects of the environment first. It is their air, soil, and water that is polluted, it is their local ecosystems that are damaged, and it is their industrial jobs they must risk their lives doing.
Indigenous land is at risk for fragmentation and damage as the border wall is constructed. Many indigenous tribes have a heavy dependence on the land surrounding them for food, water, and medicine. Indigenous land in the borderlands has recently been a target for natural resource extraction and toxic waste dumping. Importantly, land is commonly sacred and vital to indigenous rituals, so these invasive efforts in relation to the wall in the borderlands are disrespectful and affecting the livelihoods of indigenous communities.
Furthermore, Mexican residents near the border are at extremely high risk for health disparities related to the degradation of environment at the border. Numerous studies show the closer the community is to the border, the more toxic waste they are exposed to. These Mexican communities also do not have US environmental policy to protect them. Additionally, it is important to note the danger of Mexican residents crossing the border illegally. Mexican people crossing the border illegally are now 17x more likely die to than they were a decade ago. As the political climate becomes more tense and security at the border becomes stricter, the mortality rate is expected to rise even more. Even though the number of illegal immigrants may decrease, is it worth the lives of refugees in pursuit of safer lives?
This question will continue to be debated for decades to come. In the meantime, it is important to recognize the effects the conflict at the border, and specifically the border wall, have on both the environment and people. The best way to help the cause is to contact local politicians and policymakers who have the power to pass legislation that can benefit these communities and the environment.