by Dr. Steve Best, PhD
As the world moves into the third decade of the twenty-first century, some of the most contentious global politics involve the issues of migration, refugees, borders, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia. These issues deeply affect Europe, for instance, and threaten to divide nations, pull apart the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and facilitate the rise of toxic nationalism and neo-fascism. There are also intense ideological and political struggles over these issues in the US, which is now possibly more divided than any time since the days of slavery and the civil war. The question of whether to seal US borders from the flow of immigrants both illegal and legal has polarized the country, sharply splitting conservatives and liberals into warring camps. It was decisive in electing a notoriously racist and xenophobic president, Donald Trump, who has in turn inflamed and exploited fear of the Other for his own political agenda and to appeal to a white nationalist and Republican base. A shocking mass murder targeting Latinx in El Paso Texas, in August 2019, put the issues of migration, borders, and race into stark relief.
The desperate and tragic migration of oppressed people throughout the world, involves not only a humanitarian crisis testing the moral resolve of developed nations, but also a calamity for wildlife and ecological systems. The most simplistic response to immigration is to seal borders, while never addressing the root causes of human movement. But barriers, fences, and walls not only thwart human traffic, they impede the natural flow of nonhuman animals and plants and directly affect their migration routes and reproduction. This threatens the survival of nonhuman communities and contributes to the growing problems of habitat destruction and species extinction. This in turn affects human interests in crucial ways, and the erection of barriers along borders has a systemic impact on all communities of life – humans, animals, and ecosystems.
To a large degree, under the all-absolving rubric of “national security,” the US-Mexico border wall is being erected for the purpose of stopping our neighbors from seeking a better way of life, but it doesn’t even accomplish that. While no deterrent to desperate people, the wall does impede animal migration and degrade the environment, becoming a contributing factor to the sixth great extinction crisis unfolding on the planet (Kolbert 2014). Already, the southern border wall has had a severe impact on wildlife and ecosystems and its proposed completion will be a death blow to numerous animal and plant species. While real in its effects, the wall also stands as a symbol of division and a totem to appease racism, white supremacism, and xenophobia, as draconian security policies, intensive surveillance, and policing of the borders create a vast migrant detention-industrial complex that commodifies human suffering. The wall is a pseudo-solution to much bigger problems than migration and security fears. US border policy for the last few decades – from Clinton to Trump – has been an unmitigated disaster for human beings, nonhuman animals, and the environment alike. Yet the border crisis usefully underscores the interconnectedness of interests among humans, animals, and the earth, in ways to which people and disciplines such as border/refugee studies are normally oblivious.
The Enlightenment in Ruins
Over two centuries ago, the Age of Enlightenment came into the Western world with a burst of optimism, confidence, and enthusiasm. On the heels of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution, the liberating influences of humanism and critical reason spread throughout the European continent with tremendous force. Skepticism of religious dogmas, criticism of oppressive institutions, experimentalism, and free inquiry all led to the dismantling of the old and inauguration of the new. The proponents of an emerging “Age of Reason” attacked the stifling restrictions of religious dogma and oppressive monarchical regimes and championed freedom of thought and inquiry.
Demands for freedom in the realm of thought inevitably led to demands for greater freedoms in trade and production, as Enlightenment ideas spurred not only a philosophical revolution, but also a political and economic revolution, a shift in modes of production from feudalism to capitalism. The classical liberal theories of political economy that emerged with John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and others provided a theoretical basis for emerging capitalist societies rooted in individualism, competition, the separation between public and private sectors, and the pursuit of wealth and personal gain in “free markets.” In the late-twentieth century, during the 1980s and 1990s, after Keynesian-inspired state interventions emerged to correct anarchic market tendencies, classic liberal emphases on free markets resurfaced as “neo-liberalism” and advanced globally, dismantling regulatory and social welfare systems.
In the midst of dramatic innovations and turbulent change, Enlightenment theorists believed that human beings were making steady advances in the improvement of life, with exciting possibilities on the horizon. Accordingly, many advanced the unprecedented idea that history advances along an inexorable continuum of progress in knowledge, freedom, and prosperity. The novel concept of progress marks a pronounced utopian strain to much Enlightenment thinking. A key motif among Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century was the exalted ideal of a world Cosmopolis – an ordered, porous globe bound to rational global norms of justice, equality, “perpetual peace” (Kant), open borders, stability, security, and progress for all. As shown by later critical theorists of the Frankfurt school, and sundry postmodernists as well, the liberal dream of a peaceful and prosperous planet without borders has morphed, throughout the twentieth century, into a nightmare world of global capitalism, fascism, bureaucratic communism, totalitarian governments, concentration camps, genocide, world wars, bloated militarism, degraded social and natural environments, and now the all-consuming threat of climate crisis and the unimaginable social chaos this portends (Best 1995). These are the inevitable results of a Western worldview based on human supremacist values (anthropocentrism and speciesism), and the logics of alienation and predation at their core.
Rapidly advancing in the 1980s, neoliberalism swept the globe, as “free trade” agreements restructured economies and social relations, prioritizing economic growth above all else. These new treaties had devastating impacts on undeveloped nations. They created poverty, insecurity, conflicts, mass migration, and terrorism, while overriding constraints on the negative effects of frenzied development on people, biodiversity, and ecosystems. We can see this clearly in the imperial relation between the United States and its neighbor, Mexico, as the consequences of neoliberalism manifest in numerous ways including migration and the building of a border wall. The tragedy unfolding along the US-Mexico border is not unique, however, given the global scope of capitalism and the human predilection – especially after World War II – to control movement near borders by building barriers (see below). The impact of walls and flawed border security policies on animals and the environment is still a much-understudied problem, but the disastrous consequences are already evident, rapidly worsening, and can no longer be ignored.
Movement, Migration, and Marginality
The driving force of life is speciation — the production of biological diversity. As Darwin wrote in the nineteenth century, the dynamics of natural and sexual selection propel speciation. As evident in his youthful study of the Galapagos Islands, and copious examples provided in his Origin of Species (1857), different environments require different types of adaptation, and thus select for different traits. Natural boundaries such as formed by rivers and mountains that isolate members of a species can yield different traits and species diversity. But dynamic evolution requires not only separation and barriers, but also connection and bridges, such exist along the pathways of migratory routes and wildlife corridors. In the evolution of human and nonhuman life forms, migration and free movement are critical to survival and change, and thus blocking or restricting mobility with impassible anthropogenic barriers can have deleterious effects on species survival and biodiversity. Animals have to move, genes have to flow.
Earth’s physical boundaries know no artificial political divisions, and their shape and flow stem from changing natural forces (and human impacts as well). Not all migrations are alike, and we can draw a salient distinction among three different types of population movement. First, in the case of free migration, populations – humans, animals, or plants – move in ways conducive to their survival, adaptation, and reproduction needs. This mobility is not free from boundaries or obstacles, but it is free to change and adapt for survival and reproduction purposes, although of course survival is not guaranteed. Second, due to natural forces like changing climate, populations may encounter forced migration, which drives them to move toward more suitable environments, as drought and hunger compels people from Guatemala to migrate to the US, or as climate change impels fish to travel northward in search of colder waters. In some instances, due to factors such as political violence, human or animal populations are forced to flee their homes and native environments. Finally, in the case of blocked migration, populations of all types encounter human-constructed barriers – in the form of walls, fences, and security boundaries — that obstruct free passage and thwart the movements necessary for survival. Such is the case with the ongoing efforts to build sundry types of barriers along the 1,954-mile US-Mexico border.
In discussing issues of refugees, migration, borders, and state violence, it is imperative to overcome the speciesist biases of traditional border/refugee studies. A more holistic and comprehensive view will expand the theoretical and political focus to address the grave impact of oppressive security policies on nonhuman animals, to validate their suffering, and to analyze the complex web of interconnections that form the biocommunity. It is thus vital to grasp that nonhuman animals are not only sentient beings, but have emotionally and intellectually complex lives (see Best 2009). Often, their systems of communication can be considered as languages, and their communities as cultures, bound by norms and intergenerational learning. Animals too live in families and communities – including “border communities” — and when various species cohabitate, we can consider this multicultural. Without question, their capacity to experience pleasure or pain, and to prefer the former over the latter, makes compelling moral demands on humans and creates a fundamental equality among human and nonhuman animals in the community of sentient beings. Like human animals, nonhuman animals have basic rights to the necessities of life and a viable habitat and from (human) exploitation. When expelled from their natural habitat, from their homeland and territory, animals can rightfully be seen as victims of forced migration — as refugees.
Humanist border/refugee studies approaches that neglect this animal standpoint are short-sighted, provincial, and incomplete, deficient both theoretically and politically. To richly comprehend many of the power dynamics and crises today, we must move nonhuman animals from the margins of study to a more central role. If we want to understand the underlying logic of social hierarchies and power dynamics, we must grasp the long history of human domination over nonhuman animals and how speciesism informs other power dynamics. As I wrote elsewhere:
Speciesism provided both the prototype for hierarchical domination and a battery of tactics and technologies of control. Humans defined their “nature,” “essence,” and identity as “rational beings” in direct opposition to nonhuman animals whom they erroneously defined as “irrational”—that is, as entirely devoid of the qualities that allegedly defined humans as unique, separate, and special. Humans prized rationality as a trait and an endowment important enough to make all other species and the natural world as a whole a mere means to their ends. Once animals became the measure of alterity and the “irrational” foil to the human “rational essence,” it was a short step to begin viewing different, exotic, and dark-skinned peoples as brutes, beasts, and savages, wholly deficient in rationality, and thus sub or nonhuman. The criterion created to exclude animals from the human community was also used to ostracize blacks, women, the mentally ill, the disabled, and numerous other stigmatized groups. The domination of human over human and its exercise through slavery, warfare, and genocide typically begins with the denigration of victims as “savages,” “primitives,” and “mere” animals who lack the essence and sine qua non of human nature—rationality” (Best 2014: 9-10).
The discourse, logic, and methods of dehumanization were thereby derived from the human domination over animals, as speciesism, in turn, provided the conceptual paradigm that encouraged, sustained, and justified the domination and slaughter of numerous human groups that did not fit the rationalist, patriarchal model. “Throughout the history of our ascent to dominance as the master species,” Charles Patterson notes, “our victimization of animals has served as the model and foundation for our victimization of each other. The study of human history reveals the pattern: first, humans exploit and slaughter animals; then, they treat other people like animals and do the same to them” (Patterson 2002: 109).
Thus, when we speak of hierarchy, domination, discrimination, and subjugation, we have to dig deep into history – perhaps as far back as 70,000 years ago when humans invented spears and began organized hunting of large animals (see Sale 1994) – to discover the roots of violence, war, and key power dynamics — the dark legacies that precede the origins of the state and social classes. We have to address the roots of the human-nonhuman animal divide which led to estrangement from the natural world and shaped mentalities and institutions of hierarchy and domination. And we need to understand that what we do to (other) animals, we ultimately do to ourselves.
Genealogy of a Wall: 1994-2020
Human and nonhuman animal populations naturally cross borders; they live on both sides, straddle boundaries, and move back and forth. Walls impose artificial barriers, fragment contiguous ecosystems, and invite transgression and resistance. This has been the case historically, and is true with the US-Mexico border — a boundary created between a wealthy and developed northern nation and a poor and undeveloped southern nation, a demarcation that moved further north and west with the territorial booty gained through the US imperialist war with Mexico (1846-48). It is natural, moreover, along the lines that divide the “first world” and the “third world,” for disadvantaged people in the south to seek greater prosperity through working in the more advantaged northern country, to pursue the dream of opportunities glittering on the “shining city on the hill,” as Ronald Reagan once characterized the US. It is perhaps also understandable, especially during times of economic or political insecurities, for nations – or, their elite classes, at least — to patrol and control their borders, although this by no means guarantees rational, humane, just, and ecologically sound security and immigration policies sensitive to human and animal rights and the integrity of the natural world.
The history of the US-Mexico border is a history of these conflicting dynamics – the desire for freedom of movement and life improvement and the perceived need for border security (see Alden 2018). At times, such as during the Bracero program (1942-1964) — created to fill labor shortages caused by US entry into World War II — there was a relative harmonization between the workers’ need for employment and the capitalist requirement for cheap labor. Mexican workers crossed into the United States seasonally or daily to obtain work and wages, and industries in return reaped the benefits of cheap labor to maximize profits. But various political, ideological, and cultural forces disrupted this short-lived, smooth functioning of the capitalist supply and demand model, and led to sharp conflicts and contradictions, multiple unintended consequences, and disastrous results for humans, animals, and the environment alike.
Trump’s anti-immigration platform builds on a long, disastrous history of failed immigration policies in the US, with modern roots in the opportunistic policies of President Bill Clinton. In order to create a neoliberal “free trade” zone that opened the flow of trade across US borders to the north and south, Clinton passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on January 1, 1994 — not coincidentally, the same day the Zapatista uprising against capitalist globalization began in central Mexico. At the same time as the US flooded Mexican markets with surplus corn, Mexican President Salinas ended long-standing protections for farmers in rural areas. With corn prices dropping and incomes falling, Mexican farmers and workers migrated into the US, looking for work (Schlyer 2012). The unintended consequence of NAFTA was to increase immigration, and the response ever since has been to jettison sensible approaches, such as existed with the Bracero program, in favor of draconian and increasingly militarized systems of border control.
In response to the new influx of migrant workers into the US, and against the backdrop of increasing concerns about the rise of undocumented immigrants (especially pronounced in California), the Clinton administration launched Operation Hold the Line and Operation Gatekeeper, ramping up security at the major ports of entry in El Paso and San Diego. “No longer would a compassionate view of immigrants lead the debate … fear and rhetoric has grown so loud and strong that is was now politically expedient to target them” (Frey 2019: 24) and use them as scapegoats for various social ills, including unemployment, decreased wages, and crime. An integral aspect of Clinton’s policy was the punishing strategy of “prevention through deterrence” which intentionally inflicted heavy penalties and suffering on migrants. Adding insult to injury, capitalizing on a “tough on crime” stance that perennially suits political ambitions, Clinton demonized immigrants as criminals rather than victims of his own neoliberal economic policies, making their misfortune and death easier to ignore. The ruthless deterrence strategy did not stop desperate migrants from coming, it simply made their journey more perilous and deadly by forcing them into previously untraveled and inhospitable desert and mountain terrain. Indeed, in the last 20 years, over 7,000 migrants have died trying to cross the border (Greenwald et.al. 2017). In pursuit, border security and its damaging infrastructure of roads and vehicles barreled into pristine and protected areas of federal, state, or private land, trampling on the fragile habitats of endangered and threatened species.
After 9/11, a shocked and paranoid nation grew obsessed with border security, making the illogical choices of invading Afghanistan and Iraq and policing the southern border. For the first time, “economic migrants, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants, were now considered a national security threat alongside hardened criminals and terrorists … [9/11] placed all those who wished to enter the country without proper documentation on equal footing” (Frey 2019: 75). Along with the USA PATRIOT Act, the Bush administration launched a series of new security laws and agencies, effectively creating a garrison and surveillance state. Crucially, these included the “Real ID Act, passed in 2005,” which gave the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) uncontested authority over border policy, including the ability to “waive in their entirety” any and all federal, state, or local protections for human health, animals, and the environment (see Erickson and Taylor; Greenwald et. al. 2017; Herwick and Nicol). Decades of binational conservation work on the protection of habitat and species were, and continue to be, nullified. The absolute authority commandeered by the Executive Office and the Secretary of the DHS over Congress, citizens, and science speaks volumes about US pseudo-democracy and the social origins of natural crises afflicting biodiversity and the natural world. And just one year after passing the Real ID Act, Congress passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized and partially funded the fencing of 700 miles of border barriers — regardless of its impact on humans, animals, and the environment — and doubled the size of the US border patrol.
Increasingly, the US-Mexico border has become militarized as the state mobilized ever-more security forces and military personnel. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) became the largest police force in the country, currently staffed by 60,000 people (Frey 2019: 131). Authorization of the military mobilization along the border – a tactic used since 1989 in the “war on drugs” — added increasing numbers of soldiers to the mass of border police, defying the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 which limited the powers of the federal government to deploy military personnel for law enforcement and civilian affairs. But with increasing militarization, these boundaries erode to conflate immigration policy with national security, transforming the US border with Mexico into a war zone – as people along the borderland witness the transformation of their communities “from cross-border exchanges to citadels” (Lind 2019).
Indeed, regions once teeming with wildlife have become increasingly saturated with checkpoints, roads and highways, all-terrain vehicles, helicopters, drones, surveillance towers, and night lights. “What was once a weak show of force and anemic attempt to stop illegal immigration became a more heavy-handed and militaristic approach to catch migrants. A warlike stance began to take shape against a population that was poor and mostly unarmed … We are using the tactics and machinery of war against all who dare to cross the US-Mexico border” (Frey 2019: 5, 8). With increased military presence and authority came a pervasive “culture of cruelty” whereby Border Patrol agents systematically abused detained migrants and housed them in prison-like conditions without basic care and sanitation. Abuse was just another form of deterrence.
The militarization of the border goes hand in hand with the ever-larger role of military institutions such as the Defense Department and the Pentagon; large defense industries including Boeing, Lockheed, and Raytheon; private detention center and for-profit prison industries like CoreCivic and GeoGroup and their many suppliers; large banks such as Wells Fargo and JP Morgan; and close partnerships with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All these nefarious forces work together in the highly profitable business of border fortification and apprehending and detaining migrants, thus creating what I term a vast migrant industrial complex.
Trump Tower South: The Wall as Xenophobic Totem
Currently, the Trump administration is literally bulldozing ahead with its plan to construct barriers across the entire US-Mexico boundary, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Ending legal and illegal immigration and building a wall across the southern border were key promises of Trump’s presidential campaign, and form the Ariadne’s thread running through his first term in office. When Trump took his oath of office on January 20, 2017, he gained control over a thoroughly militarized border and bloated DHS budget of over $70 billion. Walls and fences already covered 654 miles of the border (roughly one-third), serviced by 5,000 miles of roads (not counting the undesignated routes for off-road patrol vehicles), and Trump promised to build an additional 500 miles of wall by election day 2020.
To build his “big, beautiful,” “impenetrable,” and “powerful” wall, a Trump Tower thousands of miles long, Trump stopped at nothing. He declared the “migration crisis” to be a “national emergency,” he diverted over $6 billion in funds from the Defense Department budget and shut down the government for 35 days (the longest period in history) to demand additional funding. If the urgent national “crisis” was immigration, and the dangerous security threat was unarmed poor people, then the answer was sealing the border with a wall. But simplistic solutions attract superficial minds, and a massive wall – the largest US infrastructure project since building the highway system and the most expensive wall in history – appealed to the egomaniacal builder in Trump, who boasted, “Who can build better than Trump? I build, it’s what I do … Fences are easy – believe me” (cited in Davis and Shear 2019: 24).
Moreover, the concept of a wall pandered to his base of disaffected, uneducated, xenophobic white workers facing diminishing prospects amidst a changing economy and demography. They took their frustration out on the convenient scapegoat of immigrants allegedly flooding into the country and taking jobs, driving down wages, eroding (white) “American” culture, even posing a security risk. Time and time again, especially evident in his mega-rallies, Trump exploited fear of the Other and mobilized anger and hatred to advance his agendas. Trump demonized migrant families fleeing misery and seeking a better life in the US as criminals, rapists, and drug pushers. He depicted the “migrant caravan” of people fleeing from Central America as a hostile invasion and dire threat to national security, rather than desperate people seeking to survive the ravages of climate change, drought, hunger, poverty, political violence, and neoliberalism. He frequently portrayed immigrants as invaders, suggesting they were insects and animals. Humanist liberals were quick to rail against this “dehumanizing” language that “treats people like animals,” without ever considering the speciesist biases that assume it’s acceptable to treat animals “like animals.” In the moral myopia and hypocrisy of “progressive” humanism, abuse, exploitation, and devaluation are morally repugnant — unless applied to nonhuman animals. Such biases police and fortify the repressive moral boundaries that divide human and nonhuman animals.
Repeatedly, in speeches broadcast to the nation, Trump stigmatized El Paso as a capital of crime and murder, when in fact it is one of the safest cities in the nation (Edwards 2019). The repressive structures of the national security state are antithetical to this borderland, a huge urban area of Juarez and El Paso populations of over 2.7 million people, a seamless binational and multicultural community accustomed to reciprocity and interchange. El Pasoans were deeply offended by Trump’s numerous aspersions that stigmatized their city as a dangerous denizen for drugs and crime. They were shocked by the ignorance and scapegoating of their city as an excuse for political ambitions and rationale to blockade the border. They were appalled at the mini-concentration camps built under their downtown bridges — crudely fenced compounds holding thousands of migrant adults and children in sweltering heat and unsanitary conditions.
Trump’s hateful, racist rhetoric was sure to have consequences, and tragically it did — in the neo-Nazi marches through Charlottesville, Virginia and in El Paso, where, on August 3, 2019, a white shooter came to gun down as many as possible who were faces of the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” This attack was not arbitrary. Trump’s constant demonization of the city made it a prime target for the shooter who put it in his crosshairs. Not coincidentally, his “manifesto” reflected and was inspired by Trump’s racist rhetoric. The El Paso Latinx population began to live in fear, feeling they have a target on their backs. Generally, with his hateful and violent rhetorical attacks against people of color, immigrants, and journalists, Trump has legitimated and emboldened white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and a pervasive culture of violence. Indeed, white supremacy, not international terrorism or migrant criminality, has become the greatest security threat in the US (Chalfant 2019). In August 2019, it surely paid a bloody visit to El Paso.
It’s important to appreciate that Trump’s border policies innovated little and built on the provisions of Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Before Trump even took office, federal law mandated that the border wall be extended nearly 50 additional miles. What Trump did was to ramp up the rhetoric, increase the fear and hate, make implicit racist biases explicit, attack immigration and push deportation with unparalleled zeal, and call for completing an already expansive wall across the entire southern border. Thus, the commandeering authority of presidential power and the military-industrial complex, the demonization and criminalization of immigrants, the walling and militarization of the border, the political exploitation of xenophobia, the scapegoating of undocumented workers, and the sadistic deterrence policies that led to confinement, abuse, and separation of families – all this began with Trump’s predecessors and had consistent bipartisan support.
A Wall to Oblivion: The New Front in the War on Wildlife and Wilderness
For two centuries, farmers, ranchers, miners, hunters, and trappers have waged war on wildlife and habitat in the US, with deadly consequences — wiping out numerous species and leaving others barely intact (see Jacobs 1992; Ketcham 2019). Where ethics, science, and compassion require protection of biodiversity and the environment, politics, profits, and idiocy are destroying what fragments remain. Instead of peaceful co-existence with the natural world, US power elites have opened up a new front in the war on wildlife and wilderness. Border walls, fences, barriers, roads, and traffic are ripping apart national parks, wildlife preserves and refuges, conservation areas, and sundry ecosystems, already strained by centuries of frenzied development and decades of “border security.”
The US-Mexico borderlands are as rich in biodiversity as they are unique, beautiful, and sensitive to human stampeding. There is a widespread misconception that the southern border is a monotonous expanse of lifeless deserts and wastelands, but in fact it is teeming with life, flush with biodiversity, and resplendent with beauty. Stretching nearly two thousand miles, from western California across Arizona and New Mexico to south Texas, the borderlands “traverse six ecoregions containing vegetation types that include desert scrub, temperate forests and woodlands, semi-desert and plain grasslands, subtropical scrublands, freshwater wetlands, and salt marshes … and support extraordinary biological diversity (Peters et.al. p. 740). The southern border “bisects the geographical ranges of 1506 native terrestrial and freshwater animal (n = 1077) and plant (n = 429) species, including 62 species listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List… Five Borderlands Conservation Hotspots identified by Defenders of Wildlife represent top-priority areas of high biological diversity and binational investment in conservation that are threatened by border wall construction” (ibid).
The El Paso area is home to five endangered species, including the Northern aplomado falcon, Southwestern willow flycatcher, and Mexican wolf. The Sky Islands mountains regions in southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico are host to over 7,000 plant and animal species including cacti, juniper, pine, spotted owls, black bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, red squirrels, and over half of the continent’s bird species (Carswell 2017), but all are imperiled. On or near the border are numerous wildlife refuges, national parks, tribal lands, wilderness areas, and conservation areas, many of which overlap national boundaries (Barclay and Frostenson 2019). This vast borderland, says Stanford biologist, Rodolfo Dirzo, “is an ecological theater where evolution has engendered a plethora of plays. A multitude of factors — climate conditions, topography, geological history, soil types – converge to array an amazing mosaic of ecosystems. A constellation of Northern temperate and Southern tropic lifeforms and lineages coincide with endemic species, as in few areas of the globe. This means these borderlands are a global responsibility” (cited in Jordon 2018).
Thus, border areas stretching across four US states and two nations are among the most fragile, diverse, rare, threatened, and critically important habitats on the continent, and many species exist in these regions and nowhere else. A barrier stretching from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas would cut through deserts and grasslands, rivers and wetlands, mountains and valleys, glistening sand hills and white waves. It would further fragment and divide the habitats of bison, bobcats, jaguars, jaguarundi, prairie dogs, great horned owls, mud turtles, desert tortoises, roadrunners, sandhill cranes, deer, low-flying birds, insects, and sundry other species. Because of long stretches of border wall that bisect habitat range, the survival of imperiled species — such as black bears, ocelots, pygmy owls, Sonoran pronghorn, and numerous types of butterflies and cacti — is already severely stressed and continuing the wall would consign them to oblivion. A completed wall that seals off remaining migration pathways would be a “deathblow to already endangered animals on both sides of the border.” It would affect “93 threatened, endangered, and candidate species” and “degrade and destroy critical habitat for 25 species, including a total of 2,134,792 acres that occurs within 50 miles of the border” (Greenwald et. al. 2017).
The wall discourages or impedes animals from accessing food and water resources. It disrupts natural breeding patterns and gene flows, leading to inbreeding and genetic disorders. It fragments already disjointed areas of land, severs critical wildlife corridors, and blocks seasonal migration routes. Barriers impede travel necessary for the survival of endangered and threatened species like the Mexican Gray Wolf, the most endangered mammal in North America, and the jaguar, which lives not only in the jungles of the amazon, but also in southern Arizona and New Mexico. Moreover, the wall prevents numerous species from migrating northward in response to the drought and heat brought on by climate change, literally entrapping them in the dystopian prisonhouse of anthropogenic warming that marks the new age of the Anthropocene. In too many cases, these imperiled animals are what Rodolfo Dirzo calls “zombie species” – the walking dead on the brink of extinction (see Jordan 2018).
The problem is not only the wall itself, which restricts free movement and bisects continuous ecological zones, but also the infrastructure development around it: checkpoint areas and bases, thousands of miles of patrol roads and highways on formerly wild landscapes, frenzied movement of personnel and traffic, the roar of helicopters, blazing and disorienting night lights – the total imposition of the human boot on imperiled species and fragile ecosystems. Building the wall not only overrides crucial environmental protection laws, it also impedes binational scientific research and undermines decades of conservation work in numerous areas (Peters et. al.).
Biodiversity is extremely important to the health of ecosystems. There is a cascading effect with the loss of large predators that ramifies throughout ecosystems. According to Dr. James McCallum, who co-authored a report on impact of fencing on wildlife and ecosystems: “Once there is a disruption of the complex ecosystems in this way, there is a risk of triggering a cascade of secondary effects … Simply put, less apex predators leads to more deer, which leads to great vegetation predation, which leads to less pollination with a further effect on bird species and insects.” (cited in Freeman 2017). Furthermore, the digestive systems of animals are important means of seed dispersal and their ability to travel is critical for the dissemination of plant diversity.
To underscore just how flawed, cynical, and destructive political ideologies and security policies can be, consider the case of “one the most biologically and culturally regions of the continental United States” (Burnett 2019) — the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, an International Biosphere Reserve on the Arizona-Mexico boundary. This area, ironically, was created in 1976 specifically to conserve biodiversity and to test how humans can possibly live in balance with nature. In October 2019, construction of a border wall along the Arizona-Mexico boundary in this region began. Despite the warnings of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that the wall could imperil 23 endangered and at-risk species, and of the National Park Service that construction could destroy 22 archaeological sites, the government waived sundry environmental laws to further realize Trump’s campaign promise to build more walls. In addition to numerous endangered species, construction in this area also affects native peoples, such as the Tohono O’odham Nation, which straddles both sides of the US-Mexico border and whose tradition of moving freely back and forth abruptly ended with Operation Gatekeeper. “The vast Tohono O’odham Nation — nearly as big as Connecticut — shares 62 miles with Mexico. The tribe vehemently opposes the border wall. Several thousand tribal members live south of the border, and are permitted to pass back and forth using tribal IDs… a full-blown 30-foot wall would make it that much difficult for our tribal citizens in Mexico and in the U.S. to be able to actively participate with family gatherings, with ceremonial gatherings” (Burnett 2019; also see Weingarten 2019).
To give another example, the Texas Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, near McAllen Texas, preserves 90,000 acres of habitat for a rich abundance of wildlife and plant diversity including many threatened and endangered species on both sides of the border (Gaskill 2018). It provides a vital corridor for migrating plants and animals, one of countries largest remaining population of ocelots and perhaps the only place that jaguarundi still exist (Barclay and Frosterson 2019). The Lower Rio Grande Valley, the final stretch of the river, contains 11 different ecological regions and hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of two major skyways for migratory birds, and people worldwide come to view some of the 500 bird species. None of this deterred DHS, however, for a line of 18-foot-tall steel posts four inches apart cuts right through this ecological wonderland, affecting “as much as 70 percent of the valley’s three national wildlife refuges” (Gaskill 2016) and threatening rare ocelots and sabal palms. Extending the wall would block access to large areas of federal, state, and private lands and historic sites across three counties (Clark 2018). Defenders of Wildlife found that a wall would fragment and sever over 2,750 acres of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Hidalgo County (Grandoni and Eilperin 2018). It would also barge through the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre wildlife preserve in Mission, Texas, an area with some of the highest concentration of butterflies (in volume and number of species) in North America. The towering height of border wall poses a serious obstacle to the movement of low-flying insects such as butterflies.
Like many areas affected by the building of a southern border, biodiversity and beautiful habitats are a vital economic resource for local communities in this region. “Nature tourism in the Valley generates upwards of $463 million annually in sustainable economic activity for Hidalgo, Starr, Willacy and Cameron counties, supporting more than 6,600 jobs” (Clark 2018). According to a Washington Post expose, the Trump administration blocked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from making public numerous concerns it had about the impact of additional wall in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, as it pushed ahead with construction efforts (Grandoni and Eilperin 2018).
To date, roughly two-thirds, or 1,350 miles, of the border remains unfenced, while republicans and diverted military budgets continue to supply Trump with billions of additional dollars in wall funding (for a total of nearly $10 billion since January 2017). Trump has replaced 100 miles of existing fence and has pledged to build 500 miles of new barrier before the 2020 presidential election. Ominously, the same private contractor who erected a border wall segment outside of El Paso, and who is endorsed by DHS, moved into Mission, Texas to declare war against the “butterfly freaks” and begin clearing land he claims is “under siege by cartels, criminals, and illegal aliens” (Sommer 2019; also see Miroff 2019) to start a new six-mile stretch of steel and concrete wall. After construction was temporarily halted due to a lawsuit filed by federal prosecutors and the National Butterfly Center, in January 2020 a Texas federal judge ruled that the private border wall could move forward. Whether by buying up private property or seizing land through eminent domain powers, bulldozers are winning over butterflies and biodiversity.
Walling Off the World
From the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge to the Tijuana Estuary, everywhere along the 2,000 miles-long boundary one sees the same dynamics playing out — politically-motivated, irrational border “security” policies are degrading sensitive ecosystems, violating the rights of humans and animals, harming local communities, defying science and citizen will, and suffocating life and beauty. Few things show naked state power as dramatically as the construction of the US border wall.
As Catherine Slessor notes (2019), “Walls are merely the most visible manifestation of a larger apparatus of militarised surveillance and technology employed to defend territory and keep people in their place.” A key purpose of the wall is to prevent suffering peoples from migrating into the US, but much more it impedes travelers, academics, students, scientists, conservationists, and the free exchange of ideas and culture – an odd consequence for neoliberalism. Often the plight of immigrants receives sympathetic coverage, but — given the speciesist biases of mass media and the dominant ideologies — precious little national attention has been given to the effects of the border wall on biodiversity and ecosystems. It is as if misguided immigration and security policies only have social implications and not systemically catastrophic effects throughout the life community.
The wall stops animals from accessing food, water, and breeding mates; it traps them to drown in floods; and it prevents them from escaping the effects of climate change. The wall and sadistic deterrence policies shift migration and its impact onto sensitive habitats, where the state security complex kills desperate and determined people, as it devastates animal populations, fragments their habitats, and degrades the environment. The wall divides families, towns, and tribes; it hurts local communities and small businesses in sundry ways; and it creates flash flooding dangers that kill humans and destroy property (Barclay and Frostenson 2019).
Construction of the wall devours public lands and threatens private lands as well through the force of eminent domain. The wall is a $25-70 billion-dollar boondoggle, a prodigious waste of resources and taxpayer money. It is a cynical and opportunistic political tool used for demagoguery, scapegoating, and pandering to irrational fears to win elections and resist multiculturalism. It is part of a vast infrastructure and security paradigm deployed to enrich banks, corporations, contractors, the military, and the private prison industry, at the expense of civil liberties. It is a mirage of actual security, a manufactured pseudo-crisis masking real social and environment crises, such as corporate power, economic inequality, dysfunctional political systems, and climate change. The border wall is a gigantic symbol of bureaucratic sclerosis and idiocy and a monument to racism, xenophobia, and speciesism. The wall is not only physical — brick, mortar, or steel — it is also psychological and cultural. It is a towering totemic sign of the Us Vs. Them mentality that informs every hierarchical society and pervades US culture. The wall refutes progressive principles of unity, community, ecology, and the rights of animals and the earth. The wall is the dream of the Enlightenment strangled with concertina wire, a postmodern coda for faded empires and dying civilizations. Fascists and terrorists hate diversity, whether human or nonhuman, cultural or biological, and yearn for the monotony that is death. The wall epitomizes this.
The southern border wall standing for decades is already a disaster, and plans to build a continuous barrier from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific coast would damage countless communities and consign innumerable plant and animal species to oblivion. If Trump’s wall is completed (as it well could be if Trump is re-elected in 2020), Mexican conservation biologist Rurik List observes, it “will rewrite the biological history of North America. A history that for millennia allowed animals to travel along the grasslands and forests from Mexico to Canada” (cited in Kessler 2019). Whatever legitimate security concerns exist on the US-Mexico border, sensible policies were abandoned decades ago.
Walls solve nothing, they never have. They don’t stop desperate people, address the causes of migration, provide impenetrable defense, or blot out promise of a better life. They are a feeble technofix for deep-rooted social, political, and economic problems. On the US-Mexico border, they benefit no one but the nefarious agents, agencies, and corporations behind the migrant-industrial complex. Any serious policy approach to immigration would address the systemic causes of migration – such as global capitalism and climate change – and not merely tinker with its effects.
Walls are as old as civilization itself, and began to rise around cities throughout Mesopotamia after urbanization began in the region around 4500 BCE. These walls served to define territorial boundaries and to defend against invaders. Like modern walls, ancient walls erected literal and metaphorical boundaries between the natural and artificial, city and countryside, civilization and barbarism. From a contemporary global perspective, one finds that dozens of countries (India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Baltics, and so on) are aggressively trying to control border crossings with walls and barriers, often with harmful consequences to animals and habitat. These barriers are erected not only due to territorial disputes or conflict, or as bulwarks against runaway climate change, but also because of instabilities created by economic inequalities and different levels of development between adjoining nations, which engenders unwanted immigration (Carter and Poast). These factors certainly are the case on the US-Mexico border, and currently there are about 70 sizeable border barriers worldwide. These walls are “symptoms of a rift in the world order, as manifestations of the failings of international cooperation … At the end of the Cold War there were just 15 walls delimiting national borders; today, with 70 of them in existence around the world, the wall has become the new standard for international relations” (Vallet 2017), the new way of shutting out the world’s “untouchables.”
Thus, the momentary return (in the Western imagination) to an Enlightenment utopia of an open, transparent, and fluid global community after the fall of the Berlin Wall – signaling the end of the Cold War and the birth of the “New World Order” to be led by the US — was an ephemeral dream that ended with the moral and political decline of the US and the increase in sealing off nation states into separate security compounds. Whether it is the influx of refugees and migrants from Africa to Italy or from Syria to Turkey and Greece, Europe as well is rushing to consolidate its border infrastructure, while bracing for even greater floods of desperate humanity fleeing the ravages of war and climate change. Indeed, by 2050 there could be up to a billion climate refugees seeking shelter from the wrath of nature awoken by anthropogenic warming of the globe (Lovell 2007). Rather than urgently respond to climate change, the developed world instead erects formidable walls to try to shut out the chaos and mass causalities they have created.
These walls come at a huge price, the economic expense – which is enormous (Valet 2017) — being the least of it. The greatest cost of walls and barriers are the toll they take on communities – human, animal, and plant. On a planet increasingly threatened by climate change, walls, borders, nationalism, isolationism, nativism, xenophobia, and right-wing populism can be seen as malignancies the global biocommunity can no longer afford. Instead, nations must foster strong ties of international cooperation to avert the worst effects of climate change. Or perish.
Enlightenment dreams and modern utopias continue to crash and burn, as postmodern walls arise from the ashes. The problems afflicting the natural world stem from crises haunting the social world and cannot be overcome until their root social causes are engaged and resolved. Moreover, the accelerating climate emergency is aggravating all social and environmental problems and dramatizes the urgency for addressing the underlying social and political causes affecting all life. The construction of the southern border wall and its systemic impacts provides an excellent example of how deeply intertwined are the fates of humans, animals, and the environment, and how all interests must be fought for as one in a movement for total, planetary liberation (Best 2014). Moreover, it is vital that nations worldwide rethink their definitions of security, understanding that there is no human, social, or political stability without a stable and flourishing natural world. The current climate emergency is dramatic proof that a wounded and destabilized planet has drastic consequences for human security, as heat, drought, floods, superstorms, melting ice sheets, and rising sea levels pose severe dangers to human existence worldwide, causing mass migrations, terrorism, and social breakdown and chaos.
Nothing – not indigenous peoples’ lands or grave sites, not public or private property, not devastated communities, not dead babies in rivers and deserts, not wildlife sanctuaries or wilderness areas, not species hanging on by a thread – has stood in the way between Trump and his obsession to build a continuous border wall. But resistance is growing. Conservationists and scientists; environmental, animal protection, and human rights organizations; native tribes; border businesses, communities, and private landowners as well – all are battling the US state over the border wall. These disparate voices have developed research, organized petitions and protests, issued restraining orders, and filed lawsuits. It is an irony that Trump’s divisiveness has united people along the border regions, with unlikely alliances forming between groups such as ranchers and environmentalists. Indeed, a new social movement is emerging, based on broad alliances and coalitions, using direct action tactics, with the goal of abolishing ICE and the migrant-industrial complex while promoting human and labor rights (Dayen 2017).
The US-Mexico border is not only a geographical and political boundary, but an emerging front line of struggle in the battle against state tyranny and the war on animals and the environment. The wall must not only be stopped, it must be dismantled in order to revitalize migratory flows of life and to rewild damaged habitats. If tribes shattered Hadrian’s Wall, and citizens sledge-hammered the Berlin Wall, people can raze Trump’s Wall as well. Of course, the problem is not only Trump’s Wall, which is but a symptom of the underlying disease of a corporate-state power complex stifling democracy and threatening all life. This poses the much larger task of systemic social transformation, while contending with the dark forces of the US psyche, the impulses of fascism becoming ever more manifest, and the pathological mindset of predatory humanism.
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NB. “This essay was originally published in “Like an Animal”: Refugees, Animals, and Multiculturalism (eds. Natalie Khazal and Nuria Almiron, (Brill Publishing, 2021). Reprinted with the consent of Dr. Steve Best. Photos provided by Dr. Steve Best.
AMÉRICA, NO TE RECONOZCO.
Imágenes de mi patria
destruídas por la realidad:
paranoia inherente …
impresiones digitales obligatorias …
registro electrónico de inmigrantes …
guerras preventivas de guerras.
América, no te reconozco.
América … No te reconozco …
No te reconozco …
— Adam Donaldson Powell, from “Three-legged Waltz”, 2006, Cyberwit Publishing, India.
Comment from Adam: Humans indeed created the COVID-19 pandemic — with our politics, our interferences in the natural food chain, and by constantly robbing other animal species of their habitats.
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