About DukeEngage Tucson 2010

Immigration is perhaps the single largest domestic challenge facing both the United States and Mexico today. People die nearly every week attempting to cross the border. Hostilities against immigrants in the U.S. rise daily. Local, state, and international relations are increasingly strained.

For eight weeks this summer, seven students have been given the opportunity to travel to Tucson, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico to study the many faces of immigration. Following two weeks of meetings with local activists, a Border Patrol agent, a federal public defender, lawyers, members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, maquiladora owners, Grupos Beta employees, migrants, and local farmers, we will spend six weeks partnered with Southside Day Labor Camp, BorderLinks, or Humane Borders in order to further immerse ourselves in the issues of immigration.

This blog chronicles our experiences and our perspectives on what we learn while here in Arizona. We hope our stories are interesting and informative.


Monday, July 5, 2010

Another Brick in the Wall

Throughout this trip, I have constantly been reminded about how little the average person knows about borders issues. Most people I have talked to have no idea what ‘Operation Streamline’ is or about the massive numbers of immigrant deaths in the desert. I don’t mean this in a condescending way. The government and the media have a large role to play in the lack of information people have on the issue. These sources have not considered many aspects of immigration worthy of highlighting. Though, one notable area of the immigration issue that nearly everyone knows about is the border wall separating Mexico in the United States. While most people do not realize the full implications of the wall, they have heard it being discussed and have some sort of opinion on it.

The wall was started soon after the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and has been continued by the Bush and Obama administrations. So this is not just a Democrat or Republican thing but has significant bipartisan support. Many people I have spoken to favor the wall as a way to limit undocumented immigration into the United States. I think a closer look at what impacts the wall is having is important so that people know exactly what they are supporting.

We recently had a speaker from the Sierra Club explain the environmental impact that the wall has had. One such impact is that the wall has prevented movement of animals including roadrunners, mountain lions, and snakes. Limiting their territory prevents these animals from finding food and water sources and reaching mates. Further, the wall often lies in the middle of locations where water flows through, which alters the water availability to plant and animal species and causes flooding, sometimes in populated areas. And the construction itself requires degrading the landscape because of the need to create new roads for construction vehicles and fill in canyons.

A disturbing aspect of the government’s construction of the border wall is that they are permitted to bypass local, state, and federal environmental laws for its construction. This, among other things, means the government does not have to run environmental impact studies before construction and often elects not to do so. Regardless of how someone feels about the immigration issue, we can all agree that the government should not be able to discard environmental protection laws so whimsically for the purpose of a non-emergency project. If there ever was a time for bringing up the argument of the federal government intruding into state and local affairs, I this is it.

The border wall is also a very powerful symbol with different meanings depending on where one stands on the immigration issue. For those that see immigration as a security threat the wall is a form of protection. It keeps the bad guys (drug smugglers and people with criminal records) from entering this country. These people are very afraid and want to feel safe. Whether or not the wall actually has this effect, the increase in perceived feeling of security cannot be completely discounted. Alternatively, the wall is a symbol of hate and animosity towards those migrating. For those trying to cross it is a message that saying “you are not welcome here”. Further, for those in the US favoring more open borders, the wall represents the inhumanity of the current US policy on immigration. The idea of shutting people seems like such a cruel action to take towards the majority of immigrants who just want a better life for themselves.

The wall also seems to have a negative impact the U.S.-Mexico relations. On the one hand, we are claiming to have a very close relationship with our neighbor to the South. NAFTA is supposedly a direct result of this alliance. But countries that are allies typically don’t need a wall and thousands of forces patrolling the border region. Also, one ally does not purposefully funnel migrants from the other into a dangerous area where a large percentage of them will die. Some of this strain between the two countries over the handling of the border issue is evident from President Felipe Calderon’s tense visit to the US in May. As long as the US continues to build the border wall, Mexicans are going to feel alienated and threatened and hence relations will suffer.
Construction of the wall is a very expensive project. According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), the border wall has cost $2.4 billion so far and will cost an additional $6.5 billion over the next 20 years to maintain. $8.9 billion may not seem like much given the trillion dollar deficit and the costs of our social program. But in 2008 we only gave $551 million in foreign aid to Mexico. Arguably, the money for the border wall could have been better spent by helping Mexico to develop so that people would not feel the need to migrate into the US.

The last major impact the wall has is on migration. Assessing the outcome for this aspect more difficult than the other issues because we can’t imagine counter factually what the numbers of migrants and the success rate would have been if the wall was not there. However, we can observe that design of the wall itself makes its impact seem trivial: the wall is fragmented and so there are some places where you can simply walk a few miles to get around the wall. In those places where you cannot reach a gap in the wall you can either climb over it using footholds in the wall or carry a ladder.

Though, perhaps the wall slows the migrants down enough that Border Patrol is able to concentrate on locations near the wall as focal points for apprehending migrants. Specifically, I think the wall has cut down on migrants crossing in well-populated areas. The wall coupled with the Border Patrol strategy has been funneling migrants to cross in desolate areas in Arizona where the terrain is harsher but there is no wall; this effect results in many more deaths among migrants, which both sides would classify as a negative outcome. Also, much of the border wall is designed to prevent vehicular crossing and it may be successful in stopping such crossings in the area where it has been built.

Personally, I don’t think the border wall is worth the monetary and environmental costs as well as the damage to relations and local sovereignty. I can still understand how someone may support the project, but I think it is important that they understand the full ramifications.

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