Caging Nature, Caging Humans

For this guest post, EDGI has invited Dr. Mary E. Mendoza’s commentary on the border wall and justice for humans and non-humans alike. Mendoza calls for combining our thinking about human and ecological systems in order to create conditions where diversity thrives.

by Mary E. Mendoza

Environmental destruction and human misery have gone hand in hand at the United States-Mexico border. Fences and walls have crept along the international boundary, dividing habitats and imperiling plant and animal life. Although the effects on plants and wild animals are unintentional and sometimes subtle, the effects on people are more pronounced and premeditated, creating a physically threatening, prison-like landscape for Mexican and Central American immigrants who attempt to cross the divide.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Americans transformed the border from an open landscape to one marked by large fences meant to control the movement of animals first, and then people. Ever since the United States built the first border fence in 1911 to stop the movement of cattle wandering from Mexico into the United States, border fences have been splintering wild animal habitats. By the mid-twentieth century, the purpose of fence construction shifted from controlling animal migration to restricting human movement across the border. This shift was driven by concern over a growing number of unsanctioned border crossers entering the United States to look for work. These new fences, requested by U.S. Border Patrol agents, helped divert human traffic from urban areas along the border to more desolate landscapes where the migrants could be more easily seen and apprehended.

As those structures got bigger, however, they continued to block wild animal migration, effectively confining animals to smaller areas to live in. Conservation biologists refer to this phenomenon as habitat fragmentation, which is widely recognized as one of the biggest threats to biodiversity. Among other things, fragmented habitats can yield population isolation which in turn can lead to local extinction.

One of the largest animals threatened by border fences – and now walls – is the American black bear. Fences have cut off mates from one another, slowing and sometimes halting reproduction. New walls could also separate cubs from parents. The distribution of the animal in the borderlands is quite low and a new border wall could essentially eliminate the American Black Bear from the Arizona and New Mexico region.

Other threatened animals include the ocelot, Mexican gray wolf, jaguar, kit fox, American badger, bighorn sheep and the black-tailed prairie dog, to name just a few. Plants are at risk as well. As migration patterns shift for people and for animals, new footpaths and new water runoff patterns can destroy vegetation.

These animals and plants are important and valuable to people living near the border as well as the broader public. For the Tohono O’odham nation, the destruction of nature directly affects human life and cultural practice. Sacred cacti are dying, and valued animals are disappearing. These environmental threats are also concerning to the broader public, who value biodiversity and fear the extinction of cherished animals, such as the bighorn sheep and the jaguar. As a result, both government and non-profit agencies are working to monitor populations to ensure their survival.

A border wall near Tijuana affixed with crosses representing migrants who died attempting to cross border. Source: © Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

But no government agencies are working to ensure the survival and well-being of human migrants. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security is currently working on plans for even more fences and walls to ensure that migrants never make it into the U.S. All of these structures, past and present, are tools of racialized state violence.

As the border control apparatus has grown, it has become more dangerous to humans. Fences, which the U.S. has increasingly converted into walls, have pushed migrants to the most dangerous landscapes where many of them risk death by dehydration, heat stroke, and, along rivers, drowning. Since the middle of the 1990s, death by border crossing has ballooned as built environments merged with natural ones making journeys even more arduous and treacherous.

But that goal of total exclusion does not always work. As a result, those migrants who do make it across the border often feel as though they cannot go home because they would be sacrificing an opportunity to support the families they left behind. In short, people, too, have been separated from their mates—their families—by the border control apparatus. More recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and detention centers have augmented the chilling effect of border enforcement by forcibly separating and caging families.

But we should not kid ourselves into thinking that family separation is anything new.

In some sense, family separation at the border dates back to the Bracero Program—a guest worker program from 1942-64 that involved importing Mexican men into the United States to work. Because the program was only open to men, women and children had to stay behind. When women tried to enter the U.S. to work or join their partners, border patrol agents argued that the U.S. government should build fences to keep women out. By the late 1940s, the first border fences built to stop people from crossing the border targeted women and thus worked to keep the Mexican family unit apart. These efforts ensured that Mexican women could not enter the U.S. and give birth to American children. For much of the twentieth century, U.S. immigration policies have targeted Mexicans and other Latin Americans, consistently fighting against the growth of the Latino population in the United States. As such, they have been tools of white supremacy.

In the decades following the Bracero Program, border fence construction became a critical tool for the exclusion of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants. In the name of “border security,” Americans have allowed politicians and lawmakers to build fences, detention centers, and other infrastructure to push migrants to dangerous areas. The result has been a rising death toll for humans and non-humans alike. But while many government agencies and nonprofits are working to maintain a diversity in plant and animal populations, few environmental organizations show much regard for human diversity. And, although there are humanitarian organizations working against state-sanctioned violence, those humanitarian organizations often ignore the environmental issues.

In a recent article, I argued that the environmental and humanitarian crises should not be seen as separate, but rather one large issue that should be addressed holistically. Going forward, we must consider how these issues go hand in hand and how they have been deeply entangled historically. Only then can we address both issues.

Mary E. Mendoza has a Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis and is an Assistant Professor of History and Latinx Studies at Penn State University, the David J. Weber Fellow for the Study of Southwestern America at the Clements Center for Southwest Studies, and a Nancy Weiss Malkiel Scholar for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. Follower her on twitter at @Mary_E_Mendoza.