January 26, 2021

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Can environmentalists be against the border wall and still oppose illegal immigration?

4 min read
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President Trump has overseen the construction of more than 200 miles of border wall, a policy I profoundly disagree with. 

While Mr. Trump touts this achievement as a sign of his unique willingness to tackle problems associated with illegal immigration, he’s hardly the first leader to erect barriers along our southern border. In September of 2006, the U.S. Senate — including then-Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden — voted 80-19 to fund a 700-mile border wall. President George W. Bush signed the act into law and the wall was built.

Like my opposition to the Trump border wall — both new construction and the replacement of already existing barriers — I also strongly disagreed with the 2006 wall and Senate vote — in fact, I penned a syndicated column in June of 2006 in High Country News opposing the wall and opposing the vote.

Putting the politics of immigration aside, the wall is an environmental travesty. It was bad in 2006, and Mr. Trump’s extension over the last three years has made matters worse. Thousands of species, and millions of individual animals, travel back and forth across the border along daily or seasonal migration paths. These migrants include ranks of endangered species such as the Sonoran desert pronghorn, the Mexican wolf and the American jaguar.

A border wall permanently and negatively impacts all of these non-human immigrants. It also devastates the ecological integrity of 2,000 miles of unique, beautiful and biodiverse ecosystems. No true environmentalist would support it.

But that doesn’t mean environmentalists can’t oppose illegal immigration. Indeed, if they truly care about the environment, they ought to support restricting both illegal and legal immigration. The reason is simple: Immigration drives rapid U.S. population growth, and that growth causes environmental degradation.

Consider that since the first Earth Day in 1970, the U.S. population has increased 60% — from 205 million to 328 million. And unless something changes, 441 million people will live within our borders by 2065. 

Immigration plays a significant role in this growth. Consider that immigrants accounted for 55% of previous population growth, according to Pew Research. And, unless we reform our laws, immigrants will spur 88% of future population growth.  

The numbers speak for themselves. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued nearly 1.1 million green cards to legal immigrants. And in 2019, DHS apprehended over 800,000 illegal immigrants attempting to enter the United States. 

This unprecedented population growth has decimated America’s open space and natural resources. Just consider that every few years, we add enough additional residents to fill a Los Angeles-sized city. Housing all these newcomers requires us to develop previously undisturbed natural land, or pack people even more densely into our urban areas.  

There is some hope, though. Just last year, the Senate introduced a bill aimed at protecting our environment. Senate Resolution 372 — colloquially known as the “30 by 30 Resolution” — called on the government to preserve at least 30% of the United States’ land and oceans by 2030.

Senate Resolution 372 is precisely the swift and decisive action our lawmakers should take to save our environment. Already the United States loses 1.5 million acres of natural landscapes each year. Development has erased one-half of our nation’s wetlands and forced over 12,000 species to the brink of extinction. 

This devastation must end. It’s time we refocused the U.S. environmental movement on stabilizing the U.S. population. It’s impossible to protect, let alone restore, America’s environmental heritage with never-ending growth.

Now we’re at a Biden presidency, and it’s time to start communicating with him and his administration about the border wall and immigration. Even though I opposed Joe Biden’s 2006 vote to build the border wall, as a Democrat and an environmentalist I still voted for him in the November 2020 election. I strongly encourage a Biden administration to not only stop building more border wall, but to tear the wall down.

My further advice to Mr. Biden: Solutions to America’s immigration problems must be rooted in providing economic, humanitarian and rights-based aid to countries that are the sources of immigrants, not further opening our borders. Hundreds of millions — if not a billion — people around the world would immigrate to America if they could, but America simply cannot absorb more people nor solve the world’s humanitarian problems by using immigration as the relief valve.

It’s possible to oppose the border wall and oppose unfettered population growth. Now is the time for environmentalists to stand up and speak out against both.

• Gary Wockner is a global environmental activist specializing in river protection, climate change and population stabilization. Twitter: @GaryWockner.

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Gary Wockner


2021-01-08 14:32:56


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