In 2007 I attended a really cool event in El Paso that changed how I think about the border. A relative was going to jump a dirtbike from the US into Mexico for charity. A wooden ramp was set up on the edge of the river. He backed his bike up to El Paso’s tall border fence, and revved the engine several times.
Originally, he was going to jump into the United States, but the federal bureaucracy couldn’t come up with any way to make an exception for the “illegal” border crossing. Border Patrol told him that it wouldn’t be illegal to leave the US someplace other than the port of entry, though. He would, however, have to come back at an official port of entry.
The Mexican government didn’t really care if he jumped, and supported the event enthusiastically as it was for a Mexican charity. Given the dangerous conditions in Ciudad Juarez around that time, they even arranged for the Mexican military to guard the event.
When we went, we had to meet at a small bridge near the point where New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico all meet. We took a short dirt road, crossed a bridge over a small drainage ditch next to the American Dam, and then up to a gate in the tall border fence. The gate was right across the river from where “We Build The Wall” built a private border fence in 2019.
Growing up, there had been tall fences along the border in El Paso since I was a kid. It had become normal. Just a few miles up the river, you could hang out on the banks and see the mostly natural river flow by. In El Paso and further up in New Mexico, the Rio Grande was just a river. In El Paso, especially between 2005 and 2010, it was a line that separated one of the safest cities in the United States from the most dangerous city on the planet. Despite the Iraq War that was still being fought at the time, Juarez was more dangerous than Baghdad.
Fear was what the wall meant, and the dangers from beyond would sometimes spill over. We’d see stories on the news about the killings and acts of terror, and hear about stray bullets that would sometimes cross and hit a person or vehicle. As a kid, I’d travel in Mexico to visit family and even just for fun, but in those years, we stayed on the US side.
After going through the gate in the wall, we got to see the river without peering through the gaps of a metallic symbol of the militarized border. We could see where the animals would go for water, the water in the river, and the plants that grow along the edge. It was just like the river was a few miles north. It was just a river cutting through the desert. On the other side, the people there to witness the jump were the same people we had visited years before, and fundamentally the same people that inhabit most of El Paso.
The illusion that elements of the US political class had carefully crafted, the steel wool that they had pulled over our eyes, was lifted for a couple of hours. It was a couple of hours that I can’t forget. In some ways, that day was the day I became a global citizen. It’s also the day that I learned that there’s really nothing wrong with crossing an imaginary line.
Further down, I’m going to tell you the story of a cat who should also be allowed to jump over the border, but his life depends on it.
When Donald Trump pushed for a massive expansion of the border fence, I wasn’t looking at things through the lens that a conservative upbringing and frightening stories from relatives that grew up in Mexico had ground and polished. To me, it’s still just a river, and the people on the other side are still my cousins.
There weren’t enough people like me to stop the wall from expanding, though. Using fear and demagoguery, combined with a bogus national emergency, Trump expanded the wall while groups like “We Build The Wall” tried to fill the gaps on private property while allegedly padding their own pockets. Whether we approve today or not, those new sections of wall are still there and they’re still causing problems for human and animal life on both sides of the border.
While President Biden says that not one more foot of wall will be built under his administration, he has also said that he does not intend to tear any of it down.
Supporters of the wall sometimes say that barriers and fences have existed along much of the border for decades, including places where Trump expanded it. Making this assertion is to mentally create a sort of Schrödinger’s Wall, one that both is better at stopping humans but somehow doesn’t create increased impacts to the environment. One can resolve the conundrum by realizing that prior border barriers were shorter steel barriers that were meant to stop vehicles from crossing, and in many places were simply short barbed wire fences of the kind you’d see at the edges of ranch land.
Why Border Walls Hurt Wildlife
Few of the previous border fences along much of the southern border were a real impediment to the movements of wildlife. Short barbed wire fences could stop cattle while small mammals (coyotes, bobcats, etc) could go through the gaps between the wires. Larger animals like jaguars, mountain lions, and the occasional antelope or deer could simply jump over if such a fence got in the way. Vehicle barriers were much stronger and harder to cut, but still left ample room for the movements of animal life.
You can see the Trump-style border fence on the left side of this video and the shorter vehicle barrier on the right.
Stopping the movements of animals is harmful for a number of reasons. Animals don’t know about the ridiculous imaginary lines that humans draw in the desert. There are places that are suitable for an animal to live, and places that are not. Animals that evolved in the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts can’t to up into the hills and mountains, or they’ll freeze to death. Animals living in the Madrean Sky Islands and other isolated mountains in the desert are used to an environment that more resembles Canada than the desert, but it exists only in small pockets on both sides of the border.
Making a big “you shall not pass” line in the desert doesn’t do much to stop humans. No matter how high one builds the wall, people on the Mexican side can simply build a ladder a foot taller. Some have even been smart enough to build “camouflage” metal ladders that are hard for even Border Patrol agents to see after they’re attached to the fence. Even vehicles aren’t always stopped by such a barrier:
Animals aren’t as smart as us (well, most of us). They can’t build a ladder or set up ramps. They can dig, but not deep enough to get under the bigger border walls. So, when we set up a big fence that cuts a straight line across deserts, foothills, and mountains, we effectively cut their whole world in half. Animals that can only live in the desert lose access to broad swaths of the desert. Animals that live in the mountains can’t get to the other mountains.
This cuts whole species in half, and threatens their genetic stability. Normally, a whole desert of coyotes can interbreed, keeping the gene pool wide and deep. Cut the pool apart, and whoever is stuck on the smaller side now lives in the shallow end of the gene pool. Inbreeding, vulnerability to pathogens, and many other aspects of the species’ long-term survival are imperiled.
Putting A Face On The Hurt
This isn’t just hypothetical. We can put a face on this issue. He’s a Jaguar named “El Jefe.” That’s Spanish for The Boss.
He’s suffering direct hurt from the big fence. Jaguars used to be common on both sides of the border from Texas to California and from Chihuahua to Baja. Most Jaguars are gone from the United States today, but we’ve started seeing them on the US side again in recent years. Jaguars can pass through the desert floor searching for places along the edges of new mountainous areas, but can’t live in the desert long term.
El Jefe wandered north looking for opportunities, and the dark green spots in the above Google Maps image provide them. We don’t know exactly how many Jaguars live on the north side today, but they definitely are very few in number. If El Jefe is still on the US side, he might be the only cat like him in the US.
There are still gaps in the big fence’s coverage, but if El Jefe decides to go south again to the reserves looking for mates, he’s likely to find the fence blocking his path today. He won’t know that a few miles west or east he could get through, and may be forced to turn around to go back to where the water, cooler air, and shade are. Unless El Jefe is really lucky, he may never mate again. If he is lucky, his offspring won’t have mating opportunities that don’t involved inbreeding.
If he did move back to Mexico in the last few years, he won’t be able to come back with the fence in his way. If things get bad in Mexico and he decides to go north looking for water and prey, he will be denied those opportunities the same as any other jaguar. With the effects of climate change stacking up, moving north might be El Jefe’s only shot at survival.
If you wouldn’t take your pet cat’s food and water away, what makes doing this to El Jefe morally acceptable? Is stopping some migrants worth starving El Jefe over? Why not let him cross?
As Fast Company pointed out, this can be solved without the Reagan solution (“Tear down this wall!”). Dirty fence technology got us into this mess, and cleaner technology can get us out. We can let El Jefe cross freely.
President Biden and congress can shorten the wall and make it a vehicle barrier again. They can take down portions of it on the most rugged and humanly inhospitable terrain, and in places where it blocks the flow of water. They can also consider taking out a plank every few feet, giving room for animals to pass while still slowing vehicles down enough for Border Patrol to arrive.
Hell, the construction companies could probably charge admission for people to come help “cut the wall off at the knees.” There is certainly no shortage of people on both sides who would love to take a torch to the thing for a few hours. Mexico didn’t pay for its construction, but some Mexicans may wish to help pay for its removal.
If the remaining vehicle barrier isn’t enough for Republicans, they could add sensors and invisible lasers across the top to get notifications whenever a large object goes over the top, among other smart solutions.
Whatever is done, it can’t be nothing. The current border wall fence creates unacceptable impacts to wildlife and water. We need to encourage Biden to fix Trump’s mess. If my relative could jump the border, we could let El Jefe do it.
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