WASHINGTON — House Republicans said at a hearing on Thursday that the environmental damage caused by an unsecured border endangers public lands and natural resources.
A National Park Service report last year warned that illegal immigration and drug running have destroyed border parklands, further threatened endangered species and prompted park rangers to bar visitors and campers from areas considered too dangerous to visit.
Republicans, echoing that view, argued that at the same time environmental protection regulations in southern border regions are “bureaucratic hurdles” which have adversely impacted border patrol agents’ ability to secure the border with Mexico.
“Cartels and illegal immigrants don’t wait for environmental assessments, and they don’t follow wilderness act restrictions,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., chairman of the Natural Resources oversight subcommittee. “High volumes of illegal border crossings do cause extensive environmental damage to our public lands by igniting costly wildfires, sometimes as diversionary tactics, and destroying species’ habitats.”
Daniel Bell, the president of a ranching operation in Nogales, Ariz., and one of the hearing witnesses, said that in his experience, the trash left behind by illegal immigrants can be dangerous to livestock and wildlife.
“We have literally picked up many tons of discarded duffle bags, backpacks, clothing and water bottles and hauled it off to the landfill, only to go to the same spot a few months later and clean it up again,” Bell said.
Disagreeing sharply with their Republican counterparts, committee Democrats said that President Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border would cause far more environmental damage than would the people trying to illegally cross over.
“When we finally stop blaming others, we can see that we have put laws and systems in place that endanger the economy, environment and health of our border communities far more than the discarded trash of a border crosser,” said Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va.
Although seemingly contradictory, experts said environmental protections should also be waived in border regions to allow for greater access for border enforcement agents to “do their jobs.”
“Being able to get to the border is paramount if one expects to defend it,” Bell said.
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif. said environmental protection laws like the National Environmental Protection Act are in place in order to protect communities and the resources on which they depend.
“Ignoring tribal rights, community voices and our country’s laws doesn’t help solve problems, but it does advance President Trump’s authoritarian, dystopic agenda,” Huffman said. “Today we’re having a two-for-one on scapegoating — we get to scapegoat environmental laws and Mexicans at the same time, so what an irresistible opportunity for this authoritarian agenda.”
In response to Huffman’s “scapegoating” comment, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tex., said Huffman “impugned his motivation” and then requested that Huffman’s remarks be stricken from the record because they were “inappropriate” and violated House rules of decorum.
When asked, three out of the four witnesses said deterring illegal activity along the southern border is the best way to protect the country’s natural resources. Scott Nicol, the co-chair of the Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign, however, said the problem is more nuanced.
Nicol said waiving environmental protections along the border in order to increase access for border protection agents sets a “terrible precedent.”
“Once you waive laws at the border, then you can waive laws on federal lands on other projects, for mining and drilling,” he said. “It creates a domino effect in terms of a legal precedent.”
He said some regulations are already being waived along the border, so he is concerned about expanding those waivers to all federal lands along the border.
“This expansion of the waiver is massive overreach, it’s basically intended to undermine environmental laws in the United States,” Nichol said.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he hopes to find a solution that acknowledges that not all regions along the border are the same. He said taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach cannot address all of the unique conditions throughout the regions.
“What we really need to have for the border control to be effective is to give them flexibility to meet the differences of those situations and give them access,” Bishop said. “If the border patrol does not have access, we cannot do our job as security, and our environmental laws inhibit that access from taking place.”