BUENOS AIRES N.W.R., Arizona | Michael M. Hawkes, manager of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, reaches across his desk and pulls out a homemade blue-and-red bumper sticker that reads, “Littering is always a crime.”
It turns out that here on the U.S.-Mexico border, even that is a controversial statement — because it’s aimed at the humanitarian groups that drop gallon jugs of water on public lands to help illegal immigrants crossing the rugged borderlands.
Mr. Hawkes says dealing with those groups now takes up most of his time, and it only builds on top of the pile of other pressures — an army of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers, some of them armed, facing off against the U.S. Border Patrol — that have transformed his wildlife sanctuary into ground zero for the nation’s immigration wars.
Situated in the middle of southern Arizona, Buenos Aires is among the hardest-hit. But the same story is repeated across the U.S.-Mexico border on refuges, Indian reservations, national forests and the rest of the federal lands that make up 40 percent of the boundary between the two countries.
The clear losers in the clash are the land, and the plants and animals that live on the edge in this beautiful but precarious environment — innocent bystanders caught up in an escalating, seemingly endless war between the immigrants, smugglers and the drug cartels and the authorities charged with catching them.
An estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants traversed Buenos Aires’ 118,000 acres in 2007, leaving tons of trash, rusting abandoned cars, biologically hazardous waste and vehicle tracks that reduced parts of the landscape to a dusty wasteland.
That hurts just about every aspect of the refuge’s mission, which was established in 1985 to try to preserve the endangered masked bobwhite quail, one of seven endangered species on the refuge.
In the last two years, though, border security has been built up, with more manpower and a fence across the entire refuge boundary with Mexico. The result, according to Mr. Hawkes: The number of illegal crossers dropped to 20,600 in fiscal year 2009, or just 7 percent of what it was in 2007. Abandoned cars dropped from 100 in 2007 to zero in the most recent 12-month period. The land near the fence is already recovering.
“I’ve heard a lot of conservationists down on the fence. From my standpoint, it’s been a blessing for this refuge, it really has,” Mr. Hawkes said. “I’m the black sheep of the bunch because I think [Border Patrol is] doing a great job.”
But environmentalists counter that while individual species might be helped — the lesser long-nosed bat, for example, which had at one point been ousted from its roosting cave on Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in western Arizona — that’s more than offset by the overall disruption to species migration.
Dan Millis with the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Campaign points to a stack of photos documenting desert toads, roadrunners and mule deer staring forlornly at the fence, apparently blocked in their efforts to be on the other side.
“Hands down, the security effort to try to stop the flow of undocumented immigration is, and always has been, from our perspective, far more damaging to the environment than the flow of migrants themselves,” he said.
“The fact is, this trash and these footpaths are really a short-term problem that has a quick fix in terms of pick up the trash, rehabilitate the paths,” he said. “This border wall does not have a quick fix, and in fact is having a very negative environmental impact that is causing extreme damage now.”