Environmentalists are split over the impact of the Bush administration’s plan to protect the southwestern U.S. border against illegal immigration while other groups are ignoring the debate altogether.
The Center for Biological Diversity says sending in the National Guard, construction of border walls, low-flying aircraft and new roads will harm the desert environment and affect endangered species.
Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and former Sierra Club director, says immigration leads to an explosive growth in population, which the environment cannot sustain.
The heavy hitters on the environmental scene, however, are sitting on the sidelines of the policy battle including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth and the World Wildlife Fund.
“The Sierra Club takes a global view of population issues. We want to address the root of immigration such as economics and environmental reasons of why people would need to move from one place to another,” says spokesman David Willett.
“The environment does not stop at the border. If people move from one country to another because of economic or environment or human rights, those are the issues to be addressed, not immigration,” Mr. Willett says.
A spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund said “it’s not even on our radar screen.”
Tom Lalley, spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund says “we actually have not done much thinking about this fence in general. It can be problematic for the pronghorn [antelope], but not deer or elk,” he said.
The Sierra Club abandoned its stance on immigration and its effect on population growth in 1996. The neutral position was upheld in a 1998 vote by the board of directors, and again in 2004.
Mr. Watson, who resigned from the Sierra Club board of directors last month, says the club is too tied to political correctness and Democratic politics and is moving further away from environmental concerns.
He said environmentalists avoid the immigration issue for fear of being called racists.
“As soon as your bring up the issue, you’re a racist. My daughter is half-Chinese — I am certainly not a racist,” Mr. Watson says. “It’s not about race; it’s about numbers. At this rate, we’ll be adding 3 million people a year. It’s like plopping down a major city on this country every year.”
It is unfair “to legal immigrants who go through all the hoops for those here illegally to get amnesty,” said Mr. Watson, a legal immigrant from Canada.
“The Sierra Club argues that people are still people, but when they cross the border, [immigrants to the United States] become mega-consumers,” Mr. Watson said.
The Center for Biological Diversity, however, says adding National Guard troops to the border will further damage “already stressed” wildlife throughout the Southwest including the pygmy owls, lizards, bighorn sheep, jaguars and Mexican wolves.
“Bush’s plan will further militarize the border, harming wildlife and natural landscapes,” said Daniel R. Patterson, desert ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Bush and Congress must find ways for people to legally cross at ports of entry now. An ethical solution cannot wait as more migrants and the desert’s web of life are dying.”
The Tuscon, Ariz.-based groups says animals at risk include the cactus pygmy owl and Sonoran pronghorn in Arizona; flat-tailed horned lizard and Peninsular bighorn sheep in California; and jaguars and Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Texas.
The center argues that wildlife-friendly barriers should be used in strategic and at-risk places on the border.
But those crossing into the country can also cause environmental damage, Mr. Watson says.
“Damage is done to the desert when illegal immigrants are trampling over endangered species and leaving garbage and causing pollution,” Mr. Watson said.