Here’s what Biden should do about the poverty, discrimination and environmental destruction.
By Gary Paul Nabhan and Austin Nuñez
President Biden has pledged that there will “not be another foot” of the Trump border wall built. But his first weeks in office demand more than stopping construction of the towering barricade that has fueled humanitarian crises and ravaged the desert environment.
Border towns from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Coast have suffered disproportionately, sacrificed to policies that ignore lives and livelihoods in favor of a dubious 450-mile long monument to presidential hubris.
Over the last four years, border residents have experienced systematic discrimination and environmental destruction. Absent intervention, much of the damage to communities on both sides of the border will be long-lasting.
The insults include extreme rates of Covid-19 infection because of botched state and federal responses to the pandemic, the loss of thousands of agricultural jobs as a result of tariff wars and the intertwined catastrophes of drought, fire and flood, which the Trump administration’s hostile climate policies most likely worsened.
Most counties flanking the international boundary suffer from poverty levels double that of the U.S. average. In unincorporated settlements known as colonias, from Texas to California, border residents live without such basic services as clean water and waste removal. The Trump administration exacerbated longstanding problems by vilifying the border and those living along it and ignoring the region’s vital role in U.S. cultural, ecological, and trade relations with Latin America.
Lands and communities along the international line need help. They need jobs with livable wages and strategies to make desert ranches, farms and towns more resilient to climate change. Damage inflicted by the wall must also be repaired, including the restoration of wildlife corridors between the U.S. and Mexico. Fostering community engagement, cross-cultural exchanges and trade are among the most promising strategies.
Desert communities in the borderlands are already “laboratories for the future” because their residents have been adapting for decades to the new normal of increased aridity.With hotter, drier conditions expected to affect some 162 million people in nearly half of North America over the next two decades, border communities have much to teach about climate resilience.
Border inhabitants are also experts in racial and multicultural solidarity, bilingualism and endurance. They have mastered the art of frugality and self-reliance, because so few effective forms of governmental assistance have ever reached them.
Fresh leadership in the White House and Congress offers hope. We urge the Biden administration to signal a new direction to communities on both sides of the border. The administration can fast-track actions to deal with the poverty, marginalization and environmental degradation that worsened during the Trump era.
Here are 10 actions the new administration can take over the next few months to “right the boat” that has run aground along the parched banks of the Rio Grande:
- Terminate wall construction contracts and end the seizure of private and traditional cultural properties.
- Remove segments of the wall where it has interfered with the flow of water, animal migrations, pilgrimage trails and trade between nations. Cease groundwater extraction and turn off unnecessary artificial lighting in wildlife refuges and other sensitive areas.
- Create a youth corps for Hispanic, Anglo, Black and Native American high school students in summer projects restoring habitats and helping to create sustainable livelihoods on farms, ranches and reservations.
- Change immigration and port of entry policies to reunite families divided by the wall, gate closures and unevenly enforced Covid-19 restrictions.
- Grant access to leaders from Native American spiritual traditions and other religions to reconsecrate disinterred burials, bulldozed cemeteries, depleted sacred springs and dynamited mountain sanctuaries desecrated by wall construction.
- Provide essential services, including security, access to clean water, and solid waste disposal, to people in barrios and colonias along the border.
- Employ rangeland and conservation professionals to monitor impacts of the wall, especially the depletion of aquifers.
- Renew agreements and funding for trans-border conservation, health care and arts programs discontinued during the past four years.
- Support increased appropriations for restoring public lands damaged by wall construction.
- Increase representation of Hispanic, Black and Native American professionals on committees advising federal agencies working along the border. Renew genuine consultation and collaboration with ranchers, farmers, tribal lands managers and other property owners affected by the wall.
We must reimagine the landscapes we share with Mexico. The border should not be a line that divides cultures and fragments their desert environment. It is a juncture where two nations connect, where history is shared, where cultures are alive and where a common future must unfold.
Gary Nabhan is an ethnobiologist at the University of Arizona, where he focuses on food and water security in the border region of the Southwest. Austin Nuñez is a leader of the Tohono O’odham Nation whose mission is to protect the tribe’s environment, cultural heritage and artifacts on reservation and ancestral lands.
Border Wall Contributors/Co-authors List
Dinah Bear works on environmental and humanitarian border issues and served for two decades as chief counsel for the President’s Council on Environmental Quality.
William deBuys, a celebrated New Mexican conservationist and writer, has authored several borderland books, including Salt Dreams.
Hugh Fitzsimons, a bison rancher, is author of a Rock Between Two Rivers: Fracturing a Texas Family Ranch and a water conservation policy advocate from Dimmit County, Texas.
Jennifer Gooden is a conservation strategist with Cuenca Los Ojos and the Biophilia Foundation.
Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity was honored in the 2021 Wilderness Society list of 12 Environmental Voices making the world a better place.
Verlon Jose is the Governor of the Traditional O’odham Leaders and former vice-chair of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
Ruben Martinez, award-winning journalist and filmmaker who holds the Fletcher Jones Chair at Loyola Marymount University, is author of Desert America and Crossing Over.
Gary Paul Nabhan is a Franciscan brother and Kellogg Endowed Chair in Border Food and Water Security at the University of Arizona who served on the National Parks System Advisory Board.
Austin Nuñez is Chair of the San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation and team member of the Healing the Border project of Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras.
Richard Pritzlaff is founding president of the Biophilia Foundation and a conservation biologist involved in restoring watersheds in the Southwest.
Ron Pulliam, founder of the Borderlands Restoration Network and Wildlife Corridors LLC., was National Biological Service director and science advisor to Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt.
Tom Sisk, a native to New Mexico, is the Olajos-Goslow Chair of Environmental Science and Policy at Northern Arizona University and a Leopold Leadership Fellow.
Stephen Trimble is an Ansel Adams Award-winning nature photographer, conservationist and author of The People: Indians of the American Southwest.
Octaviana Trujillo, former chairwoman of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, serves on the Joint Public Advisory Committee to the trinational Commission for Environmental Cooperation.