The Great Green Wall

The climate movement and immigration justice need each other.

Photo by  Taylor Simpson .

Photo by Taylor Simpson.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of species of wildlife pass through the Lower Rio Grande Valley for some part of their migration. This, the most biodiverse region in North America, is the home of the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre wildlife preserve and education center near the southern border. In the past, the National Butterfly Center has welcomed countless butterflies, migratory birds, and human visitors. Now, it represents one of the most direct manifestations of solidarity between the movements for environmental and immigration justice. A broad coalition of indigenous groups, environmental groups, and other community organizations in the borderlands are gathering to protect this conservation corridor, which lies in the path of the border wall. Already, government contractors are turning parts of it into mulch.

As the humanitarian crisis of asylum seekers has escalated in the United States, many commentators have begun to connect the dots between large-scale immigration and the climate crisis. Widespread crop failures and drought are squeezing people north from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. In other words, the people being locked in Trump’s cages are climate refugees. 

Several environmental organizations recognize the dual assault on human rights and environment that the border wall threatens. Citing the incalculable damage the border wall would inflict on local ecosystems and people, a coalition of nonprofits including the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity have sued the Trump administration in an attempt to halt construction. Many environmental activists will agree that some measure of immigration justice is necessary for a just, sustainable future, and that the immigration justice movement is an important part of the coalition needed to fight for that future. But these are vague sentiments that only scratch at the surface of our shared struggle. Immigration does not seem to play much of a role in the bold vision for decarbonization set out by the Green New Deal or any of the movements supporting it. Yet a structural critique of immigration, of borders themselves, can be found in the intersection of environmental and immigration justice. 

In the United States, the militarization of the border and the network of detention camps have built up a tremendous capacity for policing and incarceration, and that capacity will only grow with time. We can only imagine the multiplying horrors that will be inflicted on people in the coming years. It may be comforting to believe that this sprawling system of human rights abuses will be dismantled under a Democratic administration, but this will likely not be the case. The climate crisis affects every political calculation, including whether or not an unpopular and inhumane federal program will survive the presidency it was birthed in. It’s not all that far-fetched to suggest that a natural disaster or two may be all it takes for a Democratic president to decide that Trumpian border policies might have been the right idea after all.

We can point to many things in our current political moment to explain why eco-fascism will come so easily, but the primary factor is also the most direct: Over the years, a small group of xenophobic, nature-obsessed white billionaires have spent their time painstakingly drawing the link between environmental degradation and immigration. Their wealth has spawned a set of extreme anti-immigrant advocacy groups, notably the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which now directly influence national policy. The groundwork has already been laid for an eco-fascist response to climate change. 

In turn, none of our climate goals will be attainable without dismantling the border enforcement regime. The border wall won’t just stop human refugees, but wildlife as well. As temperatures continue to rise and wildlife ventures north, untold species will die in the long run if they are stopped by a wall. In the short run, the wall would also prevent them from escaping temporarily from a flash flood or a wildfire. In either case, the long-term result would be devastating for entire ecosystems of life and water. 

Consider also the energy implications of perpetual, escalating militarization on the border. State aggression has horrifying consequences not just for humans directly, but also for the environment; the US military apparatus as it exists now is the most egregious polluter in the world. Policing the southern border will require tons of fossil fuels to be burned every day. If the border wall is allowed to stand, we will lose hope of ever shutting down fracking operations in the nearby Permian Basin, to say nothing of new exploitation anywhere that warming has uncovered new reserves of oil and gas. US border enforcement will become a black hole of resources, even infringing on other nations’ borders to feed itself. To accept the wall would be to accept extractive capitalism now and forever, cementing the necessity of imperialism in our lives and guaranteeing an endless stream of climate refugees until the bitter end. 

Even the pesky leftists in the environmental movement whose voices might decry this xenophobic take on protecting nature have been dealt with already. Don’t let the eye-popping displays of today’s daringly youth-centered movements fool you: the environmental movement is far more vulnerable than one might think. It’s just enjoying an upswing after years of state surveillance and harassment reduced it to a shell of timidity and do-nothing nonprofits.

Environmental activists have long been included on official lists of likely terrorists, a perception that is fully entrenched in the public as well. The image of the unhinged, tree-sitting eco-terrorist has lived in the public imagination since the 1990s. And after years of the Green Scare, which swept hundreds of environmental activists into a nightmare of surveillance and intimidation, the movement is a shadow of the confidence and unity demonstrated in its earlier life. If the state chooses to turn against environmental activists in a big way, decades of criminalization, combined with the latent biases of the public, would make short work of the movement. 

We have already seen what big environmental nonprofits do in times like this. When the grassroots are criminalized, the Big Green NGOs close ranks. If criminalization is the dark cloud hovering in the horizon, immigration justice organizers are adept at working in the fog. The environmental movement has much to learn from how these communities respond when surveillance, intimidation, and even incarceration can strike at any moment. The behavior of DHS agencies now serves as ghastly precedent for the behavior of police forces nationwide. Youth may not save the children organizing for climate justice, either. If our government is prepared to lock up children it perceives as foreign, it will not be long until any criminalization of children—particularly unruly ones—is acceptable. The environmental movement has a moral imperative to think of the well-being of the young people it has invited into its leadership. 

Fundamentally, the alliance between environmental and immigration justice rests on principle. It’s also about the nauseating precedent that could be set. Militarization of the border is already the default response when mass migration is triggered by ordinary wars, but to normalize it in this way against climate refugees would be to doom them entirely. We must do everything we can to dismantle the border police state, welcome as many climate refugees as we can, and ensure that all have access to a good and fulfilling life. In a time when the very future of humanity depends on our ability to move away from these ghastly regimes, to criminalize the freedom of movement is to criminalize survival.

The National Butterfly Center has long stressed that the border wall will impede movement across a wildlife migration corridor. But appealing solely to environmental concerns will only go so far when a border wall is concerned. In the mid-2000s, Israeli and Palestinian environmental activists protested the proposed border wall on ecological grounds. They, too, pointed to the wall’s potential to disrupt wildlife migration. Incredibly, the Israeli government heard them, although it may not have been the victory they were expecting. Today, the border wall project is largely completed and forms the basis of the military occupation in the West Bank. Today, Palestinians face daily surveillance and harassment, cut off from the rest of the country and often, their families. But in some small way, the environmentalists won. The Israeli Ministry of Defense is considering the use of zigzag passes and other technological modifications to allow animals to come and go across the wall as they please. 

If we are to survive the climate catastrophe, it is not enough to speak for the trees and wildlife. We must insist that borders aren’t in the conversation at all. The environmental movement must be prepared to argue for open borders and the total abolition of punitive border enforcement. To strive for anything less would be folding to barbarism. 

Lynn Wang is an environmental and marine scientist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her work has led her to Cape Eleuthera Institute, Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science. She is a founding member of Asian American Feminists of Los Angeles. She tweets @lynnspiracy.

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of a delightful article, if we may say so. You can help make more of these by donating a small amount to The Trouble. Most of your money goes directly to paying authors. None of it goes to profit or advertisers, because we are a non-profit and we don’t believe in that stuff.