What Will Climate Change Do to the U.S.-Mexico Border?

Rather than continue on a path to militarize the border, we should consider the alternatives.
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Urban fencing on the border between the US and Mexico at Playas de Tijuana, northwestern Mexico.

Photo by Mario Vazquez/AFP/Getty Images 

At the San Bernardino Ranch just east of Agua Prieta, Mexico, and about a quarter mile from the U.S. international boundary, the Earth was reclaiming the heavy steel barrier of the U.S. border wall. Soil deposits covered it, as did countless spiders, and purple flowers grew from it. The scene telegraphed that, if left alone, nature would consume the border apparatus, erase it, devour its technologies and infrastructure of exclusion, and clear the way for something new.

That’s what I saw when I arrived at this section of border in 2016 to investigate what alternatives exist to a forecasted future of climate change, displacement, and border militarization.

The impact of climate change on migration in the future will be dramatic, according to some projections. “Although the exact number of people that will be on the move by midcentury is uncertain, the scope and scale could vastly exceed anything that has occurred before,” wrote the authors of the report, “In Search of Shelter: Mapping the Effects of Climate Change on Human Migration and Displacement.” Migration will occur because of the convergence of ecological, political, and economic factors, but regardless of why people leave, those who cross an international border without authorization will most likely face the armed guards of border enforcement.

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My guides from the binational ecological restoration project known as Cuenca Los Ojos told me that in 2014, remnants of a hurricane had drenched the Chiricahua Mountains to the north, unleashing torrents into Arizona’s dry washes such as Silver Creek, where we stood. The floodwaters smashed into the border walls and barriers, taking parts of the expensive apparatus (the current border wall, most of it constructed after the 2006 Secure Fence Act, cost about $4 million per mile) with it into Mexico.

The border wall deteriorating was the first of three possible glimpses into the future of the U.S.-Mexico region that I saw that day. The second was the status quo: more border walls, more armed agents, more arrests. But a third possibility also presented itself on that November morning from where I stood at the intersection of borders and climate change. Right before my eyes, on this small piece of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Cuenca Los Ojos was using an ancient water-harvesting technique to help end a drought.

Building something else at the border was possible.

Alternatives to a militarized border are obscured by 25 years of U.S. investments in a border with more and more enforcement, bigger and bigger budgets, and little public debate. Over that time, 700 miles of walls and barriers were built, and the U.S. Border Patrol increased fivefold. When I visited, there were about 21,000 armed agents, such as the ones watching us in Silver Creek from behind the reconstructed border barrier in an idling F-150 truck with a green stripe. From where we stood, I could see that one agent had binoculars and was, presumably, checking us out. Behind the agents, about a half-mile inland, was a new Customs and Border Protection surveillance tower. It was an Integrated Fixed Tower, equipped with long-distance, thermal imaging, and night-vision cameras, as well as ground-sweeping radar. I wondered whether agents in a command and control center in Douglas, Arizona, could view us kneeling before the broken ruins of the border wall.

The U.S. national security apparatus is aware of the connection between climate change and migration.

All of this was a glimpse into the most likely border future, the status quo, fueled by enforcement budgets that have increased more than 14 times since the early 1990s when they were about $1.5 billion per year. In 2018, the combined budgets of just Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement reached more than $23 billion, a figure that amounts to more than the budgets of all other federal law enforcement agencies combined.

From where we stood, we couldn’t see the Predator B drone patrolling the skies, nor the inland checkpoints, nor the facial recognition technology cameras. And of course we couldn’t see the legal courts of Border Patrol’s “Consequence Delivery System” (yes, that is the real name) that have been promising zero tolerance prosecutions of border crossers since 2011. (This was ramped up considerably in the early summer of 2018 when the Trump administration forcibly removed children from their parents and imprisoned them separately behind coiling razor wire.)

There are many indications that the border will grow in the future, and they’re not just the promises of Trump. Billions go toward border enforcement in bipartisan immigration reform bills, and forecasts predict the global security market will almost double between 2011 and 2022, going from $305 to $546 billion according to the firm Homeland Security Research.

Newer forecasts that include “climate-related natural disasters” push the “natural disaster preparation and responses” market to the verge of surpassing the $150 billion level. And scientists predict the severity and frequency of superstorms, megadroughts, and inundating sea level rise to increase. In this future, a science-fictive borderscape bolstering against and profiting from climate migration may be what is in store for humanity.

The U.S. national security apparatus is aware of the connection between climate change and migration—and it’s preparing for it. Just look at a 2003 Pentagon-commissioned report, “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security”: “The United States and Australia are likely to build defensive fortresses around their countries because they have the resources and reserves to achieve self-sufficiency. ... Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.”

One such place the “unwanted” might come from is Honduras. Many Honduran asylum seekers are already traveling to the U.S. border for a host of reasons. One of those reasons, as Honduran climate scientist Leonardo Lenin Banegas Barahona put it to me, is climate disruption. In Honduras, droughts are intensifying to the point that parts of the country are being converted into deserts in a process known as desertification.

“A mass migration plan has been developed” for those displaced due to climate.

“This is having a tremendous impact on agriculture and people’s lives,” Barahona said, “forcing them from the countryside to the city.” In other parts of the country, particularly coastal regions, Barahona continued, there have been increases of precipitation, hurricanes, floods, mudslides, and landslides. As hydrologist Chris Castro, who has been doing climate modeling in Central America for many years, told me: “It’s a paradigm of the wet gets wetter, the dry gets drier, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Everything gets more extreme.”

Everything gets more extreme, including the border walls. As stated in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan, “A mass migration plan has been developed” for those displaced because of climate, “and a plan for increased operations planning of mass migration is under development.” While some media outlets omit mention of climate change when discussing extreme weather events such as Hurricane Florence—the heaviest rainstorm in the history of the U.S. East Coast that left countless communities flooded—long-term national security planners, looking at assessments 30 years into the future, are bolstering the “defensive fortress,” and climate change is becoming a bigger and bigger reason behind it.

Which brings me to the third future glimpse of the border—the alternative vision. Between where we stood and the border wall, from which agents continued to eye us with binoculars, were gabions, steel mesh cages filled with rocks and embedded into the creek bed that ran near the border. They were placed there by Cuenca Los Ojos beginning in the 1990s. To me, the gabions looked like an intricately carved stone wall. But this wall was not used to repel people: It was used to harvest water.

This part of northern Sonora and southern Arizona is in a drought of more than 15 years, an event expected to occur with greater frequency and severity in this region as the planet warms. Indeed, a study by NASA predicts an unprecedented drought to incapacitate the U.S. southwest by the end of the 21st century. “In our projections what we’re seeing is that, with climate change, many of these types of droughts will likely last for 20, 30, sometimes even 40 years,” lead author Benjamin Cook said in an interview for The UpTake.

The rocks in the gabions act like a large sponge, slowing rainwater so it seeps into the earth rather than rushing over it. Juan Manuel Perez and David Hodges from Cuenca Los Ojos pointed to native grasses growing in the stream bed near the gabions—and to desert willows and cottonwoods, too. They said animals, especially birds, were returning to the area. But the most miraculous thing of all, they said, was that the water table had risen by 30 feet.

All this, during a drought.

The Pentagon and DHS have been saying that water scarcity could displace people in places such as northern Mexico, and here an apparatus at the border was helping capture and store water.

What if the billions that went to border and immigration enforcement went to this instead?

The drones, the fixed-wing jets, the Blackhawk helicopters, or the more than 50,000 vehicles that DHS has in its fleet will do no battle with climate change. They will not be able to shoot it down, nor stop it, but only exacerbate it. An increasingly militarized border is certainly the most likely future—but it isn’t the only one. There is another future possible for the border, and the tangible, pragmatic examples—like this one at Rancho San Bernardino—are already here.