October 13, 2018

Federal politics unite unlikely coalitions at the border

A US Border Patrol agent patrols the US/Mexico border

The last two years of the Trump administration have been challenging for both environmental and immigrant advocacy groups at the border. Renewed calls to build a $25 billion wall that would cut through important wildlife habitat for species like the jaguar and the Mexican gray wolf, combined with the impacts of ramped-up militarization in border communities, have increasingly united conservationists and social justice activists. This newfound collaboration is especially strong in Las Cruces, in southern New Mexico.

This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission.

Here, in the Borderlands, groups like the faith-based organization NMCAFé and the American Civil Liberties Union Regional Center for Border Rights have long worked on immigration reform and fought for immigrant rights at detention facilities. Meanwhile, the Southwest Environmental Center and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation have focused on their own goals, protecting the region’s unique public lands and wildlife. In the past, they saw little overlap in their respective missions. But since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, they’ve formed an alliance to examine how their movements converge toward a common goal. In New Mexico, that means protecting the region’s Borderlands identity — “our people, our lands, and our wildlife,” said Johana Bencomo, director of organizing for NMCAFé.

In early 2017, Trump commissioned prototypes of the border wall and its construction began to appear more likely. Around the same time, Kevin Bixby, Southwest Environmental Center’s founder and executive director, approached Bencomo about forming a strategic coalition. Previously, environmental groups had tried fighting portions of a border wall using litigation to preserve environmental policies like the Clean Water Act at the border. But that strategy failed during the George W. Bush administration, after Congress passed a law in 2005 that waived many environmental policies for the wall’s construction. Back then, Bixby said, “we just worked in our silo within the conservation community.” This time around, though, he thought things could be different. It made sense to broaden his organization’s efforts to fight the wall by focusing on human rights as well as its environmental scope.

Being part of the coalition has given immigrant advocacy groups like NMCAFé more legal weight than ever before; their messaging can now reach a new audience, including politicians like Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who is better known for his environmental record. A decade ago, “environmentalists lost and we lost,” Bencomo said. But since the coalition became a reality, their outlook is starting to change. “Even though it certainly feels like we are still losing, I think we’ve made strides (together),” she said.

The new alliance with human rights organizations has led to a moral awakening for the coalition’s environmental players. For the Southwest Environmental Center, for example, Bixby said pushing out the coalition’s broader mission initially felt like a risk. “Our members are people who care about wildlife and habitats and wild places,” Bixby said, and for some people it’s outside their comfort zones to have to deal with the human impacts of border policy as well. But that sentiment is starting to evolve as the coalition challenges the notion that the two goals are separate. “It has changed how I look at things,” Bixby said, remarking that the coalition has allowed him to see how border communities — both human and ecological — are interconnected through their culture and history. “The environmental community as a whole has come to realize that we can’t solve our issue if we just focus on wildlife. We can’t solve that on the backs of the border communities.”

The historic tension between the two groups is familiar to Gabe Vasquez, a first-generation American and outreach coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation. Even five to six years ago, “I would hear some environmentalists say that (migrants) are destroying the landscape so we have to stop people from coming in,” he said. “That really set back this intersectionality that we are seeing today, where I think environmental groups are finally getting it. That in order to get things done in a political environment like this, we have to work together.”

In February, the coalition marked its first major victory as a unified voice from the Borderlands. The U.S. Senate was considering a law that would protect Dreamers and grant over 800,000 DACA recipients a pathway to citizenship. The protections, however, would come with a considerable price tag — $25 billion in funding for the border wall, and irreparable harm to fragile ecosystems. The coalition saw the compromise as a test: “This was the trade-off: Dreamers or wildlife,” said Bixby. The coalition voiced its opposition to the law and felt its concerns were heard when New Mexico Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich became two of just three Democrats who broke from the party to vote down the bill, leading to its failure. “We saw that as a big win for us,” said Bencomo. “These senators were listening to us because we are in this coalition and have all come together to say this is our shared interest in our community.”

With one win under its belt, the coalition is leveraging its resources to focus on other goals. In July, for example, the Southwest Environmental Center joined a lawsuit against the federal administration’s Family Detention Policy. The policy led to an increase in the number of immigrants being held in detention, which resulted in the construction of the nearby Tornillo Detention Center. Whether or not the lawsuit is successful, it is symbolic of the newfound support immigrant advocacy organizations are getting from environmental organizations at the border. “At the end of the day, the last two years have been incredibly hard,” Bencomo said. “But the silver lining is that it is bringing people like us together at the table.”

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email her at jessicak@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor