TUCSON, Ariz. – “The Sonoran Desert is a place of stunning beauty and provides essential habitat for a surprising number of plant and animal species found nowhere else on earth,” said Scotty Johnson, a representative of Defenders of Wildlife. Johnson was speaking to a teach-in held here to kick off a campaign to stop the building of a physical wall along the Arizona-Mexico border.

Johnson described the devastating effects on wildlife that U.S. Border Patrol activity is already causing in the region.

In October 2002, the Border Patrol submitted a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for the construction of 255 miles of new border fencing (beyond the existing 85-mile fence) to physically seal off three-quarters of Arizona from Mexico, ostensibly to limit immigration. One of the largest fences in the world, the wall will actually be two structures – an impenetrable 15-foot-tall metal or concrete barrier and a second 11-foot barbed-wire fence. Between the two will be a 200 to 900-foot “security zone.” Almost 900 miles of roads will be built to facilitate high-speed patrols through uninhabited desert areas.

Human rights activists claim that the wall will not stop immigration, which they say is driven by powerful economic forces, but will merely shift it to even more dangerous areas of the brutal Southwest desert, driving up the number of deaths of desperate immigrants.

Nature will suffer, too.

“The Sonoran Pronghorn, an antelope subspecies specially adapted to life in Arizona‘s Sonoran Desert, border cats – jaguar, ocelot and jaguarundi – tortoises … all will be negatively impacted by fences, walls, lights, and roads,” said Rick Williams of the Northern Jaguar Project. “The northern portion of the desert within the U.S. will be cut off and isolated. … Not even lizards will get through.”

The Border Patrol is now part of the new Department of Homeland Security. Johnson ridiculed the Department’s claims that the wall will actually improve the environment by stopping foot traffic, Johnson countered that “more border fencing will drive migrant foot traffic into ever more pristine areas.”

Jenny Neeley, also from Defenders of Wildlife, explained that under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) any action proposed by a federal agency must undergo an environmental assessment. “NEPA is the only reason we know about this wall project,” she said, adding, “The report given for this wall is one of the worst statements ever seen.” Neeley drew a big laugh from the audience when she reported that “the first draft stated there would be no detrimental impact on the California Gray Whale, but did not address over 55 species actually living in Arizona.” Neeley continued, “Unfortunately, NEPA has no teeth … only public opinion can stop the Border Patrol from building this wall. ”

Johnson criticized the Border Patrol’s “fear-mongering,” adding, “Well-heeled terrorists are not going to walk through the Yuma desert to enter the U.S.”

“Work to cut off funding in Congress,” advised Sean Garcia from the Washington, D.C.-based Latin American Working Group. Garcia urged support for comprehensive immigration reform efforts in Congress: “The wall must come down!”

The author can be reached at Susan@Susanthorpe.com