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Costly fence on US-Mexico border is effective – only in hurting nature

In addition to sinking $1 billion into the failed "virtual fence," the US government has spent $2.6 billion for 650 miles of solid border. This wall doesn’t deter people – but it does defy the laws that protect the land.

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For any other project, these would be violations of the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and a host of other federal laws. But the border wall is above the law. Realizing that building walls through federally protected wilderness areas and wildlife refuges would be tremendously destructive, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which allows the secretary of Homeland Security to waive laws to build border walls. No one else, not even the president, has this power.

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Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived 36 federal laws. In addition to environmental laws, he swept aside the Farmland Protection Policy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The only reason for Secretary Chertoff to waive those laws is that he knew that border walls would violate them.

In our current political discourse, the border is not a real place, with flesh-and-blood residents and living ecosystems that our nation's laws were meant to protect. Instead it has become a blank screen upon which the nation's fears of drugs, poverty, and terrorism can be projected. FBI statistics may show that El Paso, Texas, was the safest big city in the US last year, but the fear of spillover overwhelms the facts on the ground in the American imagination.

Facts, not fear

We need to explore a range of measures that address the root causes of immigration and drug use, based on complex facts rather than simple fear.

It is time for the same scrutiny that was applied to the virtual fence to be trained on the solid one. The Obama administration should ignore political posturing and empty "build the danged fence" rhetoric – and conduct a simple cost-benefit analysis.

On the cost side of the spreadsheet: more than $4 billion in taxpayers' money; hundreds of land condemnation lawsuits; tremendous environmental damage; the nation's laws rendered impotent.

On the benefit side... anything? Can border walls be shown to have provided any concrete benefit that justifies their tremendous costs?

At a time when Congress is proposing deep cuts to federal spending, can we really afford a $2.6 billion speed bump?

Scott Nicol is co-chair of the Sierra Club's Borderlands Team. He lives in McAllen, Texas. For more information about the border wall’s environmental impacts, visit


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