In California, just miles from the United States-Mexico border, a Quino checkerspot butterfly rests on the stem of a low-growing shrub. The butterfly opens itself to the sun, tilting the red, black, and cream checkers decorating its wings skyward. Once, millions of these well-adorned insects could be found dotting California’s southern border. Nowadays, even within 50 miles of the US-Mexico border—an area that contains 64.6 percent of the species’ critical habitat—the Quino checkerspot butterfly is hard to find. While the butterfly once paid no mind to the geopolitical boundaries between the US and Mexico, today much of the border is composed of bulky infrastructure that the Quino checkerspot, with an aversion to flying over objects taller than six to eight feet, cannot cross.
Due to factors like habitat fragmentation and destruction that have decimated the population of Quino checkerspots, the federal government has listed this butterfly as an endangered species since 1997. As biodiversity decreases at accelerating rates, “transboundary frontiers”—areas surround- ing a geopolitical border—have been deemed an “emerging priority” for conservationists as they often overlap with biodiversity hotspots that contain the habitats of thousands of species. The Quino checkerspots are, unfortunately, not the only inhabitants of a transboundary frontier whose population has been threatened in recent years. Yet, in politicians’ talk of border security, environmental concerns are consistently put on the back burner.
The US-Mexico border is a prime example of this. During Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, he mentioned a border wall over 200 times and upon taking office, he issued an executive order calling for the immediate construction of such a wall. In doing so, Trump actively ignored experts’ warnings that a border wall could threaten the wellbeing of about 10,000 species, including plants, fish, and invertebrates. Trump’s administration is not the first—and, without change, is unlikely to be the last—to sacrifice biodiversity in the name of border security. The 2005 Real ID Act, which US officials have been exploiting for nearly 15 years to bypass environmental laws, is largely to blame for the unregulated destruction of biodiversity at the US-Mexico border. Thus, to preserve already weakened biodiversity at this essential transboundary frontier, the historical exploitation of the 2005 Real ID Act must be declared an unchecked abuse of executive power and its use in circumventing environmental regulations must be permanently put to rest.
The most serious environmental threat posed by the Real ID Act stems from a provision that grants unprecedented power to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to waive any local, state, or federal law that might inhibit the construction of infrastructure at the US’s southern border. With the War on Terror in full swing, bipartisan support for an act prioritizing “national security” was not hard to come by, and border construction quickly followed the Real ID Act’s passage. During George W. Bush’s presidency alone, over 35 environmental laws were bypassed by DHS using the Real ID Act in order to begin construction mandated by Bush’s Secure Fence Act. Before Bush’s administration, only about 150 miles of the southern border were fenced or walled; by the end, nearly 650 miles were covered, almost none of which were constructed in line with environmental laws.
During President Obama’s administration, border construction continued following Bush’s guidelines, but DHS proposed no significant plans for new border infrastructure. Still, border security remained a hot political issue, eventually forming a major part of President Trump’s platform. In the time between the Bush and Trump presidencies, the Real ID Act’s DHS provision largely remained intact, undisputed even by Democrats and ready to be utilized by any administration willing to prioritize border infrastructure over environmental protections.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s anti-immigration and anti-environmentalist stances encouraged members of his administration to abuse the Real ID Act. Throughout the past four years, the Trump administration has invoked the Real ID Act in every US state along the US-Mexico border and waived over 45 environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act. Since then, the state of biodiversity at the border has become even more precarious; more and more border construction is dividing cross border species, destroying their habitats, and placing their populations at severe risk. Conservationists warn that if environmental laws are not heeded soon, 93 at-risk species could be pushed further toward the brink of extinction. Meanwhile, experts warn that more infrastructure at the border will not necessarily stop undocumented immigrants from entering the US, meaning border construction is both extremely costly and terribly ineffective.
Thanks to its vague language, the Real ID Act effectively puts the Secretary of Homeland Security, unchecked and uncheckable, completely above environmental laws. It is clear from departmental actions under the Bush and Trump administrations that DHS is incapable of moderating itself in the exercise of its law waiving powers, thereby failing to protect the border and its fragile ecosystems. To account for this failure, Congress must declare the Real ID Act an abuse of power by DHS and repeal it; the species at our border and the balance of power in our government depend on it.
While politicians rarely talk about environmental justice at the border, conservationists have consistently been active in the fight against the Real ID Act. The Center for Biological Diversity has led several lawsuits against the Trump administration for its abuse of the Real ID Act, demanding that the rule of law once again be applied to DHS and that the environmental damage already done at the border be evaluated. Still, little has come of these lawsuits so far; besides, targeting Trump, rather than the Real ID Act itself, doesn’t prevent other administrations from abusing the law.
The conversation surrounding security at the US-Mexico border is certain to continue, whether the Real ID Act remains in place or not. By bringing the Real ID Act into question, conservationists raise important concerns about how to balance border security with environmental justice. Concrete walls, steel fences, and border patrollers certainly don’t belong at a green border, nor at a humane one, either. By repealing the provision that awards DHS unchecked power to waive any environmental regulations, conservationists are seeking to ensure that no actor, whether it be DHS, those working in the name of national security, or the president, is above the law. In doing so, they invite an essential conversation on sustainable development, environmental collaboration, biodiversity conservation, and, overall, a greener US-Mexico border into American political discourse.