SASABE, Ariz.—If you were to crash your stolen truck through the border fence, as smugglers do, then abandon it when the Border Patrol closes in, as smugglers often do, and then just started walking north, you would have extraordinary insight into the environmental damage undocumented immigrants are causing this nation’s public lands.
The southern part of Arizona is a wild and diverse place. At least four different ecosystems thrive along the border, and the one thing they all have in common is that they’re being trashed by undocumented immigrant traffic. Of all the damage in the ongoing border war—and it ranges from drug smuggling to a near-bankrupt health-care system to falling wages—none will last as long as the footprints left by the men and women who pass through the deserts of southern Arizona. I’ve been at the border on and off for five years, and the damage only seems to get worse. There is more garbage, more tire damage, more evidence of people. Always, always more trashed landscape.
“Trashed” has a lot of meanings down here. For Mitch Ellis, the manager of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, which sits right on the border and gets an estimated 2,000 immigrants a night moving through during peak periods, “trashed” means an area three times the size of Boston with enough smuggler roads that you could drive from New York to Omaha, a place where 3,000 of the 9,000 volunteer hours donated to the refuge last year were used to clean up immigrant trash.
For Bill Childress, the director of the perennial stream, which is a few hours’ drive east of the Buenos Aires and protects Arizona’s last free-flowing perennial stream, “trashed” means four miles of river where the cottonwood habitat was burned out when undocumented immigrants passing through neglected to douse a campfire, which rekindled when the humidity dropped the next day. It also means that his staff picks up so much immigrant trash they get a special rate at the local landfill.
“Trashed” is just shorthand down here for “a problem that nothing is ever going to solve.”
There is an article of faith you must have on the border: Whatever you do, something else is going to get screwed up.
Emphasize catching undocumented immigrants in San Diego, and they’ll move into the Arizona deserts. Put up a 110-mile-long steel barrier to keep smugglers from driving through a section of the border—the Border Patrol will begin doing that very soon along a portion of the 389-mile border dividing Arizona and Sonora, Mexico—and you’ll push the vehicle traffic to a different area.
Which brings us to Keith Graves, the district ranger for the Coronado National Forest’s Nogales Ranger District, which is arguably the most dangerous piece of national forest in the country. Graves has human-trafficking problems: fires, trash, and foot trails. But he also has a drug-trafficking problem, mainly cocaine and heroin. Those shipments come across armed, and Graves, who is big the way that former football players are big, has sections of his own district he won’t visit without a law-enforcement escort.
“We’ve never been able to anticipate the unintended consequences down here,” Graves tells me one day. “If we put up a fence, people will try and drive around it. Then we have to deal with abandoned cars on their sides or on their roofs, rather than abandoned cars sitting up on their wheels that we can tow out easier.”
The further north I go from the border, the more disturbing the trash gets. On the Buenos Aires and the San Pedro, which are hard against the border, it’s mostly damage from vehicles and feet. The best way to avoid the Border Patrol is to go cross-country, so I see a lot of illegal roads cut through fragile and pristine desert. When the Border Patrol closes in, or the vehicle gets stuck in a wash or high-centers on a piece of raised desert, smugglers and their charges abandon the trucks, and so a cruise through the Sonoran Desert can be like a cruise through the world’s hottest junkyard. The Border Patrol causes its own damage, too; though they’re not supposed to go off-road, zealous agents often do.
The Buenos Aires gets a lot of foot traffic, and popular smuggling trails are worn smooth and rockless, like you’d find at a city park. Ellis, in frustration, says, “Take a look at our illegal trails. You won’t find any as nice at the Grand Canyon or anywhere else.”
He’s right about the trails. Buenos Aires Assistant Manager Sally Gall and I ride around the refuge, and they’re as clear as day, paths that cut through the grass, and plenty of them. Gall hits the brakes whenever we pass one, and soon the car is stopping and starting so much it’s jumping a little, like some borderlands hoopty mother ship. These are the immigrant superhighways, and please ignore the discarded backpacks, walked-through shoes, and hundreds of discarded water jugs along the side of the road.
There is comparatively little trash here, just basic walk-through damage, but the farther I get from the border, toward the highways where the immigrants get picked up, the more I see parts of lives. Emptied-out food cans with the sides licked clean, more water jugs tied to one another with old rags. Discarded wallets, cell phones, stuffed animals, high-heeled shoes, family pictures.
These are what people thought they would need for the journey to a new life, and what they threw away as they were dying.