A gentle snow was falling. It was December 2018, and I stood in front of the wall that slices across the U.S.-Mexico border at Nogales, Ariz., observing the newly installed concertina wire curling along the top of the barrier.
It was here that border patrol agent Lonnie Swartz aimed his gun through the fence in October 2012 and pumped 10 rounds into 16-year-old Mexican citizen José Antonio Elena Rodríguez. José’s picture was pasted onto the steel slats of the border fence. There were none of Swartz, who was acquitted of manslaughter late last year.
As I stood by the border, another image I’d seen recently came to my mind, that of a coyote struggling to untangle itself from the barbed wire wall that divides the Sonoran Desert along the same border. This image of the contorted animal is just one of many depictions of the fearsome fate met by non-humans along this border.
By now, the staggering human cost of the militarized border between the United States and Mexico is relatively well known. Thousands of migrant corpses have been found on the Mexican side of the border over the last few years — the remains of desperate refugees, migrant workers, grandparents, mothers, fathers and children who perished through exposure to the extreme desert climate and at the hands of human traffickers. Since the United States began erecting extended security fencing at traditional urban crossing areas such as Nogales, migrants and refugees have been pushed deeper and deeper into the punishing Sonoran Desert, rendering their treks to the “promised land” far more lethal.
Christians have responded by providing food, water, and medical and legal support for migrants and refugees who are entering the United States. Often prompted by Latin American liberation theology, these groups adopt a “preferential option for the poor,” now enshrined in Catholic social teaching, as part of their border ministry.
But the baleful toll of American border policy extends to the entire biotic community as well. As many environmentalists and Indigenous communities along the border have warned, the wall proposed by U.S. President Donald Trump would have devastating ecological consequences in the area.
A recent report from the Center for Biological Diversity found the wall would adversely affect 93 threatened and endangered species, and obliterate habitat for 25 species, including the Peninsular bighorn sheep and Mexican gray wolf. Moreover, researchers have also noted that a border wall would alter the flow of major rivers, including the Rio Grande, Colorado and Tijuana, acting as a dam and thus threatening major flooding. The 2005 REAL ID Act gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to waive federally mandated environmental legislation, including the Endangered Species Act.
Pope Francis, in his landmark 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, calls for all of us to practise “integral ecology.” Francis says we are called to heed “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” which form a unified horizon of concern for him.
These cries are emanating loudly and hauntingly along the U.S.-Mexico border. They are forming a crescendo of alarm, calling not only Christians, but all people, to care for marginalized humans and the entire biotic community. Both are being ripped apart by barbaric policies defacing all of God’s creation.
Stephen Bede Scharper is a professor of religion, environment and anthropology at the University of Toronto. He is the author of For Earth’s Sake: Toward a Compassionate Ecology.
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