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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Science at Risk at the Border

Air Date: Week of

The border between the United States and Mexico is among the most heavily guarded in the world, causing complications for the nature that exists there, as well as the scientists that study that nature. (Photo: Courtesy of Sergio Avila)

Scientists working on the US-Mexico border face unique challenges when trying to study borderlands ecosystems, thanks to everything from outright harassment at the hands of Border Patrol officers, to tight restrictions on what natural materials can cross the border. They say it’s gotten much worse in recent years since the Trump Administration began advocating for a massive border wall as well as taking a hard line on illegal immigration and asylum seekers. Living on Earth's Bobby Bascomb is producing a series of dispatches from the US-Mexico border and discusses the challenges of doing science on the border with Host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: The border wall between the United States and Mexico is already impeding migratory animals, and if the wall is expanded, endangered animals like jaguars will have an even harder time finding a mate or territory. And the scientists who study borderland ecosystems are also having a hard time doing their work. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb recently traveled to Arizona and Mexico, and she joins me now to talk about how scientists are being affected by the wall.

CURWOOD: Hey there, Bobby.

BASCOMB: Hey Steve, how’s it going?

CURWOOD: Good, so what’s going on there with the scientists in the borderlands?

BASCOMB: Well, as you know, I’m working on some stories about the border wall and wildlife, and in the course of talking to scientists for those stories, I found that nearly everyone I spoke to had some story about how the wall and the crackdown on immigration is affecting their ability to do their work.

CURWOOD: Really, how?

BASCOMB: Well, there are a couple different ways. The first and most obvious is just your classic harassment and intimidation.


BASCOMB: Yeah. One of the more egregious stories I heard was from Sergio Avila, a wildlife biologist with Sierra Club. Sergio is originally from Mexico, but he’s been a US citizen since 2016. He told me about a particularly unnerving experience he had a few years ago in the mountains near the border. He said he heard a truck coming down the mountain, out of sight, and around a bend in the road. He assumed it was Border Patrol, so he waited for it to arrive.

AVILA: And so, when they saw me, they accelerated really fast and got to me, next to me really quick, and they stopped to a screech, really make a big cloud of dust and said, “What are you doing here?” Well, I'm a biologist, and I'm studying wildlife. So I had to show my ID, which is my driver's license, I had to show my passport, I had to show that my passport had a visa, I had to show papers that I had from the organization I was working with, to see that it matches my name with my project with the organization. Because for these guys, it's very hard to believe that there is somebody studying jaguars out there, right? Like, that's the first step for them to say this is not true. Or they always say, “Oh, yeah, they taste good. Those are the ones that you make carne asada with.” You know, like, they have to make comments like those. And then one of them, still inside of the car, just pulls this huge semi-automatic weapon in front of him, out the car window and just says that, “Aren't you scared of people with guns like this?” But he's pointing it at me, showing me, right? And so my first thought was like, but you're doing it? But yes, I am. I'm in front of you. And I'm scared right now. Right? Like, what makes you think that I'm not scared now? The interactions came to a point really, when law enforcement started increasing, that I just had to stop a lot of my fieldwork; it was safer for me to just not do it.

Sergio Avila is a wildlife biologist, as well as an outdoor activities coordinator with Sierra Club. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: And Steve, Sergio has also had run-ins with the Minutemen, those are non-government volunteers who patrol the border, with guns, looking for people crossing illegally. And because they are not working in any official capacity, the Minutemen are in some ways even scarier for people like Sergio because there’s no accountability.

CURWOOD: Yeah, it kind of sounds like they’re vigilantes. So, I gather altogether he just didn’t feel safe doing fieldwork.

BASCOMB: Exactly, and Sergio is a trained field biologist with decades of experience working on endangered species in the area. Who knows what he might have found in his work that we no longer have access to? Then you extrapolate that out to the many scientists doing work in this area and it’s really a tremendous loss to science.

CURWOOD: Yeah! Right….

BASCOMB: And Sergio feels that he was especially targeted for harassment because he is Mexican-American.

AVILA: Because I have dark skin color, and black hair and an accent, I get helicopters flying over me. But if I was white, none of those things would happen to me, and so it's basically because of racial profiling.

BASCOMB: And Steve, that sentiment was backed up by another researcher that I met up with, Randy Serraglio with the Center for Biological Diversity.

SERRAGLIO: I'm a white man. So I benefit from white male privilege every day. And no, I have not been harassed by Border Patrol as much as you would think. Because really, they operate on racial profiling. So a lot of times I come up to the checkpoints, and I just get waved through. I just look like some white guy that lives in Arizona. I feel frightened sometimes on these dirt roads out here in the middle of nowhere, because every now and then you'll come across a Border Patrol vehicle driving like a maniac, you know, at high speeds. And it's very dangerous. The number one cause of death for Border Patrol agents is single-person car accidents. It’s one guy driving his vehicle too fast, and he rolls it and dies. So certainly don't want one of them to run into me, and it's come close couple times.

BASCOMB: Randy told me he doesn’t feel threatened by Border Patrol directly but he does feel afraid of ordinary citizens who don’t like his line of work.

CURWOOD: That’s right, the Center for Biological Diversity is pretty vocal in its opposition to the wall, right?

BASCOMB: Yes they are, and they also want to do things like limit cattle grazing on public lands where endangered animals live, you know, that sort of thing. Here’s Randy.

SERRAGLIO: I've done all kinds of fieldwork, right along the border on both sides, northern Mexico, southern Arizona, you know, out in those places that our government wants you to fear, and wants you to think are overrun with violent criminals and everything. And I have never felt threatened in those places. However, I do feel threatened in my office in downtown Tucson, because my organization has received death threats, you know, many times in the past because of the work that we do. And I fear that one of these days, somebody's going to walk into our office and shoot the place up. Seems to be the newest, you know, pastime in the US.

CURWOOD: So, intimidation can take a lot of forms for people working in the border areas. You mentioned earlier that there’s also another way scientists are being hampered in their work.

BASCOMB: Yeah, there is. So, another problem is that it’s becoming really difficult for scientists on either side of the border to collaborate and attend meetings together. So, for instance, there is a mountain range called the Sky Islands, I reported on one of those mountains a few weeks ago. It’s really one continuous ecosystem that goes through both the United States and Mexico. And of course, animals like jaguars that migrate through the area, they don’t know that they’re crossing an international border. So, it’s really important that conservation efforts are working in tandem, you know, so the left hand knows what the right hand is doing. And that’s what's becoming really challenging.

I spoke with the executive director of the Sky Island Alliance, Louise Misztal, about travel restrictions put in place especially for federal employees.

MISZTAL: In the last few years we have not been able to get federal agency employees, like Park Service employees have been denied travel permission to go into Mexico for meetings. And our partners in Mexico have had trouble getting visas to come into the US. So usually we're convening these binational meetings in one country or the other. And it's been nearly impossible the last few years.

Ecosystems like the Sonoran desert are not confined to national borders, leading to complications when scientists need access to both sides of a border. (Photo: Bobby Bascomb)

BASCOMB: Now, I did confirm with another party that federal employees are generally not allowed to travel to Mexico in any official capacity. I reached out to the Interior Department for an explanation, but never got one. And I also contacted several Park Service employees in the region but none of them were willing to talk to me about restrictions on their work.

CURWOOD: Yeah, well, that’s understandable. I mean, who wants to get fired?

BASCOMB: Exactly.

CURWOOD: So, Bobby, we’ve done a number of stories in the past few years about the Trump administration and its dismissive attitude toward the value of science, and the environment in general. Everything from cutting budgets for research, to making way for oil and gas extraction on public lands. It seems that this move at the border to restrict the work of scientists, well, kind of fits in with the pattern we’ve already seen from the Trump administration.

BASCOMB: It does. In fact, the administration had to waive dozens of environmental laws to proceed with the wall expansion to begin with. That’s everything from the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act to the Endangered Species Act. They successfully cited the 2005 Real ID Act, put in place under President Bush at the height of the war on terror, and that allows nearly any environmental law to be ignored in the name of fast-tracking a wall and barrier construction on the southern border.

CURWOOD: Oh, I see…

BASCOMB: Yeah, and then, adding to the general disregard for environmental laws and official travel restrictions put in place, just physically crossing the border has become difficult in the last few years. Here’s Louise Misztal again from the Sky Island Alliance.

MISZTAL: There's longer wait times at border crossings. Mexican staff that work with Sky Island Alliance, have had challenges and been, you know, harassed and delayed coming across the border. It’s been very challenging. And I think for some of my staff, it's kind of frightening.

BASCOMB: And I actually had a similar experience myself crossing the border. I was with a group of journalists and scientists and we were detained for an hour and a half and searched.

CURWOOD: Um, that doesn’t sound like much fun, what happened?

BASCOMB: It wasn’t. When we were asked if we had anything to declare, Gary Paul Nabhan, an agricultural professor and researcher, said, “Yes, I have a couple of small plants that I’m using for my research.” Gary identified himself as a researcher and we were traveling in a truck that said University of Arizona on the side of it. Well, that led to us being pulled aside for further inspections.

I actually recorded the first part of our detainment. First, you’ll hear the border agent and then Gary.

AGENT: It's very important that you tell me everything related to agriculture. Because if I do find something it’s subject up to to a $1,000 fine. Do you have any fruits or vegetables?


AGENT: Do you have any plants?

BASCOMB: After some more back and forth about other items we might have in the truck, we were told to get out and wait.

AGENT: If everybody can just get down, we're gonna do a quick exam of the vehicle.


BASCOMB: And that quick exam of the vehicle involved going through our truck with a fine-toothed comb. I mean they took apart our suitcases, checked everyone’s pants pockets, went through our toiletry bags… everything. In the end they found a walking stick, some lemons I picked in Tucson and forgot about, and a handful of seeds in Gary’s pocket that he also didn’t realize were there. And we were charged $300 for a fine.

CURWOOD: Oh, man, what an ordeal.

BASCOMB: Yeah, and it’s becoming a common ordeal that botanists like Gary have to deal with every time they need to bring samples across the border for their work. You know, there’s a list of prohibited items that you can’t bring into the US and Gary asked for it while we were waiting but the border agents said they couldn’t give us the list because it’s constantly changing. So, if your work involves bringing samples back and forth, what are you supposed to do?

CURWOOD: In other words, catch 22, huh?

BASCOMB: Yep, exactly, and for scientists like Gary that go back and forth every week it ends up feeling like an arbitrary over-reach of authority that they just can’t plan for. He said feels like scientists and migrants entering the country are sort of treated in the same way, with an unnecessarily high degree of suspicion and distrust.

Then, add in the harassment and travel restrictions that we talked about earlier and it’s getting really hard to be a scientist on the US-Mexico border.

CURWOOD: Well, truth can be a fragile commodity.


CURWOOD: Okay, well, thanks Bobby for your report. I’ll be looking forward to the rest of your stories from the border.

BASCOMB: Sure thing, Steve.



Listen to Bobby’s story about wildlife at the US-Mexico Border here

Listen to Bobby’s story about the Coronado National Forest here


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