Climate Change, Migration, and Militarization in Arizona’s Borderlands

Imagine a sensation akin to sticking your face in a furnace, except the furnace is everywhere and you are walking through it. The air is not just hot. It actually burns against your eyeballs. Every step you take is met with a hidden conspiracy of loose rocks, barbed plants, and poisonous animals. You can’t touch anything. Your body’s internal alarm system blinks red. If you stop moving for any significant amount of time, you die. Even if you keep moving, you might also die. In fact, the heat is already killing you.
This is not some future hellscape. It was the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, along the U.S.-Mexico border in southern Arizona, on a typical morning in August 2018. A team of humanitarian aid volunteers were searching for a young man who had gone missing while crossing the border. I was along to report. The search was ultimately unsuccessful, though we did find two sets of suspected human remains. The man would join the thousands of migrants who have died or disappeared in the Sonoran Desert since the U.S. government began funneling them there a quarter century ago.
By the time we got back to our vehicle, the dashboard thermostat read 123 degrees Fahrenheit.

Members of humanitarian group Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate, Armadillos Search and Rescue, search an area known as La Muela of Organ Pipe National Monument on Aug. 4, 2018.

Video still: Kitra Cahana for The Intercept
To stand in the summer sun on Organ Pipe and contemplate the long walk north invites some startling realizations. One: Despite the heat and the militarization, generations of people have somehow survived this seemingly impossible journey. Two: No one is going to undertake such a journey without a deep motivating desire to move. And three: All of these factors — human migration, the desert’s capacity to kill, and the hardening of the American border security apparatus — are on a path to historic intensification in the coming years.

Right now there are construction crews at work on Organ Pipe, pumping water from a rare desert aquifer to mix concrete for Donald Trump’s long-promised border wall. The survival of a fragile and unique desert ecosystem hangs in the balance. Laiken Jordahl, a former employee of the U.S. National Park Service at Organ Pipe and now the borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, monitored the situation throughout the summer. Making the two-hour drive from Tucson to Organ Pipe, Jordahl would shoot video dispatches from the monument, detailing what was happening on the ground, cataloging the progress of the project and describing for viewers what was at stake.
“It’s basically just an all-out attack,” Jordahl told me. “It’s unbelievable. This would never be conceivable if normal environmental laws were in place.”

Southwest Valley Constructors workers vibrate and smooth the concrete base on the Mexican side of the new barrier being installed at the border, to the east of Lukeville, Ariz. on Sept. 26, 2019.

Photos: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
Organ Pipe sits directly south of Ajo, an unincorporated community surrounded by a vast expanse of federally administered borderlands sometimes referred to as Arizona’s west desert. To the west of the monument is the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. To the east is the Tohono O’odham Nation, one of the country’s largest Native American reservations. The tribe’s ancestral homelands were split in two in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase, which established the current U.S.-Mexico dividing line. Descended from the first people of the Sonoran Desert, the O’odham have been living with, and in many cases resisting, U.S. government notions of border enforcement ever since. In 2016, Verlon Jose, the former vice chairman of the nation, responded to the suggestion that Trump would build a wall on the reservation with the words “Over my dead body.”
For Jordahl, Organ Pipe was the place where he first fell in love with the Sonoran Desert. It’s easy to see why. With its rolling hills, wide-open vistas, and still, soul-settling silence, the monument is as breathtaking as it is deadly. Jordahl bristles at the media’s habit of saying that much of Trump’s wall-building in places like Organ Pipe is merely the replacement of existing barriers, and thus not a win for the president.
“That grossly misconstrues this issue,” he said.

A section of the new, taller barrier wall, to the east of Lukeville, Ariz. on Sept. 26, 2019.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
There’s a difference between a Normandy barrier, Jordahl noted, which people and animals can pass over and under and exists in many parts of Arizona, and the 30-foot steel bollard walls, topped with floodlights, that Trump administration contractors are planting deep into the ground. It’s all the more serious in the case of Organ Pipe, where the water used to mix the concrete to support those walls is sucked out of a rare aquifer. According to the Arizona Republic, U.S. Customs and Border Protection estimates that it will need 84,000 gallons of water each day to complete the Organ Pipe project, which was awarded to Southwest Valley Constructors, a New Mexico-based firm. At a rate of roughly 1.85 million gallons per mile, 43 miles of bollard fencing “could require a total of 79.56 million gallons of groundwater,” the paper reported.
“We’re literally mining it out of the earth here,” Jordahl said. “It will take generations to regenerate, if it does at all.”
The drain on the groundwater could have disastrous consequences for Quitobaquito Springs, an oasis that provides the only source of natural, permanent fresh water for hundreds of species of animals. Some of those species are endangered. Others, like the Quitobaquito pupfish, exist nowhere else in the world. But the implications of the construction run even deeper. In Arizona, the federal government has long weaponized the desert as a tool to stop migration, one used in concert with an army of federal agents, the best technology money can buy, and network of immigrant detention centers. While these get-tough deterrence strategies rarely achieve their stated goals, they do provide powerful political fodder and line the pockets of those with a stake in the game, from government contractors to organized crime.
Conditions that made the Sonoran Desert a deadlier and more politically fraught space over the last two and half decades will soon go into overdrive. According to the latest National Climate Assessment, delivered to Congress and the president in November 2018, the southwest United States is on track for severe water shortages, multidecade droughts, and increased wildfires. Already home to the hottest temperatures ever recorded, the region is expected to see an increase in public health problems stemming from extreme heat, with children, the elderly, and Native Americans at particularly high risk.

Laiken Jordahl stands along the banks of the newly-flowing Santa Cruz River in Tucson, Ariz. on Sept. 25, 2019.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
South of the border, regional vulnerability to the climate crisis is already an issue. In the summer of 2016, as Trump was campaigning on his promise to build a wall to keep migrants out, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that drought in Central America’s dry corridor had left 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. USAID called it “one of the worst droughts in 35 years in Central America.” The agency’s grim climate forecasts for the countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador suggest more hardship to come, with rising temperatures, food scarcity, and extreme weather threatening rural populations in a region still struggling to overcome legacies of Cold War interventionism, corporate exploitation, and war-zone levels of violence and insecurity.
Stories linking migration and climate change have proliferated during the Trump era, so much so that researchers at a recent conference at the University of Arizona raised concerns that other factors driving people to move — poverty, violence, institutional failures — risk being overshadowed. The concerns are not without merit. Migration is not monolithic, and the reasons people choose to move are as varied as people themselves. At the same time, projections about the role climate could play in shaping the calculus of individual people are quite dire, and traditional factors that have driven migration are increasingly bound up in the environmental crisis. The International Organization for Migration, for example, has forecasted that there could be anywhere from 25 million to 1 billion climate refugees in the world by 2050. The World Bank, meanwhile, has estimated that there could be more than 17 million people internally displaced in Latin America alone by that time. Just last month, a report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre found that climate disasters forced a record-setting seven million people from their homes in the first six months of 2019. That was before Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas in what’s been described as potentially “the longest siege of violent, destructive weather ever observed.”

As life becomes increasingly untenable for people across the world, authoritarian, anti-migrant politics continue to demonstrate their potency as a track to American political power. Whether migrants are appearing at the border or not, these forces point to the threat of their arrival to impose lockdown conditions on border communities. The swirling mix of far-right politics and the actual threats posed by the climate crisis raise profound questions about what’s happening in the Arizona desert right now: Will the coming decades see a border more militarized than the last? What happens if people start showing up in truly unprecedented numbers with no livable homeland to return to? What moral obligations does that reality pose? What does the border become in that world?
For Jordahl, and for many others in the borderlands, these are the questions ringing out from the desert right now. In a sense, Jordahl explained, it’s as though the Trump administration is providing a dark model of what’s to come: using the impacts of the climate crisis that it is exacerbating as an asset to support its anti-migrant ends. “It’s a story that really hasn’t been told yet,” he said.

Amy Juan stands amidst the desert flora of Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Ariz. on Oct. 1, 2019.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
Draining Life From the Desert
Amy Juan grew up on the Tohono O’odham Nation. She graduated college there, and she’s 33 now, working as office manager of the International Indian Treaty Council in Tucson. Her dad’s side of the family comes from Newfield, a tiny O’odham community right on the border. She remembers days spent riding in the back of her grandpa’s pickup truck, rumbling over the steel cattle guard at the San Miguel gate. Sometimes they would be heading to a funeral, and sometimes they would be visiting family. Often, the trips were a treat: a chance to buy a soda or a quesadilla from the vendors on the other side of the crossing. For a kid growing up on the nation, “It was a cool place to go,” Juan told me. “I never knew it was a border.”
Juan was about 8 years old when she started noticing the changes. Though she didn’t know it at the time, the Clinton administration had passed a trade deal that would have devastating consequences for working Mexicans. Around the same time, in 1993, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 1.2 million people attempting to enter the United States without papers. Democrats and Republicans agreed: This was a crisis.
The following summer, the Border Patrol and the Pentagon developed “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a strategy for stemming illegal immigration by locking down border cities, thus driving migration flows into the border’s deadliest places, such as the Sonoran Desert. Virtually overnight the number of dead bodies found along the border began to explode, eventually surpassing the death tolls of Hurricane Katrina and the September 11 attacks combined, as desperate people tried their luck in one of the planet’s most unforgiving ecosystems. In Pima County alone, the remains of roughly 3,000 people have been recovered in the desert since 2001. Border-wide, the government has tallied more than 7,500 migrant deaths over the last two decades, though experts agree the true toll is certainly higher. U.S. lawmakers have largely treated these deaths as the cost of doing business, agreeing year after year to pour an ever-increasing stream of money, manpower, and technology into the most elaborate border and immigration enforcement system the world has ever known.

The Border Patrol’s Ajo station on July 10, 2018.

Photo: Laura Saunders for The Intercept
At its core, Prevention Through Deterrence was a massive redirection of traffic. The Tohono O’odham went from seeing 200 or so migrants crossing the reservation every month to 1,500 people a day. There was litter and there was theft but that was just the beginning of it.
As Juan went from elementary to high school, the Border Patrol moved in. It began with the agency setting up a “forward operating base” near her grandparents’ house. At first, it was little more than a spare modular building in the desert. Today, Juan said, it’s a self-sufficient facility with a helicopter pad and detention pens indoors and out. As the years went by, the skies over the reservation became dotted with choppers, and later drones. The old adobe Border Patrol station outside Ajo was replaced with a state-of-the-art, multimillion-dollar facility. Its agent capacity went from 25 to 500. And then there were the checkpoints. “I think once the checkpoints were established that really, really was a big transition to understanding, like, yeah, we are militarized,” Juan said. “That’s what this means, having to check in and check out of our own lands, our own community.”
To get anywhere north of the reservation requires submitting to inspection by armed federal agents. This means a kid on the nation today might be less likely to grow up remembering happy trips over the border in the back of a relative’s truck, and more likely to grow up remembering agents flashing lights into their car and questioning their parents. “It has psychological effects,” Juan said. “Especially for a young kid.”

Juan became politically conscious in her early 20s, as she began to realize that what her community was experiencing was both exceptional and unacceptable. “We started to see a lot of Border Patrol abuse and assault, especially on elders and children,” she explained. She’s spent the last decade speaking out, challenging the imposition of constant surveillance on the O’odham people, such as the recent fight to block the installation of a powerful Israeli spy company’s surveillance towers on the reservation. She recently traveled to the Arctic Circle and Palestine, and she sees clearly that militarized borders and the climate crisis are interwoven.
“Part of my work now is really having conversations within the community about how we’re going to survive,” she told me. “Talking about water.”
Draining groundwater at a place like Quitobaquito Springs might seem like a small thing, Juan explained, but it’s not. “It’s so representative of the danger that we’re in. This spring has been able to survive for thousands of years, and it’s still here,” she said. “It’s a watering hole for all life, anybody that’s out there in the desert.”
If the springs are sucked dry, the desert becomes even more deadly. It feels almost intentional, Juan said, like someone “thinking that this watering hole is important for migrants — and it is — and wanting to make sure that it’s not there.”

Birds take advantage of a moment of respite from unseasonably inclement weather, west of Lukeville, Ariz. on Sept. 26, 2019.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
Our Destruction Story
As Juan watched the border transform over the last three decades, the desert itself was changing.
Dr. Gregg Garfin, a University of Arizona climatologist and an author of the southwest region chapter of the 2014 and 2018 National Climate Assessments, has closely tracked those changes. During the same period in which the government began pushing migrants away from border cities, Garfin’s research shows that annual average temperatures in the Sonoran Desert increased by more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit when compared against the first half of the 20th century. By mid-century, what Garfin describes as “cautious projections” have annual average temperatures in the desert increasing 2-4 degrees, and by the end of the century 6-10 degrees.
To understand what places like the O’odham Nation and Organ Pipe are now facing, Garfin explained, you must first understand that these areas were already “some of the most extreme and variable or erratic places in terms of their climate and weather in the United States.” Increasing temperatures and diminishing winter precipitation have contributed to two decades of drought in the Sonoran Desert. The early 2000s, some of the deadliest years for migrants crossing the desert, were particularly bad. By 2050, when the IOM says there will be anywhere from 25 million to 1 billion climate refugees roaming the planet, the hottest day of the year in the already scorching Arizona desert could be up to 7 degrees hotter than it currently is, meaning that a migrant attempting to cross a place like Organ Pipe could go from facing 123 degrees Fahrenheit to something more like 130 (the hottest temperature ever recorded, in Death Valley, was 134 degrees). Meanwhile, Garfin said, multiday heat wave temperatures are also predicted to increase by more than 10 degrees. “We’re going from very hot to damn hot.”

Small anti-vehicle bollards trace the U.S. border that bisects the Tohono O’odham nation just south of Sells, Ariz., on March 27, 2019.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
With the heat, the amount of moisture held in the soil will decrease. Precipitation will also decline, particularly in the winter and the spring, which is already the driest time of year. The ironic thing, Garfin said, is that warmer atmospheres hold more moisture. What that means is that while the Sonoran Desert will see less water held in the ground, the region’s already extreme bouts of precipitation will become all the more extreme. The frequency of one-in-20-year storms is expected to increase by 10 to 20 percent. In other words, when rain does fall, it will likely appear in the form of epic downpours. In a region with the kind of soil you find in the Sonoran Desert, where the topography is steep and rocky, a short but intense one-hour rainfall can easily cause a flash flood. It happened just last year on the Tohono O’odham reservation, Garfin noted, when a series of tropical storms moving through the area nearly overwhelmed the tribe’s earthen dams.
“That sort of risk is important in the future,” Garfin said — it could mean the difference between life or death.
Last year, Sonorensis, a publication of the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, devoted a full issue to the climate crisis. Garfin wrote the lead article, arguing that communities in southern Arizona are already beginning to adapt.
Later on in the issue, Dr. Selso Villegas, executive director of the water resources department on the Tohono O’odham Nation, detailed what adaptation has looked like in his corner of the desert. The tribe’s legislative council requested that Villegas’s department investigate the nation’s vulnerability to the climate crisis and explore possible solutions in 2014. Working with University of Arizona researchers, Villegas eventually came up with a plan, which the council later approved, that included a return to the use of traditional home-building materials, such as adobe; the opening of local buildings as communal cool-off shelters for heat emergencies; the adaptation of a flood mitigation strategy; the hiring of more wildfire fighters; an effort to make sure groundwater for homes was treated; and education for community members about what was happening.
From the O’odham perspective, Villegas wrote, Mother Earth had been poisoned. “Many indigenous people around the world have creation and destruction stories,” he wrote. “Sadly, we are at the beginning of our destruction story.”

A flock of birds flies above Quitobaquito Spring, Ariz. on Sept. 26, 2019.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
Migration and Militarization
The sun had just begun to rise over the Tohono O’odham’s stretch of the Sonoran Desert when the second plane hit the World Trade Center. The years that followed brought changes to the way people related to the land, to the way they moved. There were deeper, psychic changes as well.
When it comes to the kind of migration and militarization that the government brought to O’odham lands, Juan told me, opinions tend to break down along generational lines. There are the elders, she said, who understand that “migration and the relationship between the people in the north and the south is nothing new,” and have tended to view migrants as travelers moving along their way. Next, she said, is the middle generation: O’odham who were sent to boarding schools as children, “Americanized,” and instilled with deep respect for the value of education and authority. Finally, there are the young people. They are more connected to the broader world than any generation before them, Juan said, and tend to “understand that in order for us to survive, we have to work together as a part of the bigger global community.”
Within that generation are young people who remember the days before militarization and young people who don’t. It’s that latter category Juan spends most of her time worrying about. “They grew up in it,” she said.
The border enforcement regime born in the mid-’90s hit the fragile ecosystems of the west desert particularly hard, as laws designed to protect the land took a back seat to security.
The strategy brought a tidal wave of traffic to places like Organ Pipe and nearby Cabeza Prieta. Virtually all of Organ Pipe — nearly 95 percent of its 517 square miles — is federally designated wilderness. The same goes for the Cabeza Prieta. It’s the most restrictive land management designation there is, and it means that it is the land managers’ job to ensure the pristine wilderness remains “untrammeled by man.” The nature of border security made that mission impossible.
The border enforcement regime born in the mid-’90s hit the fragile ecosystems of the west desert hard, as laws designed to protect the land took a back seat to security.
Migrants and smugglers did their share of damage. Take a walk through the Arizona desert, close to the border, and you are likely to find discarded water jugs, carpet booties, and maybe a lay-up spot for migrants moving north. But compare those impacts to the operations of the Border Patrol, and things get more complicated. On paper, the Border Patrol can only drive onto designated wilderness if exigent circumstances present themselves. In other words, in an emergency. As noted in a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife report discussing environmental degradation on Cabeza Prieta, however, which detailed the discovery of nearly 8,000 miles of unauthorized roads running through designated wilderness, the Border Patrol interprets its exigency requirement “broadly.”
Until recently, most of Organ Pipe was closed to the public, a decision that was made after park ranger Kris Eggle was shot to death following a car chase with drug traffickers in August 2002. Following the killing, Organ Pipe became known as the country’s “most dangerous” national park. With nearly 70 percent of the monument off-limits to visitors until just five years ago, the wilderness was effectively transformed into a closed-off space where Border Patrol agents chased their targets with little notice from the world at large.
During his time at the Park Service, Jordahl became obsessed with figuring out exactly how many “renegade roads” Border Patrol agents were making on Organ Pipe. He eventually found the data he was looking for. “In one year, Border Patrol reported driving 17,000 miles, off road, in designated wilderness,” he told me. “And that’s just what they reported to NPS. Just in Organ Pipe, not even factoring in Cabeza Prieta.” Like the draining of water happening on the monument today, Jordahl said, the degradation only helped make Organ Pipe a more deadly place.
“When we’re talking about climate change, all of this off-road driving basically disturbs all of the biological soil crust there and that increases erosion, that decreases the soil’s ability to retain water,” he explained. “It dramatically increases the desertification of the region.”
Garfin, the climate scientist, said the same. Just above Organ Pipe is the Barry Goldwater bombing range, an active bombing range for the U.S. military. If you look at Barry Goldwater, Organ Pipe, and the other lands in the area, including the Tohono O’odham reservation, you see a region dramatically shaped by human activity over the last 30 years, Garfin explained. “Between the human migration and the Border Patrol efforts to police that area, there’s been a lot of environmental damage,” he said. “Going through this pristine desert in big vehicles increases the probability of erosion.” Add extreme storms to that picture and you begin to see “a real threat to infrastructure,” including roads and culverts. Not only does that pose a challenge to the military’s training mission, Garfin said, it also places migrants in increased danger. On top of all that, there are a number of threatened and endangered species in the area that require protecting. It is the climate crisis colliding with life in the borderlands and, in Garfin’s words, that “makes for a very, very challenging situation.”

A Border Patrol officer smokes and scans his phone on the U.S. side of the border, just east of Lukeville, Ariz. on Sept. 26, 2019.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
State of Exception
The federal government’s tendency to treat the border as a place where the rules do not apply, where thousands of people can die without a major public outcry, and whole communities can be placed under constant surveillance, only increased after the September 11 attacks. This “state of exception,” as the anthropologist Jason De León has called it, helped pave the way for the anti-environmental efforts of the Trump administration.
Folded into the newly established Department of Homeland Security, the Border Patrol exploded in size after 9/11 and its agents were conditioned to see themselves as front-line soldiers in the global war on terrorism. Along with the new mission came new powers. In 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which gave DHS sweeping powers to waive local, state, and federal laws in order to construct barriers along the border. The act was emblematic of other war-on-terror legislation of the time; though it was passed under the Bush administration, it had bipartisan support — including the likes of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and current presidential front-runner Joe Biden — and its detrimental impacts continue to this day.
For years, REAL ID waivers were rarely used. Then came Trump and his plans for a wall. A sampling of the dozens of laws DHS has waived in service of realizing the president’s core campaign promise includes: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the Farmland Protection Policy Act. The list goes on.
“Take the land,” the president has told advisers. “Get it done.”
In February, Trump declared a national emergency on the border, bringing an end to the longest government shutdown in American history, which he began after Democrats refused to provide full funding for the wall. Months later, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration could tap into $2.5 billion from the Pentagon for the project. That sum has since grown. Earlier this month, the secretary of defense notified Congress that he would be moving an additional $3.6 billion in Pentagon funds to wall-building on the border, bringing the total amount the Defense Department has repurposed for Trump’s top reelection priority to $6.1 billion.
The administration has used the REAL ID waivers to push hundreds of miles of border wall construction, rumbling through whatever patch of sacred Native American sites, private property, or federally protected land gets in its way. With 66 miles completed thus far, the president is nowhere near the 500 miles of border wall he promised for his first term, and there are signs his already limited patience is growing thin. According to multiple accounts, Trump — who has expressed a desire for the border wall to be painted black, topped with spikes, and guarded by a moat filled with alligators or snakes — has gone so far as to offer pardons to officials who are charged with crimes while attempting to complete the construction.
In June, a team of Park Service archeologists visited Organ Pipe to assess potential threats to the monument’s many historical sites, which help to tell the story of the desert peoples who have inhabited the region for more than 10,000 years. In a 123-page report, first obtained by the Washington Post, the experts identified 22 sites that would be partially or wholly destroyed by border wall construction, which is slated for completion in January 2020.
“As soon as the Supreme Court green-lighted that military funding, I mean — it’s pretty much limitless,” Jordahl said. The Center for Biological Diversity was among the first organizations to sue over the border wall expansion, arguing that Congress never intended the waivers to exist in perpetuity; that they were designed for expeditious construction in 2005; and that construction projects beginning in 2019 no longer qualify as expeditious. Jordahl described the entire ordeal as a bizarro world version of the way the law is supposed to work in cases involving construction on protected lands.
“There’s no check on where they can build and how much money they can use,” he explained. “With the REAL ID Act waivers in place, the courts can’t step in. It’s like the definition of single branch government. Congress plays no role. The courts play no role. It’s an autocracy.”

One of Elbit Systems’ integrated fixed towers, south of Why, Ariz., on July 10, 2019.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
Rising Fascism
In the last year, there have been at least three high-profile terror attacks involving white gunmen targeting immigrants or the people perceived to support them. Two were committed in the U.S., in El Paso, Texas, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The third, carried out by a self-described “eco-fascist,” targeted Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. In each case, the killers had previously shared posts online that cribbed the “invasion” language so commonly heard from Trump and other far-right leaders. The El Paso and Christchurch shooters in particular put forth warped views of environmentalism that required them to kill competing races.
None of these ideas were particularly new. There is a long, dark history linking elements of the environmental movement, nativists, and white nationalists. John Tanton, a recently deceased Michigan ophthalmologist and godfather of the modern American nativist movement, once held a senior position in the Sierra Club. Bankrolled by an heiress obsessed with overpopulation and the environment, he went on to create the three most influential anti-immigrant groups in modern American history, while also running a publishing house popular with pseudo-intellectual white nationalists. Over the last decade, those groups cultivated a close-working relationship with former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and his young, ultra-hard-line underling, Stephen Miller. With Trump in office, staffers from the Tanton organizations took up policymaking positions across the government. Sessions, meanwhile, became Trump’s first attorney general, and Miller became one of the president’s most trusted and powerful advisers.
The precise number of people who will emigrate to the U.S. as a result of the climate crisis is difficult to predict, but it’s also somewhat irrelevant to the question how future far-right governments, like the one in Washington, D.C., will respond to increased flows of people.
Authoritarian governments don’t need actual crises to initiate authoritarian policies. When the Trump administration came to power, Border Patrol apprehensions were at a historic low, and yet by the end of his first week in office, the president had signed executive orders banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and laying the groundwork for an unprecedented attack on the legal systems designed to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations. Despite the fact that border apprehension levels still have not hit the highs of the early 2000s, the administration has nonetheless used current levels to justify declaration of a national emergency, the separation of thousands of children from their parents, and the dumping of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers in the border’s most dangerous cities.
While the president and his party may be unwilling to acknowledge the climate crisis, the institutions responsible for maintaining the border take a different view. “Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease, and may spur or exacerbate mass migration,” read the Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report. Reports published by DHS in 2012 and 2014 echoed that language, referring repeatedly to the possibility of “mass migration” events.
These are the kinds of signals that Todd Miller, a Tucson-based journalist and author of the new book,“Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World,” encourages people to pay attention to. In 1993, the year before Prevention Through Deterrence got started, the budget for the Immigration and Naturalization Service was $1.5 billion. Today, the amount of money spent on the nation’s border and immigration enforcement agencies exceeds all federal law enforcement agencies — including the FBI, the DEA, and the ATF — combined, with $324 billion doled out since 2003 and $24 billion appropriated in 2018 alone. According to Miller, there are now more than 70 border walls around the world, compared to just 15 when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Some market forecasts in the border security world describe the current moment as an “unprecedented boom period,” he said.

A worker with Southwest Valley Constructors smoothes the concrete base on the Mexican side of the new barrier being installed to the east of Lukeville, Ariz. on Sept. 26, 2019.

Photo: Ash Ponders for The Intercept
That boom translates to more surveillance equipment and more boots on the ground in border communities. “Analysts are thinking that there’s only going to be more and more buying of these technologies,” Miller explained. “So when you think about the future, well, then it’s a future of more of all this.”
There are no asylum protections for climate refugees, certainly not in the United States, where a cabal of anti-immigrant hard-liners are working day and night to dismantle, rather than expand, existing asylum protections. With research pointing to mass migration in the years to come, particularly poor people coming from countries that were not responsible for the climate crisis, Miller believes countries like the U.S. are presented with an enormously important moral decision. It’s a question of human mobility and freedom of movement, he said, and recognizing when the border has gone from an “obstacle or an impediment” to an actual “human rights violation for even being there in the first place.”

In the west desert of Arizona, where groups of asylum-seekers numbering in the hundreds turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents over the summer, the intersection of climate, migration, and border enforcement is already providing a glimpse at possible futures.
In addition to the border wall construction, the Trump government has charged nine people over the last two years with federal crimes for providing humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the desert in areas near the Tohono O’odham Nation and Organ Pipe. Working closely with the Border Patrol, senior U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have built blacklists of aid volunteers, arguing that the provision of water in the desert degrades protected wilderness areas. In the most serious case to result from the crackdown, Scott Warren, a 36-year-old geographer from Ajo, was charged with two counts of harboring and one count of conspiracy for providing food, water, and shelter to two young undocumented men over the course of three days in 2018. Facing up to 20 years in prison, his trial ended in a hung jury over the summer. His retrial is scheduled for November.
The Trump administration’s efforts to reshape the borderlands in the president’s nationalist image is facing real resistance on the ground. Since filing their first suit challenging the president’s border wall expansion, Jordahl and his colleagues at the Center for Biological Diversity have brought more than a half-dozen other environmental lawsuits against the administration. They are not alone. The Sierra Club, having distanced itself from the Tanton stance of nativist environmentalism years ago, is also challenging the Trump’s border wall, as is the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
In tiny Ajo, where providing water to migrants is a decades-old tradition, the prosecution of Warren and other aid volunteers has prompted a fierce and defiant response. In August, members of the humanitarian community there opened up a permanent aid building for migrants on the main road running through town. What the future will mean for a place like Ajo remains to be seen. The management of water will be key, Garfin told me.

Ajo, Ariz.

Photo: Laura Saunders for The Intercept

If anyone is likely to endure the coming years, he continued, it’s the O’odham. “We’re talking about people who have lived in this super extreme environment for thousands of years,” he said. “The one thing that’s different is that they previously had the ability to migrate. Now, that’s very restricted. But they have traditional knowledge that I think will help them to adapt.”
Amy Juan is certainly confident in her people. “I think we already have what it takes,” she told me. “It’s just going to be a regeneration of who we already are.” Juan is well aware of the projections DHS and the Pentagon have made for the years to come. “They’re preparing for climate change,” she said. “They’re preparing for mass migration and the wall is a part of that. They don’t want people to migrate or move.” It’s a threat to the O’odham way of life, to the ability of the O’odham to connect with thousands of relatives living on the other side of the international divide. “This border, it is a moral issue,” Juan said, a question of “who’s human and who has the right to life.”
Juan knows that she’s in for a long haul, that border militarization isn’t going away tomorrow. “That’s where I’m at now — accepting that,” she said. “Accepting it and preparing myself to work within that, to find solutions and build towards our future, and hoping that this isn’t going to be the situation that we’re going to be in forever. Because it’s crazy. I have to remind myself that not everybody lives like this.” When we spoke last, one of Juan’s colleagues was on his way back from a two-week conference on desertification in India. “We’re really anxious for him to come back,” she said. Heat and militarization, these are things the O’odham know well, she explained. Sharing that knowledge with others, making that the O’odham contribution to this historic moment, fills her with excitement and a sense of purpose. “We are beginning to see our role in helping other people around the world understand what that looks like, what it means, and what it’s going to take to survive,” she said. “We know what that life is like.”
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After NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden came forward with revelations of mass surveillance in 2013, journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill decided to found a new media organization dedicated to the kind of reporting those disclosures required: fearless, adversarial journalism. They called it The Intercept. Today, The Intercept is an award-winning news organization that covers national security, politics, civil liberties, the environment, international affairs, technology, criminal justice, the media, and more. The Intercept gives its journalists the editorial freedom and legal support they need to pursue investigations that expose corruption and injustice wherever they find it and hold the powerful accountable. EBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar provided the funding to launch The Intercept and continues to support it through First Look Media Works, a nonprofit organization.