Behind the Center for Biological Diversity’s Lawsuit Against the Trump Administration

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The CBD is challenging the government to complete an environmental survey of the U.S.-Mexico border before moving forward with plans to build a wall.

By Morgan Baskin

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Volunteers look over the U.S.-Mexico border near Campo, California. (Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity announced it had filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration seeking injunctive relief after the government failed to complete an environmental analysis of the southern border — violating the National Environmental Policy Act — before moving forward with plans to build a wall along the United States-Mexico border.

Without a survey of America’s southern border and an understanding of how new infrastructure will affect wildlife populations there, the CBD argues, the government can’t legally build its long-promised wall.

The suit, which names the entire Department of Homeland Security alongside its chief, John Kelly, as well as U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, is reportedly the first to directly challenge the administration’s plans to build a border wall.

The burden to complete a survey of the land wasn’t President Donald Trump’s alone — Randy Serraglio, an advocate with the CBD, points out that the last comprehensive analysis of the U.S.-Mexico border was completed in 2001; it was “intended to be effective for five years,” but was never updated.

Below, Serraglio talks to Pacific Standard about the implications of the Trump administration’s negligence to complete the survey.

Is there a long history of the DHS or any other federal agency neglecting to do these programmatic analyses, and are there any instances in recent history where the government has violated the act?

Yeah, actually, lawsuits filed under the NEPA are fairly common in terms of environmental litigation, generally. There are many times when proponents of a project want to avoid that sort of environmental review, either because they don’t like the delay or they don’t like the fact that someone’s going to actually analyze what they want to do. This could range from federal agencies to mining companies or anyone else that wants to do things on public land. It’s quite often necessary to sue the federal government and compel them to follow the law.

In the case of the Border Patrol, and the border security issue, the last comprehensive environmental review of environmental security policy was done in 2001. And the rules of the NEPA are very clear, that analysis becomes stale after a while when conditions change and a certain number of years have passed. The agency is required to update that analysis. It’s been 16 years since they did an analysis; things are dramatically different now than they were in 2001.

What exactly do you anticipate the survey would show? Do you think the results would be damaging enough to the credibility of the project that DHS would abandon it altogether?

What we feel with this environmental review is that need to analyze the fact that conditions have changed dramatically. In the past 15 years, since the last time they did a comprehensive environmental review, the Border Patrol has more than doubled in size. We’ve had hundreds of miles of border walls, barriers constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border; all other kinds of installations have been put in place. It’s a wholesale militarization of the border that’s taken place. The context, and the conditions on the ground, are radically different. Thousands of new Border Patrolagents driving all over the desert, tearing up fragile desert landscapes. You’ve got landscape-scale interruptions of normal wildlife movement, we’ve had massive flooding and erosion, and millions of dollars of damage to border communities and public lands and public facilities along the border as a result of border barriers that have been constructed.

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Randy Serraglio. (Photo: YouTube)

All of these things need to be analyzed, and they need to be analyzed in the terms of … what were the impacts of the stuff that was already built? What are the conditions on the ground? What are the potential impacts of Trump’s proposal, to build the wall and also ramp up this border militarization? Part of the NEPA is establishing purpose and need. We have to ask ourselves, is this really necessary? The NEPA is a “look before you leap” law. It’s a law that requires the government to analyze the impacts of a major policies.

The American people have a right to know, how much will this really cost, is it going to be effective, is it even necessary? And what will the damage be?

If the damage to the environment is as bad as you say, what is there left to protect? How much of the border has been left untouched, and how much more damage could the wall do?

The U.S.-Mexico border is 2,000 miles long. Currently we have some sort of border barrier along one-third of it, about 650 miles. So there are a lot of places where there have not been any barriers erected, and Trump’s proposal is that we put a wall all the way across the border. You’re talking about 1,000 miles that could be impacted, a lot of which is private land, especially in Texas. But in certain parts of south and west Texas, and California and Arizona, most of it is not private land. Most of it is either public land or tribal land. You have national wildlife refuges, national parks, national monuments, national forests, you have all these public lands that have already been determined to be important and suitable for protection over the course of decades of scientific analysis, and legislative action, and you know, millions and millions of dollars of investments we’ve made in these areas to protect them. And putting a border wall in those places will damage them. And we need to know, well, what does that damage look like before it’s implemented?

There are certain structures that exist right now, some of which are more permeable to wildlife than others. The Trump administration doesn’t like to follow the law, but it must. Just like anyone else.

How long do you anticipate this particular analysis would take?

[Trump’s border wall] is a huge, sprawling proposal to ramp up militarization of the border. The impacts of that are broad and deep; it’s going to take some time to do this analysis. It would take years for an environmental impact statement like that to play out. And it would take a lot of work and a lot of effort, and that’s what it should take. When you have a proposal that’s so dramatic in its impact, it takes some time to thoroughly analyze…. We need thorough scientific analysis of what the impacts will be before it’s implemented.

This goes way beyond wildlife and things like that. The impacts are also — what would the wall do to border communities? How does it affect people who live there? These policies have already created a lot of fear for people who live there, and disrupted the fabric of life there. It’s harmed the economy, it’s divided communities, it’s caused a lot of problems already. That’s part of the equation here.

People who live in the borderlands have the same right to clean air, clean water, and healthy landscapes and beautiful wildlife as they do anywhere else in the country. And the DHS and Border Patrol have testified repeatedly to Congress that they can secure the border while still following the law. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t do that in this case.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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