Unencumbered Travel: Environmental Impacts on the Border, Disposable Cups, and Old Band-Aids

"Illegal migrants really degrade the environment. I've seen pictures of human waste, garbage, discarded bottles and other human artifact in pristine areas, and believe me, that is the worst thing you can do to the environment." These are the words of homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in an interview with Eileen Sullivan for the Associated Press this week.

"I'm sorry could you say that again?" If I could put a sound effect on to paper, the words you would be hearing right now would make the noise of a record rewinding and replaying this comment:

"Illegal migrants really degrade the environment. I've seen pictures of human waste, garbage, discarded bottles and other human artifact in pristine areas."

Assuming Mr. Chertoff is referring to people who are in the process of fleeing their homeland to reach the United States under threat of arrest by the U.S. Border Patrol and possible death by starvation, thirst, and any number of other factors, what exactly does he expect? That they have carried a picnic basket full of all the fixings for a home cooked meal?
What about those areas we call wilderness and consider "pristine?" The last time I was camping in the San Bernardino Mountains I saw discarded bottles, a random t-shirt, and a lot of used toilet paper. Have you been to Southpoint, Hawaii? It is a place that serves as a sift for the waste that floats along the Pacific Ocean. Instead of sand, you walk on plastic bottles, laundry baskets, fishing rope, much of the that has floated off of the west coast. So your sunglasses you lost 10 years ago in Redondo Beach, California? Well, I saw them last month in Hawaii.

Now let's jump to other forms of travel. Does anyone reading these words use airplanes? While on those airplanes do you partake in the delicious selection of beverages in cans and bottles, and conveniently packaged snacks? Where, after you consume these items, does all that packaging go? What about the human waste that is left in the toilets? Might it at some point end up in what was once a "pristine area?"

To imply that it is better for the environment to lock people on the other side of a 670 mile long wall isn't only racist and class-ist it is insulting to the American public who would unthinkingly swallow it as logical reasoning. And is it really good for the environment?

If we are talking about nationalities here let's juxtapose one example of an American lifestyle with one example of a Mexican lifestyle (Please note the examples given are based loosely on people I know and do not reflect statistical accuracy.)

The American is a business woman who spends 30% of her job traveling at least 1000 miles from her home base. She rarely packs enough food for her trip, so she consumes a minimum of one airport meal per trip that comes complete with food packaging, plastic utensils, and mini packets of mustard. When she arrives at her destination she rents a car and spends two days driving to business meetings where she drinks coffee out of Styrofoam cups complete with cream in round plastic packets. At the end of her trip she flies home and takes a taxi to her house. The next day she heads to work using public transportation, stopping off at the gym on the way to ride on an electric treadmill. The treadmill is powered by a coal fired energy plant.

The Mexican is a factory worker for a large foreign company. He walks every day to a bus stop about a mile from his house. When he arrives at the maquiladora, or foreign owned factory in Mexico, he takes his place on the assembly line making springs to be shipped around the world. At the end of the day he walks back to the bus stop. He eats dinner, most of which comes from his garden, although lately he is able to afford some food from the grocery store. He doesn't own a television or a car. He repeats this same routine almost everyday of the year excluding some holidays and weekends. Shall we talk about environmental impact?

Where there are people, there will be discarded waste. We all have an ecological footprint. Of course if we minimize our impact, the environment will be better for it. But to say that this fence good for the environment is dare I say it? Poppycock! For a moment, let's focus on this "pristine border area." If we are to be good to the environment along the border, then supporting the entire ecosystem is as important as picking up trash. And I think cutting off fresh water for some animals, which is what this fence may do, is an environmental impact we might want to consider.

Borders are imaginary lines. It is only in our agreement to the rules of a political game that they become reality. If these same people, the migrants to which Mr. Chertoff referred, were allowed to freely cross the imaginary line that we call a border would they still trash the pristine environment in question?

Where are our priorities? Let's stop wasting time playing a deadly, unjust, inhumane game and focus on the things that have real consequences in our lives... like immediately stopping airports and airplanes from serving food and drinks in disposable packaging. And since we desire to keep our "pristine areas" waste-free, please keep track of your used band-aids and sunglasses while traveling. Next time you fly bring your own cutlery and plates please. I'm not sure what to tell you about the bathroom.

Paige Doughty is an environmental educator and writer; she lives in Somerville Massachusetts. Learn more at www.paigedoughty.typepad.com. Maureen Thompson has a Master of Science in Environmental Education. She currently lives in Huntington Beach , CA working in the environmental education field. maureenethompson@aol.com

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