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Immigration and Border Policies Criticized, Short Interview with Arizona Activist Dan Millis

By Nick Braune

In 2008, Dan Millis was on a team which discovered the body of a 14-year-old girl from El Salvador who had been trying to find her way through rugged deserts and mountains in Arizona’s southern border. Traveling with her little brother and hoping to link up with her mother in the U.S., the girl died of dehydration, after becoming sick and somehow being left behind by the coyote. (See The Death of Josseline by Margaret Regan, Beacon Press, 2000)

With Josseline on his mind, Millis was in the desert again two days later, leaving sealed gallon containers of water around for any lost travelers. He was cited for littering, refused to pay, was convicted in federal court, but after two years of fuss, finally won in appeal court. (Millis, visiting Texas this week as a spokesperson for Sierra Club and for No More Deaths in the Desert, is speaking on Monday, August 22 at Galeria 409 in Brownsville and Tuesday, August 23 at St. John the Baptist Parish Hall in San Juan. Both presentations begin at 7:00 pm.)

Braune: Are there still people who die crossing the Arizona desert despite the construction of the wall?

Millis: Construction of 650 miles of border walls has not decreased the number of people who die attempting to cross our borderlands. In fact, walls, sensors, helicopters, cameras, and thousands more agents have only made the voyage more dangerous for border-crossers. The crashed U.S. economy and higher prices being charged by border trail guides have contributed to lower overall numbers of people crossing the desert. But people continue to die in large numbers, and so the risk of death for those who cross has increased dramatically.

Braune: How do you assess President Obama and Secretary Napolitano on the immigration issues and the wall? – Just like Bush?

Millis: I think Obama’s administration would like significant reforms in trade, immigration, and perhaps even border policy. However, they are wedded to an ideology that these reforms can only happen once the border is “secured.” Their definition of “security” on the border is the same as that of the Bush administration: more walls, agents, helicopters, guns, technology, etc. More militarization. But safety and security are not the priority, as demonstrated by the hordes of well-armed young men driving above the speed limit in white and green [Border Patrol] SUVs, the vast majority of whom have less than minimal first aid training or supplies.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has deported more people per year than any of his predecessors, showing a mistaken allegiance to Bush’s doctrine of deterrence through death, detention and deportation. That’s a lot of ‘D’s…

Braune: Here’s something puzzling me. A year or so ago, Arizona passed some nasty anti-immigrant legislation, and last January a liberal Arizona congresswoman and 13 constituents were shot by a fanatic. Is your state becoming polarized?

Millis: As for the Giffords shooting, I would hardly characterize Gabby as “liberal.” She is a blue-dog Democrat, which is how she is able to hold on to her seat in a whacko, gun-crazy district.

That said, I worked on Giffords’ campaign in October, and felt the heat leveled on us by her genuinely whacko and gun-crazy Tea Party opponent, Jesse Kelly. Though he is obviously not directly responsible for the murders of January 8, I also doubt that shooter Jared Loughner would have ever even known of Gabby’s existence if it weren’t for the constant stream of venomous personal attacks unleashed by extremist zealots and their Citizens United-enabled funders. So I suppose you could say Arizona is polarized, but I think a better word would be irresponsible. And the lack of maturity and competency, especially of the Arizona legislature and Governor’s office since the elections, to me is reflective of an uninformed and indifferent electorate.

[Written for “Reflection and Change,” in the Mid-Valley Town Crier, August 21, 2011]

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No-Border-Wall’s Scott Nicol Expects More Challenges in 2011

By Nick Braune

Between 2006 and early 2009 particularly, wide ferment in the Valley rose up against the Border Wall. There were bi-partisan rallies and forums all along the Tex-Mex border, with liberals and the left and libertarians, and environmentalists, and ranchers and citrus growers, many mayors, chambers of commerce, all involved. Although apparently the only people who wanted it were some misguided “conservatives” up North and the Homeland Security monolith, the wall kept lengthening, a huge governmental sea monster pushing people aside.

One person I have interviewed several times on this matter is Scott Nicol, a Valley art instructor, environmentalist and cofounder of the No Border Wall effort. Since the wall has been off my radar recently and I have felt guilty about it, I chitchatted with him two weeks ago and asked for some comments.

Braune: Scott, could you tell us what you have been working on recently? I remember you are on a Sierra Club taskforce nationally.

Nicol: I co-chair the Sierra Club’s national Borderlands Team, which is primarily focused on the impacts of walls along the U.S.-Mexico border. Just as the walls built in South Texas did tremendous damage to the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, as well as refuges owned by Audubon and the Nature Conservancy, walls in California, Arizona, and New Mexico have severely impacted refuges and wilderness areas there.

And the Real ID Act allowed the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive all federal, state, and local laws that might slow wall construction; consequently, the Department of Homeland Security has swept aside not only the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but also the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Farmland Protection Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The Sierra Club has mounted legal challenges to the constitutionality of giving one unelected official the power to waive all of our nation’s laws.

Our Borderlands Team also works to educate people around the country about the damage caused by building walls, and how ineffective walls are. (Even the Border Patrol referred to them as “speed bumps” that at best slow crossers down by a couple of minutes.)

I’m still active with No Border Wall as well, which has a new website describing issues and impacts related to border walls, from the environment to property rights to the deaths of immigrants, as well as the basic fact that walls have had no impact on the rate of immigration. [The new website: http://www.no-border-wall.com]

Braune: Although too lax on the issue of the wall recently, I did report on a wonderful protest, spearheaded by local artists, at Brownsville’s Hope Park some months back. Are there still things activists should be watching?

Nicol: Definitely. The biggest concern is that the new Congress will pass legislation calling for more border walls. In 2009 Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina introduced an amendment that would have added another 350 miles of “pedestrian fence” to that which already exists. Although passing the Senate, it was blocked in the House/Senate conference committee by Representative Ciro Rodriguez, whose district (unlike DeMint’s) already includes border walls. DeMint tried to reintroduce his amendment two more times.

Following the midterm elections Senator DeMint, a big Tea Party backer, is even more powerful, and the Senate is more conservative. Even though their districts are far from the border, a number of new House members campaigned on promises to build more walls, and Ciro Rodriguez lost his bid for reelection. It is a sure bet that DeMint will bring up his bill again, and with the new Congress it stands a very good chance of passing.

Braune: I understand California, Arizona, and New Mexico are largely walled off already, so if hundreds of miles of border wall are built, will they be built mostly in Texas?

Nicol: Yes. It will mean hundreds of condemnations against landowners (more than 400 were sued the last time around) and billions of dollars more wasted (beyond the $3 billion already spent). One would think that would awaken opposition from avowed conservatives like Senators Hutchison and Cornyn, but despite talking about property rights and fiscal responsibility, these two have voted for every Senate pro-wall bill, including DeMint’s 2009 amendment.

Braune: Where is Obama on all this?

Nicol: My guess is that the Obama administration feels like it has so much on its plate that they would rather not think about border walls. Secretary Napolitano could have stopped border wall construction when she took over at DHS. At that time lawsuits against landowners, including some south Texas farmers and citrus growers as well as the Nature Conservancy, were still being fought. Instead walls kept going up, and there are documents that indicate that walls are still on the drawing board for Roma, Rio Grande City, and Los Ebanos, despite the flood risk that they would pose. If legislation calling for more border walls makes it to his desk, whether or not President Obama signs it probably has more to do with whether the bill had strong Democratic backing than anything else. If Democrats support walls, we will get walls. If they stand up for the border, the way that Ciro Rodriguez did when he blocked Senator DeMint’s amendment, we have a chance. But they will need to feel serious grass-roots pressure for that to happen.

[This article is a slightly expanded version of one run in Nick Braune’s weekly column in the Mid-Valley Town Crier, Dec. 22, 2010]