The Impacts of Illegal Immigration on Public Lands

Mitch Ellis


Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. My name is Mitch Ellis and I am the manager of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona. I have been the manager of Buenos Aires since September 19, 2004. Immediately prior to my assignment to Arizona I served in the National Headquarters as the Chief of Refuge Law Enforcement for the National Wildlife Refuge System. As a result of these experiences I am intimately familiar with refuge law enforcement activities along our national border. I appreciate the opportunity to represent the Fish and Wildlife Service in discussing the impacts to refuge lands by illegal immigration and law enforcement activities associated with such.

I would like to present information that characterizes the current day-to-day realities of managing federal lands along the southwest border. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) manages six national wildlife refuges situated on the international boundary with Mexico. In total, the Service is responsible for managing the natural resources along 158 miles of border in Arizona, Texas and California. These 1.1 million acres of federal wildlife refuges along the border provide significant habitat for endangered species, migratory birds, and other wildlife. Many rare and endangered wildlife species can only be found in this part of the United States. The Sonoran pronghorn, masked bobwhite quail, and many other species have their last hopes vested in these refuges along the border.

Of course, these remote areas have also become prime habitat for smugglers, undocumented migrants, and other illegal border crossers. In fact, the number of illegal border crossings has increased dramatically on national wildlife refuges. More than 100,000 illegal border crossers were arrested on refuges in 2005. Also, more than 167,000 lbs of marijuana was seized on border refuges in 2005. Unfortunately, that’s only what is apprehended and much more passes through undetected. The border has also become more violent. Gangs, border bandits, drug smugglers, and other criminals are committing robbery, rape, murder, and other atrocities at an alarming rate along the border. As our law enforcement officers work these areas, they are subjected to increased risk and must be prepared to deal with the criminal element operating on the border. We also have a tremendous responsibility to address the public safety issues in these areas as most of these lands are open to recreation. Providing for safe and meaningful public use remains a high priority for the Service.

While the Service is responsible for the stewardship of these lands, it is the Department of Homeland Security that is primarily responsible for the security along our international border. Only by working together will we be able to meet both our missions. The challenges along these remote stretches of border require that our agencies coordinate our activities, share information, and facilitate the deployment of appropriate infrastructure.

I have been invited here today to describe the stark realities of managing lands on the border. To do that, I would like to focus on the area I manage - the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, located south of Tucson, Arizona. The refuge is 118,000 acres in size and has about 5.5 miles of international boundary with Mexico. The refuge was established to protect the unique desert grasslands found in the area and to provide habitat for endangered species, primarily the masked bobwhite quail. The refuge is bounded on the west and east by rugged mountains, making the valley a prime avenue for illegal border crossings. The staff at Buenos Aires are faced with the difficulty of continuing the conservation program at the refuge while being constantly affronted by border-related distractions and security issues. The following information will give you an idea of what we face at the Buenos Aires as we go about our jobs.

To start with, 16,000 illegal border crossers were arrested attempting to cross on the Buenos Aires in 2005, though more than 235,000 were estimated to have crossed the Buenos Aires that same year. Law enforcement officers also seized 47,000 lbs of marijuana on, or immediately adjacent to the refuge in 2005. There are border bandits operating on the refuge, arguably with relative impunity, as they target migrants, whom they rob at gunpoint. In recent months they have also committed 5 homicides, 2 rapes, and shot at least three other people while on the refuge, again targeting primarily migrants. Another 18 bodies were recovered on the refuge over the past two years, most succumbing to dehydration or exposure. These human tragedies and risks are on the minds of our employees every day at the refuge. We have had to institute several standard operating procedures for our staff’s field activities to mitigate the risk associated with these illegal activities. In many areas, staff are not allowed to enter without being escorted by law enforcement officers.

Our visitors are also being impacted. Staff at our visitor center have been listening to complaints for years regarding the problems associated with illegal border crossers. Many of these visitors state they won’t be coming back to the refuge. They relay stories about having their food, water, and other belongings stolen. A few have had their vehicles stolen. And there have been a few cases of visitors forcibly removing illegal border crossers from their vehicles to prevent them from being stolen. Fortunately, none of these incidents have resulted in injury. But we are extremely concerned about this trend of boldness and violence exhibited by illegal border crossers recently.

Refuge facilities and equipment are also at risk on the border. The refuge has had 4 government vehicles stolen thus far in 2006 and we have had 5 burglaries of refuge housing so far in 2006. In one recent incident, a refuge employee’s government house was literally ransacked by a burglar who stole food, clothing, and a shotgun. The same burglar apparently got so frustrated when he couldn’t hotwire the employee’s vehicle out in the yard, he broke the windows out and slashed the tires. One of our refuge officers was able to catch the burglar about two hours later. The burglar was wearing our employee’s clothing, including a pair of government boots, and was busily sawing off the barrel of the shotgun he had just stolen. By working and living on the border we are forced into a defensive mode to protect our personal and government property.

Border issues and the associated illegal activity also cause a tremendous amount of resource damage to the refuge. The following information and statistics help to characterize the situation and give you an idea of what we are up against as we manage these lands. The following figures are for the Buenos Aires and are indicative of what has been on-going for at least the past three years.

Trash - By conservative estimates more than 500 tons of trash are left behind by illegal border crossers each year on the Buenos Aires. Refuge volunteers and staff are able to pick up 30-40 tons of trash each year, but the remainder accumulates throughout the refuge, biodegrading slowly and creating adverse resource impacts. Picking up trash on the refuge diverts about 3000 hours of volunteer time donated to the refuge each year.

Abandoned Vehicles - More than 100 vehicles are towed from the refuge each year due to border activity. Many other vehicles litter the landscape because they are not near roads and cannot be easily towed. The refuge spends valuable personnel and fiscal resource having these vehicles extracted from remote areas. In particular, this activity diverts valuable law enforcement resources.

Trailing - More than 1300 miles of illegal trails have been created on the refuge by illegal border crossers. The direct damage to the landscape is more than 300 acres of denuded vegetation, several miles of erosive gullying, and tremendous wildlife disturbance the refuge as a result of this increased human presence.

Illegal Roads - Several miles of unauthorized roads have been created by illegal border crossers as they attempt to evade law enforcement officers. This off-roading has led to more of the same problems as described with trailing.

Human Waste - As the masses of illegal migrants move through the area, human feces and toilet paper litter the landscape. The impacts are health risks to visitors, fouling of wildlife waters, and compromising the aesthetics of the refuge.

Cattle Trespass - Illegal border crossers often damage or cut fences, or leave gates open, which allows cattle to enter the refuge. This directly impacts our habitat management program for wildlife. But probably worse is the fact that most of the cattle trespass is from Mexico which may allow for brucellosis or other diseases to enter this country. This type of impact could be devastating to local livestock industries, especially if quarantines become necessary.

Wildfire - Several fires each year are started by illegal border crossers. These are either rescue fires as they get into trouble, or warming or cooking fires that have been left unattended or otherwise escape.

All of this damage is caused by illegal border crossers and, of course, the necessary law enforcement response. There is a balance to be achieved whereby law enforcement activities result in a net benefit to the resource, and not a detriment. We must work effectively with agencies such as Border Patrol to not only mitigate damage as we address illegal activity, but also increase our efficiency as we work together to combat illegal activity. A significant amount of our time is spent on cooperative efforts with the Department of Homeland Security specific to enforcement activities on the Buenos Aires.

For example, the refuge and Border Patrol have agreed to certain standard operating procedures for how patrols and apprehensions will be carried out on the refuge to minimize environmental impacts. The refuge has also facilitated the use of our airstrip by the Border Patrol so that their aircraft patrols are more efficient. We also allow them to maintain a portable fueling facility at the airstrip so they can continue operations without returning to Tucson for fuel. We have worked jointly with Border Patrol to develop a 3-acre equestrian facility on the refuge which serves their horse patrol unit. This enables them to conduct more patrols on horseback, which is less damaging to the landscape. The refuge frequently allows Border Patrol agents to utilize our trailers and RV hookups for temporary housing during details and special operations on the refuge. The refuge has recently coordinated with Border Patrol and permitted the placement of two rescue beacons in an effort to reduce migrant deaths on the refuge. The refuge is permitting the ongoing use of our maintenance yard by DHS personnel to construct vehicle barriers. And last, but not least, our law enforcement officers and managers continue to coordinate with DHS on a daily basis. All of the cooperation and coordination listed here takes a significant amount of time to accomplish, but you can see that we are serious about working together to address border issues.

In addition to our cooperative efforts with DHS, we also are forced to deal with many issues on our own. To address the resource damage and other border-related issues, the refuge staff’s response is rather like triage, as we direct our fiscal and personnel resources to only the most pressing needs. A full 30-40% of our maintenance staff’ time is spent installing security fences, vehicle barriers, putting bars on windows and doors at refuge housing, maintaining roads damaged by illegal activity, rounding up cattle and picking up trash. Our biologists spend precious time documenting and mitigating resource damage. My deputy manager and I spend about half our time dealing with the border, whether it’s attending to the day to day triage, pursuing interagency cooperation, or fielding interviews from the media. And of course, our law enforcement officers are consumed by illegal border activity. We would like to be able to send our refuge officers on patrol to tend to the visiting public, enforce resource-related regulations, check boundary fences, and patrol for poachers. Unfortunately, they won’t get 30 minutes into their patrols before getting caught up in some activity related to illegal border crossers. We can’t turn our back on smugglers and we won’t ignore another agency’s call for backup.

We would love to direct more of our efforts at Buenos Aires to managing natural resources, instead of managing border issues and damage. But the current situation will not allow for that. I believe any land manager or rancher along the border will tell you the same thing. In fact, the situation at Buenos Aires is not unique. My fellow land managers along the border are all facing similar challenges and dealing with the issues in much the same manner.

I hope I have provided meaningful information regarding the current situation along the border and provided some insight into what managing federal lands in that environment is like today. With the right resources and attitudes can work collaboratively with our partners in the Department of Homeland Security to effectively conserve natural resources on our National Wildlife Refuges. We can identify our priorities and implement creative solutions to address these issues.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the committee may have.