A Washington-based organization that favors tighter restrictions on immigration filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking records from the U.S. Forest Service related to the impact of illegal immigration on federal lands under its management.
The plaintiff, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and its legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), argue that the federal government has largely ignored the environmental degradation that has resulted from illegal immigration.
“One of the most underreported stories about illegal immigration is the damage it causes to the environment in border areas,” IRLI’s executive director, Dale Wilcox, said in a prepared statement. “Tons of trash, abandoned vehicles and dangerous campfires are common along the border. The federal government needs to be transparent with the American people about the destructive impact illegal immigration has on our environment.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), seeks the following:
- The amount of land managed by the Forest Service that has been closed to the public since fiscal year 2015.
- Estimates of the number of illegal border crossers into two national forests since 2011.
- An accounting of the resource damage and wildlife costs caused by illegal campfires since 2013 on properties managed by the Forest Service.
- Estimates of the amount of trash removed from each property the agency manages.
- The number and annual cost estimates of law enforcement officers stationed at each property managed by the agency.
Julie Axelrod, senior counsel for IRLI, said she is not sure how much information the lawsuit might yield. It is possible the agency does not keep detailed records of the data the organization seeks because it traditionally has not been interested in learning those details.
“We’re concerned about these issues and want to get as much data about what is happening as possible,” she said.
Axelrod noted that a number of environmental organizations have raised concerns and threatened lawsuits over the ecological impact of the wall President Donald Trump wants to build along the southwest border.
“We really just believe environmental groups are ignoring the fact that not having a secure border harms the environment,” she said.
Axelrod and IRLI represent a group of organizations and individuals in a lawsuit filed in 2016 alleging that the Department of Homeland Security repeatedly has failed to consider the impact of mass migration in environmental impact statements produced under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
That suit is awaiting a federal judge’s ruling on a motion by the government to dismiss the case.
Axelrod said the FOIA lawsuit is unrelated but added that information it turns up could prove useful in the NEPA litigation. She said one of the plaintiffs in that case is a retired Forest Service officer who was devastated over the environmental damage he saw.
Illegal immigrants pollute rivers and trample on fragile ecosystems, Axelrod said. She added that smugglers cause intentional damage as well.
“Sometimes they even set fires to keep people off their trail,” she said.
Axelrod said the U.S. Forest Service’s indifference to illegal immigration, especially during former President Barack Obama’s administration, has been frustrating to private citizens who have to seek permission to use federal lands.
“Illegal aliens don’t ask permission,” she said.
Joe Guzzardi, a spokesman for Progressives for Immigration Reform, said IRLI is right that unchecked illegal immigration has a negative environmental impact.
“No question about it,” he said. “If there are millions of border crossers, and the federal government has refused to enforce those laws … obviously,” he said. “There [are] pictures that have been posted on the internet.”
As for the NEPA suit, Axelrod said the switch in presidential administrations has not changed the adversarial posture of the government.
“It seems to me this … largely is driven by the career staff,” she said.
(photo credit, homepage image: Central American Migrants Find Quarter in Southern Mexico, CC BY 2.0, by Peter Haden)