Up against the border wall

President Trump’s use of military funding for construction of his southern border wall is typically framed as an immigration issue, or perhaps one of constitutional authority, but to Gloria Smith, the case is very much an environmental one.

Smith told The Hill in an interview this month that, unlike with other legal challenges to the project, courts “have repeatedly ruled that Sierra Club absolutely has standing to bring these cases and that’s because we have so many members who are directly impacted by this.”

The Sierra Club, alongside the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Border Communities Coalition, sued the administration last year after Trump declared an emergency to reallocate the funds. The groups argue that the declaration was an unconstitutional attempt to circumvent the budget passed by Congress, that it will harm the environment and wildlife and that it will negatively affect border communities.

The litigation is ongoing, and the organizations also filed a second suit in late February after the administration notified Congress that it would divert additional defense funds to the wall.

Smith, a managing attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program, said that a number of species could be threatened by the project, including ocelots, Mexican wolves, rattlesnakes and jaguars.

“When bulldozers and scrapers go through and clear, everything is gone,” she said, adding that some species will “certainly be wiped out north of the border. Their habitat will be bifurcated.”

Smith also mentioned the “heartbreaking” destruction of cacti that are supposed to be protected by law.

“It also can be really depressing sometimes when you see the Department of Defense mowing down floral cactuses that are two stories high and hundreds of years old for no reason,” she said.

As one of several lawyers on the case, Smith’s job includes collecting statements from Sierra Club members to show the court how people are being harmed by the government’s action.

“It’s honestly really hard because they pour their hearts out because they feel like they’re not being heard, and they’re not,” she said. “People who’ve lived there their whole lives now feel like criminals. And they get pulled over and they’re questioned and harassed for using land that they’ve been using years, decades, their whole lives.”

Smith said that hearing Trump declare the national emergency last year felt like a “double hit” of constitutional and environmental implications.

“It was the first time we’d ever seen any president declare a national emergency because he didn’t get his way in a budget that he signed the day before,” she said. “I instantly knew what this was going to mean for our borderlands.” 

The administration has defended its actions, arguing that the wall is needed for national security.

When he declared the emergency, Trump said, “It’s a great thing to do because we have an invasion of drugs, invasion of gangs, invasion of people.”

Smith didn’t always think she’d be working with one of the nation’s foremost environmental groups in a battle against the president.

In fact, growing up, her father had a bumper sticker on his truck that said, “Sierra Club go straight to hell.”

Hailing from a West Coast family that worked in logging and construction, Smith said that in the early 1990s she saw politicians pitting industry and environmentalists against one another.

She thinks that planning and negotiation could have helped the situation, which led her to believe that the law could be used for good.

“I just thought, we can do better,” she said.

Smith describes her family as “outdoorsy,” saying they often hunted and camped when she was young.

“While all of them were part of cutting down hundreds-of-year-old trees, they still loved being a part of that,” she said. “As I got older, those trees were disappearing and those habitats were disappearing and I had an understanding of the land and I had an understanding of the impacts … and I knew I had to be involved in environmental protection as part of my career.”

Smith still lives in California, where she grew up and spent most of her life, but she did live in Washington, D.C., for four years, working at the solicitor’s office at the Interior Department under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

In that role, she represented the National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service on issues such as dam removal and improving water quality.

In 2009, she joined the Sierra Club, where she has also worked on the Beyond Coal campaign, which seeks to retire coal plants and replace them with clean sources of energy.

Outside of the office, Smith still enjoys helping animals. She spends three weeks every year in Guatemala volunteering at a hospital that seeks to help native species such as monkeys, parrots and foxes that are affected by wildlife trafficking.

“It’s much more immediately satisfying because it’s literally working with these animals as opposed to filing lawsuits and writing briefs,” she said.

As for the border wall, Smith said that it is “disheartening” that there are so many negative repercussions stemming from what she described as simply a campaign issue for Trump.

“The wall started as a campaign slogan and nothing more, nothing based in fact, nothing based in sound policy … that might actually benefit the United States,” she said. “There’s no evidence he’s ever given a single thought of what that really means to people and plants and animals and precious places.”

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