SIERRA VISTA — Camouflage has become the fabric of choice for undocumented immigrants hoping to slip unseen across the border. But the material, among other items, also has turned into the litter found strewn about the desert, Cochise County officials say.
Sgt. Tim Williams of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office and members of his Ranch Patrol see it often.
“There’s piles and piles of that stuff in certain areas,” Williams said recently at a Sheriff’s roundtable for legislators from around the country. “It’s just littering the desert. They (undocumented migrants) have their normal clothes in backpacks.
“Once they get to their load off point they strip all that camouflage off and wear clothes like we would wear to blend in. Then all that camouflage gets littered throughout our entire desert.”
Williams and his patrols have found camouflage jackets, hats and carpet booties along Cochise County’s border with Mexico. Other sections of the state’s border have been used as dumping grounds, as well.
According to the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., a think tank that researches U.S. immigration policy, Arizona is the most vulnerable state when it comes to the desert litter discarded by illegal migrants because it shares so much of its border with Mexico.
“Indeed, one of the most direct environmental impacts of illegal immigration is one that’s clearly observable to anyone who lives at the southwest border — the thousands of pounds of trash that are discarded and left behind by aliens and their hired human smugglers,” the group’s website states in a September 2018 article. “Perhaps the state hardest hit by trash at the border is Arizona, which shares 370 miles of border with Mexico.”
While the litter situation in Cochise County has been alleviated in the last few years because of tough, joint enforcement efforts between ranchers, the Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Border Patrol, there are still pockets where litter abounds.
June Lowery, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Gila District, said Friday that rangers often find litter and garbage left behind by migrants in the washes along State Road 90 in Cochise County.
“The items they’re finding are backpacks, water jugs, and some burlap clothing,” Lowery said. “We do clean it up.”
Lowery said the litter is not an everyday occurrence, but it is an ongoing situation.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, says there are hazards to desert litter, including strewn trash and piles, illegal trails and paths, erosion and watershed degradation, damaged infrastructure and property, loss of vegetation and wildlife, fires, abandoned vehicles and bicycles, vandalism, graffiti and site damage (historical and archaeological), and occurrence of bio-hazardous waste.
The state agency estimates that over 2,000 tons of trash are discarded at the Arizona border every year. As a consequence, the department established a website entitled “Arizona Border Trash” in 2012 to coordinate and keep track of the state’s trash cleanup operations. The agency estimates that each border-crosser leaves an average of six to eight pounds of trash behind.
Cochise County Supervisor Tom Borer, an avid hiker, has found such trash and litter on and off the beaten path.
“Normally we come across little stuff. But if you get off the established trails, up into the thicker foliage, you’ll find more of those kinds of sights,” Borer said recently.
Borer said the desert ecosystem is “very fragile.”
“It doesn’t get a lot water so everything is precious to it,” he said. “You walk on things, you throw trash on top of things and pretty soon everything underneath there is sand, or dirt, or rocks, or whatever the case might be.
“We have a beautiful are we live in. We have a responsibility to take care of it and those are some of the things we battle to keep cleaned up,” Borer added.
The supervisor also mentioned his concern for animals that live in the desert getting into the litter and trash and eating it.
John Ladd, whose family has owned a ranch for decades off State Road 92 that runs 10 miles along the border with Mexico, agrees the litter situation has gotten better, but recently he saw piles of clothes along a roadway off State Road 92.
“There were over six piles of clothing,” he said this week. “It was brand new camo.”