Bordered state, borderless earth: Religion, environment, and the border in South Texas

South Texas is a region uniquely affected by ecological risk and border-related alienation. Religious faith is playing a role in relating and responding to these challenges.

by Gary S. Slater, PhD
St. Edward’s University, Austin, TX

Relative to the rest of Texas, the border region of South Texas is a world apart. It’s got the only contiguous cluster of counties that consistently vote for Democrats. Its Catholic and Latino populations are much higher here than anywhere else. And it has, by far, the highest concentration of low-income residents in the state.

There is also another distinctive feature of South Texas, one that is less well known than these others: its high levels of environmental awareness, at least regarding climate change. According to a study carried out earlier this year, residents of South Texas—often known as the Valley—are in America to say that climate change will have a direct impact on their lives. Why is this?

There’s an obvious answer and a relatively surprising answer. The obvious answer for why residents of the Texas border region are among those most likely to believe in the personal impact of climate change is because, well, they’re right. Residents of South Texas will be among those most affected by climate change. As a recent study publicized in The Atlantic shows, the counties comprising this region are expected to suffer much higher disruption regarding climate patterns than averages nationwide. In a region whose economy depends on agriculture and is threatened by drought conditions, it isn’t hard to see how residents might be affected.

What about the relatively surprising answer? One of the defining features of this region—perhaps the defining feature—is the presence of the U.S.-Mexico border. The border affects families, it affects local businesses, it affects security, and it affects the cultural cohesion of an overwhelmingly Latino region. Colin Woodard, author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Penguin, 2011), describes these conditions nicely:

The borderlands on both sides of the United States-Mexico boundary are really part of a single norteño culture. Split by an increasingly militarized border, El Norte in some ways resembles Germany during the Cold War: two peoples with a common culture separated from one another by a large wall. (10)

The border with Mexico presents enormous challenges for advocates of social justice. As Kristin Heyer has noted in her book, Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration (Georgetown University Press, 2012), the path of migrants en route to the United States via Mexico is increasingly paved by suffering and death, as drug cartels overtake the profitable business of human smuggling, increased border fortification and surveillance reroute their paths, and record heat waves conspire with human hazards (3).

Border concerns merge with environmental ones in that the very existence of a heavily guarded international boundary might be among the clearest possible symbols of a sense of separation between the human and natural worlds. More concretely, in a region so defined by the border, the climate has a direct impact on attempts to cross the border in uninhabited areas. Since the mid-1990s, when immigration policy shifted amidst crackdowns on larger cities like El Paso or Laredo, an increasing percentage of illegal border crossings have occurred away from population centers. And the death toll under these conditions has been tragically high. As Robin Hoover points out in A Promised Land, A Perilous Journey: Theological Perspectives on Migration (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), since 1993, on average more than one migrant each day has died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border (161). What is the largest cause of death? Exposure to excess heat and dehydration—precisely the conditions exacerbated by the shifting climate. President Trump’s long-promised border wall illustrates these concerns well. This wall (even if transparent) would have dire consequences for both human and ecological well being.

Religion in this region is working is to show how ecological and social justice concerns are uniquely linked for these communities. How have they done this? There are the global examples and the local examples. The global examples include papal encyclicals like 2015’s Laudato Si, which draws from Roman Catholic tradition to call upon Catholics to care for the earth as “our common home.” Another example comes from liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, whose recent book, Come, Holy Spirit: Inner Fire, Giver of Life, and Comforter of the Poor (Orbis Books, 2015), makes the link between social and ecological justice explicit. As Boff puts it, “With our hostility toward the earth and all its ecosystems, humanity is poised to wipe out human life, destroy our civilization, and inflict terrible damage on the whole biosphere.” (vii) Another global factor is the relatively strong correlation between belief in climate change and Latino Roman Catholic identity relative to other faiths. While rates of religiosity tend to correspond with higher levels of climate change denialism elsewhere, in this region that is not the case. In fact, Latino Catholics are among the religionists most likely to accept the reality of climate change.

More interesting for Texas, however, are the local examples. Take South Texas Human Rights, for example. This is a group that works to provide water for migrants who are crossing the border. Inspired by Arizona’s Humane Borders, which acts on theological motivations, South Texas Human Rights is responding to conditions in which human suffering that has been made worse by climate change. Regarding the social challenge, too, a broad faith-based coalition has come together in response, as evidenced the response to the crisis of undocumented children at the border not long ago.

These efforts push back on two popular misconceptions: that climate and economic issues push against each other, and that science and religion push against each other. And in the reality that the issues of the border and of climate will remain relevant in the years ahead, the particular relationship between faith, social justice, and the environment in South Texas is well worth studying. To borrow a phrase from Susanna Snyder, author of Asylum-seeking, migration, and church (Ashgate, 2012), the conditions in South Texas could either lend themselves to an “ecology of fear” or an “ecology of faith” (13). The effort by religions in this region to recognize the link between environmental and social justice concerns can be strongly identified with the latter.

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