UNM School of Law Students Explore Environmental Concerns on U.S.-Mexico Border

April 7, 2022 - J. Spenser Lotz, UNM SOL '23

On Thursday, March 31 st, and Friday, April 1 st, students and faculty from the UNM School of Law traveled to the Borderlands region of New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico to learn firsthand about environmental issues affecting people living in underserved communities. Participants in the “Border Environment” program included Professors Gabe Pacyniak and Cliff Villa, along with students from Prof. Villa’s spring courses in Environmental Justice and International Environmental Law.

Photo of a group walking on a path in El Camino Real in Village of Doña Ana, NM
Strolling El Camino Real in Village of Doña Ana, NM

Program participants visited the New Mexico colonias of Doña Ana, Mesquite, Vado, Chaparral, and Anapra.  Colonias are rural communities located near the U.S.-Mexico border that often lack municipal status and basic services such as adequate drinking water, electricity, and sanitation.  With guidance from Israel Chavez (UNM SOL ’19) of the Doña Ana Village Association, students on the trip learned about the history of colonias, observed current conditions, and spoke directly with community members, including Diego Medina of the Piro-Manso-Tewa Tribe and Oscar Vasquez Butler, former County Commissioner. The first day of the trip finished with an evening gathering in Sunland Park, NM, where trip participants and community members sat down together to enjoy local Mexican food and share stories, concerns, and aspirations.

On the second day of the trip, participants crossed the border from El Paso, Texas, into Ciudad Juárez, and visited several sites including the border wall, a neighborhood where sewage flowed through the streets, and a reverse osmosis plant providing safe drinking water to the Mexican colonia of Anapra. The Juárez tour concluded with a visit to El Colegio de Chihuahua, a public university that offers scientific research and urban government programs and works to collect information on the public environment shared by El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.

Photo of a group gathered eating in park area.
Community gathering in Sunland Park, NM

Throughout the tour, students received valuable advice about community advocacy. Arturo Uribe, from Mesquite, NM, urged students to put client goals first. “Be brave,” he advised.  “If [communities] want to fight, go with them.”  Dr. Diana Bustamante, a leader in the landmark case of Colonias Development Council v. Rhino Environmental Services, Inc. (NM 2005), challenged students to give their future clients as much time as possible to consider and act on their priorities, especially before public hearings. The better prepared community members are, the more confident they will be to speak on their own behalf. Community leaders emphasized that one of the most important things lawyers can do is to simply show up for meetings.  Lawyers can also be strong allies when they assist community folks by providing the legal and technical language to make arguments against environmental injustice. 

Photo of a group gathered for a photo with the border wall in the background in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
Trip participants with border wall in background, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

Tour participants express gratitude to the Foundation for Natural Resources and Energy Law (formerly, Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation) for financial support of the Border Environment program. Tour participants are also grateful to their hosts and guides in southern New Mexico, El Paso, and Juárez. As part of UNM’s nationally ranked program in Natural Resources and Environmental Law, the Border Environment program will help educate future lawyers on effective community advocacy, draw attention to environmental concerns in the Border region, and strengthen connections between the UNM School of Law and border communities.  

For further information on the Border Environment program, please contact Prof. Cliff Villa at villa@law.unm.edu.