court case

Sierra Club v. Trump: Separation of Powers, the Environment, and Border Communities

January 26, 2019 | Talia Shadroui

Edited by: Gabriela Baghdady

In February of 2019, President Trump declared a national emergency on the border in order to divert funds to the construction of a wall along the border of Mexico [1]. Trump’s use of emergency powers has faced litigation in several federal courts. In late May of 2019, an Oakland-based federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that blocked about $1 billion in Defense Department funding for the wall. The injunction was the result of the lawsuit that the ACLU, on behalf of the Sierra Club and the Southern Border Communities Coalition, brought against President Trump [2]. However, the government appealed this district court order, and the Supreme Court temporarily granted the administration’s request for $2.5 billion from the military budget for construction of a border wall while the Ninth Circuit considers the government’s appeal more holistically [2]. Ultimately, Trump v. Sierra Club calls into question whether Trump’s emergency declaration violates the constitution, separation of powers principles, and legal precedent while also bringing awareness to the effects that a border wall would have on the environment and communities along the border.  

Sierra Club argues that with his national emergency declaration, Trump has violated the Appropriations Clause, the Presentment Clause, separation of powers principles, and the National Environmental Policy Act [3].  The Appropriations Clause safeguards the public treasury, providing a check on executive power by ensuring that the executive does not exercise unbounded power over the treasury of the nation. Because, the national emergency declaration attempts to divert funds from the military department to the construction of this project, the appellees (Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition) argue that the declaration violates the Appropriations Clause. The Presentment Clause requires the President to either sign an appropriations bill presented to him by Congress, or return it to Congress with his objections. The president is accused of violating the Presentment Clause because he signed the 2019 Appropriations Act but then rejected it through his national emergency declaration. Sierra Club also argues that the declaration violates separation of powers principles by unseating Congress’s power over spending and ignoring Congress’s spending limit of $1.3 billion in border wall funding [4]. Finally, the Sierra Club argues that the emergency declaration violates the National Environmental Policy Act which requires firms to consider harm to wildlife and conduct assessments of the environment before proceeding with construction in an area [5].

In addition to the constitutional and legal questions it poses, Sierra Club v. Trump emphasizes how construction of a border wall would impact border communities and the environment. The plaintiffs of this case, the Southern Border Communities Coalition and the Sierra Club, legally represented by the ACLU, are justifiably concerned with these impacts. The Southern Border Communities Coalition promotes policies and solutions that improve the quality of life of border communities, bringing together 60 organizations from Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas toward this common goal [6]. The Sierra Club is a national organization that is dedicated to protecting and restoring the environment partially through advocating on issues such as the human and environmental impacts of construction projects. Therefore, both of these non-profit organizations have overlapping concerns about the impact of border construction on the environment and communities along the border. Specifically, both are concerned about the negative impacts of construction noise, additional personnel, visual blight, and negative ecological effects that would accompany a border barrier. They argue that its construction would detract from communities’ ability to hike, fish, enjoy the desert landscapes, and observe and study a diverse range of wildlife in areas near the U.S.-Mexico border [7]. Thus, both organizations and have made clear their intent to advocate for the environment and border communities and have evaluated the effects that a border wall would have on both.  

President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the border follows other actions that the Trump administration has taken concerning the border and immigration, specifically three executive orders on immigration, that were signed the very week of his inauguration. These executive orders–Executive Order on Border Security, Executive Order on Interior Enforcement, and Executive Order on Refugees– broadly outline the goals of the Trump administration regarding immigration policies. First, the Executive Order on Border Security has three main components: construction of the wall, increased construction of detention facilities and detention of immigrants, and limits on access to asylum. The Executive Order on Interior Enforcement focuses on forbidding sanctuary cities, expanding enforcement priorities, and increasing ICE agents. Finally, the Executive Order on Refugees suspends visas to certain countries, promotes extreme vetting, suspends the US refugee program, and bands Syrian refugees [8]. It is also important to consider how these executive orders correlate with a broader pattern of concerns from current administration about how immigrants harm the safety of Americans by bringing crime and violence to the United States. Yet, for the most part, these concerns are not backed up by data and research. According to the Cato Institute, immigrants are less crime prone than the native population. Although it is widely accepted that legal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than natives, the crime rate of illegal immigrants is more uncertain. Nevertheless, a great deal of research indicates that illegal immigrant incarceration rates are about half of those of native-born Americans in 2017 [9]Thus, the concern about immigrants bringing crime and violence to the United States is largely unfounded and fails to support the claim that illegal immigration is a national emergency.  

Ultimately, Sierra Club v. Trump is significant because it sheds light on the potentially negative impacts that construction and maintenance of a border wall might have on local communities and the environment. The case, when decided, would also clarify separation of power principles, especially in regard to control over the national public treasury and whether or not the executive should be allowed to divert funds to this national emergency, especially one that is so widely disputed and founded on misleading ideas. Furthermore, the national emergency declaration can be connected to the efforts of the Trump administration to intensify immigration restrictions and calls into question whether the declaration is justifiable, given no broad body of research that supports the conclusion that immigrants increase crime and violence in the United States. In all, Sierra Club v. Trump is critical to understanding the current administration’s goals regarding immigration and the border, common arguments against construction and maintenance of a border wall, and key constitutional principles. 


Citations

1  Baker, Peter. “Trump Declares a National Emergency, and Provokes a Constitutional Clash.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 15, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/15/us/politics/national-emergency-trump.html.

2 Bourgoin, Courtney. “Federal Court Blocks Border Wall Construction in National Emergency Challenge.” Sierra Club, May 29, 2019. https://www.sierraclub.org/press-releases/2019/05/federal-court-blocks-border-wall-construction-national-emergency-challenge.

3 Lantry, Lauren. “ACLU, Southern Border Communities Coalition and Sierra Club File Lawsuit Challenging National Emergency Declaration.” Sierra Club, May 23, 2019. https://www.sierraclub.org/press-releases/2019/05/aclu-southern-border-communities-coalition-and-sierra-club-file-lawsuit.

4 Baker, Peter. “Trump Declares a National Emergency, and Provokes a Constitutional Clash.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 15, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/15/us/politics/national-emergency-trump.html.

5 “Sierra Club v. Trump – Challenge to Trump’s National Emergency Declaration to Construct a Border Wall.” American Civil Liberties Union, March 20, 2019. https://www.aclu.org/cases/sierra-club-v-trump-challenge-trumps-national-emergency-declaration-construct-border-wall

6 Sierra Club v. Trump, No. 19-16102 (9th. Cir. 2019)

7 Sierra Club v. Trump, No. 19-16102 (9th. Cir. 2019)

8 “Executive Order: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements.” The White House. The United States Government, January 25, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-border-security-immigration-enforcement-improvements/

9 Goitein, Elizabeth, Andrew Boyle, and Trevor Burrus. “Sierra Club v. Trump.” Cato Institute, May 6, 2019. https://www.cato.org/publications/legal-briefs/sierra-club-v-trump.

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