Environmental laws put gaps in Mexico border security

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In the battle on the U.S.-Mexico border, the fight against illegal immigration often loses out to environmental laws that have blocked construction of parts of the “virtual fence” and that threaten to create places where agents can’t easily track illegal immigrants.

Documents obtained by Rep. Rob Bishop and shared with The Washington Times show National Park Service staffers have tried to stop the U.S. Border Patrol from placing some towers associated with the virtual fence, known as the Secure Border Initiative or SBInet, on wilderness lands in parks along the border.

In a remarkably candid letter to members of Congress, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said her department could have to delay pursuits of illegal immigrants while waiting for horses to be brought in so agents don’t trample protected lands, and warns that illegal immigrants will increasingly make use of remote, protected areas to avoid being caught.

The documents also show the Interior Department has charged the Homeland Security Department $10 million over the past two years as a “mitigation” penalty to pay for damage to public lands that agencies say has been caused by Border Patrol agents chasing illegal immigrants.

“I want this resolved so border security has the precedence down there. If wilderness designation gets in the way of a secure southern border, I want the designation changed,” said Mr. Bishop, Utah Republican, who requested the documents. “If it means you lose a couple of acres of wilderness, I don’t think God will blame us at the judgment bar for doing that.”

The conflict between the environment and border security has raged for the past decade as better enforcement in urban areas has pushed the flow of illegal immigrants into Arizona and straight into some of the nation’s most remote and fragile desert.

A major problem is wilderness - lands deemed so pristine that they should be maintained in that condition, free of man-made structures.

Wilderness is governed under a 1964 law that imposed strict rules that tie Border Patrol agents’ hands, and there is a lot of that land along the border. According to the Congressional Research Service, California has 1.8 million acres of wilderness within 100 miles of the border, and Arizona has 2.5 million acres. New Mexico and Texas have smaller plots.

According to e-mails obtained by Mr. Bishop, Park Service officials at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and at the Denver office that oversees the park said they will not allow the Border Patrol to place electronic surveillance towers on parts of the park that are designated wilderness.

In one 2008 e-mail, officials tell the Homeland Security Department to “pursue alternative tower locations.” In another 2008 memo, the superintendent of Organ Pipe says Park Service officials could reject towers even beyond wilderness areas if they deem the effects would spill over into wilderness.

Organ Pipe has 32 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border on its land, and 95 percent of the park is designated wilderness. Officials have shut down much of the western side of the giant park, saying the threat of encounters with illegal immigrants and drug smugglers makes that land not safe enough for visitors.

Homeland Security considers SBInet critical to gaining control of the border. The concept is to mix manpower, technology and infrastructure to form the “virtual fence” that government planners say can curtail illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

The project is way behind its original schedule, having slipped from a 2009 deadline all the way back to 2016. The Government Accountability Office, in a report released in September, blamed both testing flaws and environmental rules for holding up the system.

A spokesman for the National Park Service Denver office, which oversees Arizona, didn’t return calls for comment.

But Jane Lyder, deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Interior Department, said her agency tries to cooperate, though its mission does conflict with that of the Homeland Security Department.

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