With Congress vowing to secure the nation's borders as part of an immigration bill that proposes hiring 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, several former immigration officers say border agents have been inhibited in their efforts to patrol the Southwest border by other agencies.
The National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, along with more than 50 lawmakers, argues that border security has taken a back seat to the environmental concerns of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
"Their focus is environmental protection, not national security, and they apply their rules to other government agencies regardless of impact on other missions," the association said in a statement. "While on paper the Border Patrol has access to the lands managed by these other agencies, in actual practice their rules denied free access on an as-needed basis."
The group said that access is being impeded not just to vehicles patrolling the border, but generally bars infrastructure such as cameras, sensors, radio towers and landing strips and pads for aircraft in areas distant from the border.
"To be controlled effectively, there must be in-depth activity by the Border Patrol extending as deep, in some places, as 100 miles," said the association, whose membership includes several former Border Patrol chiefs and regional directors of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The group said the lack of access, especially in the wilderness areas along the border, essentially cedes U.S. territory to the ever-more-violent drug smugglers.
Rep. Rob W. Bishop, Utah Republican, has introduced legislation to prohibit the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture from taking action on federal lands within 100 miles of an international land border that impedes border security. The bill would give the Border Patrol access to land under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management "to prevent all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband through the international land borders of the United States."
It also would allow Customs and Border Patrol access to federal lands to construct and maintain fences and roads; use vehicles and aircraft to patrol; install, maintain and operate surveillance equipment and sensors; and deploy forward operating bases.
Mr. Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee that oversees public lands, said taking up "sweeping immigration reform is futile unless we address some of the biggest problems plaguing border security first."
"Right now, environmental land management policies are trumping national security efforts," he said. "We have basically rolled out the welcome mat for drug cartels on federal lands because environmental policies restrict the U.S. Border Patrol's ability to secure some of the most heavily trafficked areas of the southern border."
He said current land management policies block the Border Patrol from having sufficient access, meaning that those wanting to enter the country illegally have virtually unfettered access. He said many who enter the U.S. unlawfully are working for drug cartels, but the Border Patrol's lack of sufficient access to federal lands is contributing to the growing number of those who remain in the country illegally.
"At some point we are going to have to take actual steps to fix the problem," he said.
The National Border Patrol Council, which represents the Border Patrol's nonsupervisory agents, said it had "serious concerns" about the provision in the recently passed Senate immigration bill to hire 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, nearly doubling the agency's manpower.
"Unless we're going to form a human chain from Brownsville to Imperial Beach, I'm not sure this is going to be the cure that everybody thinks it will be at the border," said Shawn Moran, a council vice president. "We don't have money for gas or ammunition or uniforms, and that's at 21,000 agents. I'm not sure how we're going to be able to handle 40,000 agents. I don't know where we're going to put them."
The council had a different proposal to reform agents' pay, which Mr. Moran said would have put more agents into the field and would have been the equivalent of a 5,000-agent boost over the course of a year. But that proposal got held up along with the hundreds of other amendments that never were put to a vote.
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