A top House Republican urged President Obama on Tuesday to ensure Border Patrol agents will have access to rugged and remote mountain ranges along the Mexican border that the president is designating as a national monument.
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, said the president’s action could make it more difficult for law enforcement to patrol huge swaths of the border in New Mexico.
“Without law enforcement having access to federal lands, drug traffickers, human smugglers and potentially terrorists are able to exploit yet another loophole created by the Obama administration’s lax immigration enforcement,” Mr. Goodlatte said. “As President Obama moves forward with his decision, I urge him and his administration to allow Border Patrol agents to do their job and gain control of our nation’s porous borders.”
Mr. Obama will use his executive authority Wednesday to designate nearly a half-million acres in New Mexico as the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. About half that land is expected to be set aside eventually by Congress as wilderness, which would close those areas to vehicles.
Dona Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison said Monday the president’s action will create “a pathway for criminals to get into this country to do their criminal acts.” The New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association also is opposed to the move.
On Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency rebutted the claim that the national monument designation would threaten border security.
“This designation will in no way limit our ability to perform our important border security mission, and in fact provides important flexibility as we work to meet this ongoing priority,” said spokeswoman Jenny Burke. “CBP is committed to continuing to work closely with the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service to maintain border security while ensuring the protection of the environment along the border.”
The president’s action is raising questions of border security just as he is seeking the help of law enforcement groups to pressure House Republicans to approve comprehensive immigration reform. Mr. Goodlatte challenged the administration’s record of enforcing the borders, saying it has given priority to land preservation.
“Documents show that the Departments of Interior and Agriculture are using environmental regulations to prevent the Border Patrol from accessing portions of the 21 million acres along the U.S.-Mexico border and over 1,000 miles of the U.S.-Canada border,” Mr. Goodlatte said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Obama Administration officials have so far prevented Border Patrol agents from securing the border by denying them access to federal lands under the guise of environmental preservation.”
The president’s announcement will mark the second national monument he has designated in New Mexico; he established the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in March 2013. The area is twice as large as any of the previous 10 national monuments established by Mr. Obama.
The land preservation is being hailed by groups ranging from sportsmen to environmentalists to American Indian tribes. The territory includes historical and cultural treasures such as ancient rock drawings; it also contains a wide variety of plant and animal life, including more than 200 species of birds.
Mr. Obama’s action is following the contours of a bill proposed by Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, who wanted to set aside 498,815 acres. Their measure would establish eight wilderness areas.
A rival bill proposed by Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican, would create a national monument in an area about one-tenth the size of the Senate legislation.
Mr. Pearce has said the president’s action “bypasses the will of the people.” But sportsmen and environmentalists disputed that claim.
“Southern New Mexico sportsmen and women appreciate the president using the authority granted by law to establish the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument because Congress failed to act on our behalf,” said John Cornell, president of Dona Ana County Associated Sportsmen. “Sportsmen have wanted permanent protection of this entire area for a decade, but the smaller designation offered by Rep. Pearce fell short. It simply did not protect the lands sportsmen most wanted protection for.”