Wednesday, April 1, 2009

We wonder if the Sierra Club can see the forest for the trees when it comes to the need for strengthening security at the borders.

Today is the first anniversary of the Bush administration’s decision to waive some environmental regulations and allow for the completion of a partial fence along the Mexican border. The need for the move is clear, as the fence could help stem the tide of illegal immigrants crossing into the United States and the record level of kidnappings in the Southwest. Law enforcement ties the dramatic increases in violence - including murders, robberies and rapes - to the impact of drug cartels hailing from south of the U.S. border.

However, the Sierra Club does not see the regulatory set-aside for what it is, the least imperfect solution. Instead, the group, in a recent press release attacking the move, contends it was “one of the worst affronts to environmental law in history.” A look at the facts about crime on the border reveals a much more nuanced picture of the whole situation and a lesson in balancing political and policy priorities.

Phoenix has become the violent kidnapping capital of the U.S. with almost 370 abductions last year and nearly 360 in 2007, according to the Phoenix Police Department. With a reported rate of at least one kidnapping-for-ransom per day, police estimates for actual abductions run double that level, as many are not reported for fear of recrimination. Bound and bullet-riddled bodies are being found in the desert. Many of the victims are illegal immigrants and have ties to the drug trade, but innocents are being caught up in the terror as well.

Such crimes helped prompt the Bush administration to act, setting aside 35 environmental regulations that threatened to keep the fence from ever being completed. If the Bush administration had not set aside the environmental concerns, the project would have been tied up in court for years.

When floodwaters are approaching, you begin filling sandbags to buttress the levee. You do not go to court to debate what type of sand to use.

The wall is not the only answer to the problem at the border, and it is not a panacea. But it is a deterrent, another tool for law enforcement. The Great Wall of China didn’t keep everyone out, but its absence produced a flood of crossings.

The reasons cited by the Sierra Club against the fence suggest it has no sense of proportion. The venerable organization views its environmental agenda as superseding the larger issues facing communities in the Southwest. In its press release, the group chastises the stripping of 670 miles of “pristine wildlands” to build the “ecologically disastrous” broader wall, which at points “blind nocturnal animals with floodlighting, disrupting their ability to feed, migrate or mate.” The group goes on to note that photographs (see one example nearby) show mule deer, javelina and mountain lions stranded at the wall .

Do such claims really reflect the actual environmental impact, or is this hyperbole? After all, the fence does not run the length of the border and ends at various points.

Obviously, the Sierra Club’s saber-rattling is the part of a campaign to get the Obama administration to repeal the waivers and halt construction. But Congress would be wise to note that voters in the increasingly blue states of the Southwest overwhelmingly favor a border fence. Enraging them could mean significant blowback for Democratic Party lawmakers in the 2010 elections.

While the Sierra Club is single-minded, the congressional majority can only survive by appealing outside of its liberal base to the vast majority. Democratic leaders face a test: Will they say no to a key interest group? Or will they be as myopic as the Sierra Club?

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