President Obama’s new national monument in New Mexico, which he announced Wednesday, thrilled environmentalists, who said it preserves nearly 500,000 acres of spectacular and pristine lands, but it could also doom his hopes of getting Congress to pass an immigration bill this year.
House Speaker John A. Boehner said the president’s unilateral move is exactly the type of action the GOP has been warning against, adding it shows the president isn’t serious about enforcing border security. Mr. Boehner has repeatedly said Republicans are reluctant to trust that the president will take seriously border security and immigration enforcement as part of a “comprehensive” deal that also would include the path to citizenship that Democrats prize.
“The president’s announcement today intensifies those concerns, demonstrating a level of audacity that is remarkable even for this administration,” the Ohio Republican said. “Once again, the president has chosen to bypass the legislative branch — and, in this case, do so in a manner that adds yet another challenge in our ongoing efforts to secure our southern border.”
Obama administration officials say there’s no reason to fear the monument will hurt border security. The president’s order specifically says the monument will be bound by a 2006 memo between the Interior Department and the Homeland Security Department that grants border agents the ability to conduct hot pursuit of suspects on protected lands.
“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 Jenny Burke, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The monument designation is Mr. Obama’s latest effort to use executive action to sidestep a Congress he said is too gridlocked to do what he wants.
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The new Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument will give heightened protection to nearly 500,000 acres of land around Las Cruces in southern New Mexico. Among the major attractions on the land are volcanic cones, prehistoric American Indian sites, graffiti from Billy the Kid and remnants from American pioneer days.
“The Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument will put the unique and spectacular desert landscapes of southern New Mexico on recreation maps around the world, attracting tourists to the region, creating jobs and bringing in millions of dollars in tourism revenue,” said Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat, who had written his own plan to have Congress officially declare the national monument.
But in making the move, Mr. Obama sidelined Rep. Stevan Pearce, the Republican whose district includes the land the new monument is on. Mr. Pearce had written a bill envisioning a monument slightly larger than 50,000 acres, or just one-tenth the size of the one Mr. Obama designated.
Republicans said Mr. Obama should have let Congress hash out the differences between Mr. Udall and Mr. Pearce rather than having the White House step in and side with Democrats.
The president, however, said this is exactly what he promised when he said he would make 2013 a year of action.
“As I said in my State of the Union address, I’m searching for more opportunities to preserve federal lands where communities are speaking up,” he said. “Because wherever I see an opening to get things done for the American people, I’m going to take it. I’ve said before: I want to work with anyone in Congress who is ready to get to work and shares those goals, but recently they haven’t gotten the job done.”
Mr. Obama acted under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which grants the president the power to designate national monuments — the second-highest protection possible, behind national parks. Parks can only be declared by act of Congress.
Ranchers in the region say they fear the monument will limit their grazing rights. The administration, however, says it’s taken steps to preserve all those rights in the new designation.
The biggest objection is coming from border security advocates.
Dona Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison told The Washington Times this week that the new monument will hurt his ability to patrol the region. He said it will create a corridor where smugglers and drug traffickers can operate with impunity.
In his statement Wednesday, Mr. Boehner said even Democrats realized there could be problems. The bill Mr. Udall wrote to designate the national monument included specific protections for border security.
“Yet the president and his administration have chosen to ignore those efforts and the concerns that its new restrictions will place additional burdens on Border Patrol personnel and limit access to high crime areas along the border, making it easier for drug smugglers and human traffickers to move in and out of the country,” Mr. Boehner said.
Democrats have accused Mr. Boehner of using Mr. Obama’s enforcement record as an excuse to forgo tackling immigration. They said there’s little more than a month left for Congress to act this year, before the intense campaign season takes over and no major legislation can pass.
“They keep finding excuses for inaction. There are no excuses. Enough is enough,” Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Democrats argue that if Mr. Boehner would allow a broad immigration bill to come to the House floor, it would pass.
Mr. Boehner disputes that and says too many Republicans don’t trust the president to enforce the laws on the books, much less a new immigration law that would require even tougher enforcement.