Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Border-death numbers remain steady

San Diego Union-Tribune

September 30, 2009

As the nation's economy has plunged, the northbound flow of illegal border crossers has continued to ebb, with border-crossing apprehensions at a low not seen in almost a quarter-century.

However, while fewer people are being apprehended by the Border Patrol, the number who have died while attempting to cross in recent years has remained steady, probably because the crossings are being made in ever more remote locations.

Border Patrol tallies of apprehensions, deaths and rescues for the fiscal year that ends today won't be available until later in October, but the agency's numbers through Aug. 31 indicate a trend.

Between last October and the end of August, 519,394 people were caught trying to enter the United States illegally, the vast majority along the southern border. The downward trend began in 2005; if the numbers hold through September, it will be the lowest number of arrests since 1975, when the agency apprehended about 596,000 people.

While border-crossing deaths are below the level of 2005, when a record 492 were tallied nationwide by the agency, deaths this year are on par with the previous two years and could possible exceed them.

In fiscal year 2007, 398 people are known to have died while trying to enter illegally; in 2008, there were 390 fatalities. Just along the southwest border this fiscal year through the end of August, 378 people have been found dead, more than during the same period the two previous years.

Both the Border Patrol and immigrant advocates point to increased border enforcement, including new fence projects along the southwest border and a larger staff of agents conducting patrols.

“As (we) are gaining more operational control of areas where smugglers operated with impunity, they are going out into farther areas of the desert,” said Michael Reilly, a Border Patrol spokesman in Washington, D.C. “That could be one explanation.”

Border deaths began to increase along the southwest border following the 1994 implementation of a border security strategy known as Operation Gatekeeper, which brought additional fencing, Border Patrol personnel and technology to the San Diego area, at the time the nation's busiest corridor for illegal entries.

The Mexican government, which keeps its own tallies of border-crossing deaths, estimates the number of border-crossing fatalities since then at more than 5,000.

A joint report by Mexico's national human rights commission and the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, released by the Mexican government last week, squarely blames U.S. border policies for the deaths.

“The death of unauthorized migrants has been a predictable and inhumane product of security policies on the United States-Mexico border during the last 15 years,” the report reads in Spanish.

There are different reasons why border-crossing arrests are down, said Wayne Cornelius, director emeritus of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UCSD.

The depressed U.S. job market is a key factor, and even border security appears to have an economic factor. Tighter security has led to steeper smugglers' fees, Cornelius said, often $3,000 just to cross on foot.

Those who can afford it are also paying as much as $5,000 to be smuggled through border ports of entry, he said, seen as a safer alternative to treks through increasingly remote routes in the desert and mountains.

Rafael Hernandez, director of the San Diego-based volunteer search-and-rescue group Angeles del Desierto, said he recently returned from Arizona, where it took volunteers three trips into the desert to locate the bodies of two men missing since May.

He said the bodies were found in a desolate stretch 20 miles east of the nearest highway, and about 70 miles from the border.

“The saddest thing is that they (the smugglers) are taking them to places so far from civilization, they aren't seen by anybody,” Hernandez said. “They are taking them into the worst danger possible.”

Aluminum foil used to smuggle drugs

Arizona Daily Star
September 29, 2009
By Matilde Cantero

Tennis-ball-sized aluminum spheres tossed over the border fence into Nogales, Ariz., Sunday may be the latest method for delivering contraband into the U.S. from Mexico, said border officials.

One of the spheres recovered by agents consisted of a wadded-up ball of aluminum foil wrapped around a plastic bag containing hundreds of prescription pills, officials said.

Camera operators for the Department of Homeland Security watched as the round items flew over the fence and landed near apartments in the downtown area on East Street. About five of the silver balls were seen on tape as they came flying over the border, said Agent George Alex Gomez, spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol.

The camera operators also watched as an individual retrieved some of the objects shortly after they landed on the ground and went back into an apartment.

When agents reached the location, they seized one of the plastic bags containing 349 Valium pills wrapped in aluminum.

"We wonder what was in the other bags; it could have been heroin or cocaine," said Gomez. "We have to be more alert out here."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Border fence stalls fiscal 2010 spending bill

Congress Daily
September 28, 2009
by Chris Strohm

Disputes over several issues are holding up the annual Homeland Security spending bill, including funding for border fencing and the construction of a biodefense facility. And with the new fiscal year three days away, Republicans are seizing on the stalled bill to accuse Democrats of putting the nation's security at risk.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., said on Friday that "significant substantive differences" remain in reconciling the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2010 Homeland Security Appropriations bill.

Until the differences are resolved, appropriators plan to continue funding the department at current levels under a continuing resolution to keep the federal government operating when the new fiscal year begins on Thursday.

One outstanding difference concerns an amendment in the Senate bill that would require the department to build 700 miles of reinforced double-layered physical fencing along the Southwest border, Obey's office said on Monday.

That amendment was added by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and would require the department to complete the fencing by Dec. 31, 2010. But the department and other lawmakers assert that 700 miles of double-layer fencing is unnecessary and prohibitively expensive. The GAO reported this month that one mile of fencing would cost about $6.5 million.

With frustration apparently mounting, House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Harold Rogers, R-Ky., called on Democratic leaders on Monday to wrap up a conference on the bill.

"If there are outstanding issues as the chairman suggests, you appoint conferees and go to conference to work out these tough issues," Rogers said in a statement. "The bill is at a place where a true conference negotiation could resolve these last few outstanding issues out in the open, but we're not sure what the majority is afraid of."

Another holdup involves funding to build the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., Obey's office said.

The House bill would deny a $36.3 million request to construct the facility and would prohibit obligation of any funds until a separate risk assessment of the site is completed by an entity other than the Homeland Security Department.

But the Senate bill would provide construction funds, pending a safety assessment and report from the department.

The spending bill's lack of movement triggered a brusque exchange Friday between Rogers and Obey.

"Instead of actually doing our work and fulfilling the security needs of our nation, we are placing a priority on Congress' own budget, putting Homeland Security spending on ice, taking the next few Mondays and Fridays off and basically waiting around until October until we get further direction from on high," Rogers said on the House floor.

Obey said it is "patently preposterous to suggest that this bill is being delayed in any way."

"Under the rules of the body, we can't bring a conference bill back to this House until we've reached agreement on all of those differences," he said. "If the gentleman wants to resolve those by agreeing with our position on each of them, I would be happy to see them go to conference right now."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hidalgo County levee system cited in IBWC whistleblower complaint

The Monitor
September 25, 2009
by Jared James

Hidalgo County’s levee system is at the center of a complaint filed Thursday by a former staff attorney at the International Boundary and Water Commission who accuses the agency of failing to follow federal protocol on major projects in the county.

Robert McCarthy, a former general counsel for the bi-national commission’s U.S. section — the federal agency that manages the levee system — filed a whistleblower complaint after he was fired in July.

In the 11-page complaint filed with a civil service board that investigates whistleblower complaints, McCarthy alleges wanton abuses of power at the El Paso-based agency, including illegal wiretapping of employees, a conspiracy to obtain unlawful pay raises and other examples of “gross mismanagement” by rogue employees.

Most notably for local interests, he accuses the agency of breaking the law when it contributed funds to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s levee-wall in Hidalgo County and for using county-owned engineering plans for repair work.

McCarthy, who worked at the IBWC for six months, said the obscure federal agency operates with little oversight from the U.S. Department of State.

“(The IBWC) feel nobody supervises them and they can do whatever they want,” McCarthy said in an interview Friday. “They’re an independent agency and nobody ever calls them out.”

Agency spokeswoman Sally Spener declined to comment on McCarthy’s case or his allegations, explaining they are part of a personnel matter that is under review.

The complaint does not prohibit the IBWC from continuing work on the county’s levees through economic stimulus package funding, she said.

McCarthy said he was fired on July 31, three days after he disclosed fraud, waste and abuse at the agency to four federal oversight agencies.

In a termination letter, U.S. IBWC Commissioner Bill Ruth said McCarthy was fired for failing to act in a constructive and collegial manner with the rest of the staff.

McCarthy’s whistleblower complaint says the agency violated a federal statute prohibiting cost-sharing between two federal agencies when the IBWC contributed $1.75 million in funds for a section of the levee-wall near the Hidalgo pump house.

Cost-sharing with Homeland Security — the federal agency tasked with building the border wall — created substantial risk “because the agency (IBWC) was funded to build flood control barriers, not border barriers,” according to the complaint.

McCarthy also alleges the agency solicited bids for a levee contract under the economic stimulus package using engineering plans prepared for Hidalgo County.

Proceeding based on designs prepared to state regulations for Hidalgo County — instead of to federal regulations — exposes the agency to the risk of design failures or contractual disputes, he said.

Godfrey Garza, the general manager for Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1, said plans for a levee section near Granjeno were turned over to the IBWC with the county’s full support for the agency’s work.

Acting on McCarthy’s behalf, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility — a Washington, D.C.-based group that works to uphold environmental laws — filed the whistleblower retaliation complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board, demanding his immediate reinstatement.

The board will hear the case within 120 days, said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. The State Department Office of Inspector General is investigating the claims McCarthy made before he was fired.

Last month, a news release from PEER labeled the IBWC the worst agency in the federal government, citing a 2005 State Department Office of Inspector General report that concluded “internal management problems have engulfed (the agency), threatening its essential responsibilities for flood control and water management in the American Southwest.”

Spener, the IBWC spokeswoman, responded in writing that problems identified in the 4-year-old report were cleaned up after the White House asked a former commissioner to step down following its release.

Arturo Duran left the post in late August 2005 after serving as commissioner since the prior year.

He confirmed to various news outlets that the White House had asked him to resign in the wake of a scathing report from the State Department’s Office of Inspector General. The report accused Duran of mismanagement and questioned his financial and personnel decisions, saying the agency was consequently in “disarray.”

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fired lawyer complains of border agency misconduct

Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
September 24, 2009
by Michelle Roberts

SAN ANTONIO — A former lawyer for the little-known federal agency that helps control the flow of the Rio Grande and the U.S. boundary with Mexico said Thursday that he was fired after complaining of gross mismanagement, including funds misappropriation and repair of levees that the agency knew would be useless.

Robert McCarthy was fired as general counsel from the International Boundary and Water Commission in July, days after he disclosed his concerns to federal auditing agencies. He complained to the auditing agency after IBWC leadership ignored several written opinions, he said.

"I felt like I was talking to a brick wall. I did put several opinions in writing as these issues were surfacing and never received any positive response," said McCarthy.

Commissioner C.W. "Bill" Ruth, appointed by President George W. Bush in November after the previous commissioner died in a plane crash, cited those opinions in his termination letter, accusing McCarthy of "failure to support me or other members of the executive staff in a constructive or collegial manner."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that advocates for government employees, filed a whistle-blower retaliation complaint Thursday on behalf of McCarthy with the Merit Systems Protection Board. An administrative judge will hear the case and make a recommendation to the board on whether McCarthy should get his job back.

IBWC spokeswoman Sally Spener said the agency, headquartered in El Paso, could not comment on McCarthy's case or allegations because they were part of a personnel matter and under litigation.

McCarthy, who spent eight years as an Interior Department lawyer before joining the IBWC in January, said he was ordered to sign a cost-sharing agreement with the Department of Homeland Security on the construction of levees that would help settle a fight over the border fence in the Rio Grande Valley. But McCarthy felt the arrangement violated federal law prohibiting one agency from subsidizing the purposes of another agency.

In the case of misappropriated funds, "an employee who doesn't report that is just as liable as one who approves it," he said.

McCarthy said he was also concerned about the agency's decision to repair levees in Presidio, Texas, the site of flooding last fall. The agency had consultant reports saying the levees couldn't be repaired and will be undermined by flooding again, but went ahead anyway.

"I call that a 'cosmetic levee.' It looks like they've done something but they haven't," he said.

McCarthy's personnel complaint filed with the merit system board paints the IBWC as an agency plagued by rogue employees and lax standards. Among the other accusations:

_ An executive staff member wiretapped a group of employees after he didn't get a job he wanted in the agency.

_ Several employees received unlawful salary increases over the objections of personnel staff.

_ A pair of executive staff members made false anonymous reports to the State Department about an engineer who attempted to implement changes at the agency.

_ A multimillion-dollar levee contract was solicited under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act without using federal standards, instead plugging in specifications from a local project that may not comply with federal rules.

IBWC, a binational agency responsible for maintaining the international border, is part of the State Department for funding purposes but is supposed to answer directly to the president.

Based on McCarthy's allegations, the General Accounting Office has an investigation pending and is coordinating with the State Department Office of Inspector General.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rodriguez files bill to address ecological impacts of border wall

Rio Grande Guardian
September 22, 2009
by Steve Taylor

WESLACO, Sept. 22 - U.S. Congressman Ciro Rodriguez has filed legislation to identify and address the ecological impacts of fencing along the border.

The Healthy Borderlands Act of 2009 requires the Department of Homeland Security Secretary to develop a mitigation plan to begin to address ecological impacts of border fencing.

The move has been welcomed by No Border Wall, but the environmental pressure group said more needs to be done.

“Our borderlands are rich in natural and cultural resources, but they also can be places for illegal activity,” said Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, in a news release issued Tuesday. “This bill is the next logical step in protecting the ecological integrity of our borders while also pursuing the measures necessary to secure our borders and defend our communities.”

Rodriguez represents a larger portion of the U.S.-Mexico border region than any other member of Congress. His district runs from El Paso to Eagle Pass.

Rodriguez pointed out that as things currently stand DHS has no program to continuously monitor and mitigate environmental impacts. He said that as a member of the House Appropriations Committee he worked to provide $50 million in fiscal year 2009 to mitigate environmental impacts.

While DHS has agreed to work with the Department of Interior on environmental impacts, it has not initiated a plan to utilize these funds, Rodriguez said. An additional $40 million was approved in the House for fiscal year 2010. In order to ensure these funds go toward fixing and preventing environmental damage caused by border security efforts, a long-term program must be in place, he said.

Rodriguez said the mitigation plan will be science-based, incorporate extensive monitoring protocol and be developed in conjunction with state and tribal wildlife agencies and authorities.
Robert L. Bendick, director of U.S. Government Relations for The Nature Conservancy, applauded the filing of the bill.

“This Act will establish a comprehensive, science-based and collaborative approach to ensuring that the ecological impacts of border security measures along our international borders will be comprehensively monitored and that action will be taken to mitigate any such ecological impacts,” Bendick said. “We believe the Act should be supported on a broad, bipartisan basis and look forward to its speedy enactment.”

Rodriguez said the bill specifically authorizes DHS funding to be spent on private, state, tribal or federal lands for the purpose of mitigation and allows for those funds to be transferred to other federal agencies as needed.

Scott Nicol, a co-founder of the No Border Wall Coalition, said it was “great to see” that Rodriguez in continuing to support border communities, both human and ecological.

“As a result of former DHS Secretary Chertoff's Real ID Act waiver, which brushed aside federal laws including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, tremendous environmental damage that would normally be illegal has been done to our borderlands,” Nicol said. “Representative Rodriguez' bill, if passed, will mark a first step towards mitigating some small portion of that damage.” Nicol said it is important to recognize the fact that the extinction of species is permanent. It is impossible to mitigate the loss of the ocelot or Sonoran pronghorn, for example.

“The boulders blasted from the slopes of mountains in the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area that now clog the Tijuana River can not be put back in place,” Nicol said. “We should do what we can to lessen the border wall's impacts, but we must be aware that no amount of money will restore the borderlands to their pre-wall state.” Nicol said No Border Wall supports the Healthy Borderlands Act of 2009. However, he said stopping Congress from including a key amendment by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, in the DHS appropriations bill is even more important. The amendment calls for hundreds of miles of new border walls. “So long as section 102 of the Real ID Act allows for the waiving of all laws - not just those that relate to the environment - border wall construction will be able to proceed no matter how devastating the cost,” Nicol said.

“Some in Congress still seem to be wedded to the border wall's symbolism, despite the Government Accounting Office report released this week that found no evidence that the wall has any impact at all.”

As an example, Nicol cited an amendment to the Department of the Interior's appropriations bill introduced just this week by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma. The provision would amend H.R. 2996 to prohibit the use of funds to “impede, prohibit, or restrict activities of the Secretary of Homeland Security to achieve operational control over the international land and maritime borders of the United States.”

Friday, September 18, 2009

House members raise questions about border security project

Dallas Morning News
September 18, 2009
by Marjorie Korn

WASHINGTON – The task of securing the U.S.-Mexico border by high-tech means is behind schedule and plagued by chronic technology problems, lawmakers were told Thursday, prompting questions about how much more time and money they're willing to invest in the current plan.

The Secure Border Initiative, run by the Department of Homeland Security, aims to use a network of surveillance equipment – along with fencing, roads and lighting – to monitor for illegal immigrants and contraband crossing the border.

Supporters told a House homeland security subcommittee that the program has made strides, while critics question how glitches will be fixed and whether the final product will be worth the price tag.

The issue was underscored last week when Gov. Rick Perry called for more Texas Rangers to help curtail violence along the Mexican border. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat who sits on the subcommittee, said if the Homeland Security program continues to be ineffective, more states may have to undertake what is chiefly a federal burden.

"If we don't do our work correctly, you're going to have governors saying 'We have to take work into our hands,' " Cuellar said.

David Aguilar, the nation's top Border Patrol official, defended the system, saying much has been learned from mistakes and the initiative is on the road to effectiveness.

"Although we know that the last three years of SBInet have been frustrating and, at times, discouraging for all involved, we believe we are on a path towards improvement," Aguilar said.
A report from the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, which studies federal policies at Congress' request, warned that the effectiveness of the multibillion-dollar program hasn't been fully tested and the Boeing Co., whose federal contract for the surveillance portion of the initiative is close to expiring, hasn't worked out technical kinks that have long plagued the system.

Richard Stana of the accountability office said that Boeing's technology hasn't sufficiently progressed. For instance, new cameras being tested still register false readings on windy days. And a slew of missed deadlines for making the system fully operational has him questioning if the 2017 deadline will be met and what the final investment will be.

"Nobody knows what it's going to look like, so how would they know what it's going to cost?" Stana said.

Congress has spent $3.7 billion on the initiative since 2005, and Stana's report recommends that the Border Patrol do a cost-benefit analysis.

"We have yet to see whether or not this fencing has increased border security and justified its costs," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gov't: Border fence to cost $6.5B over 20 years

Associated Press
September 17, 2009
by Eileen Sullivan

WASHINGTON — It will cost taxpayers $6.5 billion over the next 20 years to maintain the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a government audit.

But as the Obama administration realizes the long-term costs of the border fence, it does not have a way to evaluate whether this investment has helped control illegal entries into the country, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday.

The $6.5 billion price tag is in addition to the $2.4 billion that's been spent to build more than 600 miles of fence segments along the southwest border. As of May 14, there have been 3,363 breaches in the fence, which cost about $1,300 each to repair, GAO found.

"We can't empty the federal treasury to satisfy some bumper-sticker notion of border security," Rep. David Price, D-N.C. said in a statement. Price said comprehensive changes to the country's immigration laws is what will improve border security.

The fence is a Bush administration initiative that has faced several delays and cost increases.
The technological part of the government's plan to secure the border continues to be delayed, GAO said.

Until the entire technology piece is complete, it is impossible for Border Patrol to know if the security measures are working, GAO said.

Boeing Co. has the contract for the technology piece and has received about $400 million for work on the physical fence, company spokeswoman Jenna McMullin said.

On Thursday, Customs and Border Protection extended the contract option to continue to assign tasks to Boeing for another year, said Mark Borkowski, the government's director of the secure border initiative.

Borkowski said he understands the frustrations about the project's delays. But he said he's confident that Boeing and the government will find the right technology for the long stretches of the border.

Tim Peters, Boeing's vice president of global security, told lawmakers that the company has learned valuable lessons from its initial projects on the border. Peters said it's not "uncommon" to run into technological challenges in these sort of projects.

Depending on funding, the there would be fencing or technology along the whole southwestern border except for about 200 miles around Big Bend National Park by 2014, Homeland Security officials have said. But GAO said it's more likely to be completed in 2016.

On Thursday officials told Congress that the remaining 38 miles of physical fencing is held up because of legal issues related to obtaining land.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, called the fence a "serious challenge" that the Obama administration has inherited. In remarks prepared for a hearing Thursday, the Mississippi Democrat said the GAO's findings are troubling.

Scathing Report on Border Security Is Issued

New York Times
September 17, 2009
by Randall Archibold

LOS ANGELES — Government auditors reported Thursday that the effort to secure the Mexican border with technology and fences has fallen years behind schedule, will cost billions of dollars extra in maintenance costs and has no clear means of gauging whether illegal crossings have been curtailed.

Mark Borkowski, who directs the Secure Border Initiative for the Department of Homeland Security, stood by the program as “transformational,” but did not challenge the findings. “We are as frustrated as anybody is” with the setbacks, Mr. Borkowski said in an interview.

The report, by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s watchdog, said the department had fallen about seven years behind its goal of putting in place the technology the Bush administration had heavily promoted when it announced the Secure Border Initiative in 2005.

In 2006, the report said, the department estimated it would have a system of cameras, radars and sensors in place to aid a force of border guards by the end of 2009, but the completion date is now projected as 2016.

“Flaws found in testing and concerns about the impact of placing towers and access roads in environmentally sensitive locations caused delays,” said Richard M. Stana, an author of the report. The cameras and radars, a “virtual fence” in a system designed by the contractor, Boeing, have fallen prey to weather and mechanical problems.

The effort to build 661 miles of fences blocking vehicles or pedestrians is nearly complete, but with 28 miles left to go, it has been delayed by lawsuits from landowners in Texas.

The government has spent $2.4 billion on such “physical infrastructure,” but the report said it could cost $6.5 billion over 20 years to maintain it.

For all the money spent, the department has not set up a way to evaluate the fences’ impact, relying mainly on the judgment of senior Border Patrol agents.

Mr. Borkowski said the government auditors were overly “pessimistic,” and, while he offered no guarantees, he predicted the system would prove successful. He said the department was studying ways to judge its success beyond managers’ opinions.

The apprehension of illegal immigrants at the border has fallen to lows not seen in decades, but scholars and Mexican officials say the recession and the lack of jobs in the United States have contributed to the drop.

Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in response to the report that department officials needed to get the Secure Border Initiative “right or find an alternative technology solution.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

State of emergency declared for Tijuana River Valley

San Diego Union-Tribune
September 15, 2009
by Janine Zuniga

TIJUANA RIVER VALLEY – The San Diego City Council on Tuesday declared a local state of emergency for the Tijuana River Valley, allowing storm water officials to spend up to $4.4 million to clean out clogged river channels.

However, the city is still waiting for permits for the emergency work from several regulatory agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

City officials and river valley horse and property owners hope the permits are issued before the arrival of potentially deadly winter storms.

Rapidly rising flood waters from moderate storms last December coupled with clogged channels and sediment from a nearby border fence project caused the river and its channels to overflow their levees. Horses and goats drowned.

Many worry about local predictions for possible El Niño conditions this winter.

Council members, who voted 7-0 to issue the declaration, expressed their disappointment with the federal government for waiving environmental laws when it built the border fence that lacks drainage and erosion controls.

Councilwoman Donna Frye was absent.

Photographs of the fence built upon a once-wide canyon known as Smuggler's Gulch show the area filled with packed dirt. The earthen slopes were supposed to be filled with vegetation by now, but images show vast swaths of brown dirt.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Border mayors tell Congress fence won't work

San Antonio Express-News
September 9, 2009
by Gary Martin

WASHINGTON — A group of elected officials from Texas cities and counties along the U.S.-Mexico border urged Congress on Wednesday to strip a provision requiring the building of more border fencing from an annual spending bill.

The Texas Border Coalition wants a House-Senate conference committee to remove language from the spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security that would require the government to replace vehicle barriers and a high-technology “virtual fence” with pedestrian fencing.

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, the coalition's chairman, said the current fence, at a cost of $3.5 billion, has only forced narcotics traffickers and smugglers of undocumented immigrants to develop counterstrategies to move contraband and people into the United States.

With the recent building of some pedestrian fence, Foster said narco-traffickers and smugglers are now shifting their focus to busy land ports.

“If Congress perceives the purpose of the border fence is to seal the border from illegal activity, then the program is and will continue to be a failure,” Foster said.

The pedestrian fence provision was added as an amendment to the spending bill on a 54-44 vote in the Senate.

Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn of Texas, and Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California voted in favor of the amendment.

New Mexico Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both Democrats, voted against the measure sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, both Republicans, voted for it.

The House did not include the measure in its version of the spending bill, which is now before a House-Senate conference committee to iron out differences in the two pieces of legislation.
DeMint vowed to work to keep the provision in the final bill.

But House Democrats from the four Southwest border states are lobbying leaders to strip the provision from the bill and use the funds to better equip overcrowded and understaffed ports of entry.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, called the DeMint amendment “a waste of taxpayer's money.”

Congress authorized 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border in the Secure Fence Initiative of 2006. Homeland Security has 370 miles of fence under contract, with the remainder to be secured by vehicle barriers, as well as technology and sensors.

Some portions of uncompleted fence remain under court challenge.

The DeMint provision would require that pedestrian fence account for all 700 miles of barriers authorized by Congress in 2006, and be completed by Dec. 31, 2010.
The Texas Border Coalition, made up of mayors, county judges and eco
nomic development officials, argue that the fence funds would be better spent on improvements to border ports to better inspect cargo and facilitate legal trade.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Disorder on the Border: Trashing the Law in the Name of Immigration Deterrence

Common Dreams
September 8, 2009
by Randall Amster

In two recent criminal cases in the United States, defendants received similar sentences for very different sorts of actions. In the first, a young man was convicted of negligent homicide for texting while driving and killing two scientists in the process. The New York Times reported on the case and the sentence meted out to the young man:

"He pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent homicide, but his record will be cleared if he fulfills the sentence imposed by the judge. It included 30 days in jail, 200 hours of community service, and a requirement that he read Les Misérables to learn, like the book's character Jean Valjean, how to make a contribution to society."

In the second case, another young man received a sentence of 300 hours of community service, one year of probation, and a one-year ban from a large swath of land on the U.S.-Mexico border. His crime? Leaving jugs of water in the desert for would-be border crossers, in an attempt to help prevent deaths. Walt Staton, 27, was convicted in June of this year and sentenced in August on federal littering charges in an absurd scenario reminiscent of something straight out of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant":

"And they was mean and nasty and ugly and horrible crime-type guys sitting on the bench next to me. And the meanest, ugliest, nastiest one, the meanest father raper of them all, was coming over to me and he was mean 'n ugly 'n nasty 'n horrible and all kind of things and he sat down next to me and said, 'Kid, whad'ya get?' I said, 'I didn't get nothing, I had to pay $50 and pick up the garbage.' He said, 'What were you arrested for, kid?' And I said, 'Littering.' And they all moved away from me on the bench there...."

The prosecution in Staton's case had actually pushed for five years of probation and a $5000 fine, arguing (as reported on that he had "knowingly littered" and that the inscription on the plastic jugs of "buena suerte" ("good luck") evidenced an intention "to aid illegal aliens in their entry attempt." The prosecution's Sentencing Memorandum went further in its rhetoric, making thinly-veiled allusions to themes suggestive of the so-called "war on terror" and fanning the flames of racialized fear-mongering:

"The collateral damage the plastic water jugs cause is also severe. The defendant intended the water jugs to be used by illegal immigrants crossing through the [Buenos Aires National Wildlife] Refuge. His intent and purpose was to give the illegal immigrant the capability to go further into the interior of the country, and into the Refuge.... The defendant left full, plastic water jugs on the Refuge with the intent to aid illegal immigrant traffic. This enhances the range of illegal immigrants and other smuggling activity by sustaining their efforts to move further north. This is evidenced by exhibit 4, in which [Border Patrol Agent] Baron states that he has seen water jugs discarded in the northern section of the Refuge. He also makes clear that not all illegal immigrant traffic are people whose sole purpose is to find a better life in the United States. Many of them are drug smugglers and, according to exhibit 5, approximately 16% of illegal aliens arrested have significant criminal histories, to include murder, assault, rape, and sexual offenses with minors. These are the people that the defendant intended to assist when he committed the offense on December 4, 2008. Instead of targeting people with a legitimate medical need, he haphazardly left water for illegal aliens, drug smugglers and/or dangerous felons, all of whom are in the country without permission...."

Recall that the charge in this case was littering, not aiding and abetting or drug smuggling or terrorism. These sorts of rhetorical and juridical machinations undermine the spirit of the law, if not the letter of it, and create untenable outcomes in which homicide and littering are given comparable sentences. Moreover, it is estimated that the U.S. government spent at least $50,000 (a figure that the prosecution did not dispute) to try Staton, a clean-cut young man who was described by the LA Times as a "web designer and soup kitchen volunteer [who has worked] for five years with the faith-based aid group No More Deaths" (NMD), promoting humanitarian relief in the perilous desert "during often-sweltering days, offering food, water and medical help to anyone they find." Spurred by repeated abuses of migrants and the deaths of thousands of border crossers, NMD formed in 2004 with volunteers from among diverse faith communities, social activist groups, and concerned individuals like Staton. In the Tucson sector alone this year, it is estimated that nearly 200 people may have died trying to cross the border.
Now beginning seminary school at the Claremont School of Theology in California, Staton was characterized by his lawyer Bill Walker as "the kind of guy you'd want to have as your next door neighbor." Indeed, I first met Staton when we traveled to New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina as part of a grassroots group seeking to provide food and assistance to the people of the region. Staton's positive outlook, good humor, and dedication to human rights were integral to the ability of our small group of volunteers being able to make our way into the storm-ravaged region and set up relief networks for people who had been ignored by the official organizations. As with most of NMD's volunteers, Staton's compassion is genuine and he is willing to place himself at risk to promote respect for the wellbeing of others.

Still, during sentencing the government tried to portray him as an unrepentant criminal who "does not care about the environmental impact of his actions." In response, environmental organizations like the Sierra Club wrote to the judge on Staton's behalf:

"[W]e do not believe that preserving imperiled species and the lands that support them is at odds with the efforts of border humanitarian groups such as No More Deaths. Flooding, erosion, sedimentation, habitat loss and fragmentation all pose legitimate and serious threats to those species we seek to protect. We do not regard individuals leaving jugs of clean water as a comparable threat, or frankly, as much of a threat at all.... The Sierra Club supports the actions of Walt Staton and other humanitarian groups who attempt to save the lives of undocumented migrants in the desert by leaving jugs of clean water at strategic locations along known migrant trails. They later return to check on the water and to remove garbage. These lifesaving actions do not constitute a threat to the environmental integrity of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, but rather are of benefit to it. Mr. Staton is a first-time offender who sought no personal gain in his attempts to save life and remove trash from the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas. A lifelong Arizona resident, longtime humanitarian volunteer and former employee of an Arizona environmental conservation organization, Mr. Staton understands the environmental and humanitarian crisis facing our borderlands. As much leniency as possible would be appropriate when considering a sentence."

The Center for Biological Diversity concurred, in a July 27, 2009 letter to the judge:
"The Center has been particularly alarmed in recent years at the impacts of activities in the borderlands related to illegal immigration. However, we see the problem of trash left along migrant trails to be a relatively minor problem in the grand scheme of things. The pernicious effects of border wall construction and other enforcement activities threaten to sacrifice the integrity of our precious border ecosystems for a policy that not only fails to solve the problem, but in fact demonstrably worsens it. Migrants continue to be pushed further into remote, environmentally sensitive areas such as the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and enforcement activities follow, with disastrous results for border species and habitats. The last thing we wish to see is human rights pitted against environmental concerns in this matter.... We support the work of humanitarian groups and determined volunteers such as Walt Staton who work to save human lives in the midst of the failure of the federal government to produce such a policy reform. We are intimately familiar with the work of No More Deaths, and it is our understanding that they regularly remove more discarded materials from the areas they patrol than they leave behind in the form of life-saving water bottles.... Trash is ephemeral -- it can be cleaned up, as No More Deaths volunteers demonstrate -- and it really is just a small part of the damage being done to our nation's natural resources as a result of a misguided and failed federal policy."

The perversity of federal immigration policy is well-documented on the NMD website and in other places, so I won't belabor it here except to note that the strategy of deterrence that drives both border enforcement and crackdowns on humanitarians is fundamentally flawed. People compelled by immiseration and displacement to seek a better life by risking the one they have in the process are not going to be dissuaded by border walls and stringent punishments. Likewise, those who feel called by faith or humanism to put themselves at risk to help others will not let pretextual littering charges deter them from manifesting their compassion. And so, during the course of Staton's ordeal, thirteen more NMD volunteers were issued littering citations for engaging in the same behavior that had literally resulted in a jug of water being turned into a federal case.

This open defiance actually got the attention of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and in July a delegation of NMD volunteers met with him in Washington, D.C. "Secretary Salazar came in about 15 minutes after the meeting started and talked about his concern with what's happening to the migrants in the desert," Ed McCullough told the Tucson Weekly. "He said he's had a general concern about immigration problems for a very long time. He also said there were laws among the various government agencies, and anyone proposing what we're proposing would have to work within the law." McCullough said that the volunteers left the meeting feeling "that they wanted to work something out with the humanitarian groups." This led to a proposed Memorandum of Understanding between NMD and the Department of the Interior about the placement of food and water in the desert, but it has not warded off the littering prosecutions currently underway, and the thirteen humanitarian activists are scheduled to be tried in Tucson later this year.

Our legal system contains a provision dating back to the common law that essentially says a violation of the law may be excused in cases where a greater harm is sought to be averted. Called the "necessity defense," the classic example is a person who sees a house on fire and commits a trespass in order to rescue someone from the inferno. In a manner analogous to this textbook illustration, NMD volunteers seek to aid those caught in a metaphorical and literal desert inferno by (at least in the government's eyes) committing the minor offense of littering. Under this basic principle of justice, a small illegal act should be excused in the name of preventing a far greater harm -- so when Secretary Salazar says that the activists should "work within the law," they already are. Forcing them through the gauntlet of American criminal justice is a waste of time, energy, and resources that could be better spent on both the social and environmental issues that pervade U.S. immigration policies.

Walt Staton and his fellow humanitarians working on the border are about the only thing that makes sense in this exercise in absurdity. "The border has been built in the most intentional way to use the desert as a deterrent, as a weapon that has cost thousands of lives," Staton told IPS News in July. The border wall itself may be the most extreme form of environmental degradation in the region, and the collateral damage it yields has resulted in the desert being littered with corpses that have succumbed to the unforgiving terrain. Perhaps those who approved the wall and crafted the proto-genocidal policies of deterrence ought to be charged with "knowingly littering" and/or "negligent homicide," since both crimes apparently carry similar consequences in our Kafkaesque system.

In a world where justice seems to be buried in the bowels of bureaucracy, it is time to finally declare that "humanitarianism is not a crime." What needs to be cleaned up in this case are not merely a few plastic water jugs in the desert, but rather the litter of the law that has brought us to this ominous juncture in the first place.

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College, and is the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is Lost In Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB Scholarly 2008).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The border wall blocks a natural migration

Austin-American Statesman
September 3, 2009
by John Young

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — "It's no wasteland."

No, not this mountainous berg where seemingly everyone over 65 wants to live.

Sergio Avila-Villegas is talking about the U.S.-Mexico border, which bobcats, ocelots, jaguars, mountain lions, black bears and so much more inhabit.

Avila-Villegas, a biologist with the Sky Island Alliance, is a lonely voice pointing out how political forces in America are subdividing a biome in disastrous ways.

At a colloquium at Prescott College, he described how the ongoing construction of the U.S. border wall brings ecological devastation — most particularly among the species that migrate and otherwise reside in a region with only natural barriers.

This is made possible in fast-track fashion because Congress and the Bush administration strip-mined environmental safeguards from the legislation enabling the border fence. Congress also removed all fiscal common sense from the hysteria-derived gambit, as some segments south of San Diego cost $21 million a mile.

That underlines a message Avila-Villegas wants people to understand: "It's a wall. It's not a fence."

It's a wall that not only blocks animal migration and destroys habitat. Its furious dust-raising construction causes air and water pollution. It also diverts rivers and floodwaters.

Ah, but does it divert migration of Mexicans entering our nation illegally? In some cases, yes. In other cases, a medieval device called a ladder foils Washington's greatest designs.

The amazing thing about this is that the Bush administration sought to justify it, at least in part, on ecological reasoning.

Just look, said then-Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, at all the trash left by the non-Americans crossing the border. A wall will stop that and save the environment, he said.

But: Just in case a wall would cause other environmental effects far more long-lasting than sandwich wrappers in the sun, Republicans inserted in the Real I.D. Act of 2005 — the immigration grab-bag that included this monstrosity — a pretty puppy called Section 102. It allows Homeland Security to waive all standard environmental safeguards associated with giant infrastructure projects like this.

That means that the 30-plus species of mammals in the region in question, as well as the owls, migratory birds and more, are all at risk. Federal policies typically take such matters into consideration. Not in this case.

But it's a wasteland — no? Hot, dry, inhospitable to creatures in Bermuda shorts?

What it is, as least in the borderlands of Arizona, is "one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world," Avila-Villegas said. It is where a tropical ecosystem shakes hands with a temperate North American cousin. Don't be misled by the hulking presence of the Sonoran and Chihuahan deserts. The area teems with life. And we are destroying it.

People can always outwit wall-builders. But nature has problems with obstructions. Avila-Villegas shows sobering photos of how flood waters surging up against the wall dividing the border town of Nogales caused homes on the Mexican side to be submerged.

Just the price of — what? Do we assume that such walls really accomplish what they seek to do?

People living in the border areas point out the futility in trying to wall off the border. For one thing the terrain is too unforgiving in many places. For another, as observed day after day, what jaguars and ocelots can't master, wily human beings will as they seek to feed their families. It's the cats who will starve, or turn their attention to cattle or human beings to put food in their mouths.

The border wall may be America's greatest boondoggle in terms of cost and benefits. So, why does it proceed?

Why, particularly, when the administration and Congress behind it are consigned to the dust. This Congress can put a stop to it. It ought to based on fiscal concerns alone. At minimum, it needs to yank out the provision which treats environmental protection as wholly alien.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Feds are real borderland scofflaws

Arizona Daily Star
September 2, 2009
by Dan Millis

For the next year, border humanitarian Walt Staton will spend his Saturdays picking up trash. He'll also have regular check-ins with a probation officer, who will make sure he doesn't set foot on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, from which he's been banished.
Thirteen additional No More Deaths border humanitarians accused of littering will be arraigned today.

It is true that environmental destruction along the U.S.-Mexico border has run rampant lately, causing serious, perhaps irreparable, harm to the fragile ecosystems of the borderlands. However, neither Staton's upcoming year of toil, nor the hearings, jury trial or sentencing in federal court that he endured bring us any closer to environmental justice on the border.
They got the wrong guy.

The Sierra Club wrote a letter to the judge on behalf of Staton, voicing its opinion that "we do not believe that preserving imperiled species and the lands that support them is at odds with the efforts of border humanitarian groups."

We know the humanitarians regularly strive to remove as much trash as they can. We in the Sierra Club have come across them and even collaborated with them in our own efforts to clean up the borderlands.

But trash, though an eyesore, is hardly the big issue here. Our borderlands environment is constantly subjected to crimes far more heinous than littering.

If littering is the jaywalking or shoplifting of the borderlands, then the border wall itself is a much more serious crime. And the offenders are still on the loose.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is at the top of the most-wanted list. He used a little-known caveat of the Real ID Act to build hundreds of miles of border wall despite laws that may have prevented it. Among the 36 federal protection laws Chertoff waived like a cowboy hat: the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act.

Flooding, erosion, sedimentation, habitat loss and fragmentation have plagued natural areas along the more than 630 miles of border where barriers and walls now exist. Though inconvenient and ugly, ephemeral border trash poses a much smaller environmental problem than these massive threats to the security of our ecosystems.

If anyone deserves banishment from the Buenos Aires Refuge, it is Chertoff. Photos show a mountain lion blocked by his border wall there, and more than 50 acres of potential habitat for the endangered masked bobwhite quail, for which the refuge was established, have been lost forever in wall construction.

Also preying on border wildlands is South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint. He slipped an amendment into the Senate version of the Homeland Security appropriations bill that calls for construction of more than 350 more miles of environmentally devastating border wall. True border environmentalists will do whatever it takes to remove that amendment from the bill in committee, probably late this month.

We hope, but do not anticipate, that Chertoff and DeMint will turn themselves in so that true environmental justice can be served on the border. In the meantime, Staton will be serving their time.

Dan Millis is appealing a September 2008 conviction for littering in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, for which he was given a suspended sentence. His case is separate from that of the No More Deaths group.