Saturday, October 31, 2009

5,100 crosses at Mexico border mark migrant deaths

Associated Press
October 30, 2009

TIJUANA, Mexico -- Rights activists in the norhtern Mexican border city of Tijuana have hung 5,100 small white crosses on the fence straddling the U.S, frontier to commemorate migrants who have died trying to cross.

The protest coincides with preparations for Mexico's Nov. 1 Day of the Dead holiday. The crosses represent the number of migrants estimated to have died in the 15 years since the nited States toughened border security.

The Coalition for the Defense of Migrants also erected a traditional floral offering for the dead.

The Mexican government estimates about 350,000 of its citizens migrate to the U.S. annually.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Border fence construction continues, takes out citrus trees

Brownsville Herald
October 23, 2009
by Laura B. Martinez

In a few days, retired farmer and citrus grower Leonard Loop will say goodbye to about 75 of his citrus trees.

In the coming days, contractors hired by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will bulldoze the trees in the orchard and clear the area to continue construction of the border fence along South Oklahoma Road.

The government condemned about 1.73 acres of the land paying Loop more than $24,000 for it, Loop said on Friday, as he looked over a small map counting the number of trees that he will lose. The condemnation gives the government access to the land to continue construction on the fence — work which began earlier this year on the outskirts of Brownsville.

Kimberli Deagen Loessin, Loop’s attorney, confirmed in an e-mail that U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen granted the federal government possession of the land for the fence’s construction.

While 75 trees are what Loop will lose right now, he’s more concerned about additional acreage of land that will be located behind the fence once its construction is completed.

Although the land could be considered useless because it would be in an area known as "no man’s land," the government doesn’t believe so, Loop said.

"Just because they are giving me right (of access) to it they think everything is hunky- dory," Loop said.

Loop is among several private landowners who sued the federal government over the fence’s construction. The lawsuits remain unresolved. Loop’s lawsuit is set for a jury trial in May 2010. It’s a court battle that has been ongoing for 18 months.

Hanen in May suspended some of the border fence’s construction in Cameron County after learning that the landowners were concerned that access to their lands could be cut off and their concerns about the types of gates to be used.

Also in question is what land the government would pay for, including land in front and in back of the fence that some landowners believe could become worthless and hard to sell.
Much of the land is farmland.

In July, the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to amend its land condemnation motions against several private property owners — to address questions posed by them.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has agreed to make clear what property the government plans to take and where access to the land will be located.

The fence’s construction is part of the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which is part of the government’s comprehensive immigration reform to help secure the nation’s border. The Department of Homeland Security is overseeing the fence’s construction.

Earlier this week, officials announced that the Sabal Palms Audubon Center will be closed for the rest of the year, partly due to the fence’s construction.

The 557-acre sanctuary is located behind the fence and officials are still trying to determine how this would affect visitor access to the center.

In Cameron County, 34.8 miles of fencing is planned. As of June 5, 11.7 miles of fencing had been completed, said Claude R. Knighten, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C. Roughly 9.3 miles of fence are slated to be built along South Oklahoma and Southmost roads, with 3.4 miles to be constructed on South Oklahoma and 5.9 miles on Southmost.

Current completion figures were not immediately available.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Budget, border fence keep S. Texas preserve closed

Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
October 23, 2009

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — A south Texas nature preserve won't reopen as scheduled this fall after it was left in limbo for more than a year by plans to build a border fence.

The Sabal Palm Audubon Center has been a popular destination with bird watchers and home to a rare native stand of Sabal palms along the Rio Grande. The Brownsville Herald reports Friday that the center will remain closed at least through the end of the year.

The border fence, which isolates the preserve between the river and the fence, continues to create uncertainty. However, Audubon Texas Executive Director Bob Benson says the more immediate problem is a lack of funding.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Barren Promise at the Border

Voice of San Diego
October 21, 2009
by Rob Davis

Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009 Had anyone else built this hillside near the U.S.-Mexico border, it would look nothing like it does. The barren hill would be alive with native plants, the earth would be solidly rooted and not a threat to tumble down into the Tijuana Estuary, a lush, 2,500-acre salt marsh that starts 600 feet away.

But along the newly constructed border fence near the Pacific Ocean in Border Field State Park, inch-thick tan clumps of seeds and mulch still blanket the ground. They haven't been watered, so no plants have grown.

Were it anyone else's project, state regulators would've required irrigation to ensure that plants grew. But the federal government is responsible for the $59 million effort to complete and reinforce 3.5 miles of border fence separating San Diego and Tijuana. The Department of Homeland Security exempted itself from eight federal laws and any related state laws that would have regulated the project's environmental impacts.

Because the project is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act, state water regulators have no jurisdiction.Homeland Security officials sought the waiver power in 2005 to accelerate fence construction in San Diego and across the Southwest, saying that national security needs trumped environmental concerns. That power has accelerated construction from San Diego to Brownsville, as the agency has waived laws across 550 miles of the border. To date, 633 miles of fence have been built at a cost of $2.4 billion.

The department made the same promise each time it waived laws like the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act: Though we're now exempt from federal and state environmental regulation, we're still committed to the environment.

But as construction continues across the Southwest, the project's impacts in Border Field State Park and in another federal reserve further east raise questions about the sincerity of the government's commitment.Clay Phillips, the California State Parks superintendent who oversees Border Field and the estuary, said that promise hasn't been fulfilled there. Mitigation of the fence's environmental impacts has "failed miserably," Phillips said.

Phillips worries that winter rains will wash soil off the hills into the nearby estuary he oversees, which is home to several sensitive species and already filling with sediment swept in from Tijuana. Sediment raises the level of the ground, stopping the twice-daily tidal flushing that keeps the wetlands wet.

Army Corps of Engineers contractors completed the fence separating San Diego and Tijuana in July.

They filled in the notorious cross-border canyon known as Smuggler's Gulch, added a second layer of steel fencing and built a road for Border Patrol vehicles running parallel to the fence. The gulch, once a deep canyon, is now filled with an earthen berm more than 100 feet tall.

Though native plant seeds were sprayed across the berm and other newly created hillsides in Border Field State Park, Phillips said the federal government never irrigated them. Only a handful of plants grew. Other hills have none.

"They sprayed it (with seed) and hoped for the best," Phillips said. "It was a waste. A token gesture."

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, Jenny Burke, said the project was built to Caltrans' erosion standards. The agency will "monitor the situation and is considering other actions as required."

John Robertus, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the local water pollution police, said the project doesn't have all the safeguards his agency would've required. He said if the board had jurisdiction, it would've required temporary irrigation to ensure plants grew. Robertus said he, too, is concerned about the project's potential impacts on the estuary.

Fence construction has left a mark on other areas in San Diego County greater than what would've been allowed without the waiver. Further east in the federally protected Otay Mountain Wilderness, a road built along a new four-mile section of fence also left barren hills, said Joyce Schlachter, a wildlife biologist with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area.

"When we get any rain, it's going to be an erosion nightmare," Schlachter said. Seeds have been sprayed there, too, but not watered, she said. No plants have grown.

The impacts on Otay Mountain stretch beyond possible erosion. Phalanxes of dump trucks going to work on the fence have rumbled up and down a dirt road, spreading clouds of dust as far as 30 feet away, blanketing Tecate cypress, a rare tree found only on three peaks in San Diego County. (Its range extends into Mexico.) The tree, a bushy evergreen, provides food for the Thorne's hairstreak butterfly, a rare thumbnail-sized insect that feeds only on the cypress and that has been suffering from too-frequent fires on the mountain.

Construction crews cut down more than 100 cypress that survived a massive 2003 wildfire to widen an existing road for construction vehicles, Schlachter said.If laws hadn't been waived, the Bureau would have required construction crews to minimize their impact on the trees, she said.

Homeland Security officials consulted with the Bureau, Schlachter said, then didn't follow all of its advice."When it came right down to it, they did what they wanted to do," Schlachter said. "And they knew they couldn't be stopped. We did not have control over it."

Kathy Williams, a San Diego State biology professor studying the butterfly, said the dust poses "potentially a really serious problem" for the Thorne's hairstreak and the cypress.Williams has reared a small number of Thorne's caterpillars on both dusty and clean leaves in her laboratory.

Results from the on-going experiment so far indicate that more caterpillars survived on clean leaves, she said.Before construction began last year, Williams said the roadside habitat looked much healthier. She saw more butterflies last year than she did this year, though she noted that population sizes vary annually.

"Now it's obviously degraded habitat," she said, noting that rainfall may help clean the leaves. "The appearance of the quality of the site is strikingly different."

Burke, the Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman, said the agency consulted with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials about the Otay project and routinely wets the road to keep dust down. She said Customs and Border Protection will monitor the dust and maintain the roads "to their construction standard," and could periodically apply "dust-control agents," which include sap.

Those efforts haven't always worked well. Sap was sprayed on trees beyond the road's edge, Schlachter said. Dust stuck on top of the sap, she said, making the trees' survival questionable. "They're creating more risk to the plants," she said. "That's an issue."

On at least one occasion, crews didn't water the road -- even though they had the necessary equipment on hand. One morning in June, a water truck escorted dump trucks to the work site but didn't spray any water. As the trucks wound through the wilderness past Tecate cypress, choking clouds of dust followed.

U.S. Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, whose district includes Border Field State Park, said in a statement that she wants more done immediately to address the fence's environmental impacts."Many people, including myself, expressed strong concerns about the border fence and the implications of exempting the construction of the fence from environmental laws," Davis said.

"Unfortunately, those concerns are becoming a reality. I hope the Department of Homeland Security will continue to work with Congress and local officials in finding an immediate solution and work toward a permanent one."

A representative of an environmental group that opposed the fence because of concerns about erosion said its construction reinforced the reasons for his opposition. Jim Peugh, conservation chairman of the San Diego Audubon Society, said he hopes the fence serves as an example of why environmental laws should never be waived.

"The idea of building something without seeing how you're going to maintain it -- it's just going to fail," Peugh said. "That's an insane thing to do. And this project proves that beyond a doubt."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Not-So-Secure Border Initiative

Defense News
October 12, 2009
by William Matthews

The idea was to build a "virtual fence" of cameras and radars that would keep watch over America's southern and northern borders.

Eventually other sensors, perhaps UAVs, and even satellites would augment the army of unblinking electronic eyes focused on the borders. They would automatically alert human agents when terrorists, smugglers and illegal immigrants tried to sneak into the United States.
Reality is a bit different.

The $3.7 billion spent so far has bought a patchwork of sub-par technology that often can't tell a terrorist from a tumbleweed.

Cameras and radars mounted on tall poles can be so shaken by the wind and blinded by the rain that they don't see clearly. The radars report intruders where there are none. The cameras have trouble seeing and then transmitting images back to human monitors.

When it was begun in 2006, the Secure Border Initiative - called SBInet - was supposed to be completed early this year. But by the time that due date rolled around, the estimated date of completion had slid out to 2016.

SBInet has bedeviled the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees it; embarrassed Boeing, which is trying to build it; and exasperated Congress, which is asked annually to fund it.

"It's hard for me to believe that the Department of Homeland Security would award a contract of $1.1 billion over three years, and continue to award task orders without viable results," Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., told DHS and Boeing officials during a recent hearing.

Sanchez heads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border, maritime and global counterterrorism.

"It is hard to be optimistic," said Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind. "We sit here today and have partial technology deployed along just 23 miles of the southwest border." Despite billions of dollars spent, "it seems that very little progress has been made. It's been very slow."

And it hasn't just been a technology problem.

Along with the electronic virtual fence, there are about 630 miles of actual, physical fence, which have proven also to be problematic.

For one thing, costs are climbing. "What used to cost us $3.5 million a mile is now at $6.5 million a mile," Sanchez said.

That's fencing designed to keep people out. The cost for barriers designed to stop vehicles "has gone from $1 million to $1.8 million per mile," Sanchez reported.

"And that's sort of unbelievable considering that construction costs - because, you know, we haven't been building - construction has been in the dumps," she said.

The physical fences don't work much better than their electronic counterparts.

"There have been about 3,300 breaches in the fence, and it costs us about $1,300 every time that we have to repair them," Sanchez said. "And that being said, we have yet to see whether or not this fencing has increased border security and has justified its costs."

Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has a simple answer to that.

"No," Stana said when asked by Rep. Christopher Carney, D-Pa., "Have the American taxpayers so far gotten what they paid for?"

In a September report on SBInet, Stana described construction delays, rising costs and equipment that doesn't meet performance standards.

"I just don't understand, just from a technical standpoint, why it's so difficult," said Rep. Michael Rogers, R-Ala. "I mean, they're basically cameras on a pole, and we've got folks monitoring multiple cameras."

SBInet "was supposed to be a relatively easy project," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "We were told that Boeing would be integrating existing off-the-shelf technology to create a virtual fence."

Boeing has tried, said Timothy Peters, a Boeing vice president in charge of SBInet.

"During this development, we have encountered technological challenges common to the integration of commercial off-the-shelf components," he said.

But problems are being corrected, and "I believe we have a system that is robust and soon will be ready for widespread deployment," Peters told lawmakers.

SBInet was designed to use radar to detect possible intruders, then use video cameras to make a positive identification - distinguishing people and vehicles from animals or other nonthreats.
But the GAO has repeatedly reported troubles.

For example, on windy days, radars have reported too many false detections, Stana said. Some of the system's newest cameras were less capable than older prototype models. And SBInet has been unable to provide reliable signals for its wireless network and remote-controlled cameras.
Standards have been lowered so that the next portion of SBInet, called Block 1, can be declared acceptable by DHS, Stana said.

"The spec for acceptance of Block 1 is now a 70 percent identification rate," he said. "So that means when you are talking about drug runners or bad criminals, it [Block 1] can be accepted if they can find seven out of 10 of them."

That means that "three out of 10 are going to get by and you can still accept the program," he said.

That's not reassuring to lawmakers like Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who worries about the drug war raging just across the border in Mexico.

On a visit to the border, McCaul said, he was shown "the physical fence" that separates El Paso, Texas, from Juarez, Mexico, which McCaul identified as "probably the most violent city in the American continent."

"That is the threat," he said. "That is why getting operational control of the border is so important."

But a virtual fence for El Paso has been delayed until 2014 at the earliest.

"Why in the world does this take so long to do?" McCaul asked.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bare Dirt Along New Border Fence A Flood Worry

KPBS San Diego
October 13, 2009
by Amy Isackson

State parks officials are worried the federal government's failure to grow plants on slopes where it built new sections of the border fence could mean floods on both sides of the US Mexico border this rainy season. Smuggler's Gulch is a major area of concern.

About four years ago, the US federal government waived all environmental laws along the US Mexico border in order to build the border fence. The head of the Department of Homeland Security promised, even so, the government would control erosion to protect the Tijuana River Valley and estuary.

Clay Phillips is with the California Parks Department and manages the estuary reserve. He says the bare slopes that run the length of the new fence construction are a stark contrast to the promise.

"You wouldn't find a Jack In the Box where they're adding a parking lot that would be left in this condition."

The federal government has tried to grow plants on the slopes to control erosion without success. Phillips says moderate rain will erode the bare dirt. That could clog the Tijuana Estuary and cause floods in Tijuana and San Diego.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Border fence divides more than nations, landowner says

Corpus Christi Caller-Times
October 10, 2009
by David Sikes

BROWNSVILLE — Ray Loop and his family have a rural Brownsville address. But the family also lives on the Mexico side of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Tactical Infrastructure project.

Translation: They live south of the infamous Border Fence. The Loop homestead is among hundreds of properties suffering the misfortune of being between a massive 18-foot steel wall and the Rio Grande.

More than 400 Texans have had land condemned by the Feds for the wall’s right of way. The U.S. government has erected about 70 miles of fence in the Rio Grande Valley alone. But that’s not half the problem, Loop said.

In some areas this wall is a mile or two from the river, effectively enclosing large tracts of land and greatly reducing their values. Why not build it closer to the river? An international treaty prohibits a wall of this magnitude from following the exact path of the Rio Grande because the barrier might push floodwaters into Mexico. Along certain stretches of the border, though, there is no fence for miles. These gaps are difficult to explain, but speculation is that influential landowners along the border got special exemptions and no fence.

Homeland Security also has enjoyed special legal exemptions and regulatory waivers from such high federal authorities as the Environmental Protection Agency and others.

Loop said real estate inside the wall is now difficult to insure because of uncertainty, and that many financial institutions refuse to accept these properties as collateral for loans.
For the past 17 months the Loop family, who has farmed this land for three generations, has been fighting a legal battle to address a variety of concerns.

Essentially they’re fighting to include favorable fine print written into a pending agreement with Homeland Security. Details such as access to their land sit high on the Loops’ list of fine-print items.

The fence, which actually is a wall of hollow steel pipes concreted six feet into the ground and then filled with additional concrete, will be fitted with gates. Right now, the location of these gates are represented as gaps in the wall.

And nobody in government can tell the Loops whether their gate will be electronic or padlocked. If the gate is not electronic, then Loop’s little girl won’t be able to open it when she walks to the school bus stop. It’d be too heavy.

If the gate is operated by an electronic keypad, then should Loop tell his daughter the code? Loop wonders how valuable these gate codes will be to drug smugglers and what these ruthless criminals might do to gain the number sequences.

Loop can’t even get the government to tell him whether he’ll have 24-hour access to his home and crop fields. Or whether a U.S. Border Patrol agent must be present when the gates are opened. He wants such details written into the agreement.

Loop farms about 2,000 acres of some high-tech and diverse produce that sometimes must be harvested at night. It’s all behind the gate.

What about his workers? Will they have unlimited access to the farm? Or must everyone undergo extensive background checks? Will the Feds limit the number of folks with access privileges?

The government also hasn’t told Loop whether his dove hunting operation will be allowed to continue or what security level might trigger the prohibition of guns behind the wall.

Other concerns include fire safety. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also has concerns about wildfires and the safety of firefighters and wildlife caught behind the fence. But on a personal level, Loop wonders whether local firefighters and other emergency crews will get through the gate in time to save his burning home or tend to his family’s health.

And not every landowner within the wall has an access gate. In some cases, adjacent property owners will be forced to borrow a neighbor’s gate to access their own land.

What a mess.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Gov't dismisses call for more Texas border fencing

Associated Press
October 9, 2009
by Christopher Sherman

McALLEN, Texas — Members of Congress have stripped a provision requiring 300 more miles of tall fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border from a Department of Homeland Security appropriation bill, saying the funds needed to build the barrier would be better spent on alternative security measures.

If the amendment by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint had remained in the bill, tall fencing to stop illegal immigrants and smugglers on foot would have been installed along 700 miles of border — a plan that many officials and residents along the Southwest border have opposed.

DeMint's provision, which was dropped this week, said 300 miles of low-rise vehicle barriers and virtual fencing planned for the area could not count toward the 700 miles of barrier the U.S. government had promised to build. Virtual fencing includes technologies such as cameras and sensors.

"The DeMint amendment represented an unproductive and inefficient border security strategy," U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar said in a prepared statement Thursday. "We need to invest and secure our border and our land ports without being tied down to an amendment that is out of touch with border needs."

Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, said DeMint's proposal would have cost $6.5 billion, money Cuellar said was better spent on other border security measures.

At the end of June approximately 633 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers had been completed along the 2,100-mile border. Many of the gaps in the fencing are in Texas where landowners continue to fight the government.

A federal judge was scheduled Friday to hear updates on several cases that are expected to go to trial next year to determine how much compensation the government would have to pay landowners for using their property.

The provision by DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, was not included in the House version of the $42.8 billion spending bill and was expected to be stripped during conference when the two bills were melded.

Seven border state congressmen asked the House leadership in July to strip the amendment from the final bill.

The General Accounting Office reported last month that maintaining the border fence would cost $6.5 billion during the next 20 years. That would be on top of the $2.4 billion spent to build it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Border fence scuttles multimillion-dollar Brownsville development

Brownsville Herald
October 8, 2009
by Emma Perez-Trevino

BROWNSVILLE — An extensive multimillion-dollar residential and commercial development along the Rio Grande in the Amigoland area could be suspended and might never come to fruition.

The fence between the U.S.-Mexico border is to blame.

Developers and city staff present the City Commission with separate resolutions Tuesday calling for it to suspend the activities of Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone No. 2 as they relate to the 421-acre University Park project. The parties did not entirely agree on the language of the resolutions and plan to resolve the differences in the coming days.

The TIRZ is a financing mechanism that allows investors to improve areas and be reimbursed with tax revenue. The investors in University Park include Rollins M. Koppel, of Harlingen, Abraham Galonsky, of Brownsville, Alter Holand, of McAllen, and Jenard Gross, of Houston.
The master development agreement between investors and the municipality calls for the city’s purchase of nearly 80 acres of land from the developers for the construction of a park.

The border security fence, however, prevents the use of the land that the city planned to purchase for the park.

Furthermore, the Brownsville Public Utilities Board rescinded its agreement with the developers to fund utility costs, which were proposed for construction on the property, and to take over the maintenance and operations of the utilities, the commission further learned Tuesday.

The developers’ resolution presented to the commission notes that the developers determined that the construction of the fence greatly increased the economic risks of any successful development on the property — to the extent that the development that was planned is no longer economically feasible.

Planning on the project began at least five years ago.

Border fence funds pulled at request of lawmakers

Houston Chronicle
October 8, 2009
by Gary Martin

WASHINGTON — A provision to build an additional 300 miles of pedestrian fence along the U.S.-Mexico border has been stripped out of a $42.8 billion spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security.

The provision by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., was removed at the behest of House members from Texas, Arizona and California who called the fencing a waste of taxpayer money and an ineffective way to secure the border.

“We need to invest and secure our border and our land ports without being tied down to an amendment that is out of touch with border needs,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, who spearheaded the effort to remove the provision DeMint tucked into a Senate spending bill earlier this year.

The provision, approved 54-44 in the Senate in July, was supported by both Republican and Democratic senators from Texas, California and Arizona. New Mexico's two Democratic senators opposed the additional pedestrian fence.

The House version of the bill did not contain the provision.

Cornyn's complaint

This week, the House and Senate negotiators writing the final bill chose not to include DeMint's provision, prompting a protest from Sen. John Cornyn.

“I'm very concerned with anything that sends a signal that we're not serious about continuing to provide security along our border,” said Cornyn, R-Texas, who supported the DeMint provision.

But the Texas Border Coalition, a collective of border mayors and county officials, applauded the move. They had urged Democratic leaders in the House to remove the provision from the bill, saying the money could be better used to upgrade busy ports of entry that routinely see traffic congestion and delays.

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, the Texas Border Coalition chairman, said the decision is the first time community leaders “have been able to defeat an effort in Congress to require fence construction.”

‘Virtual fence'

Congress authorized 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border in the Secure Fence Initiative of 2006. The Homeland Security Department has 370 miles of pedestrian fence under contract, with the remainder to be secured by vehicle barriers, sensors and other high-technology equipment to create a “virtual fence.”

More than 630 miles of fence and barriers have been completed, according to a DHS spokesman. Some portions of the uncompleted pedestrian fence in Texas are under court challenge.

The DeMint provision would have required that all 700 miles of barriers authorized by Congress in 2006 to be pedestrian fence, eliminating vehicle barriers and virtual fences. It called for the pedestrian fence to be completed by Dec. 31, 2010.

DeMint argued that the government had dragged its feet on securing the Southwest border.

Criticized as wasteful

Border lawmakers in the House called the DeMint provision wasteful after the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that costs to build a pedestrian fence had escalated to $7 million per mile.

“I say those dollars are better invested into supporting the manpower and resources at Customs and Border Patrol and local law enforcement,” Cuellar said.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Appropriators deal blow to border fence

The Hill
October 7, 2009
by Walter Alarkon

Appropriators dropped a requirement in the 2010 Homeland Security spending bill to rush the construction of a fence at the Mexican border, disappointing conservatives who pushed the project as a way to slow illegal immigration.

The conference report for the $42.8 billion appropriations bill left out language in the Senate's version that required the installation of 700 miles of the border fence by the end of next year. The fence requirement was inserted in July as an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). It was adopted with the support of most GOP senators and 21 Democrats.

But the conference report went with the House's position, which didn't include any requirements on the fence's construction.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, and other GOP members of the panel assented to dropping the DeMint amendment partly because the conference report increased money for Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, a GOP aide said. The conference report calls for $10.1 billion for Customs and Border Protection, which is a 3 percent boost over funding for the agency in the 2009 Homeland Security spending bill.

Fence supporters faced several obstacles to funding the project.

The Obama administration had opposed a rapid expansion of the fence, requesting far less money for the project than President George W. Bush had asked for. The White House called for $779 million for the fence in 2010, less than the $1.9 billion spent by the Bush adminstration in 2008 and the $926 million appropriated to the fence in 2009. The Homeland Security conference report calls for $800 million for the fence.

Initial plans called for the fence to cover 670 miles of the nearly 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexico border. But a General Accountability Office (GAO) report in February found that less than three dozen miles of it had been built.

The project was dealt another blow last month when the GAO found that it would cost $6.5 billion over 20 years. The report also said that it couldn't assess its effectiveness at stopping illegal immigration until its technological features were installed. Boeing, the firm building the fence, plans to install sensors to help Border Patrol agents deter people trying to cross it.

DeMint blamed Democrats for "gutting the best tool" for securing the U.S. border.

"Virtual fencing won't solve the problem and we need a real fence to deter the real problems of illegal immigration, terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking," he said. "A strong bipartisan Senate majority voted to finish the fence by the end of 2010 and its very disappointing that Democrat leaders are thwarting the will of the American people behind closed doors.

"The Homeland Security conference report weakens another provision pushed by immigration hard-liners. The Senate had called for a permanent extension of the E-Verify program, an electronic system used by employees to check whether workers are in the country legally, but the conference report would extend it by three years, the same proposal in the House bill. The conference report does require federal contractors to use the system to check employees' statuses, which is what the Senate had proposed.

Appropriators did include in the legislation $800 million for the border fence program and a 3-year extension of a visa program for international medical graduates working in rural parts of the country.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the sponsor of the House version of the spending bill, said the measures were "short-term solutions until comprehensive immigration reform can be considered by Congress.

"President Obama in August called on lawmakers to produce a draft immigration reform bill by the end of the year. But lawmakers, dealing with major bills on healthcare, financial regulation and climate change, will be hard pressed to find time for another contentious legislative item.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A costly U.S.-Mexico border wall, in both dollars and deaths

Reuters Global News Blog
October 2, 2009
by Robin Emmott

Securing the United States’s border from illegal immigrants, terrorists and weapons of mass destruction “continues to be a major challenge,” says the United States Government Accountability Office in a new report. It is also proving to be expensive in both lives and money.

In dollar terms, the outlay is substantial. Every time someone breaks a hole in the U.S.-Mexico border wall, it costs about $1,300 to repair. The estimated cost of maintaining the 661-mile (1,058 km) double-layered fence along part of its 2,000-mile (3,000 km) border with Mexico over the next 20 years is $6.5 billion, the GAO report says.

That is on top of the $3.7 billion allocated to the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative since 2005 to build a system of fencing, lighting, sensors, cameras and radars to keep out job-hungry immigrants, terrorists and smugglers.

While border agents say the wall is a tool that helps them protect the United States, the GAO report found that U.S. Customs and Border Protection cannot accurately determine the fence’s impact on improving border security, suggesting the money might not be well spent.

“What a waste in resources and creativity ,” said Jorge Mario Cabrera Valladares of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). “Our tax dollars are being wasted on an ineffective, old strategy instead of urgently working on serious, long term, workable immigration reform,” he said.

Since the attacks on New York and Washington of Sept. 11, 2001, political pressure for tighter border controls has grown sharply and supporters of the border wall argue it is effective in keeping unwanted foreigners out.

But some border experts say the wall does not stop those trying to get into the United States and only makes it more dangerous, greatly raising the fees charged by people smugglers who charge up to $2 billion every year in Arizona alone.

Some 5,600 people have died trying to cross into the United States since the U.S. government under President Bill Clinton dramatically increased border security in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper and the first stretch of fence between San Diego and Tijuana.

That is according to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties and Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH), based on Mexico’s foreign ministry and media reports, who say the death of migrants is an international humanitarian crisis.

Before the stepped-up enforcement operations, experts say most deaths were due to traffic accidents as migrants dashed across freeways in border areas. Today, most die from hypothermia in the desert or by drowning in the Rio Grande and irrigation canals.

The U.S. Border Patrol’s body count for border crossers this year points to the continued dangers. While the U.S. recession has caused a sharp drop in arrests on the borderline, Customs and Border Protection has reported 416 deaths so far in 2009. That compares with 390 last year and 398 in 2007.

U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to push comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but the issue has little lawmaker support as Americans lose jobs in the recession.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

BORDER FENCE: Environmental protections jeopardized by GOP amendments, critics say

Land Letter
October 1, 2009
by April Reese

New efforts by Republican lawmakers to bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border could undermine the Department of Homeland Security's plans to mitigate environmental damage from the 700-mile fence authorized by Congress to stem the tide of illegal immigration and drugs from Mexico, critics of the fence project say.

One new provision, included in last week's Interior spending bill passed by the Senate, would prohibit federal funding for projects that "impede, prohibit or restrict" activities related to the operational control of the border.

Environmental groups see the language, attached as an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), as potentially detrimental to efforts by DHS to carry out projects that would reduce the border fence's environmental impacts.

"The amendment is very troubling, as its language could be read broadly enough to prevent [the Department of the Interior] from raising legitimate concerns about border walls and demanding mitigation measures," said Scott Nicol, a co-founder of the No Border Wall Coalition, based in Texas.

Nicol said he is also worried about an amendment in the Department of Homeland Security spending bill added by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) that would require DHS to complete 700 miles of double-layered fencing along the border by Dec. 31, 2010. Construction so far has included a mix of vehicle barriers, virtual fencing and stretches of physical fence. But DeMint maintains that such barriers do not meet a 2008 congressional mandate calling for 700 miles of reinforced, double-layer fencing (Land Letter, July 23).

"The American people were promised a secure border fence three years ago and it's time to make it happen," DeMint said. "Unfortunately, our government has dragged its feet for years and tried to use untested and unsecure 'virtual' fencing instead of actual, physical fencing. Our first priority must be national security, and we can only achieve that goal with secure borders."

Concerns over costs, impacts

DHS officials and others have argued that 700 miles of double-layered fencing is unnecessary and cost prohibitive. A Government Accountability Office report issued this month found that such fencing costs on average $3.9 million a mile.

In a Sept. 8 letter to Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), whose district includes 785 miles of border, urged House leaders to purge the amendment from the final bill.

"Funding for additional border fencing is not our most urgent need on the border," Rodriguez wrote.

A spokesman for Price said Congress is working on a continuing resolution that would buy more time in settling differences between the two versions of the bill. The new fiscal year begins today.

In January, DHS received $50 million to offset the ecological harm done by the 700-mile fence, which was authorized by Congress under the 2005 Secure Fence Act (Land Letter, Jan. 22). Congress included another $40 million for mitigation in the Homeland Security appropriations bill.

But the department has yet to spend any of the money, despite a July 23 letter from 43 lawmakers urging Secretary Janet Napolitano to establish an environmental monitoring program along the border and move forward with mitigation efforts (Land Letter, July 30).
DHS's delay in implementing the mitigation measures has fueled criticism of the agency from environmental groups, land managers, private landowners and biologists who say the border fence could sever wildlife habitat and create a host of other environmental problems in the border regions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Matt Chandler, a spokesman for DHS, said the border fence mitigation fund "has not been used to date." The Interior Department is finalizing a list of projects that will be funded with the money. "Once projects have been identified, DHS will begin transferring funds as appropriate," he said. Until then, DHS will work with local, state and federal land managers to "minimize adverse impacts" from fence projects, he added.

Critics say using the mitigation fund to offset the damage from the fence is especially crucial given that some of the construction occurred without the protection of environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. In 2008, former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff asserted his authority under the REAL ID Act of 2005 to waive 37 federal laws and all state, local and tribal laws to expedite construction of the fence along 500 miles of border.

New legislation

Rodriguez introduced his own legislation early last week aimed at forcing DHS to address the ecological impacts of fencing along the border. The "Healthy Borderlands Act of 2009," introduced Sept. 22, requires the Homeland Security secretary to develop a mitigation plan to begin to address the ecological impacts of border fencing.

Rogriguez's 23rd District of Texas, which stretches from El Paso to Eagle Pass, covers more length of the border than any other congressional district. About 29 miles of new fencing is planned for his district.

"Our borderlands are rich in natural and cultural resources, but they also can be places for illegal activity," Rodriguez, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement.

"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 spokeswoman Rebeca Chapa said the bill would ensure the mitigation funds "are spent properly" and that a plan is put in place to mitigate the ecological effects of the fence.
Nicol of the No Border Wall Coalition said Rodriguez's bill is needed to push the federal government toward offsetting some of the damage caused by the border fence.

"As a result of former DHS Secretary Chertoff's Real ID Act waiver, which brushed aside federal laws including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, tremendous environmental damage that would normally be illegal has been done to our borderlands," Nicol said in an e-mail. "Representative Rodriguez's bill, if passed, will mark a first step toward mitigating some small portion of that damage. "

But Nicol warned that some of the damage is irreversible.

"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," Nicol said, referring to species in Texas and Arizona that wildlife managers believe will be harmed by the fence. "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."