Wednesday, December 29, 2010

King Outlines Immigration Plans for 2011

New York Times Blog
December 13, 2010
by Julia Preston

The Republican who is expected to lead the main subcommittee on immigration in the House of Representatives in the new congress next year said on Monday that he will push for a bill that would cancel employers’ tax deductions for wages of workers who are illegal immigrants.

In an interview, Representative Steve King of Iowa, the senior Republican on the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration in the current congress, said his priority as chairman would be to pass a bill he introduced last year that would also require the Internal Revenue Service to share information with the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration about the immigration status of workers.

Mr. King said his measure would increase pressure on employers to fire unauthorized immigrant workers by increasing their cost. He estimated that if employers were not able to claim tax deductions for those workers’ wages and benefits, an unauthorized immigrant making $10 an hour would cost the employer the equivalent of $16 an hour.
Mr. King said his measure would be a “velvet glove” that would leave it up to employers to fire unauthorized workers. “That opens up lots of jobs for Americans,” he said.

The proposal would break down a major privacy firewall that protects tax information from scrutiny by Homeland Security authorities. Millions of authorized immigrants in the workforce have payroll taxes deducted and file tax returns using a taxpayer number issued by the I.R.S., which is not routinely shared with immigration agencies.

Mr. King’s strategy would be a sharp departure from the outgoing Democratic-controlled House, which last week passed a bill known as the Dream Act. Mr. King was a leading opponent of that bill, which would open a path to legal status for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant students if they attend college or serve in the military.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, has said he plans to bring up the House version of the student bill for a vote before the end of the lame-duck session. Although it gained some momentum from the House action, its chances for Senate passage appear slim. Mr. King said that if the bills fails there, “it is dead.”

Mr. King, who cautioned that he has not been formally named chairman of the sub-committee, said he also hoped to conduct a review of the Obama administration’s spending on border enforcement, and perhaps seek new construction of physical fence barriers to stop illegal border-crossers. “Build it until they stop going around the end – that would be my standard,” Mr. King said.

On a call with reporters on Monday, several leading immigration scholars said the young immigrants who are eligible for legal status under the student bill, some of whom are already in college, would be forced into a shadow existence if it fails. The researchers were among 280 immigration scholars who signed a letter of support for the bill.

“It would be a complete waste of the taxpayer money we have spent to this point to educate them,” said Douglas Massey, a sociology professor at Princeton who studies Mexican migration. “Just when they are about to come on to the labor market to take up their jobs, we seem to be throwing that investment all away. And it means incredible hardship for them. The only place they can go is into the underground economy.”

King-size ideas on immigration

New York Post
December 28, 2010
by S.A. Miller

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Peter King, who next week becomes chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, says he will push legislation to tighten border security and arrest more illegal aliens -- challenging what he considers to be President Obama's lax immigration policies.

"The Obama administration continues to display an obvious lack of urgency when it comes to gaining operational control of the border, which is absolutely critical," King (R-LI) said.

He said Obama has "done little" in the past two years to keep out illegal immigrants and the country needs a new strategy "that incorporates the necessary staffing, fencing and technology to do the job."

King's immigration proposals will include an aggressive crackdown on private companies that hire illegal aliens and increased federal support for local police to help arrest illegal immigrants.

These measures are near the top of a packed Homeland Security agenda that includes efforts to better combat domestic radicalization, stopping Obama's plans to transfer Guantanamo Bay detainees to the US for civilian trials and bolstering national cybersecurity.

The border security initiatives would be a sharp departure from the current Obama administration policy that is focused on deporting illegal aliens who commit serious crimes.

It also underscores the dead end awaiting Obama's immigration reform proposals when he confronts a new Republican majority in the House and a larger Republican minority in the Senate starting next week.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Border fence construction nears completion in Hope Park

Brownsville Herald
December 26, 2010
by Jazmine Ulloa

On a crisp December morning, Justo Ahumada stood at the edge of the levee near Hope Park watching a group of construction workers ply at the rusty iron fence now snaking its way along the U.S.-Mexico border. Their highlighter-yellow jackets beamed under the gray skies.

He pointed to a spot beyond them, just within sight, where he crossed the Rio Grande from Matamoros for the first time. He had been 17, maybe 18.

“There weren’t any Border Patrol agents back then,” he recalled. “We’d cross to work for the season, then we’d cross back to go home, back with our family.”

Now employees with the construction company, Kiewit, are extending the U.S.-Mexico border fence, finishing up the one mile in Brownsville needed to complete the 34 miles slated for Cameron County. The iron bars stretch along Military Highway and block the view of the river from Hope Park, a green space created off Levee Street to commemorate ties between the United States and Mexico.

Texas, which was allocated about 115 miles of fencing, is the last state to see the initiative completed, according to the Department of Homeland Security. About 1.3 miles of the fence are still to be constructed in El Paso and Del Rio — another 0.2 miles of fencing devised to prevent vehicles from crossing the border were planned for and already created along the state’s southern border.

For those who fought against the creation of the fence — dubbed the “The Wall” by its opponents — its completion is disheartening, a historic symbol that will long divide a once bicultural, binational area. It is also a sign the battle might be over, though some refuse to lose it. Still, those in favor of enhanced border security say it’s a necessary step to ensure the nation’s safety, especially as the drug war rages in open warfare on the streets of Mexico.

Among those most bereaved by the final installation of the fence are property owners. Eloisa Tamez remembers when federal surveyors came to her door in 2008, asking her to sign property condemnation documents — papers that would outright hand over the land her family has nurtured and cultivated since 1767, when they attained it through a Spanish land grant.

She quickly became one of the most vocal opponents against the fence, grazing the front page of the New York Times and the cover of The Economist. She denied the contractors access to her property, and was sued the federal government and to this day continues in court proceedings with DHS.

“There are gaps all over the fence, and they have not compensated any of us for our land,” she said. “They continue with the injustice, and reasons to validate it keep changing.”

When plans for the fence began rolling forward, Tamez recalls, the federal government said the construction was to protect the United States from terrorists crossing into the United States. Now they say the fence is needed to protect against violence surging Mexico, she said.

Rusty Monsees, who back in 2008 agreed to sell 3.3 acres of his land to the government, was still sued by the government, even as he was one of the staunchest advocates for the fence. The lawsuit filed against him – one of more than 100 land condemnation cases pending in Cameron County – was a type of case the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called a "friendly land condemnation."

Now workers have built the fence running through his citrus yard, cutting him access to some of his acreage. Monsees believes the fence is worthless and a waste.

“It is a bad use of money,” he said. “When they (government officials) asked me about the fence initially, I said I thought it was a good idea. But if you do not follow up, people learn to get around it. You have to have people on the ground, and you have to have them on the ground every day, 24 hours a day in specific areas for patrol.”

The average cost of pedestrian fence, which is designed to prevent the passage of people, across all of the nation’s sectors is $6.5 million per mile — including all planning, material and construction costs with the exception of costs associated with adverse condemnation. That totals to about $748 million in Texas alone. The average cost of fence designed specifically to prevent vehicles from passing through is $1.8 million per mile.

But Daniel Milian, supervisor of Public Affairs for the U.S. Border Patrol, said the fence was an added security measure for the country, helping the department with its day-to-day operations and putting its resources to better use.

The fence “serves a delay, it becomes another obstacle for smugglers,” he explained. “It also provides a bottleneck effect. It forces them to cross in areas where we have the technical advantage, where we have more time to respond.”

Back at the riverside, Ahumada, 84, says he must have made the journey through the roads from his native Tampico in Tamaulipas, the river and into Brownsville more than six times, he said. Like millions before him, he came to the United States in search of jobs and new opportunities. But when he realized an anti-immigrant sentiment growing in the country, he settled in Bayview in the 1950s, where he picked crops and worked odd jobs. He eventually became a U.S. citizen.

"What a shame for the people coming to look for work these days," he lamented.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Wilderness areas face criticism from border security advocates

Los Angeles Times
December 25, 2010
by Nicholas Riccardi

A proposal to consolidate a swath of 250,000 acres of wilderness study areas in New Mexico has sparked an outcry from groups fearing an influx of illegal immigrants and drugs from Mexico. But the Border Patrol says the designation has little effect on its work.

Reporting from the Potrillo Mountains Wilderness — A new front has opened in the centuries-old battle over preserving federal lands in the West, with some advocates of a tighter border arguing that designating some lands as wilderness — meaning they are so precious that no mechanized vehicle can enter — hinders border security.

The U.S. Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies can take vehicles into wilderness areas while chasing lawbreakers. But to patrol the lands by vehicle, plant sensors or build operating bases, they must get permission from the federal agency controlling the region. Some retired agents say they were told by managers of wilderness areas that they could not use helicopters to pick up injured migrants, or that they could patrol only on horseback.

Critics point to Arizona, the main gateway for illegal immigrants and drugs from Mexico; much of that traffic passes through wilderness areas in the south-central and eastern parts of the state. A Border Patrol agent was shot to death this month in an isolated canyon south of Tucson, in an area being studied for wilderness designation.

Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah has proposed a law to allow the Border Patrol unlimited access to federal lands along the border, just as it has access to all private land. The current situation, he said, forces the agency to ask permission to do its job.

"There is now a conflict," he said, "between wilderness and border security."

Environmental groups and some federal officials, however, contend that the conflict is overblown and that there is more cooperation than confrontation between the Border Patrol and land managers. They point to a Government Accountability Office report issued in October that found that 22 of 26 Border Patrol station chiefs in the southwest said that though environmental regulations can cause delays, they have no effect on overall security.

Lynn Scarlett, who as deputy secretary of Interior under President George W. Bush in 2006 drew up an agreement with the patrol on how to police wilderness lands, acknowledged there have been misunderstandings over the issue.

But she argued that the belief that Border Patrol efforts are hindered in wilderness areas stems not from facts, but a deep distrust of federal environmental protections among some in the West. "The debate about the Border Patrol becomes another vehicle for that long-standing debate," she said.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Environmental waiver in hand, agency boosts its stewardship

Nogales International
December 24, 2010
by Jonathan Clark

A Department of Homeland Security-sponsored public forum last week on an upcoming border fence and road-building project in Nogales looked pretty much like any meeting that a federal agency might hold as part of its National Environmental Protection Act requirements.

Engineers and experts manned poster displays that described the technical details of the projects and detailed the ways that issues like water quality, biological resources, soils and geology would be taken into account. Meanwhile, a team of stenographers and court reporters stood at the ready to document citizen concerns.

“The reason we’re here is we want your input, we want information from you,” said Greg Gephart program manager for tactical infrastructure for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at the start of the Dec. 14 meeting at the Holiday Inn Express.

We want to know what your concerns are on the projects, recommendations on how to do it differently, or how to do it better,” Gephart said, adding that those concerns and recommendations would be incorporated into the environmental planning documents for the project.

But whether CBP/Border Patrol follows any of the recommendations – or obeys federal environmental law during the planning or execution of the projects – is essentially optional.

For the past two-and-a-half years, the agency has been operating under a waiver that allows it to build border fencing and related infrastructure in the U.S. Southwest without having to adhere to more than 30 environmental laws. Then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the waiver in April 2008 to allow the Border Patrol to skip the environmental review process and speed up its fence-building efforts.

“The waiver doesn’t mean we’re throwing out all environmental considerations,” Gephart said. “It’s just a method that allows us to expedite the construction.”

But that hurry-up approach worries local resident Carolyn Wemlinger, who attended last week’s meeting to express her concerns about the effects the fence-building effort might have on local hydrology. Wemlinger, who lives in the Kino Springs area, said she’s worried that the 2.8 miles of concrete-anchored, bollard-style fencing planned for central Nogales could exacerbate flooding problems by creating dams above ground and blockages below.

“They say they’re going to start in 2011, and they’re going to do all these impact reports. How are they going to have time? And is the public going to get to see those before they start?” she asked.

“I think it’s going to have a tremendous impact on the environment; we can see the impact on the environment out where we are, where the wall already exists,” Wemlinger said. “There are some environmental needs that I haven’t heard addressed. I want the (Border Patrol) agents to be safe and to be able to do their job, but you cannot tell me that it’s not going to have an impact on wildlife, on flora, on fauna.”

Jenny Neeley, conservation policy director for the environmental advocacy group Sky Island Alliance, said she wasn’t sure how much project planners would listen to concerns like Wemilnger’s. But if Homeland Security is genuinely interested in environmental impact and citizen participation, she said, there’s an easy way to prove it.

“If they truly wanted public involvement and public input, that is exactly what the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed to do,” Neeley said. “And that’s what we would really like the Border Patrol to be doing: to be working inside of federal environmental law, like every single other agency in the federal government.”

Checkpoint past

Waiver or no waiver, Keith Graves, district ranger at the Coronado National Forest’s Nogales Ranger District, is confident in CBP/Border Patrol’s approach. “Their environmental compliance process is right up there with anything anyone has done under NEPA,” he said.

But grass-roots advocates say CBP/Border Patrol’s track record shows that environmental concerns receive mostly lip service as the agency pursues its primary mission of bolstering border security.

“We’ve gone through it in the north part of the county with the checkpoint,” said Sherry Sass, president of Friends of Santa Cruz River. “We’ve gone through rounds and rounds with the Border Patrol on the checkpoint. And that seems to be what happens; there’s a lot of talk, and then they do what they’re going to do anyway.”

A lackluster effort to publicize last week’s meeting also demonstrates CBP/Border Patrol’s level of interest in soliciting environmental feedback, the critics say. Indeed, the Nogales International only learned about the event from a packet of information forwarded by an aide at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ office. It then took phone calls to four different CBP spokespeople in Tucson and Washington, D.C. to confirm the meeting in time for a same-day preview article.

Attendance at the Dec. 14 meeting barely broke double figures. And while Gephart said citizens can submit feedback on the projects through Dec. 30, at the website, as of Dec. 20, the address redirected browsers to a non-interactive, general information CBP page titled “TI Environmental Stewardship.”

“I think it’s pretty telling that we didn’t even know about (the Dec. 14 meeting),” Neeley said. “We didn’t even know about a meeting they had with stakeholders and we obviously consider ourselves to be a pretty big stakeholder.”

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ariz. drug tunnel opened to metered parking space

Associated Press / ABC
December 14, 2010

NOGALES, Ariz. -- Immigration agents discovered a 13-foot drug tunnel stretching from the Mexican border to a metered parking space in Arizona, where vehicles with holes cut in the bottom would park and take marijuana from people inside the underground space.

"It was pretty brazen," said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Vincent Picard. "Right in the middle of downtown Nogales."

The tunnel begins directly against the border fence on the Mexican side and leads to an opening 10 inches in diameter on a street in downtown Nogales.

Agents uncovered the tunnel Monday after seeing a cylindrical bundle fall out of a van.

After they began chasing the van, the driver escaped on foot. The passenger, who was not identified, was arrested and will face federal charges of possession of narcotics with the intent to distribute and re-entry after deportation of an aggravated felon.

About 2,200 pounds of pot were seized from the van.

Picard said it's unclear how long the tunnel had been operating or how many drugs were smuggled through it, although he said it likely wasn't very long because it was in such a conspicuous location.

Mexican authorities have secured the tunnel entrance in Mexico, and the Nogales city workers covered the tunnel exit with a steel plate.

The U.S. Border Patrol will guard the tunnel until Mexican officials fill it with concrete, likely soon.

Agents have found dozens of drug tunnels in Nogales since the 1990s. In September, Border Patrol agents found a 3-by-3-foot drug smuggling tunnel tied into the city's storm drain.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Federal Agents Go Door-To-Door To Crack Down On Drug Tunnels.

December 14, 2010
by Amy Isackson

U.S. federal Authorities are trying out a new tactic in their hunt for subterranean drug smuggling tunnels near the border in San Diego. Authorities are going door-to-door to ask business owners to keep their heads up for underground activity.

"Hello?" shout federal agents as they peek their heads into a warehouse in Otay Mesa, an industrial area just a few blocks from the border fence.

"Hi, how’s it going?," asks an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, who asked not to be named for security reasons, as he introduced himself to the warehouse owner. "I don’t know if you know this or not," the agent tells the owner, "but Otay Mesa is a real hotbed for tunnels. Drug tunnels."

Just last month, federal authorities unearthed two sophisticated tunnels a few blocks from this complex, in the maze of streets filled with generic looking warehouses. The tunnels had electricity and ventilation. One had a hydraulic trap door. And they aren't the only ones that have been discovered in the area. Last year, there was one with an elevator. Back in 2006, authorities found the longest tunnel ever, a mile-and-a-half.

The subterranean passageways surfaced in warehouses nearby. "These are some of the things we’re asking the warehouse managers and owners to be looking for," says the agent, "Things like subterranean noises or jack hammering, without a visible road crew. Or, there’s no construction going on, but you’re hearing construction."

Agents are also asking business owners to be on the lookout for renters who pay in cash and people who keep odd hours.

Agents ask the warehouse manager if they can take a look around. The space is about as big as a football field. Hundreds of boxes bound for Carl’s Jr. restaurants in Mexico are stacked on wooden palates. "That’s toys for kids meals. This is the cheese," says Gabriel Andrade who manages the operation.

He says at least once a week he would pass by the building where they found one of the tunnels last month. He never suspected anything. "I think it is very hard to know. It is a lot of traffic of trucks. We don’t know and hear nothing," says Andrade. He says it’s also difficult to see anything. He says, for example, the neighbors keep their doors closed all day.

That peaks agents’ interest and they go next door. A forklift zips around. Workers unload boxes of chicken taquitos to be sent to U.S. grocery stores.

Margarito Calleja, the manger, says they keep the doors down to keep the sun off the food. "Really, we don’t communicate with people at other warehouses. You arrive. You go inside. You do your work. You leave at 6 in the afternoon. Adios. Bye bye," says Calleja.

There’s constant commotion in the area. Trucks rumble down the roads and ilde outside buildings a few blocks from the commercial border crossing. Joe Garcia, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, say that’s part of what makes Otay Mesa attractive to tunnelers. "You have shipping and distribution going on almost around the clock up here in Otay Mesa. There’s a lot of truck traffic. It is a perfect cover for them," says Garcia.

And that’s the case for the tunnel found on Thanksgiving day.

The ICE agent, who cannot be named, climbs down a ladder in a hole in the floor in the back room of a warehouse, into the tunnel. He pats the wall. "This is a hard clay that’s pretty common in the Otay Mesa area," says the agent. It's another reason tunnelers like this spot. "It holds its form pretty well. Right here you can see the jackhammer lines where the tunnel diggers jack hammered out this clay," says the agent. He says diggers can advance about 10 feet a day. He calculates this 2,000 foot-long tunnel took about 200 days to build. "The construction is impressive. You are navigating underground. Things like GPS don't work and you have to rely on a compasses. It would take an engineer," says the agent.

This tunnel began in kitchen floor of a home in Tijuana. It plunged down 90 feet and travel about a half-mile, beneath the border fence, before surfacing in the warehouse. Smugglers laid tracks in the tunnel and used a homemade cart to ferry tons of drugs underneath the border. They had carved out a room at the bottom of the tunnel where they stored bales of marijuana. With the two tunnels last month, agents seized about 50 tons of marijuana. That’s a record for the U.S.

ICE agent Garcia says they didn’t used to get enormous seizures like that. He says four years ago, Mexican authorities warned the smugglers that a raid was coming. "We know for a fact that in 2006, things were delayed so the cartel could pull their narcotics out of the tunnel," says Garcia.

He says that doesn’t happen anymore. He says now U.S. and Mexican authorities work together, almost like peers. And he says the extra eyes and ears of Otay Mesa business owners will also help authorities outsmart the criminals. "I think the only thing that stops it from being Swiss cheese around here is that it costs a lot of money to build tunnels. Do I think there's another out there? I'd be naive to think we got them all," ponders Garcia. "We're going to keep doing what we are doing, good investigative work." says Garcia.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Border realities, policies focus of film trifecta

Arizona Daily Star
December 9, 2010
by Phil Villarreal

Several groups that support human-rights and environmental causes in the border region have joined forces to stage a free documentary triple feature at the Loft Cinema.

"Wild vs. Wall," a 2009 film on the environmental impact of border policies, will lead off the night. "Fencing the Border and its Birds," from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in which U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials express concerns about the impact the border fence will have on animals, is second. HBO's "The Fence," which features interviews with people on various sides of border issues, closes out the event.

The total running time for the films is two hours.

The Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Coalición de Derechos Humanos, the Defenders of Wildlife, No More Deaths and the Sky Island Alliance are sponsoring the screening, which will be followed by a panel discussion with a border landowner and representatives from the sponsoring organizations.

Dan Millis, a 31-year-old campaign organizer for the Sierra Club, is one of the event coordinators, and he spoke to us about the films. Millis, a graduate of Lewis and Clark College, is from Flagstaff but has lived in Tucson since 2005.

Tell me about the movies.

" 'Wild vs. Wall' was originally produced here in Tucson in 2008 by filmmaker Steev Hise, through the grass-roots efforts of locals who are concerned about threats to our border environment. It has been recently updated for 2010 and beyond, and we are excited to share the new footage, information and Spanish subtitles featured in this most recent version."

What about the others?

"The Cornell Ornithology Lab has some amazing footage of beautiful bird species along the border, and at only seven minutes long, the short makes a wonderful opener. Rory Kennedy's 'The Fence' is a masterful production that highlights the pointlessness, expense, impact and hypocrisy of the border wall, using humor and a fast pace to keep the audience involved. It is amazing, and we're very pleased to be able to share it with Tucson."

Do you have plans for future festivals like this?

"We don't have any specific plans for future screenings, though we regularly present 'Wild vs. Wall' to community groups locally, nationally, even abroad. During the month of November, for example, I traveled to Hermosillo and Denver to show the film at a biology conference and at a church event."

What concept do you want viewers to take away from the event?

"There is a big disconnect between how the border is often portrayed in the media, and the reality on the ground. Folks who watch these films will get a taste of how wonderful the protected natural areas along the border really are.

"It would be hard to watch these films and not question the knee-jerk policies that are currently militarizing our borderlands. In about an hour total, these three films will hopefully inspire folks to help us look for a better way to protect our precious border wildlands."


• What: Border Film Festival, a program of three short documentaries.

• When: 11 a.m. Saturday

• Where: The Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway.

• Admission: Free, but donations to the Sierra Club's Borderlands Campaign will be accepted.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Officials OK final levee-wall segments

The Monitor
December 1, 2010
by Jared Janes

More than three years after officials floated a plan to combine the county’s levee repairs into border fence construction, county commissioners are signing off on the concrete barriers that serve both as a deterrent to illegal border crossings and a barrier against a raging Rio Grande.

County commissioners have approved certificates of final completion on roughly 75 percent of the 20.26 miles of levee-fence that were given the green light by former Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in spring 2008. Only paperwork remains for the last stretch of work done by Ballenger Construction before the barrier is officially complete.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Tito Palacios, who was on the Commissioners Court when the levee-fence compromise was proposed, said the barrier has helped limit drug smuggling and held back floodwaters this summer. Although county officials were adamantly opposed to the fence at the time because of its socioeconomic and environmental impact, Palacios said the county’s solution was a win-win.

"We were able to push the right buttons in (Washington) D.C. with our congressional people," Palacios said. "Without it, we would have been left without the levee work
we needed."

Hidalgo County drainage district manager Godfrey Garza, the county’s director for the project, said all construction on the barrier has been complete for about nine months. The drainage district has been preparing the paperwork that is needed to certify the barriers as meeting the specifications of levees.

The International Boundary and Water Commission will use the county’s documentation to prepare the report that includes the barriers on the flood maps, said agency spokeswoman Sally Spener, whose federal agency manages flood control along the Rio Grande. The certification package will be turned over to the Federal Emergency Management Agency sometime early next year.

Constructing the barrier wasn’t a problem-free exercise. Hidalgo County’s hybrid levee-wall project cost roughly $9.5 million per mile — a $3.9 million-per-mile increase from initial estimates, increased costs that were covered by DHS. But the county still hasn’t been reimbursed by the federal government for the $82 million it invested in the hybrid barrier and other levee improvements.

Hidalgo County’s levee-fence barrier is part of 670 miles of security fencing constructed along the county’s southwest border. Only about six miles remain incomplete, mostly due to environmental or land acquisition problems.

But DHS officials consistently call it a crucial component of an overall border security strategy.

In the Rio Grande Valley, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents dropped about 15,000 from 2008 to 2009, the first full year the barrier was complete. A weaker U.S. economy likely contributed to the drop in apprehensions as fewer had an economic incentive to cross, but DHS officials also believe that tough enforcement measures — including the wall — are deterring some would-be-crossers.

Rosalinda Huey, a local Border Patrol spokeswoman, said the levee-fence pushes illegal entries away from dense, brushy areas into gaps in the fence where they are easily spotted.

"With the agents we have out there, they’re going to be monitoring the wall," Huey said. "It does what it was intended to do, which is being a persistent impediment that pushes them out to open areas where we can apprehend them."

But Garza, the drainage district manager, said the barrier also had a significant impact in holding back the worst river flooding the Rio Grande Valley had seen since Hurricane Beulah. Without the attention that constructing the levee-wall barrier brought to the need for greater flood protection, Garza said, another $220 million in levee improvements might not have been included in the federal stimulus package.

Those stimulus package funds are being used to complete virtually all of the remaining work needed to bring the Valley’s levees up to certification. Certification will save residents in low-lying areas from having to pay expensive flood insurance premiums.

Preventing the high flood insurance costs mean most Hidalgo County residents will never see one aspect of the levee-fence, said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Cuellar voted against the Secure Fence Act of 2006 that funded the construction of the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

He said he never believed the fence was a cost-effective security strategy, but he added that it worked as a two-prong approach here.

"(The levee-fence) is serving a dual mission," Cuellar said. "One mission is for border security and the other is protection of life and property from any flooding we might see."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Second Rail-Equipped Drug Tunnel Found at Mexican Border

New York Times
November 26, 2010
by Rebecca Cathcart

LOS ANGELES — Federal investigators discovered a sophisticated cross-border tunnel Thursday in an industrial part of San Diego. The half-mile tunnel was the second found this month equipped with rail tracks and carts to funnel drugs to and from Tijuana, Mexico.

After getting a tip about drug activity at a warehouse in Otay Mesa, a thicket of warehouses and truck repair shops that hugs the Mexican border, agents with the San Diego Tunnel Task Force arrested three men there and discovered the tunnel. United States and Mexican authorities have seized more than 20 tons of marijuana since Thursday.

Mexican military investigators later detained five men in Tijuana and uncovered an entrance to the tunnel beneath the kitchen floor of a house.

Mike Unzueta, who oversees investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego, said there were two entrances on the United States side, both in warehouses in the Otay Mesa area. Investigators believe the tunnel was operated by the Sinaloa cartel, one of the five largest drug cartels operating in Mexico. “This is fairly sophisticated construction,” Mr. Unzueta said. “There is a lighting system throughout, a ventilation system.”

The walls were reinforced with wood and cinder blocks, and had electrical outlets to charge jackhammers used to cut a path 60 to 90 feet underground.

On Nov. 2, federal agents found about 32 tons of marijuana and another tunnel less than a block from this one. The earlier tunnel had similar construction and connected two warehouses on either side of the border.

The authorities have found more than 75 tunnels along the border in the last four years. Most are rudimentary dirt passages, closer to the surface. Border Patrol agents discover many of the smaller tunnels when the ground beneath their vehicles caves in as they drive the dirt stretches along the border in California, Arizona and Texas, Mr. Unzueta said.

Otay Mesa, he said, has stronger ground, full of clay and decomposing granite. “You could just about build a tunnel without any reinforcement and it will stay,” he said.

The area is a target of the cartels because of its ready commercial infrastructure.

“There are literally semi trucks and warehouses everywhere you look,” Mr. Unzueta said, “and all the businesses that support that: gas stations, truck service centers. It’s an infrastructure that exists on both sides of the border.”

Border war a muse for South Texas art

San Antonio Express-News
November 25, 2010
by Lynn Brezosky

BROWNSVILLE — Time has etched history into the bricks of 409 East 13th St. This pre-Civil War building a block from the Rio Grande has withstood the sieges, raids, blockade running, bootlegging and epic storms that have blown through this city at the tip of the Texas borderlands.
And now the façade has taken on a new incarnation as a gallery, workshop and meeting place for artists who are inspired by the ongoing Mexican drug war. Those artists have found a muse in the rattling gunfire and smoke plumes from across the border in Matamoros, in the whispered accounts of neighborhood teenagers believed dead after spurts of drug soldier glory, and in the images of destruction and bloodshed flashing on their computer screens.

“We're in a political situation. I've got a war going on right across the river,” said Mark Clark, who after a career interspersing social activism with gigs in tony East Coast art museums found himself “retiring” in 2005 to a region that has become one of the battlegrounds of the drug trade.

Galeria 409 opens

Clark poured the proceeds from the sale of a house near the U.S. Capitol — a house that once had been a drug den — into the building that formerly was so dilapidated that officials thought it should be bulldozed. Galeria 409 became a showcase for bicultural border art, a venue for indie music and an art school for locals.

Artists from around the world found Clark as they embarked on projects on immigration, such as Susan Harbage Page's images of personal effects abandoned on the river banks.

The border fence was for many the cause to fight, or at least document. Among them was French photographer Maurice Sherif, who journeyed from San Diego to Brownsville for a photo essay dubbed “The American Wall.”

In February, Clark and other artists joined in “Art Against the Wall,” a protest that used the wall as a staging place for artwork protesting it. He found himself at the epicenter of a region battling the dictates of Washington, D.C.

“I've been in a million demonstrations, and when I came down here to find myself in a demonstration with the president of the local university and the mayor, and they're on my side ... it was truly uplifting,” he said, recalling one of many protests.

But the wall went up in its patchwork of styles, and the heady if ineffective activism against it now seems like ancient times.

Bag lunch on the riverbanks, not long ago a place to take in the detritus of migration or talk about the wall's symbolism, now has an eerie quality. Mexican military helicopters circle overhead, loud, low and obvious. What had been a flood of human migration is barely a trickle, victim to the sputtering U.S. economy. Anyone with a police scanner can hear the chatter of the smugglers.

The ground floor of the gallery remains a showplace for artists from both sides of the border. But upstairs, which requires a walk up an outdoor spiral staircase, is something new and raw.

It's Clark's workspace, and much of the work is his, reflecting an evolution through periods of trompe l'oeil photorealism, anamorphic painting, still life, portraiture, marine life abstracts, and political compositions ranging from flaming Buddhas from the Vietnam War era to border themes with a dangerous political bent.

Skeletal imagery

There's the giant, Hieronymus Bosch-inspired painting that he calls “Montezuma's Revenge.”

It's a depiction of “every gringo's worst fears,” he said. The scene, laced with skeletal imagery, Aztec iconography and blazing Mexican colors, jabs hard at the cultural divide.

Among the details: a helmeted head flies off a Dallas Cowboy, the body lifted high by a masked Mexican wrestler; a surly Ronald McDonald sellshelados (ice cream) from a push-cart; indigenous Mexican women wash clothes in a blond woman's swimming pool.

Another, “Greetings from Brownsville, Texas,” takes the American pinup approach to a voluptuous Latina inner-tubing down the center of the Rio Grande. Cartoon-figured Border Patrol agents wave and peer through binoculars at her, oblivious to the illegal immigrants climbing the riverbanks and wall behind them.

Still another takes the form of the pre-Columbian Codex Borgia to a street battle between Mexican military and drug cartels. There are boxy, pastel-colored buildings with rigid, vacant-eyed figures in hieroglyphic stiffness, be them the shooters or the victims, the child assassin or his line of blank-eyed severed heads. The bullet holes are large and donut-round, the blood spatters neat red blotches, and the whole effect is dull and lifeless, down to the dog, the bird, and the red-and-blue rooster.

His who's who of characters at a game table pulls no punches. There's the former sheriff now serving 26 years for corruption, a former county judge blamed for trying to sell local South Padre Island beach access, a navigation district official linked to $21 million in missing international bridge funds, a flip-flopping city councilman and, in a corner seat, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, holding a fence picket. Each plays his own game. A former bishop who pulled the plug on a television show critical of the Catholic Church oversees.

Irreverent touch

The light, irreverent touch is necessary, Clark and others say.

“It's all kind of a little kitschy or tongue-in-cheek or using a little bit of hyperbolic humor to sedate it,” said David Freeman, who has been drawing from graphic photos in Mexican newspapers for a current project using piñatas and other street items. “I think it has to do with not trying to have your audience shut down too much.”

Jesus De La Rosa, who teaches art at Texas A&M-Kingsville, found himself pulled from a series of abstract works to black-and- white prints focusing on drug war terror.

“I just see the prints as the only way to express, to do something about, what's truly going on on the border," he said. “It's like 30,000-plus people have died and nothing's really happening. Nothing's being done. It's all being kept hush-hush. The cartels and military, they've all quieted the media down. The people, we have no voice.”

Old masters

Then there's Rigoberto Gonzalez, whose recent exhibit, “Baroque on the Border,” goes in another direction, painting contemporary scenes in the style of old European masters, his way of ranking the drug war among the darkest periods in history. He said his 10-by-20 foot “Balacera en Matamoros,” or “Shootout in Matamoros,” was the first of his works that made people cry.

It took eight months of drawings and getting people to pose, and while inspired by a 2009 shootout in Reynosa, the title became interchangeable.

He's since found himself fighting with curators who balk at some of the more violent pieces.

“It's still Texas. It's very conservative,” he said. “For some reason people think that art should only be about pretty things. But art is supposed to engage you.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

El Paso named safest US city

El Paso Times
November 22, 2010
by Daniel Borunda

Despite being located across the border from one of the deadliest cities in the world, El Paso is the safest large city in the United States, according to rankings released Sunday.

Though the city has been ranked in the top three each year since 1997, this is the first time El Paso has taken the top spot for having the lowest crime rate among cities of more than 500,000 population in the annual rankings by CQ Press, a publishing firm based in Washington, D.C.

Government leaders, law enforcement officials and residents were thrilled with the new ranking.

"This isn't something that mystically or magically appeared," Police Department spokesman Darrel Petry said.

"This is something we have been striving for for the past 13 years. We truly attribute it to our relationship to the community - the trust."
The ranking was compiled with data from 2009 in the crime categories of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and auto theft. Detroit was ranked as having the highest crime rate.

El Paso Mayor John Cook said the new rank counters out-of-town misconceptions that El Paso is dangerous because of the drug cartel warfare that has engulfed neighboring Juárez for nearly three years.

National media often label the bloodshed in Mexico as "border violence."

Last year, there were more than 2,640 murders in Juárez, compared with 13 homicides in El Paso. This year, there have been more than 2,700 killings in Juárez and four homicides in El Paso.

El Paso government and business leaders often face concerns about safety while trying to lure industry, visitors and events to the Sun City.

"When we are in the midst of trying to convince people we are a safe city with all the violence in Juárez, it is extremely helpful," Cook said about the ranking. "... It's cool to be number one."

City crime rankings are not without controversy. The FBI, whose statistics are used to compile the list, has warned that such rankings do not take into account factors that shape crime, such as population density, youth demographics, climate and family cohesiveness.

Criminologists cite other factors, including studies that show cities with a high number of Hispanic immigrants tend to have low crime rates.

One theory by an Ohio State University researcher argues that murder rates are linked to trust in government and a sense of belonging. When trust fails, people settle their own scores violently.

CQ Press said many factors may influence crime but that does not mean that crime rates cannot be compared.

El Paso police officials were thrilled by the safest city ranking.

"This success could not have been accomplished without the hard work and dedication of each and every El Paso Police Department employee, sworn and civilian that work each day to make El Paso the safest place in the United States," Police Chief Greg Allen said in a statement.

Police also credit specialized units, including anti-gang teams that help stop the cycle of gang violence.

Allen said the fight against crime would not be successful without the assistance from other law enforcement agencies and residents.

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said there are nearly 5,000 federal law enforcement officers in the El Paso area, including a large number of Border Patrol agents.

"Many people don't realize the large presence of federal officers we have," Reyes said in a statement. "But there are many federal agencies with significant resources here that share information and coordinate with our police and sheriff's officers on a daily basis."

Tina Gianes, president of the Neighborhood Watch Association of El Paso, said that crime is kept at bay by neighbors willing to get involved, report suspicious activity and work with police.

"It just goes to show we have a really good Police Department and a lot of citizens who take their neighborhoods seriously and watch out for each other," she said.

For 14 years, retiree Bill Medrano has lived in the middle-class Castner Heights area of the Northeast that is an example of that neighborhood-police partnership.

"I feel pretty safe in my community," Medrano said. "We have our neighborhood meetings. The police interact with us quite a bit. We know them on a first-name basis. We even have a bike patrol. They speak to students in our school."

Petry, the police spokesman, said it is possible El Paso can retain the number one ranking next year. Overall crime is down 1 percent this year compared to 2009.

Daniel Borunda may be reached at; 546-6102.

Lowest crime rate*

1. El Paso.

2. Honolulu.

3. New York.

4. San Jose, Calif.

5. San Diego.

Highest crime rate*

1. Detroit.

2. Baltimore.

3. Memphis, Tenn.

4. Washington.

5. Atlanta.
Source: CQ Press City Crime Rankings 2010-2011.

*Cities with more than 500,000 population

Friday, November 12, 2010

CBP to launch $41M in local works

By Jonathan Clark
Nogales International
November 12, 2010

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is set to break ground on five infrastructure projects in Nogales during the next six months. The ambitious plan calls for simultaneously upgrading downtown pedestrian crossings, securing drainage tunnels, building nearly seven miles of new roads, and replacing the city’s landing-mat border fence.

CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, who announced the projects during a community meeting Thursday at City Hall, called the construction plans “proof of progress” toward securing the border.

“Building a strong infrastructure, together with the dedication of agents, together with the technology, together with the delivery of consequences to those who violate our laws, is the best way for us to secure this border,” Bersin said.

According to CBP Chief of Staff Marco Lopez, the five projects carry a combined price tag of $41 million, and all are scheduled to be completed by September 2011. One of the jobs, a reconfiguration of the Morley border gate to improve pedestrian flows, will be finished by Nov. 29, he said.

CBP will also reconfigure the pedestrian walkway at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, beginning before the end of the year. The renovation will be finished “in early 2011,” Lopez said.

However, the renovations at Morley and DeConcini do not include a SENTRI pedestrian lane, which would allow pre-approved, low-risk travelers to enter the United States through a fast-moving, dedicated line.

Guadalupe Ramirez, CBP’s port director in Nogales, said his agency needs to determine how to modify and adapt SENTRI equipment before it can be applied to local pedestrian lanes.

“We haven’t started on the implementation, but we are extremely serious about it,” Ramirez said. “It’s got to happen.”

Fencing and drainage fixes

The 2.9 miles of landing mat fence constructed though downtown Nogales in the early 1990s has since then become an albatross for Border Patrol agents and local leaders alike. The Border Patrol complains that it’s simple to cut through and easy for criminals to hide behind, while merchants and other residents call it an eyesore.

Now it will be replaced by 18-foot-high bollard fencing, a series of interconnected, concrete-filled steel tubes that allow visibility from one side to the other, Lopez said.

CBP also plans to team with military engineers to build 6.8 miles of new border road to the west of downtown. The roadway will provide Border Patrol agents with better access, and local residents with better security, Bersin said.

The final piece of the five-part puzzle is a project to upgrade the grates in the city’s sewer tunnels, “to see to it that the drainage system of Nogales serves the purposes of waste treatment and not of smuggling,” Bersin said.

Engineers will arrive in town in the next two weeks to begin planning the larger projects, Lopez said. At the same time, CBP will hold community meetings to solicit input from local leaders and residents.

“It will have an impact on your downtown, it will have an impact on all activities that are taking place,” Lopez said, noting the aggressive timeline of the effort and the fact that five projects will be underway at once. “But we are committed to working with you to try to minimize it as soon as possible.”

City Manager Shane Dille said city and CBP officials would have to work in close coordination to minimize disruption to local life.

“Obviously were going to be working hand-in-hand with them to make sure that coordination happens,” he said.

Dille also expressed enthusiasm for the economic impact of the projects – as did Mayor-elect Arturo Garino.

“With government projects, you’re looking at a good-sized chunk of money that comes into the community,” said Garino, who noted that hotels, restaurants and equipment rental firms all stand to benefit.

“I do wish that we can get a percentage of the workforce from Nogales residents,” he added. “It will be a good stimulus opportunity for Nogales.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

CBP announces five new border infrastructure projects in Nogales

Nogales International
November 11, 2010

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is set to break ground on five infrastructure projects in Nogales during the next six months. The ambitious plan calls for simultaneously upgrading downtown pedestrian crossings, building nearly seven miles of new access roads, and replacing the city’s landing-mat border fence.

CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, who announced the projects during a community meeting Thursday at City Hall, called the construction plans “proof of progress” toward securing the border.

“Building a strong infrastructure, together with the dedication of agents, together with the technology, together with the delivery of consequences to those who violate our laws, is the best way for us to secure this border,” Bersin said.

According to CBP Chief of Staff Marco Lopez, the five projects carry a combined price tag of $41 million, and all are scheduled to be completed by September 2011.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Nogales underground: drug tunnel capital of U.S.

November 4, 2010
By Som Lisaius

NOGALES, AZ (KOLD) - The DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales is almost always busy.

Bottle-necked vehicles moving north and south, not to mention lines of pedestrian traffic receiving the same kind of scrutiny from federal agents holding semi-automatic rifles.

"So much attention is paid to what's going on above ground," says New York Times writer Marc Lacey, on assignment in Nogales, researching the area's underground passageways. "People crossing, there's all this. There's a fence being built."

Perhaps this is why more smugglers are increasingly going underground. And in this case, directly below the DeConcini Port of Entry.

Agent Kevin Hecht is a tunnel specialist with the United States Border Patrol in Nogales.

"In this particular area they were deep enough," Agent Hecht says, pointing the port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border. "And with all the traffic disguising the noise, they were able to crawl through and dig and design the tunnel."

This tunnel was recently identified thanks to a tour bus that made the lane give way, exposing the illicit passageway.

As bold as it may seem, drug tunnels beneath the port of entry aren't that uncommon.

At least four holes patched with cement represent other failed attempts at the port of entry. Before this tunnel could be filled similarly, we decided to take a closer look.

"We are literally going inside the tunnel," I say, taking my photographer Andrew Brown into the hole with me. "It's about as primitive as you can get. If I were to get down on my hands and knees I'd probably be able to crawl my way through this space. But as you can see, it's only a few feet wide, a few feet deep."

But that's all it takes to get from one country to the next.

Over the last four years at least 51 unauthorized tunnels have been identified between Nogales, Ariz. and Nogales, Sonora--making it the drug tunnel capital of the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Tijuana is known for its tunnels," Lacey says. "But no other place has as many as Nogales--and I'm here checking that out."

In many cases, the tunnels are only 20 to 30 feet long, connecting Mexico with an underground drainage system in the U.S.

That same drainage system runs parallel with the DeConcini Port Entry. It creates quite a mess, every time a new tunnel is located.

"We only have so many lanes here at DeConcini to process traffic," says Craig Hope, assistant port director at DeConcini. "This lane in particular is used by buses. And as you can see, we had to shut the lane down and it's been closed since."

Back below the surface, I try to wrap my mind around the measures being taken by so many people, for so many years.

"It doesn't get much more claustrophobic , it doesn't get much more daunting," I say, looking into the camera. "But again this is a real-life depiction of what these people are willing to go through to get their product and themselves into the United States."

The tunnels are often carved with primitive hand tools--a process that can take months, even years to complete.

Once identified, the tunnels are filled with cement in just a matter of minutes.

In this case, another tunnel threat avoided. Even though the next would be identified literally that same day.

"Just a stunning thing to see how desperate people are," says Lacey, visibly pleased with what he's witnessing. "How good the business is. That they're using any means necessary to get across."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

U.S. Uncovers Major Cross-Border Drug Tunnel

National Public Radio
November 4, 2010
by Amy Isackson

U.S. and Mexican authorities confiscated approximately 30 tons of marijuana on Wednesday. It is the largest seizure ever along the San Diego border, and one of the largest in the U.S.

Law enforcement officials made the discovery after a semi truck leaving a warehouse in Otay Mesa, Calif., caught the attention of authorities, who followed the truck 80 miles north to a border checkpoint.

"In that tractor trailer was 10 tons of marijuana," said John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A man and his wife inside the truck were arrested.

When authorities went back to the warehouse, located 300 yards from the Mexican border fence, they found an additional 20 tons of marijuana along with a large rectangular hole leading to an underground tunnel.

"Some of these packages were out in the open and just laying on the floor here," said ICE special agent Joe Garcia. "You have to be on your hands and knees to get in [the tunnel]. There's ventilation, a little bit of a primitive rail system in there and there's some lighting."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

$7M set for border habitat work

Arizona Daily Star
October 31, 2010
by Tony Davis

Federal money for jaguars and bats - or people?

That's the question ranching advocates raised after the federal government announced details for spending nearly $7 million to restore borderlands damaged by construction of the border fence.

From environmentalists and a public preserve manager came this answer: The feds have spent billions on border fences real and virtual, and it's about time to spend tens of millions protecting animals and plants.

In the next few years, authorities will spend the money to develop jaguar management plans, scan remote camera photos for the cats, close dirt roads and restore wetlands along the border. They'll reseed worn soils, monitor fish populations, build a fish barrier, count bat roosts and study bat movements, and plant agaves.

These actions are in the first leg of a $52 million federal program designed to compensate for damage to endangered species habitat on public lands by the border fence and other security measures.

Land managers and environmentalists called the money a good start, but some borderlands ranchers and their spokesmen in the Arizona Cattlemen's Association were less receptive. The association issued a news release titled "Jaguar Receives Green Card," saying the money should protect people first.

Six months after the still-unsolved slaying of Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz, "ranchers and residents south of Interstates 10 and 8 continue to live in a lawless region controlled by drug cartels," the release said. "These drug cartels continue to disrupt everyday life for rural residents along Southern Arizona's border. Yet ranchers are not receiving funds to restore our habitat, nor is the Administration working to restore our border. . . . We have a serious situation on our southern border, and ranchers continue to see the degradation of their environment and traffic from drug cartels."

Federal money for the wildlands will address impacts of a border fence built with no environmental reviews, countered Organ Pipe National Monument Superintendent Lee Baiza. As for competition with border security, Baiza said the $50 million is a small amount compared to $600 million Congress agreed in August to spend on Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and other law enforcement officials, as well as communications equipment and unmanned aerial "drones" to monitor border activities.

The $6.8 million will pay for eight Southwestern projects, six in Arizona. A list of 29 projects identified as feasible for the entire $52 million includes 17 Arizona projects estimated to cost $14.3 million.

The projects are "an absolute joke" because they don't address non-endangered species such as mountain lion, deer and javelina that live in his area but can't get over the border wall, complained rancher John Ladd, who lives near the border wall near the San Pedro River. There's no jaguar or ocelots in that area - but they do exist in areas east of Douglas and west of Sasabe where there is no wall, he said.

"My family has been here since 1896, but we were willing to accept the consequences of the wall if the government had stopped illegal immigration. They haven't done it," Ladd said. "They won't patrol the border, and they can't get Congress to reform the immigration law."

Ladd has a point in that these projects won't help mountain lions get across the wall, said Matt Clark of Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson. But much of the new money will be spent where the Fish and Wildlife Service thinks it can get the most endangered-species conservation for the money, he said.

"The service is not looking at where we can make the border wall better. They are looking at where we can make an investment that furthers the conservation of these species," Clark said. "If you were to calculate the acreages lost to the border wall and roads on private and public lands, then you would be looking at well over $50 million to mitigate it. This is a down payment."

Reese Woodling, a retired rancher near Douglas who still sits on the governing board of the Malpais Borderlands ranching group, said he sees the jaguar monitoring as pointless because with no female jaguars seen in Southern Arizona for decades, he doubts the animal can survive as a viable population here anymore.

"They are just throwing money at these programs," said Wendy Glenn, a rancher in the Malpais Borderlands area east of Douglas. "It's a tough call for me to criticize them, but I don't know how they can spend so much on this when so many other things are needed."

Interior Department Assistant Secretary Rhea Suh, however, called the programs a first step toward meeting the government's responsibility to compensate for the impact on wildlife from the continuing effort to secure the border.

This debate could continue if more types of restoration projects come on line, as is hinted at by the agreement between Interior and DHS. It lays out five other classes of natural resources that could get restoration work beyond the $52 million: for non-endangered wildlife, wetlands and riverfront area, soils and cultural resources, including Native American human remains.

But a cautionary note about the restoration plans also came from another federal document on the Organ Pipe project. It said that unsafe conditions on the borderlands may prevent people from working in the area where most of the restoration work is needed.

On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at

Areas where the wildlands-Restoration funding will be spent

Six initial projects are in Arizona:

• $2.1 million to survey and monitor jaguars for four years, develop a jaguar management plan, fence and restore jaguar habitat and work with ranchers, government and local communities to develop a system to report on jaguars.

• $1.9 million to protect, inventory and monitor endangered lesser long-nosed bat and Mexican long-nosed bat roosts. This involves finding roosts along fence segments from the Patagonia to the Huachuca Mountains and from the Perilla to Peloncillo mountains. It also involves radio-tracking bats in these areas to help find the roosts and to determine how much roads, fences, lights and other facilities act as barriers for bats.

• $980,000 to restore 84 acres damaged by construction of 5.2 miles of fence near Lukeville. This involves closing roads and allowing vegetation to regrow, replanting 200 large transplanted saguaro and organ pipe cacti, seed collecting and propagation, road decompaction, erosion control, planting and invasive species control.

• $657,000 to restore 49.7 acres at the San Bernardino National Wildlife refuge, east of Douglas. It will compensate for the loss of 16 miles of habitat and about 116 acres of roadbed for border fencing and other security measures.

• $441,250 to study four federally protected Rio Yaqui fish species and four sensitive fish species living in that refuge. The work includes an inventory of the fish and an accounting of impacts from unpaved roads, disturbed soils and soil erosion. A shallow well will be drilled to ensure permanent water for a wetland for the fish and the imperiled San Bernardino Springsnail. A fish barrier will be installed to keep exotic fish out of the refuge.

• $274,873 to plant 6,344 agaves at Coronado National Memorial to compensate for removal of 3,172 agaves for fence construction.

Government tells group to remove political messages from small flags placed on border fence

Associated Press / Los Angeles Times
October 30, 2010

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. (AP) — The U.S. Border Patrol is requiring a private volunteer border watch group to remove political messages attached to thousands of small flags placed on the U.S.-Mexican border fence in Cochise County.

About 16,000 flags and five banners were attached to the fence by members of the American Border Patrol group in early July to urge the government to finish building 700 miles of double fencing.

The banners vanished days later.

Border Patrol spokeswoman Colleen Agle tells the Sierra Vista Herald that messages or banners can't be placed on federal property without prior approval or authorization.

She says that the group didn't have that permission.,0,5971080.story

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Border 101

Arizona Daily Star
October 24, 2010
by Brady McCombs

From congressional races to the gubernatorial showdown, border issues have taken center stage in many campaigns this election season.

If you are dizzy from all the talk and rhetoric, you're not alone. So today, we sort out some of the most popular election-season facts, myths and half-truths:

Is the border more dangerous than ever?

Answer: For people illegally crossing it, yes. For people living near it in Mexico, probably. For people living on the U.S. side of the border, probably not.

Some will vehemently disagree with that last statement, pointing to the March killing of Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz and an increase in burglaries in the Portal area as evidence that the level of danger on the U.S. side of the border has increased. But while Cochise County investigators say they tracked footprints back to Mexico, the Krentz crime is unsolved.

The FBI's uniform crime reports show violent crime is no more prevalent in border cities than in nonborder cities.

Since 2001, the average violent-crime rate in eight border cities declined, and it has remained below the national violent-crime rate since 2005, said an August 2010 report by the Congressional Research Center, which reviewed FBI crime reports from 1998 to 2008.

In Tucson and Phoenix - the two largest cities on the smuggling route through Arizona - murder and violent crime decreased from 2005 to 2009, FBI data show.

The ratio of assaults on Border Patrol agents dipped 36 percent across the Southwest border from 2007 to 2010. But that ratio increased by 70 percent in the Tucson Sector over the same period. Most of the reported assaults are when rocks are thrown at agents.

The danger of crossing the border illegally has increased, though. Illegal immigrants are dying at greater rates than ever in Arizona, likely because the border buildup has prompted smugglers to lead crossers into more remote and dangerous areas.

The 252 illegal border crossers found dead along Arizona's stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border excluding Yuma in fiscal 2010 broke the previous record of 234, set in 2007.

Is Arizona the epicenter for illegal immigration?

Answer: Yes and no.

Arizona's stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border is the busiest for illegal immigration, drug smuggling and border deaths, accounting for more than half of all arrests and marijuana seizures. But the state is more of a transit point than a destination.

The estimate of 375,000 illegal immigrants living in Arizona puts the state eighth in the U.S. behind California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Georgia, a September report from the Pew Hispanic Center found.

And the number of illegal immigrants living in Arizona dropped from an estimated 475,000 in 2008, the Pew report found.

But Arizona has thrust itself into the national spotlight on this issue due to the numerous immigration-enforcement laws passed by the state, including SB 1070.

Has the federal government really done nothing to secure the border?

Answer: You can question the effectiveness of the billions spent, but there's no denying the massive buildup of border enforcement over the last five to 10 years:

• The budget for Customs and Border Protection - the Department of Homeland Security agency responsible for border security - soared to $11.4 billion in fiscal 2010, up 90 percent from $6 billion in fiscal year 2004. That's nearly twice the growth of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) budget, which increased 54 percent to $5.7 billion in fiscal 2010, up from $3.7 billion in 2004. ICE is responsible for immigration enforcement at worksites and across the interior of the country.

• The number of Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border has increased to 17,500, up from 9,700 in 2004. The Tucson Sector, which stretches from New Mexico to Yuma County, now has 3,300 agents, up from 2,100 in 2004 and 1,500 in 2000.

• The miles of fencing along the border have grown exponentially. There are now 350 miles of pedestrian fence and 299 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, for a total of 649 miles of barriers. That's up from 143 miles of barriers in 2006.

The Tucson Sector has 71 miles of pedestrian fences and 139 miles of vehicle barriers. In 2000, it had 11 miles of pedestrian fences and two miles of vehicle barriers.

Pedestrian fences are 12- to 18-foot-high barriers designed to stop, or at least slow down, people. Vehicle barriers are waist- to chest-high and are designed to stop cars.

• The agency has spent more than $1 billion since 2006 developing the SBInet "virtual fence," which tracks movement using a network of towers mounted with cameras, sensors and radar. But the program has been plagued by delays and glitches.

• In the past five years, the feds have twice sent the National Guard to the border to assist the Border Patrol. In Operation Jump Start, from 2006 to 2008, the government spent $1.2 billion to send 6,000 National Guard troops. In the current Operation Copper Cactus, the government is spending $135 million to send 1,200 troops.

• Homeland Security has devoted $225 million to border law enforcement agencies through Operation Stonegarden, including about $51 million to Arizona agencies. The program gives agencies money to pay officers who work overtime shifts aimed at securing the border. The money also buys four-wheel-drive trucks, radios and night-vision goggles.

Has the buildup of agents, fences and technology made the border more secure?

Answer: Probably, but to what degree is uncertain.

Fewer illegal immigrants are crossing the Southwest border, but it's difficult to determine how much of that is attributed to the buildup, because the decrease has coincided with the worst U.S. recession since the Depression.

The number of apprehensions by Border Patrol agents on the U.S.-Mexico border plummeted to 447,500 in fiscal year 2010, down from 1.1 million in fiscal year 2004.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledges that the weak economy helps explain why fewer people are getting caught crossing the border illegally, and she also credited crackdowns on employers who hire illegal workers. But she said a big reason is enforcement.

"The manpower, the technology, the infrastructure all has enabled us to be able to really slow that flow of illegal-immigrant traffic," she said at a news conference last week near San Diego.

Citing the seizures of more drugs, weapons and illicit cash along the Mexican border, Napolitano said: "We now have a border more secure than ever before."

But using the same rationale the feds apply to apprehensions - the lower the better - the buildup has not slowed the smuggling of drugs. Marijuana seizures along the U.S.-Mexico border by Border Patrol agents have increased to 2.5 million pounds in fiscal year 2009, up from 1.3 million in 2004.

So many people say, 'Build more fence.' Does it work?

Answer: Nobody knows for sure.

A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office found that "despite a $2.4 billion investment to build 264 miles of fencing and 226 miles of vehicle barriers in the last five years, the impact of these barriers on border security is unknown because it has not been measured."

Proponents of border fencing point to double-layer fencing in San Diego and Yuma as proof that barriers work. Apprehensions dipped there after the fences went up, but the smugglers simply moved their routes.

The Border Patrol's 262-mile-long Tucson Sector has 71 miles of fencing, but it remains the busiest people- and drug-smuggling route on the border, accounting for nearly half of all arrests and marijuana seizures.

The problem with fences is that motivated smugglers and border crossers find ways over, through and around them. Critics call them nothing more than a speed bump. And the international border's diverse terrain, which includes mountains, canyons and rivers, makes a 2,000-mile fence impossible.

Border Patrol officials acknowledge that the barriers are not a panacea. But they say they deter, slow and funnel traffic, helping agents gain the upper hand in the ongoing cat-and-mouse game with smugglers.

The government has spent $2.4 billion on new fences, and the GAO estimates the life-cycle cost of all the barriers to be $6.5 billion.

The buildup of fences and roads along the border could have environmental consequences, too. Fencing has caused flooding and erosion, and it could be fragmenting wildlife habitat.

Virtual fences are better for the environment, but despite more than $1 billion spent over five years, the SBInet program has been plagued by glitches and major delays, and has yet to produce a working system. The GAO has questioned whether the time and money spent are a prudent use of limited resources.

Has violence from Mexico's raging drug wars spilled over the border?

Answer: It's not entirely clear, but most indicators say no.

The public shootouts, beheadings and killings that are part of life in northern Mexico due to the ongoing turf battles between drug cartels do not occur in Arizona. But some violence in Arizona may be associated with the illegal smuggling of people and drugs.

And there's no way to say spillover violence won't happen.

"Currently, U.S. federal officials deny that the recent increase in drug-trafficking-related violence in Mexico has resulted in a spillover into the United States," said an August 2010 report from the Congressional Research Center. "But they acknowledge that the prospect is a serious concern."

Is it possible to seal the border?

Answer: Probably not.

There are some who believe it's possible, such as the Border Patrol agents' union. But even the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection says the focus should be on controlling the border, not sealing it.

"This is not about sealing the border," Commissioner Alan Bersin said in September while in Tucson. "Until we have a legitimate labor market between Mexico and the United States, people will attempt to come here to work."

History shows that as long as better-paying jobs await in the U.S., people from Mexico and Latin America will continue to find a way around, through, under and over the gantlet of enforcement.

Not even the worst U.S. recession since the Depression has stopped the stream of illegal immigrants.

On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of immigration issues at

Friday, October 22, 2010

Costly virtual border fence in tatters

Los Angeles Times
October 22, 2010
by Brian Bennett

Reporting from Washington — The Department of Homeland Security, positioning itself to cut its losses on a so-called invisible fence along the U.S.- Mexico border, has decided not to exercise a one-year option for Boeing to continue work on the troubled multibillion-dollar project involving high-tech cameras, radar and vibration sensors.

The result, after an investment of more than $1 billion, may be a system with only 53 miles of unreliable coverage along the nearly 2,000-mile border.

The virtual fence was intended to link advanced monitoring technologies to command centers for Border Patrol to identify and thwart human trafficking and drug smuggling. But from the beginning, the program has been plagued by missed deadlines and the limitations of existing electronics in rugged, unpredictable wilderness where high winds and a tumbleweed can be enough to trigger an alarm.

Homeland Security officials decided on Sept. 21 not to invoke the department's option with Boeing, the principle contractor on the project, and instead extended the deal only to mid-November, Boeing officials confirmed this week. Boeing has charged the department more than $850 million since the project began in 2006.

The government has not released an independent assessment of the program completed in July, but with the two-month Boeing extension about to run out, several members of Congress expect the Homeland Security Department to rule soon on the fate of the invisible fence, the high-tech portion of the $4.4-billion Secure Border Initiative.

Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler would only say that a new way forward for the program "is expected shortly."

But given that the virtual fence has yet to pass muster even in the 53-mile test area — two sections in Arizona that officials acknowledge won't be fully operational until 2013 — and the government's lack of interest in extending Boeing's contract, most do not expect the department to invest billions more in a project that has continually disappointed.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he hoped Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano would act soon. "The program is headed in the wrong direction," Thompson said.

"It would be a great shame to scrap SBInet," said Rep. Michael McCaul (R- Texas), who has encouraged the department to bring to the Southwest the technology the U.S. military is using on the Afghanistan- Pakistan border. "Technology is key to solving these border issues."

Even as scrutiny of the program has increased in the last year, Boeing has not provided accurate information on the progress of the program, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Oct. 18. The study found an unusually high number of errors in the data Boeing gave to the Homeland Security Department.

A spokeswoman for Boeing said the company had "worked closely with Customs and Border Protection to overcome past performance and management challenges." She added that Boeing was committed to completing the testing and delivery of the system at the Tucson and Ajo, Ariz., stations, which comprise the 53-mile test zones.

Some of the technology, such as remote cameras, night-vision video and mobile surveillance, is being used by agents in the Arizona test areas, which see a high level of cross-border traffic. But the effectiveness is far from what was requested by Homeland Security officials and promised by Boeing when the project began.

Daytime cameras are able to monitor only half of the distance expected. Ground sensors can identify off-road vehicles, but not humans, as initially envisioned by the government.

"It turned out to be a harder technological problem than we ever anticipated," said Mark Borkowski, executive director of the electronic fence program at the Homeland Security Department, earlier this year. "We thought it would be very easy, and it wasn't."

Congress was sold on the initiative as a way to combine newfangled gadgetry with old-fashioned fences to secure the entire expanse of the U.S. border with Mexico. Physical fencing has been installed over 600 miles of terrain under the program. But the technological portion, called SBInet, has languished.

Randolph C. Hite, who monitors the program as GAO director for information technology architecture systems, praised Homeland Security officials' decision to extend Boeing's contract on a short-term basis while it takes a close look at the program's worthiness.

"I think it is a prudent step," Hite said.

In the meantime, Homeland Security spokesman Chandler said Customs and Border Protection would determine "if there are alternatives that may more efficiently, effectively and economically meet our nation's border security needs."

Trouble with the invisible fence began in the design phase, when the Homeland Security Department set demands for the technology that surpassed what was available at the time. The department required, for example, that the system help Border Patrol agents be in position to apprehend 90% of the incursions over the border, but the technology has achieved only a fraction of that goal. Citing problems with the program, Napolitano announced in March that she was freezing funding to the initiative outside of Arizona.,0,5546525.story

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

GAO report: US land laws don't hinder border agents

Arizona Daily Star
October 20, 2010
by Brady McCombs

Federal rules governing public lands along the border cause some delays but do not prevent the Border Patrol from handling its assignment to secure the border, a federal report released Tuesday says.

As part of its 11-month evaluation, the Government Accountability Office interviewed agents-in-charge at 26 Border Patrol stations with primary responsibility for patrolling federal land along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Although 17 agents reported delays and restrictions to patrolling on federal land, 22 of them said "overall security status of their jurisdiction is not affected by land-management laws," the report says. "Instead, factors such as the remoteness and ruggedness of the terrain have the greatest effect on their ability to achieve operational control."

Of the four Border Patrol agents-in-charge who said the laws affect their ability to secure the border, two have not formally asked for better access to federal lands, and two others had their requests denied by Border Patrol senior officials who said there were more important needs, the report found.

"Yes, there have been delays. Yes, there have been restrictions placed on them," said Anu Mittal, director of the GAO's Natural Resources and Environment Team. "But it really hasn't affected their operation control."

The report was requested by 12 Republican lawmakers led by Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah and Rep. Peter King of Iowa. Bishop is the ranking member on the House subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands. King is the ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee.

Five of the 12 legislators who requested the report are from Texas and one is from California, but none represents a district along the U.S.-Mexico border. None is from Arizona, which has the busiest stretch of border.

In April, Bishop introduced a bill that would give Border Patrol agents total access to public lands where they currently must adhere to some restrictions. Bishop justified the legislation based on authorities' belief that the person who killed Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz on March 27 fled into Mexico through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, 17 miles east of Douglas.

The Border Patrol agents must get permission from supervisors to open locked gates and patrol the San Bernardino refuge, according to the report. The rules are in place to protect the habitat of threatened and endangered species.

The GAO report shows the need to give the Border Patrol better access to federal lands, said Bishop spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin.

"They can't wait for that delay," Subbotin said. "When they are radioing in for access to these lands with locked gates, they are missing critical opportunities to catch these criminals."

Subbotin said the opinions of 22 agents-in-charge should not overshadow the serious problems that exist along a porous border that leaves the country vulnerable to terrorists.

"When you speak with Border Patrol agents who are retired and in a position to be 100 percent candid, you get a completely different story," Subbotin said.

Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol agents' union in Arizona, agreed that the opinions of agents-in-charge can't always be trusted because they risk future promotions by going against the administration.

Judd, however, disagrees with Bishop's office that the agency needs total access to federal lands.

"They are protected lands for a reason," Judd said. "We don't need to give the Border Patrol carte blanche, but I definitely think we need to look at what might be hindering national security."

On Oct. 8, Bishop's office sent a news release with a draft version of the GAO report highlighting the "shocking details of how federal policies are preventing the U.S. Border Patrol's access to some of the most crime-ridden areas of the U.S.-Mexico border located on federal lands."

The news release didn't mention the finding that 22 of the 26 agents-in-charge said the laws didn't affect their ability to secure the border. Subbotin said the office released the report in the name of transparency, to allow people to read the draft and then the final version.

But leaking a GAO report before it is finished is unusual and says something about Bishop's integrity, said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife.

"The GAO report was commissioned as an attempt to gain any sort of clout to support Bishop's ill-conceived bill," Clark said. "It's not grounded in any real crisis. It's fear tactics designed to build public support for a highly controversial piece of legislation."

The GAO report confirms what people working along the border have known all along, Clark said.

"Land management restrictions that do exist are not impeding the ability to secure the border," Clark said. "And they are important to maintain to protect the integrity of the land and public resources."

On StarNet: Read more about border-related issues in Brady McCombs' blog, Border Boletín, at

Did you know

More than 40 percent of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border is managed by the the Department of the Interior's land management agencies and the Forest Service. And these federally managed lands account for more than 97 percent of all apprehensions made by the Border Patrol.

Federally managed lands in Arizona include the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, southwest of Tucson; the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, east of Douglas; and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Southwestern Arizona.

Source: Government Accountability Office

GAO report on web

To read the entire GAO report, go online to GAO-11-38

DHS Used Poor Checks on Border Contract: GAO

HS Today
October 19, 2010
by Mickey McCarter

Better management of Boeing would reduce SBInet costs, delays Congressional investigators confirmed Monday what many members of Congress already believed about the virtual fence program at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS): DHS has not provided enough oversight to its prime contractor to ensure projects are on-budget and on-schedule.

The Boeing Co., Chicago, Ill., leads the contractor team tasked with setting up the Secure Border Initiative-Network (SBInet), but DHS management has not managed its activities effectively, charged the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in its report, Secure Border Initiative: DHS Needs to Strengthen Management and Oversight of Its Prime Contractor.

"DHS has largely defined but has not adequately implemented the full range of controls that is reflected in relevant guidance and related best practices and is needed to effectively manage and oversee its SBInet prime contractor," the GAO report read.Later, the GAO report added, "DHS has not effectively monitored the SBInet prime contractor's progress in meeting cost and schedule expectations."

The SBInet program office envisions a virtual fence consisting of sensors and communications equipment mounted on control towers along appropriate areas of the US southwestern border. These towers relay information to central command centers that present a common operating picture to Border Patrol agents in the field. Agents use that information to maintain situational awareness on trespassers and smugglers entering the United States as well as other criminal activity.

But DHS has relied heavily upon Boeing to build and field this system without adequate review processes for contractor deliverables, strong criteria for technical reviews, accurate performance measures for task orders or modifications, or appropriate explanations for contractor anomalies in monthly management reports.DHS concurred with GAO recommendations for improvements in these four specific areas, but it criticized GAO's characterization of errors in the monthly reports on Earned Value Management (EVM), a project management system for measuring the achievements of a contractor.

While DHS has defined and implemented policies and procedures for reviewing and accepting SBInet deliverables and assessing their technical merits, the department has failed to implement other important controls, the GAO report warned. DHS has not adequately documented reviews of contract deliverables, for example, and it has not put its documentation in order before wrapping up technical reviews.The SBInet program office has not produced strong verification and acceptance processes for contract deliverables and it has excluded some deliverables from the review process, the GAO report declared. Also, the office has suffered from insufficient time to review documentation for technical reviews.

"All told, DHS has not effectively managed and overseen its SBInet prime contractor, thus resulting in costly rework and contributing to SBInet's well-chronicled history of not delivering promised capabilities and benefits on time and within budget," the report stated.

Furthermore, DHS could minimize cost overruns and schedule delays if it ensured that Boeing properly implemented EVM controls to identify early warning signs of where the program might go off-course, the report said. DHS has not made certain that Boeing has used timely, completely, or accurately validated performance baselines, which estimate the value of planned work to measure performance. Occasionally Boeing was able to start work on task orders without any baseline at all in place. When baselines were later produced, they did not include all of the work to be performed under the task order, the report said. The baselines also used poor scheduling practices.

Due to anomalies in EVM data from Boeing, DHS has not understood potential cost and schedule pitfalls, thereby limiting its ability to avoid those problems future task orders, the report noted.Although DHS agreed with the four specific recommendations in the GAO report, it objected to criticism of its EVM practices specifically.

In a written response to the report, the department took exception to the statement that shortcomings in EVM data fostered cost overruns and schedule delays.

In particular, DHS said major program changes occurred with SBInet in 2008-2009 after major reviews resulting in changes of scope, schedule, and budget across SBInet."GAO casually observed that the lack of a validated baseline throughout a program review left DHS unable to accurately determine costs and schedules for SBInet, contributing to overruns and delays," DHS wrote. "But DHS argued that the SBInet program office maintained performance measurement baselines throughout the transition period with the best available information, as required by EVM best practices."

While EVM practices will face challenges during significant changes in the course of a program, DHS maintained that it adhered to EVM best practices during that time.DHS also objected to GAO's characterization of routine errors and adjustments in EVM reporting as "anomalies." Some of these adjustments, for example, were the result of estimates of subcontractor work provided by Boeing before the subcontractors submitted their final bills, DHS argued. While Boeing experienced both errors and adjustments in these reports, it has improved them significantly, which has allowed DHS to guide its management efforts effectively, the department said.