Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Predator coming to Texas border

April 28, 2010
San Antonio Express-News
by Gary Martin

WASHINGTON — An unarmed reconnaissance drone soon will fly over Texas as drug violence continues to escalate on the U.S.-Mexico border, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate hearing Tuesday.
Texas is the last border state to receive a Predator drone, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that has hurt the intelligence capabilities of federal, state and local law enforcement.

“I'm concerned that some of the assets that could be deployed to help not only quell the violence but also keep our borders secure, are not being deployed because of unnecessary foot-dragging,” Cornyn said.

Napolitano said Texas was the last Southwest border state to receive a drone because its “airspace is more crowded.”

She said the timeline for placing a drone in Texas, which tentatively would be stored in Corpus Christi, remains a decision for the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The FAA now has to go in and carve out, as I understand it, space for the Predator,” she said.

Napolitano testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held an oversight hearing into programs under the Homeland Security Department.

The secretary said that over the past 15 months, federal law enforcement initiatives have made the border more secure than at any other time.

Operation Stonegarden, which provides federal aid for local law enforcement assistance, provided $90 million to states, counties and cities for police and investigative efforts. Of that, 85 percent of the funds went to the Southwest border.

She said the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to 20,000 in just five years, and 653.3 miles of border fence have been built.

Still, she said, more is being done to help secure the border, through partnerships with the Mexican government, which remains engaged in a battle with narcotics cartels.

Napolitano called the death of a Douglas, Ariz., rancher and the killing of people linked to the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juárez tragedies “that serve to remind us of how drug violence can directly affect Americans and our nation's interests.”

More than 23,000 people have died in Mexico because of the drug war since 2006, Cornyn said.
In Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, some 700 people have died in shootouts and drug-related violence this year.

Cornyn urged Napolitano to implement radar, sensors and other military hardware, currently used by the Defense Department in Iraq and Afghanistan, to bolster U.S. efforts at the border.

He also wants a drone deployed in Texas as soon as possible.

Congress has approved $55 million since 2006 for Customs and Border Protection to test and deploy Predator drones. There are five in operation.

The drones have the capability to fly at altitudes used by commercial aircraft.

A recent analysis of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles found they were twice as likely to crash as manned aircraft, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Latino Assembly Members To Chain Themselves To Arizona Border Fence

April 28, 2010
City Hall News
by Andrew J. Hawkins

Yet another press release slamming the new immigration law signed by the Arizona governor will not be enough for a handful of New York legislators.

In two weeks, a group of Latino Assembly members, led by National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators president Felix Ortz, will travel to Arizona to join with others in rallying against the law. In addition to Ortiz, Assembly members José Rivera, Naomi Rivera, Adam Clayton Powell, Carmen Arroyo and Peter Rivera will make the trip.

Once there, Ortiz said they will chain themselves to the border fence in a show of civil disobedience. Arrests are expected, he said, but they are prepared for that.

“We’re willing to do that,” Ortiz said. “We’re willing to risk ourselves for the people of Arizona and other immigrants across the country.”

Powell, who is currently preparing a primary race against Harlem Rep. Charlie Rangel, is going a step further, introducing a resolution in the Assembly that would prohibit New York from “engaging in any business with the state of Arizona until this racially discriminatory law is defeated.”

José Rivera likened the upcoming trip to one he took years ago to Puerto Rico with Rev. Al Sharpton, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion and former Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez to protest the Navy’s use of the Vieques facility as a bombing range.

“We got arrested there. And I’m ready to do it again,” Rivera said. “This time for the rights of immigrants.”

But not all of their Latino colleagues see the point in traveling through three time zones to protest. State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., chair of the New York State Senate Puerto Rican and Latino Caucus, said that while he supports those Assembly members who will make the trip, he said his responsibility is in New York, working on passing a state budget.

“Whatever they want to do,” he shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen.”

Diaz said the problem goes beyond Arizona, stressing that the real fight will be in Washington, D.C. over immigration reform.

“Yes, Arizona is in chaos and bad,” Diaz said. “But we’ve got to stop using them as a pummeling bag.”

Adding, “Which they deserve.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Senators call for scrapping 'virtual fence'

Associated Press
April 20, 2010

WASHINGTON — Two senators said Tuesday it's time to consider ending a contract for a "virtual fence" along the U.S.-Mexico border, contending it doesn't stop illegal immigration.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., even suggested an old-fashioned, real fence may work better than the electronic one designed by Boeing Co.

"We're counting on you to give us a direct assessment and take action to either terminate the contract or take from it what may work," Lieberman told Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin.

Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said at a hearing on border security: "The best answer to this continuing crisis and continued flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. is to go back to the old-style fences, double- and triple-tiered, and layered."

Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., asked Bersin whether the contract could be canceled. Bersin said he was not able to render a judgment on a legal issue.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in March that she was halting funding to expand the virtual fence that originally was supposed to monitor most of the 2,000-mile southern U.S. border by 2011. It now covers only a portion of Arizona's boundary with Mexico.

The virtual fence is a network of cameras, ground sensors and radars designed to let a small number of dispatchers watch the border on a computer monitor, zoom in with cameras to see people crossing, and decide whether to send Border Patrol agents to the scene.

The fence was part of President George W. Bush's security plan.

Bersin said that the contractor has been unable to integrate the system to allow central monitoring of the border.

"In the near term, the secretary (Napolitano) concluded the wholesale integration is not a goal that is practicable or would produce the kind of results we want to see," Bersin said.

After the shooting death of a rancher, Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain of Arizona asked Monday for National Guard troops to be deployed along Arizona's border.

The request for 3,000 troops was part of a 10-point plan that includes hiring 3,000 more Customs and Border Protection agents for Arizona, building new fences and increasing aerial surveillance.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Final stretch of fence could close Southmost Preserve

Brownsville Herald
April 17, 2010
by Laura Tillman

Max Pons sees more wildlife in one day than most people see in months.

On Friday, Pons watched Black-bellied Whistling Ducks as they conducted reconnaissance to find the best place to build a nest.

He saw Altimira Orioles gathering food, walked along a stretch of sunflowers, Texas thistle, prickly poppies, and guinea grass, and kneeled down to pluck a sample of pepper grass as Indigo Buntings whipped through the air.

While many South Texans manage to get out to the area’s wildlife refuges a few days a month or year, Pons considers it a privilege to call The Nature Conservancy Southmost Preserve his workplace and his home for 18 years.

But after a court order granting possession of 8.31 acres of the land to the U.S. government for construction of 1.5 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, Pons’ idyllic home may be no more. About 95 percent of the Nature Conservancy’s property will fall south of the fence, including one of the last two protected Sabal Palm groves in the United States.

As caretaker of the property, Pons’ home will fall behind the fence, along with the conservancy’s nursery.

“The border wall causes several unique damages and problems for the conservancy, including dangers to protected and rare species,” said Laura Huffman, the Texas director of The Nature Conservancy, an international nonprofit organization. “There are also security and access concerns for what will now be on the backside of the wall, including the Nature Conservancy operations and the home of the preserve manager and his family. A decision has not yet been made as to whether or not the Nature Conservancy can continue at this location.”

The stretch of border fence is among the last to be built in Brownsville, along with a half mile of fence in Lincoln Park, according to Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Tara Dunlop. Engineers at the Nature Conservancy site said construction on the fence would start on Monday.

“We’re certainly disappointed,” said John Herron, Texas director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy. “We’re very concerned about how a fence will affect our ability to operate our preserve. I think we understand the concern about security and we certainly want to be supportive. But like any landowner we’re disappointed with the fact that the federal government has chosen to take the land.”

Pons takes care to talk with the Border Patrol agents, engineers, and construction staff who are now a regular presence in what remains his home and workplace. He chats with them about the wildlife, weather patterns, and the path of the fence.
“You’re just the messengers,” Pons said members of the Kiewit crew.

Pons walked along the segment of fence that has already been constructed near The Nature Conservancy property and came upon an old shed about 30 feet from the fence line.

“We were hoping they’d have to tear this shed down,” Pons said jokingly, pointing out the shed. “There’s a big bee population living in there they’d have to contend with.”

Friday, April 16, 2010

New proposed bill could affect local wildlife refuges

Brownsville Herald
April 15, 2010
by Laura Tillman

After a bill was introduced by House Republicans on Wednesday to transfer operational control of lands along the federal border to the Department of Homeland Security, the local spokesperson for these properties says that the plan is ill advised.

"Whenever two agencies collaborate it can only be better for the American people," said Nancy Brown, outreach specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Some House Republicans have claimed that federal land managers are more concerned with protecting wilderness and endangered species than securing U.S. borders.

"The Border Patrol is not being allowed do their job. That has to change," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who introduced the bill. A spokesperson for Bishop said that the Rio Grande Valley’s wildlife refuges would be impacted by the legislation if it is passed.

Brown says that in the Valley, Border Patrol operations are bolstered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We work very closely with Border Patrol," Brown said. "We’ve had success in collaborating to address their issues and ours."

Brown said that there had been a "rocky start" in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s collaboration with Border Patrol agents locally, as environmental advocates opposed the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border fence. But Brown says the two agencies have been working together to both fight illegal immigration and maintain the painstakingly assembled wildlife corridor for endangered species.

The 90,000-acre Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge is made up of 115 tracts of land, Brown said, and has required more than $70 million in investment from American taxpayers for acquisition of the land.

"We’re biologists, they’re law enforcement," Brown said. "We don’t know their needs and they don’t know ours. We are there to work with them to ensure that they can do their jobs without destroying these resources that are there for the American people."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bill opens sensitive lands to BP agents

Arizona Daily Star
April 15, 2010
by Brady McCombs

Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House want to give Border Patrol agents total access to public lands where they currently must adhere to some restrictions.

The move is the latest fallout from the March 27 killing of longtime rancher Robert Krentz on his land northeast of Douglas.

The legislation would prohibit the Department of Interior from restricting Border Patrol activities on public lands. Currently, land managers can create rules regarding access to certain areas to protect land, wildlife or historical sites.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, justified the legislation based on the fact that the person who killed Krentz likely fled into Mexico through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge is 17 miles east of Douglas on the Arizona-Mexico border.

At the 2,309-acre wildlife refuge, the Border Patrol is allowed to patrol on foot or on horseback, but its vehicle access is limited to emergencies and to administrative roads, according to a May 2009 letter from Benjamin Tuggle, U.S. Fish and Wildlife regional director, to Robert Gilbert, then the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector Chief.

San Bernardino refuge manager Bill Radke could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But rancher Wendy Glenn confirmed that those rules still exist. Her 15,000-acre ranch surrounds the refuge.

At a news conference in Washington, D.C., Bishop and other lawmakers accused federal land managers of “hiding behind the law” to place wilderness or endangered species ahead of border safety. “It’s unforgivable,” he said.

“The Border Patrol is not being allowed do their job,” Bishop said. “That has to change.”

But a spokesman for the Border Patrol agents union in Arizona said agents understand the reasons for the rules and work around them without a problem.

“I would definitely look and see if there are some restrictions that are too restrictive,” said Brandon Judd, vice president of Local 2544 of the National Border Patrol Council. “But to get rid of all restrictions, you would destroy the land.”

The Border Patrol used to have total access to the San Bernardino refuge but lost that privilege because agents were driving off-road and damaging the land, Glenn said.

The legislation would be “bad for the country,” and wouldn’t improve border security, Glenn said. San Bernardino refuge officials cooperate with the Border Patrol, she said.

“They aren’t impeding border security,” Glenn said. “They are working with them.”

The change in rules wouldn’t have made any difference the night Krentz was killed or during the search for his killer, Glenn said. The shooter was likely in Mexico by the time they found Krentz’s body.

“Having access to drive through the refuge wouldn’t have stopped it one way or another,” Glenn said.

The restrictions imposed on public lands are based on decades of bipartisan legislation and are crucial to protecting the land and wildlife, said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife.

The legislation perpetuates the myth that border security and natural resource protection are conflicting forces when the reality is that land managers are usually very helpful in border security efforts, he said.

This is not the first time legislators have attempted to give Border Patrol complete access to public lands, Clark said.

“It is a shame that they are using this unfortunate event as a springboard for introducing counterproductive legislation,” Clark said.

Kendra Barkoff, a spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, said federal land managers are committed to controlling the border by working with the Border Patrol.

During a two-day visit to Texas and Arizona last month, Salazar toured the border by helicopter and foot and was briefed by Border Patrol agents and land managers.

“Secretary Salazar believes that we can meet the twin goals of protecting our national security and our natural resources,” Barkoff said in an e-mail.

While the San Bernardino refuge is small, there are several other large public lands on Arizona’s border that would be impacted by the legislation. They include the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Southwestern Arizona.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Giffords asks for new Nogales border wall, irking Grijalva

April 13, 2010
Nogales International
by Jonathan Clark

U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords has requested $3 million in federal funds to replace the border fence in downtown Nogales with a more impenetrable barrier, rankling fellow Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, who called the move “a political response.”

In her request filed late last month with the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Giffords cited security risks posed by the landing-mat fence, which has stood in downtown Nogales since the early 1990s.

Giffords’ request touted a “more sophisticated” border structure that would “incorporate double-wall fencing, concertina wire … and vehicle ditches,” but Giffords’ District Director Ron Barber told the Nogales International on Monday that the phrasing had been inserted by an overzealous staffer and would be toned down.

Barber said Giffords wanted to see something more like bollard fencing – a series of interconnected, concrete-filled steel tubes – and that concertina wire would not be part of the plan. He said the fence request is being considered for the upcoming fiscal year, meaning that the funds could be available by Oct. 1.

Grijalva, who represents the congressional district that includes Nogales, called Giffords’ request “a political response that sounds to me like overkill.” He wondered why Giffords hadn’t made a similar request to replace existing fencing in downtown Douglas, which lies within her own congressional district. And he said he wished Giffords had consulted with him before making the request, saying he’d like to see a more detailed analysis before committing to a new fence.

“I'm not sure (the request) addresses the real needs of the Nogales area,” Grijalva said in an e-mail, noting that the wrong design could have a negative impact on the city’s economy.

Deputy City Manager John Kissinger said he was in favor of “any fencing project that (will) protect the citizens of Nogales, Arizona,” though he added that the legal and efficient movement of people through the fencing should not be compromised.

“The economy of the City of Nogales and this region depends on our retail trade with Mexico,” he said.

Giffords’ request for the new fencing followed a March 9 meeting of the local Border Patrol Citizens Advisory Board, at which Al White, top patrol agent at the Nogales Station, told attendees that the downtown fence has become a defensive liability.

While drug seizures and apprehensions of illegal immigrants have dropped significantly in the Nogales area, White said, anecdotal evidence suggests that new fencing to the east and west has pushed illegal activity toward the downtown area.

In a letter written to Giffords after the meeting, Citizens Advisory Board member Jim Price described “an untenable situation, one which is endangering the lives of Border Patrol agents and turning back the clock on downtown security here in Nogales.”

Price wrote that “downtown Nogales is rapidly returning to the situation of pre-landing mat fencing, with the criminal element making a significant incursion, thus endangering local citizens and visitors.”

“We are exposed to vandalism, theft, and physical threats on an increasing basis,” he wrote, without citing evidence.

Giffords attached Price’s letter to her funding request, noting on her Web site that all of her appropriations petitions “have at least one letter of support from a state or local official indicating why the project is important to southern Arizona.”

Price, however, is not a state or local official, and no other letter was posted with the funding request.

Greg Kory, who owns a store near the landing-mat fence in downtown Nogales, disagreed with Price’s assessment of security in the area.

“I think it’s one of the most secure places in the country,” he said, noting the large number of law enforcement officers patrolling the area.

Kory said he saw no need to spend $3 million on a replacement fence.

“I don’t want to pay those taxes; I’m overtaxed as it is,” he said. “I’d like to talk to Gabrielle Giffords. I really would.”

Limited outreach

Barber said he had received several other e-mails similar to Price’s, but opted not to post them. And he said he had gone on a nighttime patrol with the Border Patrol earlier in the year and witnessed first-hand the problems with the landing-mat fence.

The fence, he said, is not only easy to breach, but also makes agents vulnerable to rock-throwings.

“It’s just not OK that agents who are trying to do their job should be subjected to rockings from the other side,” he said. “If a fence can prevent, or at least minimize that, it seems to me that it’s a good idea.”

Barber’s assessment of the fence had also contributed to Giffords’ request for a replacement, he said.

However, he acknowledged that except for the meeting with the Citizens Advisory Board, a small group that includes people from around the county, the Giffords camp did little to solicit feedback from residents or business leaders in the downtown area.

Jennifer Allen, director of the Border Action Network, an organization that advocates for the rights of border communities, said that residents of predominantly Hispanic and Spanish-speaking areas like downtown Nogales are often left out of discussions on border policy.

Allen said her group has been urging members of Congress to treat good relationships with border residents as an integral part of border policy. While they may not be as vocal as other groups, Hispanic border residents also want to be part of the solution to local border issues, she said.

“People feel that if they are not treated as part of the solution, they are being viewed, to the contrary, as part of the problem,” she said.

Barber said that in hindsight, he would have liked to have made a more comprehensive outreach effort. But he said the intention behind the funding request – to replace the fence and reduce illegal incursions while improving agent safety in the process – was good.

And he said Giffords had had to move quickly on the plan in order to meet a late-March deadline for appropriations requests.

“There was no intent to slight anybody in the process,” Barber said. “We were on a timeline when this issue came to a head, and we moved as quickly as we could to beat the deadline.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Customs chief: Violence not crossing border

San Antonio Express News
April 8, 2010
by Gary Martin

WASHINGTON — U.S. border cities are not experiencing spillover violence from Mexico and extra security efforts must include measures to expedite legitimate trade between the two countries, the new head of Customs and Border Protection said Wednesday.
Commissioner Alan Bersin said U.S. security measures on borders with Mexico and Canada should be carried out in a way that improves the efficiency of trade so America can remain competitive globally.

Securing the border and expediting trade are not mutually exclusive — “The two go hand in hand,” he said in a meeting with reporters.

Bersin took office last week on a recess appointment by President Barack Obama.

A former U.S. attorney in San Diego, Calif., Bersin said the escalation of violence in Mexico is a result of President Felípe Calderón's crackdown on drug cartels.

The violence has claimed the lives of U.S. consulate workers in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and smugglers are suspected in the death of an Arizona man March 27 on his border ranch.

But incidents of violence in U.S. cities near Mexico cannot be compared with the level of lawlessness across the border, Bersin said.

“When we say ‘spillover violence' we are speaking of the kind of violence that we are seeing in Mexico that we haven't seen in the United States. That's not to deny the reality of violence that's attributable to organized crime based in Mexico,” Bersin said.

Mexican officials say drug violence has claimed the lives of nearly 18,000 people since Calderón's crackdown began in 2006.

Juárez emerged as a battleground last year, and a wave of gunbattles and executions beginning in February in the northern Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel warning there.

Texas officials, including Gov. Rick Perry and Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, have asked the Obama administration to send the National Guard and other resources to the border.

Cornyn said Bersin's claim of “no spillover violence is evidence that the Obama administration is sticking its collective head in the sand with regard to the safety of our border communities.”

Bersin and Cornyn are in agreement, however, that border security should not impede legitimate trade. Bersin said prescreening of travelers and shippers could help take pressure off border crossings.

U.S. trade with Mexico exceeds $1 billion per day, according to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

Even with prescreening, land ports of entry on both borders need $6 billion in upgrades and repairs and 5,000 more customs agents, said Monica Weisberg Stewart, a McAllen businesswoman who chairs the Texas Border Coalition committee on border security.

The coalition is a group of community leaders from Brownsville to El Paso who act as a lobbying arm for border cities and chambers of commerce.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Weisberg Stewart said. “Let's see him put the resources and manpower at the ports of entry.”

Border fence lawsuit to seize wildlife management area land

April 7, 2010
KGBT Channel 4
by Sergio Chapa

Federal authorities in charge of building the border fence have filed a new lawsuit to seize land from a state widlife management area along the Rio Grande.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) filed a land condmenation lawsuit against the Texas Parks & Widlife Department on Wednesday.

Court records show that federal officials are asking for control of 0.80 acres of land from the Anacua Unit of the Las Palamos Wildlife Management Area.

The land is locacted along the Rio Grande River just south of La Feria.

TPWD officials said the lawsuit filed on Wednesday is an addition to land previously seized to build the border fence, which is already in place there.

The two agencies are expected to work out compensation deal for the land described in the lawsuit filed on Wednesday.