Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fence isn't a cure-all for America's porous border

Associated Press
May 27, 2010
by Jaques Billeaud

NOGALES, Ariz. — The fence rises from the rock and hardscrabble of the desert floor, a formidable 15-foot-high curtain of corrugated metal that stretches into the mirage of heat and distance. Newer sections feature 20-foot high steel columns, deeply planted, narrowly spaced, so no human slips between.

The start-and-stop span — 646 miles long — has become a fierce polemic, a bumper sticker, a popular backdrop for campaign commercials during an election year with another sulfurous immigration debate.

The best known TV spot features Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain kicking along a dusty road in this hilly border city, fuming to his companion, the Pinal County sheriff, about drugs and immigrant smugglers and kidnappings. Wearing his Navy baseball cap and squinting into the sun, McCain could be rounding the corner to the gunfight at the OK Corral.

"Complete the danged fence," he spits, his jaw drawing into a knot.

The government has spent $2.4 billion since 2005 to build the fence as it presently stands. And the prevailing political sentiment would appear to be, build it faster and higher.

But what McCain and other politicians often fail to point out is there's no shortage of ways to get past the fence. Immigrants scale it with ladders. Smugglers use blowtorches and hacksaws to penetrate it. They use trucks with retractable vehicle ramps to roll pickups full of marijuana over the fence. They knock down vehicle barriers and erect lookalikes that are made out of cardboard and easy to move.

When backed up by border agents and surveillance technology, the fence can help reduce immigrant traffic or redirect it to other locales. But even some advocates for tougher enforcement say it's unclear whether the fence cuts the overall number of illegal crossings.

"The whole point of the fence is to work in concert with other things, but, by itself, you can't expect it to be the end-all and be-all," said Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for strict immigration laws.

An estimated 45 percent of America's 12 million illegal immigrants came here legally on various visas or border crossing cards and remained after their legal stays expired. The fence couldn't have stopped that. And the fence doesn't directly confront employers who fuel illicit crossings by hiring illegal immigrants.

Even so, at least one candidate in nearly all of Arizona's top political races, including McCain's, touts the fence as essential, or uses images of the barrier in campaign materials.

The fence covers about 30 percent of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, about one-third the length of the Great Wall of China. Nearly half of the fence sits in Arizona, the busiest gateway for both illegal immigrants and marijuana, with the rest equally divided in California, New Mexico and Texas. The government plans to build 6 more miles of fence by year's end.

The Border Patrol declined to say how many times it has recorded fence breaches, but a government audit released last year reported thousands. Each breach costs an average of $1,300 to repair. On top of the price tag for building the fence, it will cost another $6.5 billion over the next 20 years to maintain it and related equipment.

Politicians focus on the fence, advocates from both sides of the debate say, because of its symbolic value. It allows voters to envision the government's security efforts, and it's a shield against the violence on the Mexican side.

The focus on the fence by political campaigns appears to be isolated mostly to Arizona, where a law set to take effect July 29 will order police to question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally.

A gubernatorial candidate in New Mexico also used the fence as a backdrop in a campaign video. And just a day after entering Washington state's Senate race against powerful Democrat Patty Murray, Republican Dino Rossi said Thursday he wants to see a "tall fence with a high gate" for those who look to enter the U.S. illegally.

In Arizona, support for fence-building or images of the barrier can be found on the websites and campaign literature of at least one candidate in six of the state's eight congressional races, the U.S. Senate contest and races for governor and attorney general.

Ben Quayle, a Republican candidate for an open congressional seat and son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, calls for building a continuous border fence as part of a broader strategy. One of Quayle's competitors in the Republican primary, Ed Winkler, wrote an essay about his recent trip to the border and posted four photos of himself standing near the fence.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva said on his campaign website that the country's immigration woes won't be solved by building the fence and sending troops, but rather by a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling said the fence represent one of several tools used in reducing the number of immigrant arrests by more than 50 percent over the last five years. Other factors include 8,000 new Border Patrol agents, more technology and America's economic downturn.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday promised to send 1,200 Guard troops to the border to support efforts to block drug trafficking and temporarily supplement Border Patrol agents until more agents can be trained. McCain says more are needed — he tried unsuccessfully Thursday to get 6,000 more troops — arguing that the security situation along the border has deteriorated so badly that 3,000 guard troops are needed just to help protect his state.

In Nogales, the shoe stores, duty-free shops and other downtown businesses are just yards from the corrugated barricade, which has welding scars where breaches have been patched.

Forty border tunnels have been discovered in Nogales since the mid-1990s.

Surveillance cameras, sensors and trailers carrying stadium lights help Border Patrol agents who monitor the fence. Deeper into Nogales, layers of agents are placed to try to stop immigrants who slip past the border.

Mayor Octavio Garcia-von Borstel said the fence is essential to maintaining the quality of life in his city of 24,000. "With no fence, they would be free (to run through)," he said.

More than 100 miles away in the southeastern Arizona city of Douglas, Mayor Michael Gomez said the fence "is not going to work. They jump right over it."

But he believes there aren't enough Border Patrol agents there to back up the fence. At night, ultralight planes used by drug smugglers buzz right over.

Immigrant rights advocates say the fence prompts migrants to cross in remote areas where they face dangerous, often deadly obstacles on their way to a better life.

"It's a very big problem," said Walter Ewing, a senior researcher for the pro-immigrant Immigration Policy Center. "It won't be fixed by fences. It centers around economics."

DeMint bid to build border fence defeated

McClatchy Newspapers / Miami Herald
May 26, 2010
by James Rosen

WASHINGTON -- The Senate late Thursday defeated Sen. Jim DeMint's bid to require completion of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border within a year.

The 52-45 vote against DeMint's measure largely followed party lines, with Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio the only Republican to oppose it. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Seneca, S.C., Republican, voted for the DeMint legislation.

Four Democrats voted for setting a deadline to complete the border fence: Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, John Rockefeller of West Virginia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jon Tester of Montana.

DeMint, a Greenville, S.C., Republican who helped lead opposition to a bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2006, said only 34 miles of a double-layer border fence authorized by Congress have been built.

"The federal government is ignoring its own law at the peril of citizens in Arizona, Texas and really those all over the country," DeMint said on the Senate floor before the vote.

The vote was on whether to attach DeMint's amendment to a $59 billion supplemental spending bill providing funds for U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, disaster relief in Haiti and the United States and other needs.

DeMint dismissed as "temporary and insufficient" President Barack Obama's decision earlier this week to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and to seek $500 million in new funding to help fortify the frontier.

The Mexican government's crackdown on drug cartels has increased violence along the border in areas where illegal narcotics are smuggled into the United States.

"Thousands of Mexicans have been killed," DeMint said.

"We've encouraged the drug cartels to ship their goods to our border. We have mass chaos on our border because we will not do what we know works." The Senate in May 2006 defeated an immigration overhaul that would have helped 12 million undocumented workers in the United States gain legal status while taking steps to fortify the southern border.

DeMint branded that bill "amnesty," helping spark opposition to it among conservative activists across the country.

After that measure failed, Congress in September 2006 passed a narrower bill authorizing construction of the 700-mile-long, double-layered fence along the border.

Only short segments of the fence have been built since Democrats gained control of Congress in the November 2006 elections.

The Homeland Security Department in 2007 began to shift its focus to erecting a "virtual fence" along the 2,000-mile border, using sensors, cameras and other high-tech equipment to prevent illegal crossings.

That plan, however, has been delayed by technical glitches and cost overruns. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano decided in March to slash funding for it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Obama courts GOP on immigration

The Hill
May 24, 2010
by Alexander Bolton

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will ask Senate Republicans to set aside their objections to his broad immigration goals.

The lunchtime meeting with the GOP conference comes as Senate Democrats and Republicans gird for a battle over immigration during debate on a $58.8 billion emergency supplemental bill.

Republicans such as Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and Jim DeMint (S.C.) may offer amendments to crack down on illegal border crossings by completing a fencing project, or sending aerial drones or National Guard troops to the border.

“We understand there are a handful of amendments planned by Republicans on border security,” said one Democratic aide, who added that the measures would be hard for Democratic senators to vote against.

Tuesday’s meeting provides Obama with an opportunity to both engage with Republicans and ask them to work with him. Senate Republicans have told pro-immigration advocates for weeks that they would not support a comprehensive reform measure until Obama engaged them in a serious way.

“The president is coming up here to talk to Republicans about immigration and to get them on board with moving forward on comprehensive immigration reform,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.

Even if Obama makes an impassioned call for comprehensive reform, Senate aides doubt it would persuade Republicans to pull back border-security amendments to the supplemental spending bill.

An amendment filed by DeMint would require the administration to complete 700 miles of special double-layer fencing.

An amendment by Hutchison would send unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles to the border.

Democratic leaders are less concerned about the substance of the amendments than about how they might weaken support for passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Strategists worry if the Senate passes stringent border security measures as part of the supplemental, it would weaken the rationale for passing comprehensive reform.

The Democratic aide said Obama could make the case to Republicans that a broad reform bill would address their concerns over border security.

Some pro-immigration activists warn that passage of the border-security amendments by a Democratic-controlled Senate would also send the wrong message to Hispanic voters.

“There’s definitely concern about what kind of amendments may be offered considering the rhetoric surrounding border issues,” said a pro-immigration activist. “There’s a concern over how much people will buy into that rhetoric.”

Democratic Party strategists have long thought that jobs and the economy would be the two biggest issues of the midterm election.

But polling shows that immigration reform could make a difference in battleground states such as Nevada and Colorado.

A new Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey shows that embattled Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) has opened a three-point lead on his Republican challenger because of a shift in Hispanic voters.

The poll attributed the movement to a large shift of Hispanic voters to Bennet since passage of an Arizona law empowering law enforcement to conduct on-the-spot identity checks of suspected illegal immigrants.

“Hispanics in the Mountain West are leaning much more strongly toward the Democrats since the Arizona law was passed,” stated a PPP analysis of the survey.

A White House aide said Obama plans to discuss his agenda, of which energy and climate change legislation and immigration reform have been two of the highest priorities.

“The president expects to have an open exchange about his legislative priorities for the rest of the year,” said the aide.

Obama pursued a similar tactical strategy prior to final passage of sweeping healthcare reform legislation earlier this spring.

The president held a healthcare summit with Republican leaders at the White House in February to discuss their ideas for improving the nation’s healthcare laws.

Pro-immigration activists have been calling on Obama to become more engaged on the issue.

“The only way that we’re going to move forward is if the president leans into this in such a way that Republicans feel the heat,” said Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voices, a group that supports comprehensive reform.

“The president has not demonstrated the same kind of commitment to this issue that he has shown on other issues,” Sharry said.

Angela Kelley, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said: “I have a hard time seeing this issue move forward without substantial White House leadership.”

Kelley said if Obama only mentions immigration briefly, like he did at the State of the Union address earlier this year, “there will be a lot of disappointed people.”

“If this is a meaty conversation and the president shows ownership of the issue, it could provide considerable momentum, which is needed very badly,” Kelley said.

A Democratic aide said that White House officials initially told Democratic leaders that immigration reform would be the purpose of Tuesday’s meeting. They have since retrenched that expectation.

“The administration is now suggesting it will be one of several topics,” said the aide.

Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform say they hope that Obama will make a concerted push for broad reform at Tuesday’s meeting.

A senior GOP aide said the White House has not identified immigration reform as its No.1 priority for discussion Tuesday.

“It will be a wide-ranging discussion,” said the GOP aide. “The president can talk about anything he wants — it’s supposed to be on a wide range of topics.

“They said it would focus on a number of issues,” said the aide.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Quiet border towns don't live up to their notoriety

Los Angeles Times
May 13, 2010
by Nicholas Riccardi

Reporting from Nogales, Ariz. — On the other side of the metal barrier that separates this town from its namesake in Mexico, there have already been more than 120 homicides this year, including the assassination of the assistant police chief.

In this sleepy town of 21,000, there hasn't been a killing in three years.

"If you look at it statistically, if you look at the community as a whole, it's very, very safe," said Police Chief Jeffrey Kirkham.

Despite the drug war that has claimed thousands of lives in Mexico, communities along the U.S. side of the 2,000-mile southern border have shown virtually no increase in crime for several years.

There are dozens of towns, counties and cities along the border and no single measure of crime along the whole frontier. But a review of crime statistics for the largest communities and interviews with law enforcement officials from Texas to California show that, despite a widespread perception that the violence in Mexico has spread north, U.S. border communities are fairly secure. Some have even become safer.

"It's not spilling over to our side of the border," said William Lansdowne, police chief in San Diego, where violent crime has dropped 8% in the last three years. "We police it really well."

At a Senate hearing last month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — who, as Arizona governor, called for the deployment of National Guard troops to control the border — said the border was "as secure now as it has ever been."

That's not to say that border towns like Nogales are Mayberry RFD. The police tend to the same car accidents and domestic disputes as many small-town departments, but they also spend time chasing down 25-pound bales of marijuana that smugglers hoist over the border fence.

Plenty of tension remains along the border as well. Highly armed Mexican drug cartels continue to smuggle narcotics through the vast desert, especially in lightly populated southern Arizona. There are occasional eruptions of violence, such as the slaying of a Border Patrol agent tracking illegal immigrants outside San Diego last year and the fatal shooting of an Arizona rancher in March, possibly by a drug smuggler.

The latter incident is often cited by supporters of Arizona's controversial new anti-illegal immigration law. Opponents of the law say it could lead to widespread racial profiling, but Republican Gov. Jan Brewer voiced the views of many of the measure's supporters when she signed it into law last month.

"We cannot delay while the destruction happening south of our international border creeps its way north," she said.

At a recent forum in San Diego, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin said politicians and the media exaggerated the dangers along the border.

"I think people on the border are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the kind of political reaction that can generate a law like the Arizona law," Bersin said. "People on the border are periodically the subject of media attention that focuses on a border that most of us instinctively know is not out of control."

Laredo, Texas, has had two homicides this year, neither of which was related to the drug war across the border. Police spokesman Joe Baeza said the city had a hard time convincing people from outside the area of the relative calm.

"We get so many phone calls from people all over the country worried to come down here and do business because they think [the drug war] is happening on our side — and it's not," Baeza said. He added that Laredo saw a rise in violence earlier in the decade, but additional federal agents and smart policing stamped it out.

"The law enforcement community are really busting their backs to make sure that doesn't happen on this side, and the proof is in the pudding," Baeza said.

The Mexican border metropolis of Ciudad Juarez now has a higher murder rate than Baghdad as drug cartels battle for turf. Its neighbor on the U.S. side, El Paso, has long been one of the nation's safest big cities, with more than 600,000 people. Last year it was ranked second-safest behind Honolulu.

"Life in El Paso is good," said police spokesman Michael Baranyay, citing the one homicide the city has logged this year. "I don't think their issues over there are the same. They're not trying to get territory over here, they're trying to get territory over there."

In Yuma County, on the southwestern edge of Arizona, smugglers used to shoot at sheriff's deputies from across the Colorado River. But an influx of border patrol agents — there are now 18,500 on the entire border, more than ever before — chased crime away, said Capt. Eben Bratcher.

"It's tapered off to close to nothing now," he said.

There may be a cost to success, according to those who fight crime here.

"As the ports of entry and some of the other choke points have locked down, that's raised the stakes," said Lt. Jeff Palmer, head of the Pima County Sheriff's Border Crime Unit, which patrols the deserts between Tucson and Mexico. "People are more willing to commit violent acts to get their materials across."

That may be what's happening in Cochise County, a swath of rugged desert in the southeastern corner of the state that has been a favorite path for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers since the federal government fortified the California border in the 1990s.

Robert Krentz, a devout Catholic known for giving food and water to migrants who crossed his ranch near the border, was found shot to death in March. Footprints from the scene led into Mexico.

Crime statistics have been flat in Cochise County for a decade. But Carol Capas, a spokeswoman for the county sheriff's office, said that obscured a rise in border violence.

Burglaries in the rural area where Krentz lived have nearly doubled in the last year. Nearby, one man was tied up at gunpoint when he went to help apparently stranded migrants. "The crime is spilling over," she said. "I don't know that we're going to catch a break here."

When Kirkham left law enforcement agencies in Phoenix's suburbs to become chief in Nogales, his colleagues thought he was crazy and entering a war zone. Now Kirkham laughs. The dark side of immigration and drug trafficking is more visible near Phoenix, 180 miles north, where migrants are often held for ransom by smugglers.

"All those issues don't hang by the border," Kirkham said. The smugglers "want to get away from it as fast as possible."

Indeed, the cartels have an interest in the peace and quiet of the U.S. side of the border — sometimes they use it as a safe zone for their operations. For several months, Kirkham said, his department monitored three suspected hit men from Mexico who stayed in a posh suburb just north of town, journeying back to Nogales' southern neighbor, apparently to perform assassinations.

The men, who were eventually arrested in Mexico, were on their best behavior in the U.S., he said.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Efforts underway to stop border breaches

KVOA Tucson
May 21,2010
by Lorraine Rivera

LUKEVILLE - The steel mesh pedestrian fence at the Lukeville Port of Entry is just more than five miles long.

"You can see where they come through with cutters and just cut that thing." Patrol Agent Devin Reno is the Community Outreach Officer at the Ajo Border Patrol Station.

He said, "I don't know if you can see down there, you can see the footprints we track." He points through a rectangle cut out, measuring about 18 by 7 inches, in the mesh fence less than a tenth of a mile from the Lukeville Port of Entry.

He says this is one of the many ways illegal immigrants are trying to get across the border.

"These individual cuts, where they come in and cut the fence, that's what we call a breach," says Reno. "Any where we have a cut in the vehicle barricade or fencing of any kind we call it a breach."

There is an operation in place to address the problem.
Reno walks along a stretch of the fence and points to markings. "Each date is a date that they made a repair here. And then the actual grid coordinates, so that the Army Corp of Engineers knows where to go to make the repair."

Contractors for the Army Corp of Engineers respond with welding gear and materials. They cut panels of steel mesh and weld it over the hole.

From the Ajo Station, Border Patrol agents report, on average, two breaches a day.

"It's very frustrating because every time there's a cut here. There's got to be a guy sitting and watching that particular hole. And in the meantime, half a mile up the road we can have another guy making a cut."

That is why the contractors must respond within 24 hours to make the fix.

News 4 talked to several people working in Lukeville and Why about the issue. They tell us the illegal immigrants come in and head north as quickly as possible.

"Yes sir. They just go by," says Sam Montes who has lived in Why for 4 years. "There's no business around here. We got nothing to lose here."

While some do not feel an immediate threat in the area, the struggle goes on to patch up with the breaches and to keep the border secure.

Monday, May 17, 2010

After dismissing fence, McCain touts it in ad

Associated Press
May 13, 2010
by Jonathan Cooper

PHOENIX — Three years after dismissing the effectiveness of building a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border, Arizona Sen. John McCain is airing a campaign ad in which he declares: "complete the danged fence."

The 30-second ad shows McCain walking along Arizona's southern border with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu and ticking off crimes potentially associated with illegal immigration, including drug and human smuggling, home invasions and murder.

Babeu replies, "We're outmanned," and touts McCain's border-security plan. The ad ends with the sheriff telling McCain that "you're one of us."

In a 2007 interview with Vanity Fair, McCain suggested a border fence wouldn't be much help in securing the border, saying: "I think the fence is least effective. But I'll build the g--d----- fence if they want it."

Brian Rogers, McCain's campaign spokesman, said the senator has long supported a fence but recognizes that it must be used in conjunction with other tactics, particularly in remote desert areas. Rogers pointed to a 2007 compromise immigration reform bill, which McCain co-sponsored, calling for 370 miles of fencing.

The ad, which has been airing in Arizona for about a week, has been subject to ridicule online and on cable television, in part for its contrived dialogue. U.S. Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., shared a laugh with hosts of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" after watching the ad Thursday, and the Democratic National Committee released a statement saying McCain's tactics "reek of political desperation."

Former Rep. J.D. Hayworth is challenging McCain from the right for the GOP nomination in an August primary. His campaign has attacked McCain's record on illegal immigration, among other issues, and says he has "flip-flopped" on the border fence issue.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Texas group calls on senators to nix border fence expansion

Center for Investigative Reporting
May 7, 2010
by G.W. Shulz

More than two-dozen cities and counties in southern Texas joined by environmentalists and immigrant-rights organizations are calling on two lawmakers to end their push for additional fencing along the nation’s boundary with Mexico.

In a letter to Senate leaders May 6, the Texas Border Coalition and others argued that the approximately 650 miles of fencing already constructed in recent years has divided communities, negatively impacted the environment and cost taxpayers a fortune. They say that despite investing $2.6 billion so far, the barrier’s value in stopping the flow of illegal immigration and drug traffickers from Mexico hasn’t been studied.

The lack of such an analysis was confirmed this week by the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog arm of Congress, which concluded in a report that Customs and Border Protection “cannot account separately for the impact of tactical infrastructure,” i.e. border fencing.

Nonetheless, Republican senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and David Vitter of Louisiana on Wednesday proposed expanding the fence in a legislative amendment attached to an unrelated bill that addresses Wall Street reform.

DeMint said in a statement May 5 that little more than 30 miles of the fencing so far is double-layered and his amendment would make that the case for a full 700 miles. Last year, the press release said, a similar amendment was approved in the Senate by a 54-44 vote, but “Democrat leaders gutted the amendment behind closed doors.”

“We’ve had rhetoric and promises for four years without results,” DeMint said. “It’s time we completed the fence and secured our borders to protect American citizens.”

The letter from opponents, however, disputes that the barrier is successful in deterring intruders:

"The amendment has nothing to do with the issue of financial reform and threatens to play politics with the important goals of the underlying legislation. … Existing border walls have separated communities and families, cut through significant cultural sites and historic lands, caused damaging floods and erosion, and fractured habitat and migration corridors vital to wildlife pushed to the brink of extinction. These impacts are even more pronounced in light of the inability of a fence to solve our broken immigration system. If Congress perceives that the purpose of border walls is to seal the border from illegal activity, then the program is, and will continue to be, a costly failure."

The Texas Border Coalition represents several cities and counties in the southern area of the Lone Star State and filed suit against the Bush Administration in 2008 to stop 70 miles of fencing planned for the Rio Grande Valley. They argued at the time that the Department of Homeland Security failed to consult with them about the fence’s environmental and commercial impacts and claimed that the fence arbitrarily ceased at the property lines of wealthier landowners. A judge tossed the coalition’s legal challenge last year.

Other lawmakers in recent weeks, meanwhile, have raised questions about whether a costly and troubled border surveillance program known as SBInet should be abandoned due to delays and cost overruns. At one time, the government proposed lining the entire southwestern border with cameras, sensors and wired command centers that could detect illegal border crossers. But after spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 million, the defense contractor hired to build SBInet, Boeing Co., will complete only about 50 miles for certain.

The Obama Administration announced earlier this year that it was re-directing $50 million in Recovery Act funds set aside for SBInet to other technologies. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, during an April hearing called SBInet “a classic example of a program that was grossly oversold.” He’s argued in support of fencing and said the alternative to SBInet may be to double and even triple-layer the barrier in some areas of the border.

DeMint To Introduce Border Fence Amendment To Financial Reform Bill

RTT News
May 6, 2010

(RTTNews) - Senator Jim DeMint, R-S.C., announced Thursday that he plans to introduce an amendment to the financial regulatory reform bill to require the completion of 700 miles of double-layer physical fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border within one year.

"We've now had two administrations fail to keep their promise to the American people to secure our border and Americans are tired of excuses," DeMint said.

He added, "Americans have demanded a real fence to combat the very real problems of illegal immigration that have led to human trafficking, drug trafficking, kidnapping and violence on our border. Congress will never be able to achieve long-term reform to create a legal immigration system that works until we secure our borders."

DeMint said his legislation follows through on the promise made by Congress in the Secure Fence Act of 2006 to build such a fence. To date, only 34.3 miles of the fence have been completed.

"We've had rhetoric and promises for four years without results," DeMint said. "It's time we completed the fence and secured our borders to protect American citizens."

If Senator DeMint's amendment is signed into law, Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano would be required to submit a report to Congress within six months after enactment of the law on the progress made and her plans for completing the fence within twelve months.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Locked up: Sabal Palm Audubon Center remains closed

Brownsville Herald
May 1, 2010
by Laura Tillman

When you drive down the pot-hole flecked road leading to the Sabal Palm Audubon Center & Sanctuary, a field of silky green stalks of maturing corn sits to your left, the brown expanse of the U.S.-Mexico border fence stretches out in front.

At the end of the road there’s an opening in the rust-colored fence, which allows vehicles to motor over the levy to a vista of the lush wildlife sanctuary beyond. But when you arrive at the gate for the Sabal Palm Audubon Center itself, there is no moving ahead into the brush.

Instead a stop sign hangs here — and a lock.

Sabal Palm closed in May 2009 for the season with hopes of re-opening that October. But October came and went, and one year after the center initially closed it remains locked up. The center has been unable to secure the funding it needs to pay employees, thanks in part to a decline in donations after the recession began.

Owned by the Audubon Society, Sabal Palm is one of the last two remaining protected groves of sabal palm trees in the country. The other is next door at The Nature Conservancy, a private nature preserve generally closed to the public, which may also end its tenure in the Rio Grande Valley. In the case of The Nature Conservancy, the issue isn’t funding — its liability issues posed by the path of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, which places upwards of 90 percent of its property on the south side of the fence.

At the Sabal Palm Audubon Center, the fence has also raised concerns. Bob Bentson, the vice president of Audubon Texas, said that he didn’t know if the gap at the entrance of the preserve, for example, would be filled with a gate or just more fencing.

A spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers told The Brownsville Herald that a gate would fill the spot.

"New hours of operation," reads a sign on the closed gate of Sabal Palms, hopefully. But then the next line, "the Sanctuary is currently closed," destroys that hope.

Bentson says the Audubon Society is optimistic that it will soon be able to secure funding to re-open the center, though he declined to specify where such money might come from.

"Unfortunately the economy hit us hard," Bentson said.

You can still drive to the entrance of Sabal Palm and, gazing over at the sanctuary, see kiskadees, mockingbirds, lizards, and the famous sabal palms themselves. The shaggy trees have not lost their rough tropical luster. But Bentson says that if and when the center re-opens, it will need some sprucing up.

"She doesn’t have on her Sunday best right now," he said.

Violence is not up on Arizona border

Arizona Republic
May2, 2010
by Dennis Wagner

NOGALES, Ariz. - Assistant Police Chief Roy Bermudez shakes his head and smiles when he hears politicians and pundits declaring that Mexican cartel violence is overrunning his Arizona border town.

"We have not, thank God, witnessed any spillover violence from Mexico," Bermudez says emphatically. "You can look at the crime stats. I think Nogales, Arizona, is one of the safest places to live in all of America."

FBI Uniform Crime Reports and statistics provided by police agencies, in fact, show that the crime rates in Nogales, Douglas, Yuma and other Arizona border towns have remained essentially flat for the past decade, even as drug-related violence has spiraled out of control on the other side of the international line. Statewide, rates of violent crime also are down.

While smugglers have become more aggressive in their encounters with authorities, as evidenced by the shooting of a Pinal County deputy on Friday, allegedly by illegal-immigrant drug runners, they do not routinely target residents of border towns.

In 2000, there were 23 rapes, robberies and murders in Nogales, Ariz. Last year, despite nearly a decade of population growth, there were 19 such crimes. Aggravated assaults dropped by one-third. No one has been murdered in two years.

Bermudez said people unfamiliar with the border may be confused because Nogales, Sonora, has become notorious for kidnappings, shootouts and beheadings. With 500 Border Patrol agents and countless other law officers swarming the Arizona side, he said, smugglers pass through as quickly and furtively as possible.

"Everywhere you turn, there's some kind of law enforcement looking at you," Bermudez said. "Per capita, we probably have the highest amount of any city in the United States."

In Yuma, police spokesman Sgt. Clint Norred said he cannot recall any significant cartel violence in the past several years. Departmental crime records show the amount of bloodshed has remained stable despite a substantial population increase.

"It almost seems like Yuma is more of an entryway" for smugglers rather than a combat zone, he said.

Perceptions vs. reality

Since the murder of Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz by a suspected illegal immigrant in March, politicians and the national press have fanned a perception that the border is inundated with bloodshed and that it's escalating.

In a speech on the Senate floor last week, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., declared that the failure to secure that border between Arizona and Mexico "has led to violence - the worst I have ever seen."

He reiterated that Saturday after speaking at the West Valley Military Family Day event in Glendale, saying the concern that drug violence could spill across the border remains intense because Mexico's political situation is volatile.

"The violence is on the increase," McCain told The Arizona Republic. "The president of Mexico has said that it's a struggle for the existence of the government of Mexico."

Congressional members, including Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and John Shadegg, R-Ariz., sent President Barack Obama a letter asking that National Guard soldiers be sent to the border because "violence in the vicinity of the U.S. Mexico border continues to increase at an alarming rate."

And last month, as she signed Arizona's tough new law cracking down on illegal immigrants, Gov. Jan Brewer also called for National Guard troops. The law makes it a state crime to be in Arizona illegally and requires authorities to check documents of people they reasonably suspect to be illegal. Brewer said she signed it to solve what she said is an Arizona "crisis" caused by "border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration."

Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Pima County, said there always has been crime associated with smuggling in southern Arizona, but today's rhetoric does not seem to jibe with reality.

"This is a media-created event," Dupnik said. "I hear politicians on TV saying the border has gotten worse. Well, the fact of the matter is that the border has never been more secure."

Even Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, among the most strident critics of federal enforcement, concedes that notions of cartel mayhem are exaggerated. "We're not seeing the multiple killings, beheadings and shootouts that are going on on the other side," he said.

In fact, according to the Border Patrol, Krentz is the only American murdered by a suspected illegal immigrant in at least a decade within the agency's Tucson sector, the busiest smuggling route among the Border Patrol's nine coverage regions along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Still, Dever said, the slaying proved useful to southern Arizonans who are sick of smugglers and immigrants tramping through their lands.

"The interest just elevated. And we keep the pressure on because next week something else is going to happen, and the window of opportunity will close," Dever said.

Cochise County's crime rate has been "flat" for at least 10 years, the sheriff added. Even in 2000, when record numbers of undocumented immigrants were detained in the area, just 4 percent of the area's violent crimes were committed by illegal aliens.

Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor said his town suffers from home invasions and kidnappings involving marijuana smugglers who are undoubtedly tied to Mexican organizations. However, he added, most of those committing the rip-offs are American citizens.

"I think the border-influenced violence is getting worse," Villasenor said. "But is it a spillover of Mexican cartel members? No, I don't buy that."

More help on the border

While the nation's illegal-immigrant population doubled from 1994 to 2004, according to federal records, the violent-crime rate declined 35 percent.

More recently, Arizona's violent-crime rate dropped from 512 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2005 to 447 incidents in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available.

In testimony to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security last month, Dennis Burke, U.S. attorney for Arizona, noted that Arizona now has more than 6,000 federal law-enforcement agents, with the majority of them employed by the Border Patrol. That represents nearly 10 agents for every mile of international line between Arizona and Sonora.

Border Patrol presence has been backed by increases in counter-smuggling technology and intelligence, the establishment of permanent highway checkpoints and a dramatic increase in customs inspectors at U.S. ports.

"The border is as secure now as it has ever been," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told a Senate panel last week.

Given that level of security, Bermudez and others say, it is no wonder that cartel operatives pass through border communities as quickly as possible, avoiding conflicts and attention.

In fact, violent-crime data suggest that violence from Mexico leapfrogs the border to smuggling hubs and destinations, where cartel members do take part in murders, home invasions and kidnappings.

In Phoenix and Tucson, cartel-related violence is hardly new.

In 1996, for example, Valley law-enforcement agents estimated that 40 percent of all homicides in Maricopa County were a result of conflicts involving Mexican narcotics organizations, mostly from Sinaloa state. A decade later, the Attorney General's Office exposed a $2 billion human-smuggling business based in metro Phoenix, where criminals often assaulted illegal aliens while holding them for payment of smuggling fees. More recently, cartel-related home invasions and abductions put Phoenix among the world leaders in kidnappings.

'A third country'

During a national border security expo in Phoenix last week, David Aguilar, acting deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, said policy makers and the public need to understand that the border is not a fence or a line in the dirt but a broad and complex corridor.

"It is," Aguilar explained, "a third country that joins Mexico and the United States."

He emphasized that the cartels operate throughout Mexico and the United States, and he noted that those who think of border security in terms of a "juridical line" really don't understand the dynamics.

Aguilar said that Juarez, Mexico, is widely regarded as the "deadliest city in the world" because of an estimated 5,000 murders in recent years. Yet right across the border, El Paso, Texas, is listed among the safest towns in America.

A review of the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports suggests that Arizona's border towns share El Paso's good fortune. Douglas and Nogales are about the same size as Florence but have significantly lower violent-crime rates. Likewise, Yuma has a population greater than Avondale's but a lower rate of violent offenses.

In Nogales, Ariz., residents seem bemused and annoyed by their town's perilous reputation. Yes, they sometimes hear the gunfire across the border. No, they don't feel safe visiting the sister city across the line. But with cops and federal agents everywhere, they see no danger on their streets.

"There's no violence here," said Francisco Hernandez, 31, who works in a sign shop and lives on a ranch along the border. "It doesn't drain over, like people are saying."

Leo Federico, 61, a retired teacher, said he has been amazed to hear members of Congress call for National Guard troops in the area.

"That's politics," he said, shrugging. "It's all about votes. . . . We have plenty of law enforcement."