Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Feds find 32 tons of pot in Calif. border tunnel

Associated Press / MSNBC
November 30, 2011
by Elliot Spagat

The discovery of a cross-border tunnel equipped with electric rail cars, a hydraulic lift and end-to-end wood floors has ended in seizures of more than 32 tons of marijuana, one of the largest pot busts in U.S. history, authorities said Wednesday.

The 600-yard passage linking warehouses in San Diego and Tijuana included a wooden staircase, lighting and ventilation, said Derek Benner, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's special agent in charge of investigations in San Diego. It was tall and wide enough to move comfortably inside.

"This is an incredibly efficient tunnel designed to move a lot of narcotics," Benner told The Associated Press.

Authorities recovered nearly 17 tons of marijuana at the warehouse in San Diego's Otay Mesa area, nearly 12 tons inside a truck in Los Angeles and about 4 tons in Mexico, Benner said. Several arrests were made.

Tuesday's find was the latest in a spate of secret passages found to smuggle drugs underground from Mexico, a response to heightened enforcement on land. In an emerging seasonal trend, many are turning up shortly before the winter holidays in what authorities believe is an effort to take advantage of the Mexican harvest season.

Two weeks ago, authorities seized 17 tons of marijuana in connection with a tunnel linking warehouses in San Diego and Tijuana.

Raids last November on two tunnels linking warehouses in San Diego and Tijuana netted a combined 52 of marijuana on both sides of the border. Those secret passages were lined with rail tracks, and had lighting and ventilation.

Authorities believe the latest tunnel began operating recently but declined to provide details.

"I would say it's probably as sophisticated as any we've ever seen," William Sherman, acting special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego told the AP.

More than 70 tunnels have been found on the border since October 2008, surpassing the number of discoveries in the previous six years. Many are clustered around San Diego, California's Imperial Valley and Nogales, Ariz.

California is popular because its clay-like soil is easy to dig with shovels. In Nogales, smugglers tap into vast underground drainage canals.

San Diego's Otay Mesa area has the added draw of plenty of warehouses on both sides of the border to conceal trucks getting loaded with drugs. Its streets hum with semitrailers by day and fall silent on nights and weekends.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

U.S. to extend border fence 300 feet into Pacific

Los Angeles Times
November 25, 2011
by Richard Marosi

Reporting from Imperial Beach— Pounding surf and corrosive sea air have stymied efforts for years to erect a sturdy fence at the westernmost edge of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now, the U.S. Border Patrol is trying again, with a $4.3-million project that would extend a nearly quarter-mile barrier 300 feet into the Pacific Ocean and remake one of the more scenic spots on the border.

When completed early next year, a steel fence 18 feet tall will replace a teetering, gap-riddled barrier that did little to discourage people from crossing back and forth on a wide beach linking Tijuana and Imperial Beach.

The "Surf Fence Project" comes as the federal government winds down barrier-building projects that have fortified about 670 miles of the frontier in recent years. Fences have been built atop sand dunes and mountain slopes, through remote deserts and urban streetscapes.

Fortifying the border where it plunges into the Pacific, however, presents unique logistical challenges. Before construction even begins, a government contractor must build a long pier to hold a crane, which will pound the fence posts into the sand. On a recent day, people on the Tijuana side of the beach marveled at the temporary structure, which is under construction, mistakenly believing it would be used for fishing or for docking boats.

Though border fencing efforts have long drawn criticism, no significant opposition has emerged for the surf project, mainly because one kind of barrier or another has existed here since the early 1990s. A fence is necessary, border officials said, to block a gap that opens when the waters recede at low tide.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, hundreds of illegal immigrants would cross at a time and head toward the distant San Diego skyline. More recently, the beach became a popular spot for demonstrators protesting illegal immigration policies. Last year, a group of deported immigrants walked across the line in the sand at the border, in a symbolic protest march. Some of them threw rocks and bottles, said U.S. authorities.

"It still has the potential to be very dangerous, as beautiful as it is," said Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Bruce Parks.

Previous fences couldn't withstand the tidal battering. A barrier constructed of oil-drilling pipes in the early 1990s quickly corroded. Waves washed away some of the steel posts, and others broke off. In 2006, U.S. Marine divers tried to erect a fence made of train rails by maneuvering the rails in the water so they could be pounded in by a pile driver.

It was difficult and dangerous because the rails would swing around at the end of the crane boom as the divers tried to manually place them next to one another in the surf.

For the latest effort, U.S. authorities have turned to a private contractor, Granite Construction Co., which recently built fencing at the base of Otay Mountain east of San Diego. The material used this time will be sturdier: 6-inch steel piping, coated with rust-proof material. The work, Parks said, comes with a 30-year warranty.

Longtime beachgoers think the agency better keep the warranty paperwork. Netza Tapia, 40, said he remembers the days when he would slip through the corroded section of the fence to continue his family walks on the Imperial Beach side of the beach. Jonathan Parra and his friends used to breach the wave-battered gaps regularly to play soccer on Imperial Beach's relatively empty stretch of sand.

The sea, Parra said, doesn't recognize borders. "The strength of the ocean will eventually knock the fence down," Parra said.,0,6662761.story

Border Fence Upends a Valley Farmer’s Life

Texas Monthly / New York Times
November 26, 2011
by Oscar Casares

BROWNSVILLE — One of the obvious advantages of living within a gated community is the sense of security. But what if you live on the wrong side of the gate?

Consider the plight of Tim Loop, 47, who lives on his family farm in Brownsville, at the southernmost point along the United States-Mexico border.

Not so long ago, the Loop farm was a pastoral vision, with its bountiful mesquite and cotton fields and orange groves. Today, imposing sections of 15- to-18-foot-high rust-colored steel bars, some less than 400 feet from Mr. Loop’s front porch, are more likely to catch the eye.

In 2009 the Department of Homeland Security informed Mr. Loop and other landowners along the northern bank of the Rio Grande that the new border fence, which in some areas stands more than a mile from the river, would be cutting through their properties. (A water treaty with Mexico that restricts building within the flood plain prevented the department from simply hugging the north bank.) The three-bedroom home where Mr. Loop lives with his wife and two children ended up on the south side of the fence, inside what essentially became a no-man’s land.

Many gaps remain along the fence line. But now, to seal off these openings, the Homeland Security Department plans to install motorized gates and keypads. Like a handful of other border dwellers in the same situation, Mr. Loop and his family will be required to use a secret code to reach their home — and to re-enter the rest of his country.

“I’ll have to ask permission from the government to live my life,” Mr. Loop said.

It’s an awkward situation that Mr. Loop’s forebears could never have imagined. His grandfather settled this tract of land in the early 1900s, part of the southern migration of farmers who followed the expanding railway and the promise of an Edenic life to the Rio Grande Valley. Since then, the family has grown cotton, soybeans, wheat, cabbage, corn, sorghum and sugar cane. They have endured the merciless heat, the yearly threat of hurricane season and the occasional hard freeze that can easily wipe out a citrus crop.

But although life along the Rio Grande has always demanded ingenuity and resilience, it is doubtful that Mr. Loop’s grandfather ever figured on an enormous steel fence slicing through his land.

In fact, most local residents in this remote, rural and poor corner of the country are accustomed to being virtually forgotten by Washington. That, however, has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. Today the area seems like a cauldron of the nation’s deepest anxieties, a place where concerns about illegal immigration, fears of terrorism and, more recently, nervousness about spillover violence from Mexico’s drug war have boiled into repeated calls for a more secure border.

Mr. Loop seems to consider this a mixed blessing. He credits the initial boots-on-the-ground strategy with a decrease in the number of illegal crossings, but this only makes him question the need for more sections of fence.

“The fence is not doing what it’s supposed to be doing,” he said.

There is no doubt that the new gates and the keypads, the first round of which is scheduled to be completed by spring, will complicate his life. Mr. Loop will be issued a personal pass code, but he will have to provide the Homeland Security Department with the names of everyone who has regular access to it.

According to the “Landowner Reference Guide,” a pamphlet distributed by the Border Patrol, the gates will stay open for a certain part of every day, though the Border Patrol will have discretion over this. Emergency personnel will have access through the gates (which are designed to unlock in the event of a power failure), but the possibility of being caught on the wrong side of the fence weighs heavily on families like the Loops.

There are other worries, too. Mr. Loop wonders if possessing a secret pass code could make him a target for anyone desperate to gain access to the other side. This is, after all, a familiar area to desperate travelers.

The gates and keypads will affect a handful of other properties in the area. Ultimately, that list may include the Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve, a large tract belonging to the Nature Conservancy, which fought the border fence.

Maxwell Pons, an irascible preserve manager who, like Mr. Loop, lives in a house south of the border fence, has little faith that the government will handle the gate and keypad project any better than the fence.

“They tore down hundred-year-old trees to put up a fence,” Mr. Pons said. “You think they care about how using a keypad is going to affect us?”

Then there is the question of whether motorized gates controlled by secret pass codes will be able to secure a fence that was not all that secure to begin with.

Recently, Mr. Loop noticed what from a distance might have looked like dozens of ants scampering up the south side of the 18-foot-high steel bars. Getting closer, he realized that these were scuff marks — from shoes, boots, sneakers, bare feet; there was no telling for sure — and that whoever left the marks had made it to the top, and over, undeterred.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Crying wolf: The Republicans are fretting about a disappearing problem

The Economist
November 19, 2011

ASK any Republican presidential candidate, and they will tell you without hesitation: America’s border with Mexico is as leaky as a sieve. Mitt Romney thinks all 1,969 miles (3,169km) of it must be fenced. Michele Bachmann wants a double fence. Rick Perry was pilloried for suggesting that in some rugged areas, more “aviation assets in the ground” might be better than fencing. Bemused by such talk, Barack Obama joked earlier this year that Republicans would not be happy until there was a moat full of alligators to keep illegal immigrants at bay. A few months later Herman Cain said there should be an electrified fence, with a charge strong enough to kill. He later explained that he too was joking, but would never apologise for standing up for America.

At the border itself, all this talk seems otherworldly. At a “processing centre” in El Paso, where the fingerprints of those caught crossing from Mexico illegally are taken and checked against various databases, there is precious little processing going on. Of the 20-odd workstations, only two are manned. The Border Patrol agents sitting at them chat idly to themselves. Just two detainees, their paperwork complete, sit timidly in the corner of an enormous holding cell. An adjacent cell for women stands empty. Next door, three more agents scan 25 screens relaying footage from video cameras along the border, looking for possible incursions. In some of the grainy pictures, scrubby and deserted patches of creosote and mesquite sway in a gentle wind; in others, herons peck at fish in the shallow trickle of the Rio Grande. Asked whether anything is going on, an agent replies, “it’s really quiet today.”

It’s quiet most days in the El Paso sector, as the Border Patrol dubs this 268-mile slice of the border. Back in 1993, agents arrested 285,781 people trying to enter America illegally. In those days, the holding cells in the processing centre, explains Scott Hayes, a Border Patrol agent, were full to bursting. In 2010, however, agents picked up only 12,251 illegal immigrants in the area—a 96% decline. Much the same is true of the border as a whole: last year’s tally, of 447,731 arrests, is barely a quarter that of the peak year, 2000, when 1,643,679 people were intercepted. This year’s figure will be under 350,000; a fifth of the peak.

The drop in arrests reflects not laxer enforcement, but stronger. There are over 17,000 Border Patrol agents on the border with Mexico, a fivefold increase over 1993. They patrol in cars and all-terrain vehicles, on bicycles and horses, in boats, planes and helicopters. When there are no agents around, cameras, reconnaissance drones and three different types of sensors—seismic, magnetic and infra-red—keep tabs on things. A third of the border is fenced, and most of the rest is in areas so remote or rugged as to make fences pointless or impractical. Some parts of the fence are 17 feet high, with metal plates extending ten feet below ground to prevent tunnelling.

Along a two-mile stretch of the border just outside El Paso, five Border Patrol vehicles wait, ready to give chase should anyone manage to get past the fence. In the centre of town, where it is easiest for people to dash across from Ciudad Juárez on the other side and disappear in the busy streets, the entire border is floodlit. Elsewhere, agents have access to mobile lighting units, as well as hand-held infra-red cameras akin to night-vision goggles. There is even a special unit to chase hapless migrants through the city’s storm drains. If anyone makes it past all these obstacles, there are checkpoints at the bus station, at railroad yards and on the main roads out of town, complete with dogs to sniff out stowaways. And there is more manpower and clever kit on the way. The budget for border enforcement and immigration has quadrupled over the past decade; the Border Patrol is still hiring.

Agents used to be so outnumbered by the crowds flooding across that they could not give chase to all of them. They would return to their posts after arresting one group to find the tracks of several others who had crossed while they were away, Mr Hayes says. Nowadays plenty of agents respond to each breach. Those caught are not simply sent back across the border as they used to be: 90% suffer some sort of punishment—typically a few weeks in jail. What is more, the government has quietly started handing out more temporary visas for Mexican farm workers and the like, making it easier to enter legally. America’s weak economy, and the falling birth rate in Mexico further reduce the incentives to cross. The Border Patrol will never manage to apprehend every last suspect, says Mr Hayes, but it is not that far off.

Yet as Mr Obama suggested, the Republicans who have been bleating about the border are far from satisfied. They have hauled officials charged with policing it before Congress to berate their efforts. In states such as Arizona and Alabama, they have passed laws cracking down on illegal immigrants, on the grounds that the federal government has abdicated responsibility in that area. They refuse to discuss policies aimed at resolving the status of the 11m-odd illegal immigrants already in the country until they deem the border secure.

Mr Obama himself has succumbed to this mindset to a great extent. He has repeatedly requested increases in spending on Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, even as he has suggested cutting the budgets of other agencies. He has prolonged the deployment of some 1,200 National Guard troops along the border, to provide backup for the Border Patrol. The administration has boasted of deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants.

Yet there are some who question the entire premise of attempting to seal the border. Historically, says Doug Massey of Princeton University, the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico correlates most closely with economic growth in America and with the number of visas handed out, not with increased policing of the border. The whole thing is a colossal waste of money, he complains.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Third tunnel in a week found under U.S.-Mexico border

November 22, 2011
by Tim Gaynor

Border police in Nogales, Arizona, uncovered a drug smuggling tunnel from Mexico, the latest in a spate of illicit passageways found under the border in recent days.

The U.S. Border Patrol said the 319-foot long tunnel was discovered on Monday. It measured three feet wide by two feet tall, and ran for 100 feet into Mexico at a depth of about 20 feet.

It was chiseled through solid rock and was equipped with electricity, lighting, water pumps, and held up by support beams and plywood shoring, the Border Patrol's Tucson sector said in a news release.

While securing the tunnel, agents also found 26 bundles of marijuana weighing more than 430 pounds. One suspect was arrested by authorities in Mexico, Border Patrol agent Colleen Agle said.

The tunnel was the third discovered running under the porous U.S.-Mexico border in less than a week, and the 21st illicit passageway found beneath the streets of Nogales in the past two years.

Last Wednesday Authorities in California announced the find of an underground passageway that stretched 400 yards to an industrial park south of San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico. They seized more than 17 tons of marijuana and arrested two men.

The same day, authorities in Nogales found another smaller passageway beneath the porch of a house that ran 70 feet from a drain in Nogales in Mexico.

Agle said Mexican smugglers are increasingly turning to tunneling in a bid to beat beefed-up border security in the city, where a tall, new steel border fence was completed earlier this year.

"As we have been putting more resources along the border in this area, we are really taking away a lot of the traditional avenues for smuggling contraband and illegal aliens," Agle told Reuters.

She added that the majority of illicit passageways found under the city keyed into the extensive storm drain system that runs under the two Nogales, and contributes to making them such a hotspot for tunnelers.

"One of the things that (smugglers) are doing is exploiting the legitimate drainage system down here, and attempting to create illicit tunnels," she added.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Arizona hunter spots rare U.S.-Mexico borderlands jaguar

November 21, 2011
by David Schwatrz and Tim Gaynor

An Arizona hunter has made a rare confirmed sighting of a wild jaguar close to the Mexico border in southeastern Arizona, the Arizona Game and Fish Department said on Monday.

Jaguars' habitat ranges from Argentina to the rugged borderlands of Arizona and New Mexico. There have only been a handful of sightings by hunters in Arizona, and no jaguars are believed to breed in the United States.

The report was received on Saturday morning from an experienced hunter using dogs to track mountain lions in Cochise County, in southeast Arizona, the department said.

The large cat was driven up a mesquite tree, where the hunter was able to take photographs and video. The footage was subsequently viewed by the department, which classified the sighting as "verifiable or highly probable."

"It's very exciting ... we know that jaguars use southern Arizona as part of their northern habitat ... Although confirmed sightings are fairly rare," Lynda Lambert, a spokeswoman with the department, told Reuters.

Lambert said the hunter declined to be named, and did not release the photographs or video footage for publication.

After photographing the cat, the hunter left the area with his dogs and watched from a distance. The jaguar remained treed for approximately 15 minutes and then headed south.

Jaguars are the only cats in North America that roar. They prey on a variety of mammals, fish, birds and reptiles.

There were thought to have vanished from United States until two confirmed sightings in 1996. Only a handful have been spotted since then, and very little is known about their habits.

Based on the images, biologists believe the jaguar is an adult male that appeared in good health and weighed approximately 200 pounds.

The department said it hoped to compare the photographs and video shot by the hunter to images of other jaguars taken in Arizona in the past.

They will try to use comparisons between a jaguar's unique spots, known as rosettes, to determine if the animal has been previously identified.

In recent years, concern over the well-being of the U.S. jaguar population has intensified as a program to build some 700 miles of security fence along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico has gathered pace.

Some conservationists feared that the fencing would prevent the powerful, solitary hunters from roaming up from Mexico.

In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would designate critical habitat for endangered jaguars in the United States and develop a jaguar recovery plan.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bill giving Homeland Security reign on federal lands heats up Senate race

Great Falls Tribune
November 19, 2011
by John S. Adams

HELENA — Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., continue to cast political stones over a controversial measure that would give the Department of Homeland Security "operational control" over federal lands along the United States' borders.

Tester and Rehberg are locked in what many political observers predict will be one of the toughest U.S. Senate races in the nation, and the so-called "border bill" has become one of the biggest issues of the campaign to date.

Tester believes Rehberg's co-sponsorship of House Resolution 1505 won't sit well with Montana voters who value public lands.

The measure would give U.S. Customs and Border Protection the authority to circumvent 36 federal environmental and wilderness laws in order to give the agency operational control over all federally owned lands within 100 miles of U.S. borders.

Supporters of the measure, including Rehberg, say it is a simple bill designed to break the bureaucratic gridlock and turf war between Customs and Border Protection and the federal agencies that manage public lands along the border. They say the measure gives Customs and Border Protection agents the tools necessary to track down and stop invaders, drug smugglers and other threats without getting mired in the red tape of environmental reviews and public comments.

The bill specifically authorizes Customs and Border Protection to engage in the following activities in remote areas — such as wilderness and national parks — where such activities currently are prohibited:

•Build and maintain roads

•Build fences

•Use motorized vehicles to patrol

•Install and operate surveillance equipment and sensors

•Use aircraft

•Build temporary tactical infrastructure, including forward operating bases.

Opponents of the measure, including a hunting-and-angling group with ties to Tester, are attacking Rehberg in television ads and on the Internet, calling HR1505 "a federal land grab of the highest order." Critics of the bill say it threatens the health of protected ecosystems and wildlife, and could be used to lock the public out of federal lands without public input.

Rehberg's supporters say such criticism is politically motivated hogwash designed to scare voters.

They also accuse Tester of being a hypocrite on the issue, since he didn't oppose a 2009 Senate amendment that contained nearly identical language to the language at the core of HR1505.

The Senate in 2009 passed by unanimous consent an amendment to the 2010 Interior appropriations bills containing the following language:

"None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to impede, prohibit, or restrict activities of the Secretary of Homeland Security on public lands to achieve operational control (as defined in section 2(b) of the Secure Fence Act of 2006 (8 U.S.C. 1701 note; Public Law 109-367)) over the international land and maritime borders of the United States."

Rehberg's bill, as amended by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, contains this language:

"The Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture shall not impede, prohibit, or restrict activities of U.S. Customs and Border Protection on land under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture to achieve operational control (as defined in section 2(b) of the Secure Fence Act of 2006 (8 U.S.C. 1701 note; Public Law 109—15 367)) over the international land borders of the United States."

Rehberg spokesman Jed Link said the 2009 amendment gives even broader, more sweeping authority to the Department of Homeland Security to do almost anything it wants. He said Rehberg's bill is an attempt to build on the work the Senate began in 2009, but that it specifically details what activities Customs and Border Protection is allowed to undertake in order to obtain "operational control."

"At the end of the day, we're still trying to do what the Senate was trying to do in 2009. We've learned a lot in the last few years and have a better idea about what works and what doesn't work, so the details of the legislation aren't exactly the same," Link said.

While the 2009 amendment prohibited the Department of the Interior from impeding, prohibiting or restricting Department of Homeland Security activities, it did not waive the agency's requirement to follow federal environmental laws when undertaking those activities.

Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said the 2009 amendment was part of a one-year appropriations bill, and was aimed at addressing a specific, short-term problem.

Murphy said Congress concurred in 2009 that agreements between various federal land management agencies and Customs and Border Protection were not working, causing construction on a southern border fence to stall.

"The bill that passed the Senate was a short-term response to address a specific problem on the southern border back in 2009," Murphy said. "Congressman Rehberg's bill is a one-size-fits-all solution in search of a problem. His plan completely overhauls border security by giving one department total control over public land in Montana."

"The fact is, in 2009, Senator Tester agreed with Denny that this was a problem that needed to be solved," Link said. "Jon Tester is the only one who has changed his mind. This is about national security and keeping Montana families safe — the stakes are too high for political games."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

14 Tons of Marijuana Seized After Border Tunnel Is Found

Associated Press / New York Times
November 17, 2011

SAN DIEGO (AP) — An estimated 14 tons of marijuana was seized after the discovery of a tunnel that the authorities said on Wednesday was one of the most significant drug smuggling passages ever found on the United States-Mexico border.

The tunnel stretched about 400 yards and linked warehouses in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, the authorities said.

The authorities in the United States seized 9 to 10 tons of marijuana on Tuesday inside a truck and at the warehouse in San Diego’s Otay Mesa area, said Derek Benner, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s special agent in charge of investigations in San Diego. Mexican authorities recovered about five tons.

Photos taken by the Mexican authorities show an entry blocked by bundles that were most likely stuffed with marijuana, said Paul Beeson, chief of the Border Patrol’s San Diego sector. Wooden supports lined the walls, and power cords led to the Mexican entrance, suggesting lighting and ventilation systems.

The depth and the width of the tunnel were unknown. Several arrests were made. Mr. Benner declined to give details.

As the United States intensifies enforcement on land, more than 70 tunnels have been found on the border since October 2008, surpassing the number of discoveries in the previous six years.

Many are clustered in San Diego, California’s Imperial Valley and Nogales, Ariz. California is popular because its claylike soil is easy to dig. In Nogales, smugglers tap into vast underground drainage canals.

Raids last November on two tunnels linking San Diego and Tijuana netted a combined 50 tons of marijuana on both sides of the border, two of the largest such seizures in United States history. Those secret passages were lined with rail tracks, lighting and ventilation.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Environmental law waiver faces northern skeptics

Associated Press
November 13, 2011

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — No one can recall the last time an illegal immigrant hiked into the rugged and remote wilderness of Glacier National Park in an attempt to slip into the U.S. But that isn't stopping some in Congress from proposing to give border agents control over environmental laws in protected areas such as the popular tourist attraction in Montana, Washington's North Cascades National Park and all federal land within 100 miles of the U.S. border.

Associated Press interviews with northern border local sheriffs, federal officials, land managers, advocacy groups and others find that border threats in places such as the mountainous peaks of Glacier National Park are far more infrequent than in the deserts of Texas or Arizona — where illegal immigration arrests in one Border Patrol sector can run 1,000 times greater than a sector on the Canadian border.

The proposal would let the Border Patrol circumvent dozens of environmental laws from the Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act in areas those laws were created for: the nation's most-protected wilderness areas that fall within the 100-mile border zone with both Mexico and Canada. Supporters of the measure argue it is needed to cut through a bureaucratic gridlock where border agents have difficulty dealing with environmental laws and roadless rules.

But It has left critics wondering if the one-size-fits all approach to reshape border protection makes sense, and whether it's worth potentially marring wilderness areas that have been protected for a century or more.

Montana has become a flashpoint for the debate partly because much of the state's border with Canada is on federal land. And the dispute recently became a top issue in one of the nation's most competitive U.S. Senate races.

Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana, a Republican co-sponsor of the House bill who is in the midst of a fierce campaign to unseat freshman Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2012, has argued environmental rules should not get in the way of border protection.

Tester has joined some hunters and conservationists who argue the bill is a heavy-handed fix that allows unchecked development in places they cherish.

It's not exactly clear what the Border Patrol would do with that new authority. The bill, which has 32 co-sponsors in the U.S. House, suggests the agency could build new roads, keep current roads open, establish bases or even use motorized equipment in the backcountry of the national parks to shore up border protection.

But critics and conservationists ask if the actual border threat is worth taking those measures. Unlike the border with Mexico, where illegal activity is a daily problem, the proposed law has so far met with more skepticism on the northern border where proof is scant that the likes of human traffickers are using the wilderness reaches of Montana, Idaho and Washington.

"Compared to the southern border it is an infinitesimally small number. It is like one in a year, not thousands," said North Cascades National Park superintendent Chip Jenkins, who believes the current laws are fine for his area of Washington state. "So far it has been working. Part of it is that the geography works to our advantage. It is incredibly rugged terrain, and very difficult to navigate."

About 14 years ago, a would-be terrorist tried to sneak into the country through North Cascades National Park, and in what the park service considers a success the man was caught by rangers. Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer later was caught again elsewhere by immigration officials, and after ignoring orders to leave the country, was arrested in Brooklyn, N.Y. with a pipe bomb.

Police and agents do report more smuggling activity in the national forests, compared to the parks, but sheriffs in northwestern Montana consider the problem to be rare.

"I would think it is occurring randomly. I don't think it is a continual problem," said Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry. "Most of our border area is relatively rugged and relatively inaccessible."

But Curry notes there is the potential for people to use the area as a crossing point, and there have been cases where electronic surveillance has been tripped at an abandoned port of entry just west of Glacier National Park in the Flathead National Forest.

"Somebody with the will and resources certainly could get across the border if they chose to," said Curry. "It certainly is not at the top of my list, but it is a concern, especially as it pertains to the flow of drugs across the border."

The Border Patrol in eastern Washington reports more active crossing in the national forests of that region. Spokesman James Frackelton notes several multimillion dollar seizures of drugs in recent years that were brought overland on foot. He said the British Columbia marijuana industry often sends product down south in exchange for cocaine headed north on public land smuggling routes that have been used as far back as prohibition when booze flowed south from Canada.

Frackleton said that designated wilderness areas that prevent motorized access are a frustration for border agents, and pointed out his agency views access differently than the Forest Service or Park Service.

"They are protecting natural resources and our mission is to protect the U.S. from terrorists, terrorist weapons and other threats," he said.

In the plains of Montana most of the border land is owned by private landowners or perhaps local governments— more similar to ownership patterns predominant in Midwestern or northeastern states — and not the federal government. In that portion of rural Montana, border agents and local sheriffs report a few incidents of smuggling though rural farm fields. However, the proposal in Congress targets border patrol access to federal land — not private farms.

Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah is carrying the bill that eases the restrictions and recently passed the House Natural Resources Committee along party lines. But it is one of the many GOP co-sponsors, Rehberg of Montana, who has been taking heat.

Recently, in a development potentially even more troublesome for the Republican supporters of the bill, some conservative writers have begun speaking out against it. In places like Montana where many libertarian-minded gun owners are wary of potential federal government intrusions, the idea of granting border agents new authority in the name of increased security is raising some hackles.

Chuck Baldwin, a former Constitution Party presidential candidate who is now active in Montana conservative circles, criticized Rehberg's support for the bill and recently wrote that the proposal gives "more power and authority to the federal government's emerging police state."

Rehberg, who has already worked to change the bill to ensure that border agents could not restrict hunting or other public access to land, made it clear through a spokesman that his continued support for the measure is not certain. Rehberg, in an obvious effort to appease his conservative base, has suggested the bill could be improved by requiring the border patrol first get the permission of the local sheriff before exercising the powers granted.

"The bill is still not perfect. And he is working to make it better," spokesman Jed Link said. "But at the end of the day, if this thing is not good for Montana, Denny is not going to support it."

Border bill pits security against the environment

Minneapolis Star Tribune
November 14, 2011

The Border Patrol would gain unprecedented authority over Minnesota's environmental landmarks on our northern border, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park, under legislation winding through Congress.

More than 30 environmental laws would be waived and the Department of Homeland Security would be allowed to build roads, erect fences, set up monitoring equipment and use vehicles to patrol public lands within 100 miles of the Mexican and Canadian borders, according to proposed legislation in the House.

Public land managers in the departments of Interior and Agriculture would not be allowed to "impede, prohibit or restrict" the patrol from controlling the border, under the Republican-sponsored legislation. Homeland Security could disregard landmark environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.

The bill, authored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and a similar measure by Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz., were written primarily to address human and drug smuggling on the southern border, but both include the northern border, too. A Senate version does not.

The proposals have residents in northern Minnesota bristling, saying the area has few people crossing illegally and the Border Patrol would be wiser to engage more locals in reporting suspicious activity.

"All those illegal walleyes that are coming across? I mean, good God," quipped Ted Young, co-owner of Poplar Creek Guesthouse and Boundary Country Trekking, about 3 miles from the Canadian border on the Gunflint Trail. "We don't want fences, we don't want roads. ... Don't create problems that are not there."

Sue Prom, who with her husband owns Voyageur Canoe Outfitters about 5 miles from the Canadian border, said she's frustrated the northern border has been lumped in with problems to the south: "We don't have people swimming from Canada into the United States," she said.

But the legislation is also about potential terrorists, said Bishop spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin. "We know that there have been efforts by others wishing to do harm to our country to enter through both the north and the southern borders," she said.

Working together locally

If passed, the legislation would mark a significant change in the balance of power among the federal departments, now governed by a five-year-old agreement requiring them to collaborate for minimal environmental impact.

Leaders of federal agencies in the region say they have been working well together under that agreement, both watching the border and protecting the environment.

"We're not aware of any situations where either of us are hampering one another's missions," said Mike Ward, superintendent of Voyageurs National Park.

The departments back each other up on law enforcement missions, sometimes share equipment and often share information, officials said.

"We haven't had this need, specifically, for any legislation," said Border Patrol spokesman Stacy Forbes, based in Grand Forks, N.D.

The current agreement allows Border Patrol agents to patrol areas on foot or horseback without asking, as well as use motorized vehicles in emergency situations, Forbes said his agency typically notifies local wilderness managers, because they know the area best.

"They're the experts," Forbes said. "They would know if there's any type of movement."

Jim Sanders, forest supervisor of the 3.2 million-acre Superior National Forest, which contains the Boundary Waters, said his staff acts as "eyes and ears" for Border Patrol, too.

"It's working well," he said. "Some of their folks were helping us during the Pagami fire."

But in other areas of the country, some former Border Patrol agents complain the agreement in place now -- a memorandum of understanding -- gives an upper hand to park and wilderness land managers. It amounts to the Border Patrol making requests, one former agent said.

"It's a mother-may-I thing, and a request to get in there may take months," said Kent Lundgren, chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers. "They allow hot pursuit. That's good, but that does not allow patrol, and patrol is how you find things out."

Agents like to be outside, Lundgren said, and naturally act as environmental stewards.

Subbotin, of Bishop's office, said they expect agents will use increased access only for what's essential to their mission. "To argue otherwise would be to challenge their judgment."

The bill's goals are in lockstep with the Pledge to America, a 48-page policy agenda set forth by House Republicans in 2010. That document contains language to "prohibit the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from interfering with Border Patrol enforcement activities on federal lands."

Jane Danowitz, director of the U.S. public lands program at the Pew Environment Group, said Homeland Security officials didn't ask for the legislation and she thinks that's significant.

"We're talking about legislation that would basically, under the guise of national security, undo environmental laws that have been on the books for decades," Danowitz said. "These are popular protections."

U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minn., whose district includes the state's northeast border, said in a statement that international security often conflicts with other priorities such as environmental preservation. He looks forward to examining "a proper balance between international security and Minnesota's pristine wilderness."

No big plans for sector

U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Grand Forks Sector, which covers 861 miles of border in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, increased the number of agents from 28 in 1992 to 213 last year.

In fiscal year 2010, those agents apprehended 543 illegal immigrants, 388 of whom originally came from Mexico. In fiscal year 2008, 78 people illegally crossed from Canada into the sector, Forbes said. More recent data wasn't available.

Forbes said the Grand Forks Sector, which stretches south to Kansas and Missouri, has no plans to build roads, fences or other major infrastructure, though an environmental assessment along the entire northern border is being completed to expedite such plans if needed in the future.

Dyke Williams, who for 25 years has owned a cabin on the end of the Gunflint Trail, less than a mile from the border, said it doesn't matter if there are no plans at the moment. "Pass that puppy and you're going to have plans all over the place," he said.

If you build it, they'll still come: Border fence can't stem tide .

KENS Channel 5 San Antonio
November 13, 2011
by Angela Kocherga

The border fence is a hot topic on the Republican presidential campaign trail.

Herman Cain wants to electrify the fence.

Michelle Bachmann wants a double fence and Mitt Romney wants to extend the fence along the entire southwest border.

There are 649 miles of fence along the U.S./Mexico border. The tallest point is 30 feet high, and the longest stretch 300 miles in Douglas, Arizona.

The fence is a patchwork of materials that serves as a timeline showing the evolution of the barrier.

"Every time we implement any new type of fencing we learn from the limitations of the last fencing that we had in place," says U.S. Border Patrol agent Colleen Agle.

In Douglas construction crews are replacing the oldest fencing.

"The first generation was a lot shorter so people did have a lot easier time climbing over it, and it was also just sheet metal so it was very thin," Agle explains.

Over time smuggling organizations have figured out ways to go over, under and even through the fence.

"These bollards that were cut last night, they attempted to bring a vehicle north," says Agle.

That vehicle filled with drugs ended up turning back when border patrol agents arrived at the fence after spotting the smugglers.

"This high ground here will give me the advantage and get other agents to get on the traffic as they come north" says Border Patrol agent Jaime Leos.

The oldest barrier along a particular stretch of border is known as a "picket fence" because of the white bars. Mesh was added later because people used to stick their hands through the bars, using them to climb over the fence, and then it would take just a few minutes to make it into town.

"We know that over time they’re going to defeat this fencing, this brand new fencing as well. But as of right now this is the best stuff we’ve got and it’s doing a much better job for us," says Agle.

It's doing a better job of slowing down illegal border crossers, giving agents more time to catch those who are not deterred by the fence.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mass unites Mexicans, Americans separated by border fence

Catholic News Service
November 3, 2011
by Joseph Kolb

ANAPRA, Mexico (CNS) -- The Mexican bishop often exchanged glances with his American counterpart as they celebrated the All Souls' Day Mass. But instead of embracing at the kiss of peace, they touched palms -- though the chain-link fence.

Hundreds of Mexicans and Americans joined their bishops for the Mass, enduring dusty wind that created a brown haze. On the Mexican side of the border, on a lot surrounded by trash, wandering dogs, and food vendors, a handful of the 200 attendees paid little attention to the Mass but clung to the fence and stared longingly at the congregation on the U.S. side.

Bishop Armando X. Ochoa of El Paso, Texas, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Bishop Renato Ascencio Leon of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, concelebrated the annual border Mass on either side of the fence. The theme for this year's Mass was Remembering Our Dead; Celebrating Life; Working for Justice.

Betty Hernandez, 30, a mother of three and a youth minister at Corpus Christi Church in Anapra, said the Mass helps unify El Paso and Ciudad Juarez in a common cause of remembering those who have died in the drug violence as well as those who died in the nearby deserts, hoping to immigrate to the United States. Making this Mass even more poignant for Hernandez was the death of her neighbor, who was gunned down at a nearby burrito stand the previous week.

"Where there is an abundance of pain and death is God's glory for us to hope," she said.

As a youth minister in Anapra, which has seen more than its share of the violence, Hernandez tries to keep the teens involved in church activities, from the band and singers for Masses to ushers wearing their red smocks as a deterrent to the temptation of the easy money and violence associated with drug cartels. Many of these teens sat on the outskirts of the celebration amid the trash and wood-pallet fences that surrounded some of the nearby homes.

Behind Bishop Ascencio on the altar were seminarians from Seminario Conciliar in Ciudad Juarez. Father Hector Villa, rector, said their presence underscores much of what they are learning for their future ministries.

"This Mass is a sign of solidarity, especially for immigrants who try to cross the border and encounter so many troubles to reach their goal," Father Villa said. "We're asking the authorities in the U.S. to be more just with the people who want a dignified life through work, and this is also a subtle sign for Mexico that they are responsible for providing work for these people."

Father Villa said he would like his 94 seminarians to be more exposed to real-life issues -- such as violence and immigration -- sooner rather than later.

"The church can definitely help more by being more organized and active in this moment where immigrants are seen as enemies," he said. "These people give so much to the U.S. in terms of work, culture, and money."

During the Mass, Bishop Ascencio accepted symbols of the migrants' journey to the United States: flags from Latin American countries of origin, a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a gallon jug of water, a backpack and tennis shoes.

When the Mass was initiated in 1999 it was at the height of the infamous murders of Daughters of Juarez, female factory workers who disappeared and were later found to be sexually assaulted and murdered. Some were buried in shallow graves not far from where the Mass was celebrated. The number of these victims has been projected as high as 400.

Since 2006, Ciudad Juarez has seen about 8,500 murders as a result of a brutal drug war. And amid the death and sorrow are issues with immigration and human rights that include a redefinition of immigration from those not only seeking gainful employment in the United States, but those fleeing the violence of Ciudad Juarez. It is estimated that more than 200,000 people have fled the once vibrant city since 2006.

Before the Mass, Mexican children ran along the border fence some 50 yards behind the makeshift altar. The group quickly grew in size as a U.S. Border Patrol agent went back and forth between his unit and the fence.

Upon closer examination he was found distributing Halloween candy through the fence to the children. Asked about his covert act of generosity, he just smiled and said, "It's no big deal."

Border Fence Into Pacific Ocean To Be Rebuilt

November 3, 2011
By Ruxandra Guidi

SAN DIEGO — The "surf fence" runs 300-feet into the Pacific Ocean. It was originally built between 1993 and 1994 as a barrier to illegal border crossers and smugglers.

The new fence will look essentially the same: Metal pipes, 6-inches in diameter, rising out of the sand, with 4-inches in between. But it is designed to stay in good shape for as long as 30 years.

"The fencing is just another tool that we have," said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Michael Jimenez, referring to its design. "It helps to slow down the entry of these people to give our agents a chance to make an arrest. Because a fence alone isn't going to stop people from coming in."

But the fence is designed to be wide enough for fish and other wildlife to make it back and forth across the border.

Rebuilding efforts in this and other parts of the Southwestern border fence have been delayed over the years, due to environmental impact assessments for things like land use, geology, and protected species.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Environment key in border bill

San Antoanio Express-News
October 31, 2011
by Jason Buch

Both sides of a debate over a proposed law giving the Border Patrol more access to protected lands say they're trying to do what's right for the environment.

The National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act would waive laws such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act on federal lands within 100 miles of the border, affecting protected areas such as Big Bend National Park.

Environmentalists say the law could contribute to the decline of habitat for animals such as the endangered ocelot and jaguarundi, small wildcats whose range extends into South Texas. Proponents of the bill say restricting Border Patrol activity in federally protected borderlands just creates lanes for smugglers, who have no regard for the environment.

The act moved out of a House committee last month. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate.

The bill by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, allows the Border Patrol to build roads and other infrastructure on federally protected lands by waiving more than two dozen environmental and historical regulations. Agents are inhibited in some places by not being able to move freely through federal lands, said Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing agents.

“The amount of trash and damage illegals are causing far outweighs any damage that Border Patrol agents would do,” Moran said. “Our position is, if federal agencies or state agencies say the Border Patrol can't go through a certain area, then the cartels or the smugglers are going to find out about that and exploit it, and it's going to do more damage to that area.”

Rosalinda Huey, a spokeswoman for the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley, said the agency regularly works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ensuring that it has access to protected lands.

In South Texas, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge would be affected. Those are important stopovers for migratory birds, said Scott Nicol, co-chairman of the Sierra Club's Borderland Team.

It's also important that the limited habitat left for the ocelot and jaguarundi be protected, he said. The cats rely on small strips of vegetation along the river to travel between larger pieces of habitat.

“The big issue is just that (the Border Patrol) should be operating within the rule of law,” Nicol said. “It's kind of absurd to say that to enforce immigration laws ... they can violate any other law they want to.”

Nicol said he sees the bill more as an attempt to erode environmental regulations than to secure the border.

“These bills are not even about border security, because these are things the Border Patrol has not even asked for,” he said. “These are more generalized attacks on environmental regulation. They're basically just using border security as a convenient excuse because the average person says, ‘Do whatever you want to secure the border.'”

But Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said the bill was amended to only affect federal lands, limiting its impact on environmental regulations.

“By stopping the illegal activity along the border, we will protect American lives and preserve wilderness areas for future generations to enjoy,” Smith said in a statement.

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, a Democrat from Mercedes whose district includes some of the areas affected, said he'd need to see more evidence that the bill was needed before voting for it.

“I think we can allow the Border Patrol to do its work and at the same time protect our environment and our rare animals such as the jaguarundi, the ocelot and our migrating birds in deep South Texas,” Hinojosa said in a statement.