Tuesday, May 15, 2012

At US border, era of fence-building, manpower 'surge' at an end

Christian Science Monitor
May 15, 2012
by Lourdes Medrano

With apprehensions of illegal immigrants at a 40-year low, the US border patrol is shifting its strategy away from fence-building and a manpower "surge" at the border and toward one centered on intelligence and identifying threats to national security.

To some, the shift is overdue – a recognition that the huge expenses incurred under the former policy are out of proportion to its achievements. To others, it is folly to step back from an approach that, they say, has played a vital role in driving down illegal border-crossings.

The new strategy, which border patrol Chief Michael Fisher sketched last week for a House panel, is crafted around the idea of risk assessment. It is the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration intends to concentrate on intercepting repeat crossers and other potential threats to national security, according to a recent Associated Press report that included an interview with Chief Fisher. US officials have said in the past that frequent border-crossers may be among the most likely to be involved in criminal smuggling of drugs and humans.
Measures to tackle the growing problem of corruption among border patrol agents are also part of the plan, the AP report said. Moreover, illegal immigrants caught trying to sneak into the US will increasingly face consequences that are more serious consequences than simply being deported. In some areas, including the busy Tucson sector in Arizona, which remains the most popular crossing point, illegal border-crossers already face jail time.

Researchers attribute the big decrease in border crossings partly to beefed-up enforcement and partly to a sour US economy and changed migration patterns in Mexico, home to nearly 60 percent of the people living in the US without authorization.

The new strategy is appropriate, given the low numbers of people now coming across the border, says Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. “Everyone, I think, has started to recognize that we have the assets that we need, and they need to be more strategically and optimally deployed. That’s one reason you’re not seeing new calls for [more] fencing by most of Congress.”

The border patrol has grown to 21,000 agents, and the US-Mexico border is now fortified with cameras and other high-tech surveillance. In 1996, Congress approved funding for thousands of agents and set aside dollars to extend the border wall. The new strategy does not emphasize new fencing.

Arizona state Sen. Steve Smith, for one, thinks little of the border patrol's new priorities.

“Our federal government, they don’t see the magnitude of this problem,” says the Republican, who in July launched a fundraising website to build a state border fence. “It’s folly … to stop putting up things that we know work, that we know are an impediment,” he adds, saying fencing is part of the solution, along with manpower and technology.

For years, immigrant advocacy groups have pressed for change in border patrol tactics. Tighter border enforcement in California and Texas in the mid-1990s pushed the flow of illegal border-crossers to Arizona, where remote desert areas became the top entry point for migrants, some of whom perished making the journey.

“Fences now exist in all but the most remote and impassable areas, the ratio of migrants to [enforcement] personnel is at historic lows, and the ratio of dollars per apprehension is at historic highs,” concludes a year-long study by the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group, and Mexico’s College of the Northern Border.

“Meanwhile, it is not even clear how much of the reduction in migration owes to security measures – though some certainly does – and how much owes to other factors like recession and fear of organized crime,” states the study, which was released in April. “Additional dollars for current border security priorities will yield little additional payoff and are unnecessary.”

It's evident that heavy funding for the US border patrol is no longer a priority, says George McCubbin, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents most border patrol agents. Part of the reason is that resources were wasted, he says, on a plan to add $1 billion in technology along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border to serve as a "virtual" fence.

“It didn’t do anything for the American public,” Mr. McCubbin says of the failed project, known as SBInet.

He also acknowledges a problem with corruption inside the agency, but says agency administrators bear the responsibility. In trying to fulfill Congress’ mandate to hire thousands of agents within a certain time frame, background checks were put off until after agents already were on the job, McCubbin says.

“The negative result of all that is, we hired a bunch of bad people,” he adds. “It’s a concern for all of us.”


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Panel chairman seeks delay to border security bill in bid to win Democratic support

May 10, 2012
by Phil Taylor

A Republican chairman is asking House leaders to delay consideration of a controversial border security bill so he can address concerns from Democrats and Hispanic members.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, said he plans to meet with as many Democrats as he can before the House takes up his bill (H.R. 1505), which would exempt the Department of Homeland Security from dozens of conservation laws along a 100-mile swath of the nation's Mexican and Canadian borders.

"I asked them to slow it down so I'd have a lot of time to do some retail work with other members before it comes out on the floor," Bishop told E&E Daily, "especially with Democrats so that they understand this is a policy issue and that I'm not after the publicity."

He did not specify when the bill will come to the floor. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member on Bishop's panel, said he has heard that a vote will be called in June.

The bill is expected to pass the Republican-led chamber, though a great unknown is how many Democrats will support the measure. No Democrats voted for the bill at a Natural Resources Committee markup last October.
Bishop said he intends to meet with Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee, Blue Dog Democrats throughout the chamber and Hispanic members.

"I'm going to the Hispanic community to recognize that, in all sincerity, if there is ever to be an immigration bill passed, the first thing you need is to honestly say you can control the border," Bishop said. "Otherwise, you'll never get rid of the anger and anxiety that makes the issue impossible to solve."

Bishop has long argued that federal lands along the Mexican border have become havens for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers in large part because the U.S. Border Patrol is restricted by land management agencies.

His bill would exempt the Department of Homeland Security from the National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Wilderness Act and Endangered Species Act, among many others, which he argued have unduly hindered security operations at national parks, monuments and other protected lands.
The proposal is opposed by the Obama administration, has riled conservationists and sportsmen and has even been featured prominently in the race for U.S. Senate in Montana, where it is co-sponsored by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) but vehemently opposed by Sen. Jon Tester (D) (E&E Daily, Oct. 26, 2011).

Bishop yesterday said opposition to the bill is misguided and that it will reduce the impacts inflicted by illegal immigrants who pay no mind to the environment.

"If you do nothing, you're still turning over enormous swaths of land to the drug cartels [that] don't care about the Endangered Species Act, [that] don't care about wilderness designations," he said. "They drive over it anyway."

A Government Accountability Office report in fall 2010 found that while a majority of Border Patrol agents said activities have been delayed or restricted as a result of land management laws, almost all said the overall security status of their patrol area is not affected.

Bishop said delays are indefensible nonetheless. "The Border Patrol shouldn't have to wait at the border for a horse to arrive when they were in hot pursuit," he said. "The administration wants to say everything is working nicely. It's not."

Officials from the departments of the Interior and Agriculture testified that cooperation among border agencies -- including those responsible for security and land management -- has greatly improved since 2006, when a memorandum of understanding was signed among DHS, Interior and USDA seeking to strike the proper balance between federal priorities.

Bishop will not be the only one courting fence-sitting Democrats, said Grijalva, who said he is gearing up for "a real hard fight" to ensure his colleagues do not defect.

In addition, a handful of sportsmen, landowners and a farmer from border areas in Arizona and Montana are lobbying congressional offices this week in opposition to the bill.

The group, which is hosted by the nonprofit conservation group Sky Island Alliance, is scheduled to meet with the offices of Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Patty Murray of Washington, Dianne Feinstein of California and Tester, as well as with Grijalva and the committee staff.

"The group ... contends that this legislation would allow the Department of Homeland Security to run roughshod over ranching and farming operations and would remove any incentive for the agency to work with landowners and border-area communities," said Steve Koenigsberg, a spokesman for the delegation.

Natural Resources Committee Democrats in a dissenting report said the bill's true purpose is to use border security as a pretense to roll back more than a century of environmental protections for Americans living along the borders.

"The real problem of border enforcement is one of manpower, budgets, economic incentives and difficult terrain," Democrats on the committee wrote. "This bill addresses none of these concerns."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Border Patrol unveils first new strategy in 8 years, cracks down on Mexico's revolving door

Associated Press / MSNBC
May 8, 2012
by Elliot Spagat

SAN DIEGO - The U.S. Border Patrol on Tuesday unveiled its first national strategy in eight years, a period in which the number of agents more than doubled and apprehensions of people entering illegally from Mexico dropped to a 40-year low.
The new approach — outlined in a 32-page document that took more than two years to develop — uses buzzwords like "risk-based" and "intelligence-driven" to describe a more nuanced, targeted response to constantly evolving threats.

The Border Patrol previously relied on a strategy that blanketed heavily trafficked corridors for illegal immigrants with agents, pushing migrants to more remote areas where they would presumably be easier to capture and discouraged from trying again.

"The jury, for me at least, is out on whether that's a solid strategy," Chief Mike Fisher told The Associated Press.

The new strategy draws on intelligence to identify repeat crossers and to try to determine why they keep coming, said Fisher, who was expected to address a House subcommittee on the plan Tuesday.
"This whole risk-based approach is trying to figure out, who are these people? What risk do they pose from a national security standpoint? The more we know, the better informed we are about identifying the threat and potential risk," he said in a recent interview.

Conditions on the border have changed dramatically since the last national strategy, putting pressure on the agency to adapt to a new landscape. An unprecedented hiring boom more than doubled the number of agents to 21,000 since 2004, accompanied by heavy spending on fencing, cameras, sensors and other gizmos.

At the same time, migration from Mexico has slowed significantly. Last year, the Border Patrol made 327,577 apprehensions on the Mexican border, down 80 percent from more than 1.6 million in 2000. It was the slowest year since 1971.

The Pew Hispanic Center reported last month that the largest wave of migrants from a single country in U.S. history had stopped increasing and may have reversed.

The new strategy moves to halt a revolving-door policy of sending migrants back to Mexico without any punishment.

The Border Patrol now feels it has enough of a handle to begin imposing more serious consequences on almost everyone it catches from Texas' Rio Grande Valley to San Diego. In January, it expanded its "Consequence Delivery System" to the entire border, dividing border crossers into seven categories, ranging from first-time offenders to people with criminal records.

Punishments vary by region but there is a common thread: Simply turning people around after taking their fingerprints is the choice of last resort. Some, including children and the medically ill, will still get a free pass by being turned around at the nearest border crossing, but they will be few and far between.

Departure from Bush strategy

The new strategy makes no mention of expanding fences and other physical barriers, a departure from the administration of President George W. Bush. Fisher said he would rule out more fences but, "It's not going to be part of our mantra."

The strategy makes only brief mention of technology in the wake of a failed $1 billion program that was supposed to put a network of cameras, ground sensors and radars along the entire border. Fisher said the agency is moving more toward mobile surveillance like unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters.

"We're still trying to understand what the capabilities are with all the technologies and the platforms," Fisher said. "I'm just trying to figure out what is the best suite on all this stuff."

The strategy makes it a top priority to ferret out corrupt agents, which has emerged as a growing threat as the agency has expanded.

It is the Border Patrol's third national strategy since 1994, when the agency poured resources into the San Diego and El Paso, Texas, areas. That effort pushed migrants to remote mountains and deserts and made Arizona the nation's busiest crossing for illegal crossings.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bill to shift authority over federal land near border nears U.S. House vote

The Missoulian
May 6, 2012
by Tristan Scott

WHITEFISH – A controversial bill that aims to shift authority over federal lands within 100 miles of the U.S. border to the Department of Homeland Security could be nearing a vote on the House floor, a development that has renewed debate over the measure’s applicability in places like Montana, where it would strip dozens of environmental protections from Glacier National Park and designated wilderness areas.

The proposed legislation, called the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act, or H.R. 1505, would exempt Homeland Security from compliance with 36 federal environmental protection laws in order to expedite border security, including the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The bill’s proponents say it is a critical step toward securing the nation’s borders and granting more control to U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, who are frequently stymied by burdensome environmental regulations and uncooperative federal land managers.

Critics argue that the bill’s language is ambiguous and its intent unnecessary and overreaching. They say it would invite Homeland Security to disregard key environmental laws on cherished public lands, wilderness areas, national parks and wildlife refuges.

In Montana, the law would affect a 100-mile corridor that comprises nearly one-third of the state, including Glacier National Park and portions of the Kootenai and Flathead national forests. It would also apply to five of Montana’s Indian reservations, as well as the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and broad swaths of Bureau of Land Management lands.

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., is one of 59 legislators who have co-sponsored the measure, which was introduced in April 2011 by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

On Friday, one year after attaching his name to the bill, Rehberg defended the legislation on a statewide radio talk show.

The bill is not a federal “land-grab” as some critics have asserted, he said, but a means to improve coordination between agencies that are charged with disparate missions, and that too often clash in a manner that compromises national security.

“We have a food fight going on between federal agencies,” he said, adding that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are not cooperating with the U.S. Border Patrol, and calling the situation a “bureaucratic turf war.”

“People of America need to know that this lack of cooperation exists,” he continued. “They are hiding under environmental laws to keep our law enforcement agencies from stopping drug traffickers or human traffickers.”

Former superintendents and employees at Glacier National Park and the district ranger for the Hungry Horse-Glacier View District of the Flathead National Forest, both of which hug the U.S.-Canadian border, say they have found a great deal of ongoing cooperation between their staffs and the Border Patrol.

“I question what the bill actually seeks to fix, and what level of bureaucracy it is inviting,” said Mick Holm, who retired as superintendent of Glacier National Park in 2008. “When I was superintendent, we had a very good working relationship with the other agencies, be it the Forest Service or Border Patrol or our Canadian counterparts. Anytime there was a difference of opinion we were able to seek common ground and resolve it with discussions at the local level.”

Jimmy DeHerrera, district ranger in the Hungry Horse-Glacier View District of the Flathead National Forest for the past 14 years, echoed Holm on the subject of interagency cooperation.

“I would highlight that locally, working with the Whitefish office of the Border Patrol, we have a very good cooperative working relationship,” DeHerrera said. “We all respect each other’s missions and, even though we have separate missions, we do whatever it takes to accommodate the needs of Border Patrol agents in a way that still accomplishes our resource management objective.”

A 2009 memorandum of understanding signed between officials from the Interior and Homeland Security departments also addresses Border Patrol access to public lands and comports with the opinions of local land managers who praised interagency collaboration.

The cooperation was also affirmed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials who testified against the bill before Congress last July, saying the agency “enjoys a close working relationship with the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture that allows us to fulfill our border enforcement responsibilities while respecting and enhancing the environment.”

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified this March that the bill is “unnecessary, and it’s bad policy.”

The bill would “prohibit the secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from taking action on public lands which impede border security on such lands.”

And without having to adhere to the National Environmental Protections Act, or the Wilderness Act, or the Endangered Species Act, or any number of other measures, the Border Patrol would not have to answer to the National Park Service before conducting six activities: building fences; cutting new roads to access federal lands (or opening existing roads to patrol vehicles and ATVs that are currently closed to motorized use); installation of surveillance equipment and sensors; use of aircraft; and deployment of “temporary tactical infrastructure, including forward operating bases.”

Jed Link, communications director for Rehberg, emphasized that land managers maintain control of the federal parcels and H.R. 1505 does not give Border Patrol agents unchecked power. It merely allows them to gain “operational control on a porous border where, in Montana, one out of every two miles crosses federal lands.”

“It does not allow them to do whatever they want, whenever they want and however they want. It allows them to gain operational control of a porous border,” Link said. “Nobody wants to hurt the environment or undermine wilderness. But we have a security problem that we know exists, and the solution is to get rid of this bureaucratic turf war.”

In a telephone interview Friday, Congressman Bishop said that critics of the bill are misguided in their strictures and misinformed about the measure’s intent. The memorandum of understanding between agencies is “inadequate,” he said.

“Right now, environmental laws and policies prohibit the Border Patrol from doing their job on federal lands, and that has become the avenue of choice for criminals and illegal immigrants,” he said.

“People are saying we are going to crisscross the land with new roads and asphalt, but most of the concern applies to existing roads that were gated and where Border Patrol agents are being restricted access,” Bishop continued. “The notion that Homeland Security is going to be building new roads and infrastructure is not based in reality.”

The bill is endorsed by the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC) which represents 17,000 Border Patrol Agents and the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers (NAFBO).

Zack Taylor, vice chairman of NAFBO and a former Border Patrol agent in Arizona, said it is a mistake to allow environmental protection laws to supplant measures aimed at tightening national security and improving public safety.

“The Border Patrol is being shut out of the national forest land. It’s that simple,” he said.

Taylor said drug smuggling and human trafficking is a much larger problem along the southern border, but that smugglers are already established in areas along the Yaak and Kootenai river valleys.
“Those are ideal places for smugglers,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has vigorously opposed H.R. 1505, likening it to the Patriot Act and REAL ID in its unprecedented extension of powers to the federal government.

“Count me among the Montanans who have serious problems with this bill. But like the Patriot Act and REAL ID, this one can’t be fixed,” Tester said. “It needs to be scrapped altogether because no matter how you spin it, it gives the Department of Homeland Security total control over the land we all use.”

Doug Morris of Victor is a retired National Park Service employee who was superintendent at Saguaro National Park in Arizona and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. He said the argument that a lack of cooperation exists between the Park Service and Border Patrol is “horribly untrue.”

“The agencies have all agreed to cooperate and support one another’s goals,” he said. “Whatever conflicts once existed between these agencies are gone, so there is no need to move forward with this legislation that will have real consequences to almost a third of the acreage of National Park Service lands. I don’t think that is understood by very many people.”

Steve Gniadek, a biologist who worked at Glacier National Park for 32 years, has staunchly opposed the bill because he says it would have deleterious effects on elk habitat, and access to federal lands has never been a problem.

“The bill assumes that there is this resistance and that federal land managers are preventing border patrol agents from doing their job. I just don’t see any evidence of this in Montana,” he said.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Some see border security bill as threat to ecology, preservation

May 1, 2012
Houston Chronicle
by Tony Freemantle
Imagine sitting on a rock at Big Bend National Park gazing out over the Rio Grande at the Santa Elena Canyon on a clear day, Mexico so close you could reach out and touch it. Immemorial silence cloaks the soaring cliffs, broken only by the caw of a raven above and the rustle of the reeds in the river.

Then imagine the buzzy whine of a Customs and Border Protection four-wheeler patrolling the sandy banks, or the growl of a grader carving a road into the Chihuahuan Desert to a forward operating base, or a government helicopter bristling with surveillance equipment hovering overhead.

Hard to imagine?

A bill making its way through Congress would, in the interests of national security, bequeath to the Department of Homeland Security complete control of all federal lands in a coast-to-coast zone 100 miles south of the Canadian border and 100 miles north of the Mexican border from California to the Gulf of Mexico.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah with strong Republican support, is being touted as a necessary step in securing the nation's borders. But it is also being roundly condemned as a thinly veiled attempt to "gut a century's worth" of environmental laws aimed at preserving public lands, historic sites and national monuments.

In essence, the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act gives DHS, or more specifically U.S. Customs and Border Protection, authority to build fences, roads and operating bases, to use aircraft and to install surveillance equipment and sensors in some of the most pristine, environmentally sensitive lands in the nation - including Big Bend and Guadalupe national parks and Padre Island National Seashore in Texas.

And to clear the way for its stewardship of public lands, the agency would be exempt from compliance with more than 30 environmental laws - among them the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The bill has cleared committees in the House and is on the calendar for a vote on the floor. There is not yet a companion bill in the Senate.

'Really unnecessary'

Bishop and the other sponsors, including Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, argue that CBP's mandate to secure the nation's borders is being "thwarted" by the need to consult with and obtain permission from federal land managers - chiefly the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture - before conducting operations.

"The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has found that less than half of the U.S.-Mexico border is under the operational control of the Border Patrol," Smith said in a statement. "At the same time, the Obama Administration prevents the Border Patrol from accessing federal lands in the name of environmental preservation. Because the Border Patrol is prohibited from securing federal lands, drug smugglers and human traffickers trample the earth and terrorize communities."

Opponents, including the Department of the Interior, CBP and national environmental organizations, charge that the proposed legislation is an "overreach," since a 2006 memorandum of understanding between border security agencies and federal land mangers already establishes the framework for cooperation between them.

"This is a solution looking for a problem," said Dan Millis, borderlands program coordinator for the Sierra Club. "There is already a framework in place for Border Patrol to work with public land management. If Border Patrol doesn't even have to try to work with managers, we will see a huge proliferation of roads, forward operating bases and fences on public lands."

The Coalition of National Parks Retirees is more blunt. The legislation would "gut a century's worth of land protection" laws and open up "millions of pristine acres of national parks" to unregulated intrusion.

"It's a really, really unnecessary bill," said Joan Anzelmo, a former superintendent of the Colorado National Monuments and board member of the organization. "It's an incredible assault on our national parks."

Other parks

In addition to Big Bend and Guadalupe parks in Texas, some of the other federal lands that fall within the 100-mile security zone, and hence under control of DHS, include Saguaro National Park in Arizona, Joshua Tree National Park in California, Olympic National Park in Washington, Glacier National Park in Montana, Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and Acadia National Park in Maine.

Bishop believes his bill will end a "turf war" between Border Patrol and federal land mangers who use environmental laws to block efforts to secure the nation's borders.

"What I want to do is get the Border Patrol what they need to secure the border," Bishop said, "and they tell me that what they need more than money and people is access. There are enormous swaths of public land that have effectively been ceded over to the drug cartels."

The DHS already has been granted waivers from a slew of environmental laws in order to build the controversial "fence" along certain sections of the U.S.-Mexico border, which environmentalists charge has already cause significant damage to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona and to the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in South Texas.

Giving control of all lands within 100 miles of the borders to a single agency is unnecessary, they argue, and poses a significant danger.

"This is worse than misguided policy, although it is certainly misguided," said Kevin Dahl, the Arizona project manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "It's a real danger to the parks because it means that the people who have made a career of public land management are not in control."