July 28, 2014
By Tinothy Cama
Federal land protections are hampering efforts to stop the flow of illegal immigrants across the border, Republicans say.
The Interior Department controls about 800 miles along the dividing line with Mexico, or about 40 percent of the total, with other land in the region owned by the Forest Service.
GOP lawmakers argue federal regulations intended to protect land and wildlife have become an obstacle for Customs and Borders Protection officers because they restrict their ability to drive near the border, build infrastructure or install surveillance technology.
“There is no doubt that the restrictions on accessing land along the border have made it more difficult for the Border Patrol to do their job,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who traveled to McAllen County, Texas, earlier this month to meet with officials about the surge of child migrants into the United States.
Smugglers know where agents cannot patrol or monitor, Cruz said, so they target those areas when moving people across the border.
“It seems a commonsense reform to say that the border patrol should be able to fully access and patrol the border,” he said.
A House Republican working group led by Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) this week recommended prohibiting the Interior and Forest Service from in any way hampering border patrol.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who accompanied Cruz, wants border security to play a larger role in how federal officials manage land. At a hearing this week in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she said officers sometimes cannot build roads or even trails on federal land.
“We’re not asking for a major highway around there, but … we need to think about national security issues and how we enforce our own laws, when you juxtapose that with other priorities within the federal agencies,” she said.
Murkowski is the top Republican on the energy panel, which oversees Interior.
Democrats aren’t buying the GOP’s argument.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said conservation issues are just one of the policies that are falling victim to the current crisis.
“These kids have become both the excuse and the reason that they can revisit some of these policies,” Grijalva said.
“You see everything from getting rid of [deferred action] because of the kids, we have to have troops on the border because of the kids, now we don’t need environmental regulations on public lands because of the kids.”
Grijalva said the Homeland Security Department has repeatedly told Congress that land protections don’t hamper border operations.
“If they’re talking about the most recent influx, it’s happening in areas that have nothing to do with protected federal lands,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “So I think it’s a specious argument to continue their anti-conservation agenda.”
This is not the first time that land restrictions have been drawn into the debate over border patrol.
Many Republicans criticized President Obama in May for creating the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, abutting the border in New Mexico.
The designation, said Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), will “place additional burdens on Border Patrol personnel and limit access to high crime areas along the border, making it easier for drug smugglers and human traffickers to move in and out of the country.”
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee’s subpanel with responsibility over national parks, has made border security a top issue, and introduced the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act in an attempt to ensure that the issue is prioritized over environmental conservation.
The Obama administration and congressional Democrats don’t see the problem.
Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said Interior, the Forest Service and Customs and Border Protection entered an agreement in 2006 to cooperate on the border.
“This [plan] has served to strengthen border security measures while at the same time protecting important natural and cultural resources located in national parks and national wildlife refuges and other public lands,” Kershaw said.
Kirk Emerson, an environmental law professor at the University of Arizona, said conservation and security issues often clashed in the last decade, when large expanses of border fence were being built rapidly.
“What I’m generally finding is that there are very few of those kinds of challenges on the ground now,” she said. “There’s more radio interoperability, some of the protocols that weren’t in place before are now in place for cooperation, and the cooperation works both ways.”
Emerson said federal land managers know how to accommodate border patrol officers, and noted that patrol officers are often the first ones to see environmental problems such as fires and report them.
Dinah Bear, an environmental attorney and consultant who works with border advocacy group Humane Borders, said officers don’t complain about land protections.
“We have a very close working relationship with the border patrol, and I have never heard the border patrol ever complain,” she said. “They are clearly puzzled as to why Congress keeps trying to give them more waivers of things that they don’t need.”
She said conservation has nothing to do with the current crisis, because the children and families aren’t trying to evade officers.
“In fact, the kids and the families are usually running toward the border patrol,” she said. “It’s not a question of border security.”