A soap opera is playing itself out along our southwest border; a comedy of errors with serious repercussions for efforts to stem illegal immigration into the United States from Mexico. The contest is pitting federal officials with responsibility for enforcing environmental and endangered species laws, against those responsible for monitoring and enforcing border security. Thus far, the environmentalists appear to be winning.
Three years ago, President George W. Bush signed into law a measure mandating construction of a fence along the US-Mexico border. Combining physical barriers along part of its length, with high-tech “virtual fence” mechanisms in other, more remote areas, the project has been plagued with cost overruns, lengthy delays, frequent breaches, and expensive repairs.
Yet perhaps the most serious monkey wrench that has been lobbed into this massively expensive and complex project, is the one that pits the Department of Homeland Security against a powerful array of other federal laws and agencies charged with protecting everything from Native American antiquities and religiously-sensitive areas, to the tiniest “endangered” plants and animals.
Near the top of the list of barriers facing Homeland Security is the “Wilderness Act,” a 1960s-era federal law that virtually prohibits any man-made structures on areas so designated. This includes even electronic listening devices, which constitute an important component of the “virtual fence” Congress mandated be built along the extensive remote and non-urban border areas. Another left hook thrown at the Border Patrol (which operates under the Homeland Security umbrella) by the Interior Department (which enforces many of the environmental regulations plaguing border enforcement efforts), is that motorized vehicles, including ATVs, are not allowed in the “wilderness” areas. This literally is forcing border enforcement officers to resort to using horses to catch smugglers, who themselves have little regard for such prohibitions on motorized conveyances.
Airborne vehicles as well — including airplanes, helicopters and even remote-controlled drones — are deemed off-limits for use by border enforcement personnel in these areas. Unfortunately for the Border Patrol, no non-mechanical substitutes are yet available to replace such modern conveniences as airplanes and helicopters.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who served previously as governor of Arizona — one of the states in which this internecine battle is being waged – has been fighting a multi-front battle on these issues in an effort to carry out her job. Members of Congress, especially Republicans who support strict border enforcement, including the congressionally-mandated border fence, have been posing hard questions to the Secretary. In a recent exchange of letters with complaining members of Congress, Napolitano did her best to put a smiley face on the situation, but it is anything but smooth.
On the other side of the political aisle, environmentally-conscious and religiously-sensitive Democrats continue to tie Napolitano’s hands. Placing any sort of structure on, or allowing motorized vehicles to traverse certain of the remote areas across which illegal aliens and drug smugglers are crossing in increasing numbers, could offend a number of heretofore largely forgotten federal laws. The “Archeological Resources Protection Act,” the “Native American Graves Repatriation Act,” and the “American Indian Religious Freedom Act” all are being cited along with their bigger and more popular siblings, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, as reasons why the border enforcement effort must step back.
Of course, all these shenanigans have a price tag attached to them; and this, too, is causing Napolitano’s headache to linger. Homeland Security says it has paid, in the past two years alone, just under $10 million to the Interior Department for consulting and for “mitigation” when it has – inadvertently, of course – violated one of these laws. Given the political climate prevailing in Washington, it is unlikely either the Congress or the president will step in and put a stop to this ongoing episode of “As the Border Turns.” And it is the American taxpayer who foots the bill.