Environmental soap opera along US-Mexico border

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.

27 comments Add your comment


November 23rd, 2009
7:06 am

Funny, isn’t it, how Democrats are lining-up behind so many powerful laws that were penned into the Code of Federal Regulations by a Republican President, while Republicans do all they can to disengage conservation from from conservatism.

Bitterly ironic, it is, the very zealots who wailed for the fall of the Berlin Wall, are flag-holders for building one of our very own.

Why must we discourage entry from our southern border, rather than incentivize folks to the south to stay where they are? Why aren’t folks pouring-in across our northern border? It’s warmer here and nationalized healthcare up there is in shambles, right? Right?


November 23rd, 2009
7:12 am

Bob, you aren’t concerned about the “tiniest” endangered plants and animals? Pretty much everything on earth depends on krill and algae. The fact a species is tiny means nothing. It doesn’t have to be big or cute to be worth saving, unless you are an idiot who doesn’t understand how nature works.

A fence will never work. Didn’t work for the Chinese, didn’t work for the East Germans, won’t work for us.

Stop blaming laws which protect people, plants, and animals which have been living out there for thousands of years.The only way to stop this soap opera at the border is to legalize drugs and take a sane approach to illegal immigration. Republicans would rather see impotent efforts which indulge their tendency to thuggery. Effectiveness doesn’t matter one bit, does it? It’s all about playing cops and robbers and trashing remote areas.

Road Scholar

November 23rd, 2009
7:20 am

solution with a money benefit: Heavily fine people who hire illegal aliens, except in cases where lazy Americans won’t do the job. Have those businesses get a permit. If they don’t have a job, why will they come? Deporting them hasn’t worked.


November 23rd, 2009
7:22 am

There’s an old saying in the study of Talmudic law (the ancient code of Judaism), “That which is more common, takes precedence”.

It makes customs that occur weekly, like feasting on the Sabbath, take precedence over those observances that occur only once-a-year, such as fast-days. So, when a traditional fast day falls on the Sabbath, you omit the fasting.

In that vein, most Homeland Security and border legislation is a product of latter times, and not as tested – nor as “practiced” – as older laws protecting the integrity of those resources that represent the diversity of life and are of benefit to the greatest nation on Earth. Therefore, applying the wisdom of ancient legal scholars: it really makes sense that deference is given to those laws that protect resources and ideas, over those that largely protect ideals, are temporal in nature, and not exactly codified in a spirit protecting life, liberty, or property.


November 23rd, 2009
8:09 am

The notion that environmental laws are slowing border wall construction is a complete falsehood. The Real ID Act gave the Department of Homeland Security the power to waive any and all laws, environmental and otherwise, to build the wall. Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff waived 36, including the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Farmland Protection Policy Act, etc. The border wall’s problems are inherent to the system – it does not work. It has no impact on immigration or smuggling, according to the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service.

Robert Barr

November 23rd, 2009
8:14 am

When I see how difficult it is to cross the border legally here in British Columbia, I get the impression that the southern border is completely porous. Legally it takes about over an hour to travel south into the US and that looks like a picnic compared to the upcoming border travel during the 2010 Winter Olympics. I note with interest the drones which are operational in Iraq being controlled out of Nevada and wonder if that is not the best solution to monitoring the border along the southern US. If it is the aim of the NAFTA treaty to provide complete mobility of labour let’s throw the gates wide open and give all North Americans and central Americans a pass with access to each country as in the EEC.

Curious Observer

November 23rd, 2009
9:16 am

Show me a 100-foot-tall wall, and I’ll show you a 101-foot ladder.

[...] Bob Barr on the environmental soap opera along US-Mexico border. [...]


November 23rd, 2009
10:07 am

People come across the southern border looking for jobs. Presently there are no jobs & the number of crossings have fallen. Require proof of citizenship for a job and the number will shrink even more.
Curious Observer: Agree completely. Also, show me a wall & I weill show you a hold in that wall. A wall is the “stuff dreams are made of”,
if I may quote Sam Spade.


November 23rd, 2009
12:25 pm

Pay americans more and you won’t have this problem.

Chris Broe

November 23rd, 2009
1:41 pm

“…..And it is the American taxpayer who foots the bill”.

The hapless American taxpayer is the new last refuge of scoundrels.

That’s 4 sure. That’s fer dang sure.

Common Sense

November 23rd, 2009
1:43 pm

Any country that can’t control its borders will eventually cease to exist as a nation.

The American People

November 23rd, 2009
3:06 pm

Write an article about the SEIU 1000 members beating up Ken Hamidi for trying to exercising his right for free speech at their public meeting. Write about the hyocrisy of the fact that this is barely been a news story. Write about how Obama has as he says “worked with this organization all of his life” but they are keeping this very quiet. Write about the obvious fact that if a black man would have gone into a public meeting and had been beaten up by 4 white men it would be national news and their would be a public outcry on every news channel in this country. Thankyou.

Common Sense

November 23rd, 2009
4:29 pm

Always the double standard …………….


November 23rd, 2009
6:08 pm

Well, they are illegal when they cross the border, and they are illegal when they show up for school, and for healthcare, and they should be arrested and deported. We just need to keep that train moving. There has been way too much pandering to illegals in the name of being politically correct. Political correctness has supplanted what used to be common sense in this country. Maybe the people in this country have just gotten so darn stupid the country is supposed to implode.


November 23rd, 2009
6:38 pm

Even if their parents are illegal, if a child was born in the U.S., he/she is NOT illegal! So keep in mind, they may NOT be illegal when they show up for school.


November 23rd, 2009
7:28 pm

Make them prove they have a right to be here before they can do anything (especially get a driver’s license, get hired for a job, or receive benefits). Once the illegals know that there is no benefit to coming here illegally, they’ll quit coming, or do it the right [legal]way.

Rewarding illegal behavior just encourages MORE ILLEGAL BEHAVIOR…and sadly, 53% of America (and 90% of the government) lack the mental capacity to comprehend that.


November 23rd, 2009
9:36 pm

Oh, great idea—arrest people at the hospital. Let’s make doctors and nurses responsible for immigration control. Like they aren’t busy enough already. I’m sure people who devote their lives to healing won’t mind tattling to the INS. And let’s discourage people with TB and other diseases from getting treatment, we could use an epidemic or two.
I suppose that would be easier than asking y’all to give up cheaper groceries, housing, hotel services, and the myriad of other industries depending on illegal immigration to keep costs low. People complaining about illegal immigrants reward them as much as anyone else. You sure aren’t avoiding the fruits of their labor, are you? There are certainly Americans who are stupid and lack mental comprehension. You can find them proposing simplistic ideas to get rid of them thar funny-talkin’ furriners.

Curious @ 9:16, awesome quote.

Chris Broe

November 24th, 2009
10:01 am

The soap opera that is the illegal alien saga could be called the Young and the Fenceless.

ITP Conservative

November 25th, 2009
8:05 am

“the project has been plagued with cost overruns, lengthy delays, frequent breaches, and expensive repairs.”

Yet there are idiots in America who think the federal government should also control health care.


November 25th, 2009
10:46 am

Robert Barr comment: “I note with interest the drones which are operational in Iraq being controlled out of Nevada and wonder if that is not the best solution to monitoring the border along the southern US.” DHS already has lots of drones flying over the southern border, as well as a couple on the northern border. While they, and the border wall, and the virtual wall, have little to no effect on immigration or smuggling, they are a great source of pork for Boeing and Kiewit and other companies that feed at the federal trough. US border policy is pure pork dressed up as national security.


November 26th, 2009
10:28 pm

Most Canucks don’t live in poverty, duh.

A wall probably won’t help much. You need to punish employers who hire illegals and rent to illegals. If they can’t get jobs or homes that will deincentivize them to come.

Why are people who wanted the Berlin wall torn down “zealots”?


November 28th, 2009
10:43 am

- Retnan –

Instead of “deincentivize them to come”, how about
“motivate them not to come” ?


November 28th, 2009
10:48 am

- “Incentivize”. This also goes for Iconoclast (7:06 am).


November 28th, 2009
10:52 am

- I agree with snicol. Drones shouldn’t cost a quarter of
a million dollars (let alone $15 million for the Predator-B !)
- that is WAY too expensive, especially at a time when we
are waging two wars and dealing with a multi-billion dollar
trade deficit.

The New Berlin Wall? « Exodus

December 24th, 2009
8:15 am

[...] and animals found nowhere else on earth. Environmental groups and laws are holding up construction, much to conservatives’ displeasure. Fences built along the U.S.-Mexico border are threatening wildlife species and the ground [...]

chris merrill

August 7th, 2010
12:36 pm

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