Homeland Security announces that it will waive regulations in order to complete the fence by the end of this year.
By Nicole Gaouette / Los Angeles Times / April 1, 2008
Washington — In an aggressive move to finish building 670 miles of border fence by the end of this year, the Department of Homeland Security announced today that it will waive federal environmental laws to meet that goal.
The two waivers, which will allow the department to slash through a thicket of environmental and cultural laws, would be the most expansive to date, encompassing land in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas that stretches about 470 miles.
The waivers are highly controversial with environmentalists and border communities, which see them as a federal imposition that could damage the land and disrupt wildlife.
But they are praised by conservatives who championed the 2006 Secure Fence Act, despite the reluctance of President Bush, who has said a broader approach is needed to deal with illegal immigration.
Republicans greeted the news with satisfaction.
“It’s great. This is the priority area where most of the illegal activity is going on and where most of the deaths are occurring,” said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Solana Beach), chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus. “The quicker we can get the physical fence up, the sooner we’ll avoid situations like the deaths of agents. And it’s still a national security issue. You just have to stop this kind of open traffic along the border.”
Wildlife groups reacted with dismay.
Brian Segee, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife, said, “It’s dangerous, it’s arrogant, it’s going to have pronounced environmental impacts and it won’t do a thing to address the problems of undocumented immigrants or address border security problems. It’s an incredibly simplistic and ineffective approach to complex problems.”
The waivers are intended to clear the way for fencing to block pedestrians and cars, as well as extra camera, towers and roads near the border. A special waiver was issued for a project in Hidalgo County, Texas, that would combine levees and a barrier.
Congress gave Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff the power to waive federal law in order to build the fence quickly. Since construction began, the department has faced fierce opposition from local communities and has had to go to court against more than 50 property owners simply to survey land to determine whether it is suitable for a fence.
The department has so far built 309 miles of fence.
Some of the resistance comes from landowners who protest that the path of the fence might block their access to the Rio Grande; other opponents are concerned that it could increase the danger of extinction for endangered animals, such as the ocelot, a wild cat whose mating habits may be affected.
Chertoff has called the waivers a last resort, and department officials say the agency is committed to minimizing the impacts to the environment and wildlife.
Homeland Security officials said many of the 470 miles have already undergone environmental review and that the agency is committed to environmental responsibility.
“If that was true, the waivers wouldn’t be necessary,” Segee countered.
Homeland Security has previously issued three waivers.
One, on September 2005, was to complete roughly 14 miles near San Diego; another in January 2007 was used to build infrastructure near the Barry M. Goldwater military range in southern Arizona. A third waiver was issued in October 2007 near the San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area, also in southern Arizona.
Environmentalists have complained about the fence because they say it puts already endangered species such as two types of wild cats — the ocelot and the jaguarundi — in even more danger of extinction. They say the fence would prevent them from swimming across the Rio Grande to mate.
“Unwilling to consult with local communities or to follow long-standing laws, Secretary Chertoff chose to bypass stakeholders and push through this unpopular project on April Fool’s Day,” Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope said in a statement. “We don’t think the destruction of the borderlands region is a laughing matter.”
Chertoff has said the fence is good for the environment because immigrants degrade the land with trash and human waste when they sneak illegally into the country. — AP.