What is the truth about the ongoing battles over securing the Southwestern border against drug runners and illegal aliens?
There is no doubt that there are serious issues along the U.S. border with Mexico. A ranger at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Kris Eggle, was shot and killed in August 2002 by members of a Mexian drug cartel, and a prominent Arizona rancher was killed in March 2010, possibly by an illegal immigrant.
But gauging the success, or lack thereof, that the U.S. Border Patrol is having can be difficult depending on who is talking.
U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop's continued targeting of environmental laws -- the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act -- he maintains are preventing the Border Patrol from securing the Southwestern border raise conflicting accounts and even accusations that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sees the issue as a "cash cow" not to be corralled.
Most recently, the Utah Republican solicited testimony from individuals who claim the Department of Homeland Security has no interest in securing the border because it would greatly diminish its budget.
Contrasting those positions offered at an April 15 hearing chaired by Rep. Bishop were officials from the Border Patrol, Interior Department, and U.S. Government Accountability Office who not only said environmental laws are not impeding efforts, but that success is being met in stemming both the flow of illegals and the environmental degredation they've caused.
Coming away from that hearing, Rep. Bishop in his public statements dismissed the viewpoints of the Border Patrol, Interior Department, and Government Accountability Office.
“It is exceptionally clear after hearing today’s testimony that significant limitations continue to be placed on the U.S. Border Patrol’s access to some of the most highly trafficked areas along the border," he said. "Environmental policies cannot take precedent over the safety and security of all Americans and that is exactly what is occurring today. In order for the Border Patrol to be as effective as possible in deterring and apprehending criminals they need to have routine access to our federal lands. The reality is that many parts of the U.S. along the southern border region are too dangerous for Americans to enter because they are overrun with drug traffickers and human smugglers. This is unacceptable and I plan to ensure that law enforcement is no longer hindered from doing their jobs to keep Americans safe.”
Whether Congressman Bishop is foremost concerned with border security, or sees the issue as a tool to undo some of the country's key environmental laws, is debateable. But the wide range of opinions over the security of the border can at times make it seem as if two different situations are being discussed.
"It would have been impossible to win World War II if the military had been forced to comply with current laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and dozens of other laws enacted by Congress after World War II," testified James Chilton, Jr., an Arizona rancher whose land runs along the border. "The construction of thousands of military bases, airfields, port facilities, training facilities and ammunition storage areas inside the United States would have been delayed for years. There is no way the war would have been won if the military had been obliged to complete endless Environmental Impact Statements, fund or carry out mitigation projects and suffer through years of radical environmental corporations’ lawsuits and appeals. We must not tie up our national defense at the border with red tape.
"National Security demands that drug traffickers, terrorists and undocumented aliens be prevented from entering the United States at the border. Currently, on our ranch these people often travel 10 to 20 miles inside our country before the Border Patrol attempts to apprehend them," he continued. "We have heard that, a few years ago, the Border Patrol found seven backpacks near our ranch which contained Yemeni passports. Were the owners of the backpacks tourists or terrorists? We understand that significant numbers of persons apprehended--the ones who are caught--are not just Mexican citizens looking for work. The entrants include others with various motives. We strongly believe the Border Patrol must CONTROL THE BORDER AT THE BORDER."
From the viewpoint of George Zachary Taylor, who helped found the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, government agencies have no deep interest in winning the battle because they'd lose funding.
"From a strictly political and agency management point of view, why would (U.S. Commissioner of Customs and Border ProtectionCommissioner Alan) Bersin or (DHS) Secretary (Janet) Napolitano want to solve the illegal immigration situation in the United States and jeopardize a significant part of their budget, especially when they see the escalating situation as an opportunity to justify increased funding?" Mr. Taylor asked in his testimony. "Managerially speaking, to DHS, isn't illegal immigration a 'cash cow'? Without illegal immigration, how large would the DHS budget be?"
Against those sentiments, Rep. Bishop and others on his subcommittee heard testimony from agency officials who said environmental laws are not impeding them and that successes are being counted.
"While there is still work to be done, every key measure shows we are making significant progress along the Southwest border. Border Patrol apprehensions have decreased 36 percent in the past two years, and are less than a third of what they were at their peak," testified Ronald Vitiello, deputy chief of the Border Patrol. "We have matched these decreases in apprehensions with increases in seizures of cash, drugs, and weapons. These numbers demonstrate the effectiveness of our layered approach to security. Violent crime in border communities has remained flat or fallen in the past decade, and some of the safest communities in America are at the border."
Anu K. Mittal, the director for Natural Resources and Environment at the Government Accountability Office, testified that a 2006 memorandum of understanding between the various agencies -- Border Patrol, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and Interior Department -- has greatly helped improve Border Patrol access to federal lands along the border.
"For example, Border Patrol and land managers in Arizona used the 2006 memorandum of understanding to set the terms for reporting Border Patrol off-road vehicle incursions in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, as well as for developing strategies for interdicting undocumented aliens closer to the border in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and facilitating Border Patrol access in the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge," the GAO official testified. "In addition, we found that guidance provided by the 2006 memorandum of understanding has facilitated local agreements between the Border Patrol and land management agencies. For example, for the Coronado National Forest in Arizona, Border Patrol and the Forest Service developed a coordinated strategic plan that sets forth conditions for improving and maintaining roads and locating helicopter landing zones in wilderness areas, among other issues."
The hearing was just the latest effort by the Utah Republican to raise congressional opposition to the ESA, the Wilderness Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act when it comes to securing the Southwestern border.
The congressman's claims about the barriers environmental regulations have in the Border Patrol's activities, however, have been largely dismissed in the past in two GAO studies. In one, which the Republican specifically requested, the GAO found that while these regulations at times led to delays and restrictions for Border Patrol agents in accessing federal lands, "22 of the 26 Border Patrol stations reported that the border security status of their area of operation has not been affected by land management laws."
A far greater problem, the agents-in-charge told the GAO investigators, is the lay of the land in the Southwest. And while "four patrol agents-in-charge reported that delays and restrictions negatively affected their ability to achieve or maintain operational control, they have either not requested resources to facilitate increased or timelier access or have had their requests denied by senior Border Patrol officials, who said that other needs were greater priorities for the station or sector."
While the second GAO report, issued in November, pointed to a continued lack of coordination among the various agencies tasked with securing the border, in mid-January a multi-agency endeavor, Operation Trident Surge, seemed to show those problems were, if not in the past, being addressed.
“Operation Trident Surge was a 60-day joint patrol operation between Border Patrol and the DOI, and that just wrapped up on March 1," John Wessels, director of the Park Service's Intermountain Region, told the Traveler on Friday. "That was a significant demonstration of what a unified command approach to Southwest border operations looks like. We had Park Service law enforcement officers engaged in that.”
During that two-month operation agents apprehended drug runners and human smugglers, heightened law-enforcement visibility on the landscape, and flew aerial reconnaissance and patrol missions, among other tasks, according to Park Service officials.
Mr. Wessels said the operation "was a genuine, positive success in terms of that ability to pull together in a unifed way law enforcement rangers, Border Patrol agents, and others to work toward common purposes, whether it’s securing the border for employee visitor safety or resource protection.”
At the same time, the regional director acknowledged that 55 percent of the 330,688.86 acres that lie within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument currently remain closed to the public due to safety issues.
"That’s the only park that has that kind of closure," he noted. "I’ll tell you, our law enforcement staff there, working in collaboration with Border Patrol, are reclaiming the backcountry and making it safe for visitors and staff. So I think that’s something that we’re focusing on and making decent progress on, because of the collaboration with Border Patrol.”
Are things perfect along the border? No, said Mr. Wessels. But to suggest that the government agencies are prolonging the effort simply to keep the money flowing is " a cynical approach to the whole Southwst Border issue," he said.
"I think the bottom line is all of us would like to have a secure border, and all of us would like to have (natural) resources that are preserved and protected into perpetuity," the Park Service official said.
“One other point," he added. "The bottom line is that our law enforcement rangers throughout the border parks, and I think all of our staff who work down there, for those folks who are in harm’s way, are commiting themselves to resource protection, sometimes at personal risk. And I think that perspective that this is just something that we’re doing to keep the money coming in is tremendously disrespectful to the people who are committing their lives to preserving and protecting the national parks."