A $1 billion-a-year bill moving through Congress would add miles of roads and fences along the border and waive more than a dozen environmental laws within 100 miles of the border — even though top immigration officials say that’s not needed.
The proposed bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to achieve “operational control” of the U.S.-Mexico border. That means that all illegal entries are stopped, which top DHS officials have said is unrealistic.
But Martha McSally, Southern Arizona’s newly elected Republican U.S. representative who co-sponsored the House bill, said setting an ambitious standard is the best way to achieve success.
“We have to set a very high goal to understand how important it is to get this job done,” McSally said. Arizona’s U.S. senators — Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake — co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
The House bill’s author, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, calls it the “toughest border security bill ever set before Congress,” but neither the Border Patrol union nor local environmentalists think it’s needed.
“We don’t address the underlying issues,” said Roger McManus, a biologist who is president of Friends of the Sonoran Desert. People keep coming here for jobs, and drugs keep coming through over the border because there’s a demand for them, he said.
Groups on both sides of the immigration debate also have spoken out against the bill — either because they say it doesn’t do enough to stop illegal immigration or because it won’t lead to comprehensive immigration reform.
Perhaps the strongest rebuke of all came Friday from Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, who issued a statement saying the bill “is extreme to the point of being unworkable; if enacted, it would actually leave the border less secure. The bill sets mandatory and highly prescriptive standards that the Border Patrol itself regards as impossible to achieve, undermines the Department of Homeland Security’s capacity to adapt to emerging threats, and politicizes tactical decisions.”
Among other things, the Republican bill would:
• Add 48 miles of new double-layer pedestrian fencing.
• Replace 66 miles of fence.
• Build more than 400 miles of new roads.
• Add a dozen more forward-operating bases for border agents to work out of.
• Add 30 boat ramps and 34 access gates for agents to use.
The Border Patrol union welcomes additional infrastructure and technology, but none of that has ever made an apprehension, Shawn Moran, the union’s president, said. Agents are still needed to respond.
The entire southern border has about 350 miles of pedestrian fences and nearly 300 miles of vehicle barriers, including in tribal and federal lands.
More than four-fifths of Arizona’s 378 miles on the border have some type of barrier — 123 miles of pedestrian fence and 183 miles of vehicle barriers.
The bill would add 21 miles of double-layer pedestrian fence in the Tucson Sector and replace an additional 25 miles from the Army-surplus steel landing mat that stands about 10 feet to the 12- to 18-foot high, concrete-filled steel posts set about 4 inches apart.
A previous project to replace 2.8 miles of fencing in Nogales cost $4.14 million per mile.
From above, the three styles of fences are visible in the sector. Pedestrian fences are mostly around urban areas; vehicle barriers are in rural areas and on tribal and federal lands. Some areas, though, still only have a four- and five-strand barbed-wire fence.
In some cases, the 15- to 18-foot pedestrian fence abruptly ends and a much shorter vehicle barrier begins. In others, the fence simply stops before the land drops off into a canyon or ascends into a mountain.
“Our southern border is a mixture of winding river, desert and mountains,” Secretary Johnson said last year. “Simply building more fences is not the answer.”
The answer, Johnson said in his statement Friday, is for Congress to give homeland security personnel more money to pay for additional technology and equipment to further secure the border “without provisions that would micromanage their work or restrict their flexibility in dealing with the nation’s critical homeland security efforts.”
The U.S.-Mexico border will never be completely sealed, said McManus, of the Friends of the Sonoran Desert.
“There’s no wall in history that has kept everybody out forever who wants to come across,” he said. “It goes back to the notion of: Where is this taking us? Are we prepared to spend any amount of money to stop even one person?”
The bill — which sponsor McCaul said is the result of intensive hearings, meetings and discussions with border-security stakeholders — also adds sector-specific technology, including more sensors and surveillance towers.
It would waive 16 environmental laws to let agents do things such as build and maintain roads; use vehicles to patrol, apprehend or rescue people; and maintain sensors and other surveillance equipment within 100 miles of the southern border.
Moran and top immigration officials have said that is not needed. The Border Patrol already has a good working relationship with agencies that oversee public land along the border, officials have testified, and existing federal rules do not affect the overall security of their areas of operation.
In 2010, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report that federal rules governing public land along the border cause some delays but did not affect the Border Patrol’s ability to do its job.
“There’s no real need for this,” said Dinah Bear, an environmental attorney and consultant from Tucson. Bear served for 25 years as general counsel to the Council on Environmental Quality.
There is no place on federal public land where the Border Patrol does not have access, Bear said. While there are some limitations or restrictions regarding motorized vehicles or the style of fencing, there are exceptions that allow them access anyway.
According to the GAO, when operating on federal land, the Border Patrol must comply with the requirements of several federal land management, wildlife and historic-preservation laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wilderness Act.
Agents must obtain permission or a permit from federal land management agencies before doing things like maintaining roads and installing surveillance equipment.
But public land managers and the Border Patrol have also come to a greater understanding of what each needs to do based on years of building those relationships and constant communication, Bear said, that allows them to work better together and find solutions.
“But when you waive all the laws,” Bear said, as the bill proposes, “it undermines that effort.”
Forest service’s role
More than 40 percent of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border is managed by the Department of the Interior’s land management agencies and the Forest Service.
Including the Tohono O’odham Nation, nearly 86 percent of the Arizona-Mexico border is federal or tribal land.
“As an outdoorswoman myself, I very much cherish the natural environment, and I’m committed to doing everything I can to preserve it,” McSally said. “Especially in the areas of Southern Arizona that I’m representing — these are treasures, but traffickers are going through those federal lands and doing environmental damage that is very significant.”
McSally added an amendment this week that would require the chief of the Border Patrol to make sure agents are deployed as close to the border as possible and to add more manpower to the forward-operating bases.
“I don’t want the Border Patrol 100 miles inland; I want them on the border,” she said.
While she understands the agency’s multilayered strategy, she said that hurts residents and ranchers who live close to the border and have members of criminal organizations crossing their lands.
Apprehensions along the southern border have increased every year since fiscal 2011, but much of that growth has been concentrated in South Texas. The Rio Grande Valley accounted for 53 percent of the 480,000 Border Patrol apprehensions last year. Close to half of those apprehensions were of unaccompanied minors and single parents traveling with their children, who essentially turned themselves in to agents.
But apprehension numbers don’t tell the whole story, McSally said, since they don’t say how many people actually came through and what are their chances of getting caught.
Also, while apprehensions are down, organized crime is not — and that’s a public safety threat, McSally said. Last fiscal year, the Border Patrol seized nearly 2 million pounds of marijuana, primarily in the Tucson and Rio Grande Valley sectors.
The U.S. government has allocated nearly $187 billion for immigration enforcement since 1986, the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute has reported. In fiscal 2012 alone, the government spent nearly $18 billion on immigration enforcement, the group found.
“We have to be good stewards of resources,” McSally said, “but the border is still not secure.”
The bill requires the DHS to use 28 metrics to measure border security, including the share of crossers who are caught and the amount of drugs that are seized.
“We tell the government how to secure the border step-by-step,” McCaul said in a news release, “and put in place real penalties for ignoring the will of Congress.”
The Committee on Homeland Security passed the Secure Our Borders First Act of 2015 on Wednesday by a vote of 18-12.
While this bill may not be the entire solution to the immigration problem, McCaul said, there will be other bills addressing issues such as going after employers and interior enforcement.
The nearly identical Senate bill introduced last week adds more customs officers and more ports of entry to reduce waiting times to cross the border.